A 90 Year Legacy

This concert year marks an impressive milestone for the Greenville College Choir—the 90th anniversary of its inception. In celebration of the 90th anniversary, the choir held a reunion during homecoming weekend, complete with combined performances of the current choir and alumni choir members at the annual alumni dinner, the homecoming football game, and the morning worship services at Greenville Free Methodist Church. More than 50 choir alumni joined the choir for the weekend. Mandy Bristol Swanson, ‘04, was one of the returning alumni. When asked about her experience in GC choir, Swanson stated,

Choir has contributed so much to my spiritual development, and I don’t think I knew it at the time. It has come to me over the years. I think there is something about singing sacred music and scriptures that makes them a part of you in a deeper way than simple reading of the scriptures… And singing on tour, some of the most powerful moments came when we were tired, and we had to depend on each other and on Doc to hold us together. There is something very powerful about the community that forms when we work so hard toward a common goal.

Swanson’s words echo the thoughts of many current choir members. Current member and vice president Janika Grimlund said, “Being a member of GC choir has been one of the best decisions I have made as an undergrad. As a non-music major, it has quickly become the part of my day I most look forward to—it is a stress reliever. It is as if I am forced into worship everyday, no matter what. And that’s a good thing! The Lord uses those 75 minutes to refocus me. He refocuses me in several different languages, at different tempos and keys, and with different voices. It’s powerful.”

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Dale and Carolyn Martin, ‘63 and ‘64 respectively, both attended the choir homecoming events. Greenville citizens for 49 years, the Martins said, “We decided to participate because we enjoy singing and getting reacquainted with former members. I think our high school and college choir experiences helped to solidify our enjoyment of music, especially choral music, and we’ve continued in our church choir and Choral Union performances ever since then.”

Of the choir homecoming weekend, Grimlund said, “I loved not only getting to sing with the alumni, but getting to sit down and have dinner and dessert with them! I met some people that I had only heard of from current choir members. GC Choir has become a family to me, and I loved seeing the rest of the family get together. It made me excited for the next reunion where I will be an alumni!”

Ninety years ago, the choir began in 1927, under the direction of Dr. Robert Woods, one of the first graduates from Dayton Westminster Choral School. Dr. Woods led the choir for 30 years until he retired in 1957. The following year, Dr. James E. Wilson took over as director, faithfully leading the choir for the next 39 years, followed by Dr. Jeffrey S. Wilson. Current students and alumni alike praise the scholarship and excellence of both Dr. James Wilson and Dr. Jeffrey Wilson. The Martins said, “We’ve been so blessed to have had the leadership of the two Wilson doctors as directors (as well as several others in church choir).” During a brief sabbatical as Dr. James Wilson pursued his doctorate degree, Joe Noble (1964-1965) and Paul Vanderkoy (1970-1972) conducted the choir as interim directors. Dr. James Wilson and Joe Noble attended the homecoming weekend to perform in the combined choir during the homecoming festivities. Dr. James Wilson, a Greenville resident, also returned to direct one of the pieces at the combined choirís homecoming concert. When asked why he continues to be involved with GC Choir, Dr. James Wilson said, “It is my preparation and my profession. I enjoy doing it… Many students are heavily involved in sports throughout their college experiences. Science students spend many hours in science labs. Students who can read music, who played in high school choir or band, who have had piano lessons, can be involved in choir and will likely continue for life with a church choir or community chorus. Itís great satisfaction to continue; to work with friends and meet new friends in a community chorus, even beyond a church connection.” Indeed, GC Choir members often continue singing in recreational or professional settings post-graduation. Many alumni return annually for the choir’s performance of Handelís Messiah; some alumni have been participating in the performance for more than 50 years.

Currently, the Greenville College Choir is under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey S. Wilson. He began directing the choir in 1996, and has grown the program to include international touring. Past tours include overseas trips to England, Central Europe, and most recently Ireland in 2015. On how the choir has developed during his time as director, Dr. Wilson said, “I was fortunate to inherit a rich choral tradition. Our college has been blessed to have diligent and gifted conductors, talented and committed singers, and faithful and supportive alumni and friends of the choir.

