Spotlight Iowa City: Spreading the song


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As worshippers file out of the Newman Catholic Student Center after a Saturday Mass, many stand at attention, their full focus on the chorus in front.

Sitting among the college-age musicians — known as the Newman Singers — is leader Joe Mattingly, playing a keyboard with a small band.

The Newman Singers don’t just sing at Mass in Iowa City. Throughout the year, they tour the country, performing songs and acts of service in parishes everywhere.

The songs and the tours — even the group itself — are Mattingly’s creations.

When the 50-year-old became the music director at the Newman Center, 104 E. Jefferson St., more than 20 years ago, one of his first goals was to bring together the most talented students in the center’s programs and create a group that would have a wide-reaching effect.

“There were a lot of very talented students here looking for something more challenging,” he said, noting humbly that the group “is as much a product of the people here than any idea I had.”

He writes most of the group’s music himself, trying to add a contemporary flair to traditional liturgy and hymns.

“He’s a really talented composer,” said Austin Wakat, a freshman who recently joined the Newman Singers.

Music has been a central part of Mattingly’s life since his childhood. His father, he said, was a music teacher, and he learned to play guitar and piano at a young age. He has always viewed music as his true calling.

“That’s always where I felt I could make the most important contribution to the people I know,” he said.

He is working on his master’s in composition at the University of Northern Iowa. As part of that endeavor, he has written both religion-inspired and secular music for orchestras, small ensembles, and chamber groups. His favorite to write is music for full orchestras.

“It’s the most rewarding and challenging,” he said. “It’s also the hardest to get played.”

At the Newman Center, the Newton, Iowa, native oversees not just the singers but all music programs.

Under Mattingly’s guidance, the Newman Singers has released 10 albums since its inception, made up mostly of songs written by the music director. The group has also toured nationally — including a trip to Florida during winter break — and once it sang for Pope John Paul II.

The logistics and problems associated with leading a group of college students on sometimes weeks-long national trips can be time-consuming and tiring, but the singers believe Mattingly handles it well.

Ellie Farrier, a sophomore Newman Singer, referred to him as the group’s “fearless leader.”

The director’s focus isn’t just on the singing, however. On every tour, he leads the musicians on service missions, where they work in food banks, sort donations, and help build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

Still, he said, his favorite part of touring with the Newman Singers is spending time with the students under his leadership.

After all, one of the reasons he started the group, he said, is to offer a place where the students could “create a new musical family [and] express their love of music and express their faith.”

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