Monday concert at Kickapoo honors life, influence of SPS music teacher Connie Bilyeu
A concert Monday will honor a legendary Springfield music teacher and the revered matriarch of a musically gifted Ozarks family.
The Connie Bilyeu Memorial Concert will also raise money to continue helping generations of high school singers pay for college.
The concert, which is free to attend and open to all, starts at 7 p.m. Monday at Kickapoo High School's performing arts center.
"The goal of the concert is to show the next generation the legacy that she left in choral music in this part of Missouri. It's astounding," said choir teacher Alberta Smith, a former student and close friend. "It is also to get everybody together to celebrate the life that she lived."
Consuelo Lane Bilyeu, known to friends and family as Connie, spent 32 years as a vocal music teacher in Springfield Public Schools.
She started teaching in 1966 at Pipkin Middle School and then moved onto Central High School and later Kickapoo. She set exceptionally high standards for students, which they often met.
Over her long teaching career, Bilyeu's choirs repeatedly wowed at music conventions in Missouri and the multi-state region.
For 21 consecutive years, her choirs received a one rating — the highest — among other large ensembles in the state.
Nearly 100 of Bilyeu's students were named to the Missouri All-State Honors Choir. She set a state record by having the most students earn a one rating, the highest, at district competitions in a single year.
More:Connie Bilyeu, beloved Springfield music teacher, remembered as a mentor, friend
The concert will feature Bilyeu's former students and choirs as well as some of her favorite pieces of music.
Smith, a noted vocal music teacher and former Springfield Teacher of the Year, said Bilyeu revolutionized the vocal music programs she led, especially at Central and Kickapoo.
"She brought both the Central program and the Kickapoo program to a level that they had not seen and both of those programs are still thriving and that is no accident. She set all of that in motion," she said.
'Musically, she was a genius, a virtuoso at the piano'
Smith said Bilyeu's encouragement also changed the trajectory of many students' lives, whether they pursued a career in music or not.
"She was my mentor. I would not have done anything had it not been for her and I think a lot of people feel that way," she said. "She just had this ability to make you believe you could be great."
At the concert, Smith will conduct a combined choir of students from her program at Ozarks Technical Community College and members of a church choir formerly conducted by Bilyeu.
In preparation, she showed the OTC students a video of Bilyeu that explained her lasting impact on vocal music in the Ozarks.
"They came through programs where her influence was felt all over town and all of Missouri," Smith said.
Sarah Freeman Odom attended church with Bilyeu and was in choir at Kickapoo. She recalled Bilyeu's "fiery eyes" and passion for doing things the right way.
"Musically, she was a genius, a virtuoso at the piano, and an excellent vocalist," she said. "We all loved Mrs. Bilyeu but there was a percentage of everybody that was a little bit afraid because when you have 120 people (in a choir) you have to have control, classroom-management-wise, and it's always good to get your bluff in."
Odom said Bilyeu had a reputation for demanding a lot and students did not want to disappoint her.
"She was exacting, but in a loving way. She set the expectation very high but then she brought us there. She took us to that high expectation with what she got out of us," she said. "We knew that the choirs before us were good and we wanted to keep that tradition going."
Odom, a 1987 graduate of Kickapoo, later taught social studies at Kickapoo as a colleague of Bilyeu. She will sing at the end of Monday's concert, as part of an alumni choir.
"Connie always ended her holiday concert with the Hallelujah Chorus and so that is how the fundraiser concert is going to end," Odom said. "Everybody I know that is coming is super excited to get back up on stage and sing that song in her honor and memory and in an effort to boost the scholarship fund that was established when she retired."
'So many of her students wanted to honor her'
Music was not just Bilyeu's career, it was a deeply entrenched part of her family and life.
A gifted singer, she grew up performing in church and with the gospel group called the Waymakers. Her late brother, Tommy, performed with the Baldknobbers music show in Branson.
She served as a pianist and co-director of music at South Haven Baptist Church — with husband Bob Bilyeu, also a retired Springfield educator — for more than 40 years.
Their sons, Jody and Mark, formed the family band Big Smith with their cousins. An in-demand Ozarks group, they released numerous albums and were profiled in the documentary "Homemade Hillbilly Jam."
Both sons still perform. Mark Bilyeu, guitarist and singer, formed the Creek Rocks with wife Cindy Woolf.
More:Ozarks music community bands together to raise funds for Mark Bilyeu, family
In December 2020, Connie Bilyeu died of complications from COVID-19. She was 78.
"She left during the pandemic. We haven't really had closure," Smith said. "And so many of her students wanted to honor her. We are coming back together to do that."
There is also a pay-it-forward aspect to the concert. Donations will be accepted to build up the Connie Bilyeu Vocal Music Scholarship at Kickapoo, which was established in 1998 when she retired. At least 20 high school graduates have benefited from the financial help over the years.
Over the years, the fund has been depleted. The goal is to raise at least $15,000 to make sure the scholarship lasts and is self-sustaining.
Donations can be made online through the Foundation for Springfield Public Schools, which oversees the fund. The link is www.supportsps.org/supportsps-campaign/connie-bilyeu-memorial-concert/. Students have until March 8 to apply for the 2023-24 scholarship.
Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Concert celebrates life, influence of SPS music teacher Connie Bilyeu