I have tried to build on this foundation by continuing to deepen and broaden the choir’s musical repertoire, focus on faith formation and discipleship within the choir, maintain and grow a culture of choral singing excellence, and seek out new performance and ministry opportunities and venues. God has multiplied our efforts many times over. Leading the choir these last twenty years has been an absolute delight and a ‘dream come true’ for me.”

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When asked what the choir has meant to him for the last twenty years, Dr. Wilson shared, “It has meant the fulfillment of my calling. As a first generation college student, I was privileged to attend a school with an excellent liberal arts education that had a strong music program and a rich choral music tradition. My teachers and fellow students encouraged me to develop both as a person and a musician. During those critical years my Christian faith was established and I sensed a clear vocational calling to become a college choral director. While in graduate school and during my early teaching career, I continued to grow spiritually and began to flesh out my musical calling. Just prior to interviewing at Greenville College in November 1995, I was offered a choral position in a state university. As my wife Pam and I prayed about the university offer it became clear that God was leading us elsewhere. After visiting Greenville, the Lord confirmed that this was where we belonged.”

It has also meant developing perseverance in tough times. The choir has been our primary ministry over these last twenty years and God has continued to reaffirm this calling upon our lives, but this hasn’t always been easy. The workload has been heavy. Sometimes there have fiscal challenges and personal disappointments. At times I’ve become discouraged. But through it all, God has been faithful to transform me, and guide me, and strengthen me for His purposes.

It has meant deep joy in worship and the beauty of Christ’s Body. It has been a joy to get to know and work with hundreds of students and make beautiful music that continues to positively shape people’s lives around the world. We have had many wonderful worship experiences together in rehearsals, concerts, church services, and spontaneous performance situations.

Traditionally, homecoming weekend is the choir’s first public performance, kicking off the new concert season. This year was especially unique, however, because the choir premiered a commissioned piece by award-winning Philadelphia composer Kile Smith, titled “Oh Thou Who Camest From Above,” in honor of the 90th anniversary. Befitting for the college’s Methodist roots, the words of the piece were originally written by Charles Wesley and set to a tune by his grandson, Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Kile Smith brilliantly arranged the piece with a brand new opening based on Leviticus 6:13. His unique spin on the original hymn includes new re-harmonization, and the GC choir has the opportunity to be the first choir to perform the piece. Kile Smith was the visiting composer for the Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium in the spring of 2016, beginning his relationship with Greenville College and the choir. The choir hopes to return the visit by performing for Kyle Smith in his hometown of Philadelphia during an East Coast tour in spring of 2017.

Spring tour is one of the most formative experiences for choir members, creating favorite memories and solidifying lifelong friendships. When asked about favorite memories, the Martins said, “Our choir memories center on the spring tours, which took us to places and people we would otherwise not have experienced.” Swanson also talked about spring tour, saying, “I think my favorite choir memory was in England in 2002. The choir was getting ready to warm up in a chapter house (a round stone room designed so that the monks could all hear each other equally well during meetings). Dr. Wilson was not there yet, and someone just starting singing ‘O Magnum Mysterium.’ And soon the entire choir joined, and Doc walked into the center, and the acoustics were so well designed that you really could hear each and every voice perfectly melded into one. It’s hard to describe the beauty of that moment, but it will stay with me for a long time.”

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There’s no doubt that choir is a formative experience for GC students, and clearly one that continues to impact graduates for the rest of their lives. To current students, Swanson advised, “Savor the moments that you have together, because they will be gone all too soon. And don’t forget that part of the college experience and the goal of education is to become more fully human, and more fully you. I am now a physician, and it would be easy to say that choir had nothing to do with what I wanted to do. But I believe that there are so many moments and lessons that made me a better human, a better Christian, and therefore a better doctor that came from singing in the choir.”

by Kirsten Freeze

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