Daniel Felton ’15 on his new saxophone gospel album and life as a music educator

Posted on August 21st, 2020 by

It’s difficult to describe the work of Daniel Felton ’15 concisely. He’s a music educator, but he’s also a self-taught organ-playing church music director. He’s a composer and arranger, but he’s also a talented saxophone player and drummer. 

Now he can add another credential to his list. Felton released a unique album of gospel saxophone music entitled “Breath of God” in late July. On the album, which is available on online platforms such as Spotify and iTunes, he composed original works with colleague Adrian Davis, arranged a traditional hymn, played most of the saxophone parts, and collaborated with friends and family to round out the instrumentation.

Felton says the combination of solo saxophone and gospel music has had the ability to reach people from many different backgrounds, which was one of his goals when categorizing it as instrumental gospel. “A lot of my friends said it sounded ‘jazzy’, but I didn’t want it to be jazz,” he says. “I really wanted it to specifically appeal to my church audience friends, but I also have a lot of friends who are not in church that really love the music as well. I want it to be music that can just make people feel good.”

With the murder of George Floyd in May, the title “Breath of God,” took on an even deeper meaning. “I truly desire to have this music touch someone’s heart, to make people feel alright, to have hope during this time,” he says. “In a time where people are going through so much and can’t breathe, the breath of God can be there to give us the air that we need to breathe.”

A dedicated educator, finishing the album wasn’t the only thing Felton had on his plate this spring. He also had a full time teaching position as a band director for 225 fifth and sixth graders at Westwood Middle School in Spring Lake Park.

To be clear, “teaching band” for Felton doesn’t mean simply conducting the band, it’s much more than that. When working at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School where he held his first full time teaching position, he had students who mentioned that they worked long hours outside of school or that they were caring for a child at home. Felton worked with them individually to help them succeed. “This is their reality. Now I have to be specific and cater how I’m teaching to every single one of them so they understand I’m supporting them but also pushing them,” he says.

Felton remembers a pivotal conversation with Assistant Professor of Education Lisa Dembouski during the first week of class his junior year, which shaped how he interacts with his students to this day. Dembouski took the time to meet with every education student one on one and ask about the way they learned and any roadblocks they might face that she might not know about. Felton says this conversation helped him to realize what he needed as a scholar and how important it was to understand his students as individual learners. 

As a student at Gustavus, Felton says there were times he struggled particularly with music history, because he says he was being immersed in a tradition of music he didn’t grow up listening to. While he was learning from accomplished scholars on music and music education, which he valued, he also didn’t have any Black educators or colleagues. “I had to realize these people were excellent at what they did. They were scholars, they were professionals, and I had to appreciate that for their experiences. But yet at the same time, understand that my story was going to be different,” he says. 

After graduating from Gustavus, Felton completed his student teaching abroad in Spain where he says he learned the power of being fully present with students instead of focusing on rigid lesson plans. “I had documented everything I was going to say,” he says recalling his first day of teaching. Then, he says his supervising teacher ripped up his carefully crafted lesson plan and said, “Go in there and teach the kids how to be musicians. Don’t worry about the pedagogy…the pedagogy will fall out of you because it’s a part of you now.’” Felton continues to keep that with him to this day.

As Felton’s career has continued to grow, he has taken skills he’s learned in music of improvising and adaptability into his day to day life. He has become the music director at the church where his father is pastor, and as a result, taught himself to play organ. When he didn’t have the budget to buy music for his band at Minneapolis Roosevelt, Felton started composing and arranging music for his classes. “We were able to bridge disparities and gaps in a way that kids didn’t see that we didn’t have the music for the development level they were at. We didn’t have to have that conversation, we just made music,” he says. Now Felton is approached for band, jazz band, orchestra, and choir commissions regularly.

Felton says he has already started working on his next two albums and is preparing to teach at DeLaSalle High School in the fall. 

 


2 Comments

  1. Carnise Franklin says:

    Congratulations! May God continue to bless you on your musical journey! I will love to purchase your album !
    Best regards,
    Carnise Franklin

  2. Gloria McCovery-Enoch says:

    So very happy for this young man. He holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know him personally, but I know his Dad, my brother in Christ Jesus. And the love of God that is in his Dad would undoubtedly show up in his children amen. Keep moving forward young man to receive all that God has in store for you amen 🙏🏽.

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