An Ear for Music and a Heart for GivingDec 30, 2021 11:49AM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Those red kettles seen outside grocery stores and mall entrances at holiday time garner millions of dollars for the Salvation Army. According to the organization, when a bell-ringer is standing at a kettle, it garners $25 to $50 per hour more than does an unattended kettle.
Matthew Murray, age 11, saw a lonely red kettle outside the Papillion Walmart one day in 2020 while shopping with a relative, and then asked if they could go back, with his violin in tow, so he could play carols such as “Ode to Joy” and “Adeste Fidelis” to help increase donations. The spontaneous action resulted in many shoppers giving coins and bills to this good cause, but to Murray, it was another way to combine his love of playing the violin and helping others.
Although not yet a teenager, Murray shows a maturity and composure held by few his age. But when he recounts the spark that started his passion for music, it’s easier to remember that he is a child.
“I was 4 years old and watching Peg + Cat,” Murray said. “There was an episode on where they were at the symphony with Beethoven and Mozart. They started playing a violin and it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I told my grandma right away—‘I have to play the violin.’”
While many 4-year-olds would get a chuckle and a nod from grown-ups at such a declaration, Murray’s family had already seen enough to know better. Noting that Murray had begun reading by age 2, and excelled at it by age 3, the decision was made to do whatever was necessary to keep him engaged and challenged.
Murray learns fast, taking on pre-algebra by age 6 and studying organic science as a hobby, but music is where his greatest passion lives.
“I’ve been playing violin for about seven years, and dancing for three years. Playing violin and keyboard really plays a part in how I dance. It helps a lot. Playing and dancing are just two different ways to understand the music.”
Director of American West Ballet, Susan Chowning, has been acquainted with the young talent for five years, and has had time to learn about the boy behind the endless skill. “Beyond his talent, his compassion for others is what really shines,” Chowning said. “I’m so thankful we’ve had the opportunity to be part of Matthew’s journey.”
Along with playing in front of red kettles, Murray volunteers to play at local nursing homes and has played for first responders.
In May 2018, he dropped by the Papillion Fire Station to thank the first responders for their service to the community, a performance that they remember to this day.
“Matthew is extremely talented, but also very thoughtful,” said Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes. “We were thrilled when he performed for our firefighters. It was quite a memorable show of support.”
Murray’s schedule is never too packed to find time to spread cheer, love, and the music that means so much to him.
“I just thought it would be good to do it.” Murray said. “Just to make people smile and be happy.”
His violin instructor, Omaha Symphony violinist Anne Nagosky, said that the same goodness in his heart that drives him to want to make people smile will secure a solid future for the prodigy.
“He’s a very special kid. One of those proverbial ‘Old Souls’ in all the best ways. He’s got the most giving, warm, sweet heart.” Nagosky said. “That drive he has, to think of these fun ways to give back, that’s just something that’s in him. So is his drive to excel at music…With music, you take your lesson of course, but you have to choose to practice daily. You have to find or make time. Murray makes time every day, but also makes time to give back, and to do it all in a really joyful way.”
That drive to excel landed him the honor of KVNO Classical Kid of the Month in August 2021. The honor comes with a $300 scholarship from the Soener Foundation, a sum that most students use to pay for lessons, which often cost over $100 a month.
“It’s supposed to be used towards furthering your musical studies,” Nagosky said. “He wanted to give it to organizations that help kids that may not get a chance to study music.”
It’s that generous spirit that has helped him live with dedication and joy, and the world is more than ready to receive him with open arms.
“He makes his own opportunities, in general,” Nagosky said. “If there’s something he wants to do or wants to share, he finds a way to make it happen.”
Visit kvno.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.