Felecia Keys plays Christmas songs with students in front of the school in December 2018. (Photo courtesy of Keys)

Director of award-winning orchestra, choir will move to Mexico

Felecia Keys created the high school choir and conducted Country Day’s orchestra, chamber and choir groups, winning more than 60 awards along the way. Now, after 10 years of directing and teaching, she will retire in June.

When Keys came to Country Day, she had been teaching music and playing the viola for 30 years. Her music career began when she discovered the violin in sixth grade.

“I feel super blessed that I’ve been able to do music my whole life, but I felt that I’m of that age where it’s time to move on to the next part of your life,” Keys said.

Her retirement has been in the making for the last three years.

“I’ve been making plans to move to Mexico,” Keys said. “So, I’ve been downsizing and getting rid of my things like my scooter and furniture over the last two years. I’ve spent the last two summers in a town in Mexico near Lake Chapala, where I will be moving after retirement.”

Keys said she’ll continue to play her viola. 

“The town I’m moving to has an orchestra group that I have already joined,” Keys said. “I have friends down there, and we’ve been Zoom-meeting once a week for the past year. I’m just looking forward to starting my new life in Mexico with my new friends.”

Keys said she’ll miss many things about Country Day, mainly her students. 

“Usually when the seniors leave, they’re leaving you. But this time, I’m leaving them.”

— Felecia Keys

“It’s difficult for me to even think about it because I’m losing my entire family at Country Day,” Keys said. “Luckily, I have Facebook, which helps me keep in touch with my students — some of whom I taught 40 years ago and are grandparents now.

“But that’s the hardest part, saying goodbye to students. Usually when the seniors leave, they’re leaving you. But this time, I’m leaving them, so it feels a little different from what I’m used to.”

Senior concertmaster Emma Boersma said she’ll miss Keys and her chemistry with the orchestra.

“Everyone is close with her. The orchestra has its own inside jokes with her that have made the class that much more enjoyable,” Boersma said. “(Keys) just connects with all her students, so we’re like one big orchestra family.”

Band director Bob Ratcliff agreed.

“One of the best qualities (Keys) has is that she really cares about the kids,” Ratcliff said. “She can break things down for the students and help them fully understand music and appreciate it.”

Boersma added she’s thankful to Keys for helping her stay with music for so long.

“I wasn’t the most self-motivated violinist when I started playing with her in eighth grade,” Boersma said. “But she kept encouraging me and, thanks to her, I found an appreciation for what I did. If it had been anyone else, I don’t think I would’ve stuck with music for so long.” 

Ratcliff said Keys not only engaged her students in music, but improved the programs.

“She raised the string program here to a higher standard and built and developed the choral program as well,” Ratcliff said. “If I’m not mistaken, every year that (Keys) directed the chamber ensembles, at least one made all-state. 

“She just brought the level of musicality in the orchestra up a level from where it previously was. In the past 10 years, under her direction, the orchestra has had more success than the band has as far as festivals and competitions go.”

Head of school Lee Thomsen agreed. 

“My first year here, I went to the winter concert, and I remember the look of pride on (Keys’) face when the fifth grade orchestra played,” Thomsen said. “That’s when I realized that Country Day’s music program was small but mighty.”

Music teacher Maria Hoyos will replace Keys as director of the orchestra, choir and chamber groups.

“She’s wonderful,” Keys said. “She’s so knowledgeable, and I love the way she connects with the kids. She’ll do great things with the choir and orchestra.”

—By Arijit Trivedi

Originally published in the May 26 edition of the Octagon.