By Myrna Adams West
Here’s how UUFA’s fabulous music program began:
Stu Fors announced at a Wednesday night potluck in early fall of 1981 when the Fellowship was meeting in the building on Prince Avenue: “Anyone who is interested in forming a choir please meet at the piano following next Sunday’s service.” After that service, 16 people gathered around the old Baldwin Grand which had been donated by Billie Baird. Gladys Howard, the wife of the Rev. Mitch Howard, the new minister, agreed to accompany the newly-formed choir, and Stu reluctantly became the first choir director.
Stu recalls: “I liked to sing, and when others gathered around the piano to sing carols, I thought this would enrich our Sunday services. Clif Hoffman really didn’t want any music encroaching on his Sunday ‘performance,’ so we rarely sang any hymns. But the choir added music!! I don’t remember specifics about how the services changed, but I have a feeling that our members enjoyed something other than talking/discussions even though many were very stimulating. We had the whole range of singing talent, much as we do today. Jack Foster had a beautiful Irish Tenor voice and his favorite solo was ‘Danny Boy.’ Wow! Carl Priest had a fantastic, deep Bass voice. What’s great is that I feel we have gotten better over the years, and not just because we are larger. But 16 was a pretty good number considering the fact that Fellowship membership was around 85-90 when we started.”
Elizabeth Bishop-Martin recalls others who were among the first singers: Anna Uhde, Elena Brown, Larry Dendy, Fred and Mardie Shirley, Virginia Murphy, Cathi Doherty, Nancy MacNair, Gail “Rainbow,” and a few more whose names are lost to time. Kay Giese and Anna Eidsvik also joined after a few months, and Ange Kahn joined within a couple of years. Bruce King was also among the early singers. Elizabeth notes that she and her then-husband Bill Sutton were not among those at the piano but joined about mid-year.
Larry Dendy found in his notes on the choir’s formation that on October 18, 1981, the choir sang “For the Beauty of the Earth.” He thinks this may have been the first performance.
Elizabeth became the choir director the following year and continued to direct, with some time off, until the end of 1993. She says, “In the early days, finding music was our biggest problem. We sang from the ‘Blue Hymnal’ when Stu directed. ‘My Lord, What a Mornin’ was a favorite.”
Elizabeth, Bill and Gladys attended the first meeting of the UU Musicians’ Network (UUMN), which was held in Boston in 1983. (Elizabeth recalls that she met Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock at a UUMN meeting at The Mountain a couple of years later.) After a few years, Elizabeth was paid a small stipend and so became the first paid choir director.
During the first year of Elizabeth’s tenure, the choir began to sing at least once a month for services. They also began the annual end-of-year holiday concerts, forerunner of today’s Solstice Services. They sang at weddings (and surprised UUFA Founding Members Ethel and Jack Foster by “sneaking” into their 50th anniversary celebration to sing love songs) and gave annual fundraising concerts, one of which was so successful, it was recorded and the recordings sold to raise money to purchase music. The dedication and hard work of Elizabeth and the early choir members laid the foundation for the Music Program which thrives today.
When Gladys and Rev. Howard left the Fellowship, Jean Bryan and then Albie Smith became the pianists. When the Fellowship moved into the current building, Despy Karlas donated the grand piano that we still enjoy.
Several other directors filled in when Elizabeth took a hiatus, including Bill Sutton and Bill Coscarelli (1988). According to the Board of Trustees’ minutes, Elizabeth resigned permanently in early 1994, and Diane Nuter was hired in August of that year. The following August, Jimmy Merritt became choir director. In addition to leading the choir, Jimmy sometimes played the piano, including improvisations on familiar hymns. He moved on in early 2001, and Amber Fetner was hired as Music Director beginning in the fall of that year.
Under Amber’s direction, the Music Program has exploded. If all members of the choir are present at once, there is not enough room for all the chairs on the stage. In the fall of 2007 and continuing through December of 2012, the choir was divided into two choirs—the Chalice Choir, a larger group that sang twice a month, and the JUUbilation Singers, a smaller, more committed group that sang only once a month, usually a capella. With the advent of two worship services in fall of 2013, choir members have sometimes chosen to sing at either the 9:00 service or the 11:30 service, but many have chosen to sing at both services.
Starting in the fall of 2014, a small group of singers will sing at the 9:00 am service, while the full choir will sing at the 11:30 service. Guest musicians as well as musicians from among members and friends of the Fellowship often contribute their special talents to the mix of instrumental and vocal offerings.
Early in Amber’s tenure, volunteers from the adult choir led a children’s choir, which Amber later led. The children even wrote and performed a musical! For several years, Amber and a few volunteers went weekly to the children’s Religious Education classrooms to lead singing. More recently, volunteer musicians from the choir and the Fellowship have taught the children choruses and simple hymns during the monthly Children’s Worship Services so that they can sing along with the adults when they are in the sanctuary. Through the years, occasional children’s ensembles have joined the adult choir for special pieces, and young musicians have added their talents to the services on instruments such as the piano and cello.
