Thinking upon these things…
This weekend was Homecoming on the campus of my alma mater, Carson-Newman University (although it was still Carson-Newman College when I graduated), an event which I always anticipate with excitement and joy. This particular weekend was unique in that on Friday, current and alumni members of A Cappella Choir gathered in the sanctuary of First Baptist on the corner of campus to rehearse and record a Christmas CD. Approximately 180 singers assembled, graduates from the 1950’s all the way up to last year, as well as current student members of the choir. This event was held in honor of Dr. Eric Thorson (“Doc”) and his 30th anniversary directing A Cappella Choir.
I looked forward to this for months, imagining the fun of seeing old friends and sharing memories and fellowship, as well as the chance to make music with them and a number of my current crop of Delta Omicron students for whom I serve as Chapter Mother. I knew it would be a special time together. In my head I knew this…but I had no idea how glorious the experience would actually be. I am still overwhelmed and processing all of it as I write and share here.
We began the day with a welcome and some announcements from Doc, and for our sound check we sang the college hymn, “God of Beauty, Truth and Goodness”, a beautiful hymn commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the college. My ears and heart were filled with the sound of all of us lifting voices to one another and to the God we honored with our hymn. And tears began to flow as I remembered so many wonderful times in the choir when I was a student.
My years in A Cappella happened on the cusp of a changing era. Prior to Doc’s tenure with the choir, A Cappella was directed and led by Charles Harrison Jones, affectionately known by decades of students as “Fessor”. This man was a legend and lots of my peers were so intimidated by his reputation that they would not even audition for him. I guess I didn’t have sense enough to be scared, because as a freshman I auditioned and was accepted into A Cappella in the fall of 1982, my first semester of college. In the second semester I was accepted into a select group from choir known as “Renaissance”, which sang featured selections as we toured during spring break. Fessor could be intense at times, and he was a big personality with a conducting style as unique as his DNA. I remember how he used to go down the row and have people sing phrases individually, sort of like a vocal pop quiz. One day he did this with the sopranos, and when he got to me, I sang my phrase and he pointed and me and shouted “GOOD!” And I shouted back just as loudly, “THANK YOU!” Someone told me later on that they couldn’t believe “a freshman had the nerve to do that!” It was just me being me, even way back then. And Fessor appreciated that. My freshman year was his last year directing A Cappella, and I have always been so proud to have sung in Fessor’s last A Cappella Choir. After he retired and I had graduated, he was directing another choir and he graciously hired me as a soloist for a couple of concerts, which were my very first paying gigs as a singer. He referred me to another director who hired me for more work. Fessor demanded musical excellence and valued work ethic and character. He was a gifted musician, and one of the humblest people I ever met.
My sophomore year was when Doc took the reins of A Cappella upon Fessor’s retirement. Doc also had the “joy” of being my academic advisor for my college years. I have always said that he did a tour of duty getting me out of school on time and deserved combat pay and a medal for doing so! In his own humble way, he always chuckles and says it was no big deal. HIs conducting style was, and is, very different from Fessor’s, and there was a period of adjustment as he began his tenure with the choir. As different as their personalities and conducting styles were, they shared a passionate commitment to excellence in musicianship and a self-effacing humility. I consider myself doubly blessed to have sung in Fessor’s last A Cappella Choir and Doc’s first one. Now I sing with Doc as he conducts Knoxville Choral Society and Chamber Chorale, and it is a joy to have the opportunity to continue my musical journey in this way.
On Friday as we sang the college hymn for sound check, the voices of generations of alumni and current students washed over me in a wave of emotion. I felt a surge in both my soul and body and almost came completely undone by the magnitude of it all. And I distinctly felt the presence of our beloved Fessor, who passed away several years ago at age 92. He was with us in that room. And I believe that both he and the Lord were pleased by our efforts as we sang and recorded our Christmas offering, adding “The Benediction” at the end. I had the best seat in the house, on the front row between 2 of my very talented Delta Omicron students with a row of my peers from the 1980’s right behind us. Past and present folded around me like a warm hug.
“The Lord Bless You and Keep You” by Peter C. Lutkin has been A Cappella’s closing benediction for decades, even since before Fessor’s time with the choir. It is as sacred to us as scripture, which, in fact, it is. The words are taken from Numbers 6: 24-26. It binds us to one another, to members past, present and future. We hold hands as we sing it, a tradition that I believe my peers in the 1980’s started, although I could be mistaken about that. We never use music. We don’t need it. The singing of it evokes memories of tours, concerts, musical and spiritual moments shared, friendships forged, lessons learned and, I believe, a foretaste of what Heaven must sound like.
Beauty, truth and goodness indeed.