Thursday, August 27, 2015

In Choir, the Best of Two Worlds

I have been involved in choral music since I was seven. For fifteen years, I have been singing, writing, and collaborating music. My time at the Saint Thomas Choir School in New York, for four years of middle school, was influential in my development as a part-time musician, influenced by classmates, teachers; and choirmasters, who were also mentors and talent-finders. 

Two of Saint Thomas’ legends in liturgical music, Dr. Gerre Hancock and Dr. John Scott, now rest in peace. Gerre Hancock’s departure as Choirmaster in 2004 was planned well in advanced, and I knew that my first year at Saint Thomas would be his last. He would move back to Texas with his wife, Judith, after 34 years with Saint Thomas, and continue teaching music at the University of Texas for seven years.  Dr. John Scott departed his earthly vocation of choirmaster at Saint Thomas suddenly one Wednesday ago, after an acclaimed tour in Europe as a performing organist. What I am writing here is not so much purely a memorial to Dr. Scott, but a recollection from the choir stall of having sung under two choirmasters at St. Thomas. 

In September 2005, the boys of Saint Thomas Choir School rehearsed with John Scott for the first time in his new role as choirmaster at Saint Thomas. He had come from a similar duty at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, and we choirboys wondered why a Brit had come across the Atlantic Ocean to rehearse us. He was a bit befuddled about how U.S. Customs treated his century-old piano. Coming from the quintessential formality of English high culture, Dr. Scott took the effort to familiarize himself with American norms. Two centuries of independence from Great Britain gave rise to differences in vocabulary and culture, even hairstyle.  In Britain, punks have short hair, and no choirboy over there would have a buzzcut. He learned quickly that buzzcuts are synonymous with clean-cut here in the States.

What has amazed me is how great institutes of learning retain their prized educators and staff. As Choirmaster of Saint Thomas for his last ten years, his endurance follows in the good tradition of long-tenured choirmasters and headmasters. So has the time passed that life has come full circle. A friend and classmate of mine interviewed with Dr. Scott for one of the men’s voices in the choir this year. The men of the choir, who fill the lower voices, are truly professionals. They find time for rehearsals and choral services at St. Thomas between other prominent gigs in New York City. To get grade-school boys, with mixed levels of experience, but with recognized potential, to sing at such a caliber is a significant accomplishment. Gerre Hancock knew the traditional laid-back American demeanor of childhood. Rehearsals with him had interludes where he would make one of his signature piano improvisations, and a few jokes.  Dr. Hancock used his talent to develop the choir to its full potential. To him, the success of the boys of the choir in mastering challenging works of music was recognition enough for each choirboy. As a bonus, each choirboy got a ‘rank’, which was determined by seniority first, and then individual accomplishment. 

Dr. Scott understood that developing individual talent within the choir is an evolution: a choirboy could achieve full potential in the four or five years that the choirmaster had with him. What Dr. Scott accomplished with choirboys who began under his tenure was incredible, indeed; and the fruits of this effort became evident as members of the eighth-grade Class of 2009 and 2010 achieved distinction in solo and marquee performances throughout New York.  There was a risk that he assumed: attention to top choral achievers could affect the morale of other choirboys. The largest culprit to maximizing the potential of a choirboy is middle-school biology: the awkwardness of voice cracks in seventh and eighth grades. When that happens, the choirboy fades gracefully into the sunset. But for the other average choirboys, would lack of attention cause hard feelings? The answer is that Dr. Scott gave attention to all, even when it was discreet. Reports one member of the Class of 2008, “Dr. Scott really did care about me”. The tangible results of this effort was one-on-one voice lessons for all, and an MVP list to recognize personal accomplishments commensurate with one’s ability.

Faced with a slew of ‘retirements’ forced on by changing voices in the Class of 2007 and 2008, John Scott had other ways to develop the musical talent of students who were once star choirboys. One such way was his keen interest in evaluating, and performing, student compositions of music. This unspoken program had started under Dr. Gerre Hancock, a recognized choral composer who embraced expressionism in his compositions. He was an improvising organist, composer, and choirmaster; who as I recall, in his final year, mentored Hank Rosenthal in music composition. Dr. Scott, who was also a composer in traditional-style choral works, expanded this informal program, and, with the confidence of his expertise, allowed the choir to sing some student compositions.  Among members of the Class of 2005 and later, who had experience with Dr. Scott, there is a disk jockey, several performing musicians and singers, and composers. (Class sizes average seven students per year). As long as you had the courage to embrace your talent, Dr. Scott would be there to point you in the right direction.

Dr. Scott was a man wholly dedicated to his work as a liturgical musician. He was a fan of Dietrich Buxtehude and J.S. Bach, German Baroque organists and composers. He was a renowned organist, and his performances of fanfares and voluntaries would draw a crowd of choirboys to the organ console. He was a composer. He was an ambassador to the best England had to offer, in hors d’oevres and tea. He was, first and foremost, a conductor and choirmaster. In this role, he developed untapped talent from each member of the choir. He was convincing and personable: he was the face of public relations during a campaign to raise funds for the renovation of the century-old Grand Organ at Saint Thomas. His mainstay phrase was: “to the Glory of God”- “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloria”. Dr. John Scott’s legacy lives on with the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys as it moves forward through this challenging time. “Dedication and Professionalism”; “A Great Star”; a “Most Accomplished Musician”. These are words that my friends from Saint Thomas Choir School used to describe Dr. John Scott in the days after he left the world. His legacy lives in the musical performances of Saint Thomas Choir School alumni, in their compositions, and in our memories.

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