In 2002 Amber initiated an African drumming circle, which later took the name Palms of Fire. The drummers practice weekly, learning West African rhythms and songs and performing occasionally for Sunday services. In addition, Palms of Fire has performed at the Athens Human Rights Festival, other local festivals, at community gatherings, area churches, and house parties. Several members yearly attend a drum camp held in North Carolina in the spring, and guest drummers, some from West Africa and others trained by West African master drummers, lead workshops at UUFA. The drum circle not only provides an opportunity to beat out rhythms together, but has been the catalyst for lasting friendships and continuing personal support, as well as an entry point for UUFA membership and outreach to the community.
In addition, two house bands formed from among choir members and other members or friends of the Fellowship. You Band formed in 2011 and sang once a month at the service—performing more modern, rock-type pieces with Debbie Hardegree and Chris Hayden on guitar, Diana Torell on violin, Karen (Pinkie) Bergman on cello, Brent Litch on congas, and Mike Merva on electric bass. Debbie, Diana, Pinkie and Amber harmonize on vocals, with occasional vocal contributions by the guys. In 2012, BlUUgrass Folks formed, singing standard Bluegrass tunes, country favorites, and well-loved folk pieces. Herb West on guitar, Paul Eskildsen on guitar and mandolin, Ted Mayer on banjo and Diana Torell on fiddle are joined by Myrna Adams West on vocals, with all the voices providing close harmony.
A generous bequest from UUFA Founding Member Despy Karlas, a well-known and much-loved piano professional, allowed the creation of the Despy Karlas Guest Musician (DKGM) program in 2011, which brings in talented local musicians to perform at a service once a month.
The combined choirs present special programs throughout the year. A favorite is the Solstice Service which welcomes the return of longer days and more light with songs and words. The choir recorded a compact disc of the 2007 solstice music. Other special programs have included jazz services, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and programs centered on various themes, including “water,” spirituals and favorite hymns.
The music—instrumental and vocal—selected in consultation with the minister or whoever is speaking on any given Sunday, always adds meaning, continuity, beauty, and grace to the service. And sometimes humor!! The choir has been known to engage puppets, masks, kazoos, funny hats and other props, when appropriate, for the theme of the service.
Many talented pianists have accompanied the choir through the years. In addition to Gladys Howard, Jean Bryan, and Albie Smith, several students from the University of Georgia and other musicians from the Athens area have provided accompaniment: Sojourner Hodges, 2008-2009; Thomas Duncan, 2009 –2010; Shane Aldredge, 2010 –2012; and Kaitlyn Davidson, 2012. Current pianist Robert Hjelmstad joined us in fall of 2012. His sensitive and skillful renditions of classical and popular music enthrall us all. Rosemary Woodel and former UUFA member Susan Gross have from time to time substituted for the regular pianists.
Amber was chosen to direct the GA Choir at the 2011 General Assembly of UU Congregations in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nine members of the UUFA choir accompanied her and experienced the thrill of singing special music with nearly 200 other UUs from across the United States at the Sunday morning worship service.
Active in the UU Musicians Network, Amber chaired the Professional Leadership Development Group that drew up the requirements for certifying music directors. In the spring of 2014, Amber herself became a Credentialed Music Director, following the guidelines which she helped to establish.
Choir members are a close-knit group, enjoying the social as well as the musical aspects of weekly practice and occasional parties, but nothing is more stimulating than welcoming new voices to the mix. Retreats at The Mountain, at choir members’ homes, or at other venues mark the beginning of each program year. Each fall, Amber, fresh from vacation and the UUMN annual conference, brings new music, new ideas, and renewed enthusiasm to the appreciative musical groups and congregation. Choir pool parties and other get-togethers encourage friendships and fun. Hootlucks (combined hootenannies and potlucks) invite the congregation to bring their musical instruments and participate in group singing and playing (and eating), and Coffeehouses showcase the musical, comedic, and culinary talents of all UUFA members and friends, not just those in the choir.
The UUFA Choir is known in the Athens area and among other UU congregations in the Southeast as an exceptional musical group. Yearly performances at the Athens Area Benevolence Market have exposed the broader religious community to UUFA’s non-traditional end-of-the year mix of holiday selections, many focusing on peace and acceptance. Singing with the choirs of Ebenezer Baptist Church West and Bethel Baptist Church has created cross-cultural/cross-denominational friendships and collaborations. Presentations at Justice Fest and other local gatherings highlight the importance of Unitarian Universalism’s commitment to justice for all.
Amber took a long-overdue sabbatical January through June, 2014. In her absence, J.D. Burnett directed the choir, bringing his vocal professorial skills to bear and enhancing the enunciation and rhythmic skills of the already accomplished singers. Amber returns to an improved choir, but brings with her new energy, new insights, and new music.
The UUFA has a vibrant Music Program that has grown and adapted to meet the changing needs of our community. Participation in the various groups and ensembles provides opportunities for spiritual and musical fellowship in addition to opportunities for service to the UUFA and the wider community. As we move forward into the next 60 years of liberal religion in northeast Georgia, the Music Program is poised to continue to expand and improve and impress. With so much talent, skill, and enthusiasm, the musical possibilities for spreading the good news of Unitarian Universalism are limitless.
Visit the 60th Anniversary page here.