Picture this: a mobile and colorful feast for the eyes, ears and imagination winding its…
An unnatural silence inside the sanctuary of DeKalb’s First United Methodist Church gently gives way to the haunting tones of hand chimes, ringing out a melody that seems familiar.
Thirty-three hypnotic beats later, the room suddenly explodes with the gorgeous sounds of voices, pipe organ, piano and the bells, joining in the beloved Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.”
People in the pews quietly nod their heads, some mouthing the words they’ve known all their lives.
Meanwhile, four video camera operators – including one in the balcony, and one on the move, prowling for close-ups and interesting angles while his long cables slither behind him – film the proceedings. Microphones on tall boom stands perch high above the altar.
Eric Johnson, director of Music Ministries at the downtown church, gives one final motion to end the song after its rousing conclusion. Silence again. Then, from a makeshift control room, cheers.
“Oh, yeah!” “Bingo!”
Yes, it’s a hit – and one of many Christmas pieces that will reach the ears and eyes of not only the small crowd that gathered that Saturday afternoon but a television audience around the world, thanks to cable network RFD-TV and Chicago media legend Orion Samuelson, who each year selects a rural church choir to record a Christmas concert for broadcast.
RFD-TV, available on Dish Channel 231 and DirectTV Channel 345, will air the concert at 7 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, and at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20. It also will air at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, on WREX-DT from Rockford.
Songs on the broadcast also include “Come, Let Us Sing,” “The Apple Tree,” “The First Nowell,” an a cappella version of “Silent Night” and, featuring a children’s choir, “Away in a Manger.”
Viewers who tune in will spot a few NIU employees – Johnson, director of Choral Activities in the NIU School of Music, chief among them – as well as several students, six of whom are Sunday morning regulars and living, singing examples of NIU President Doug Baker’s “triangle model” and the value of his pillars of Student Career Success.
NIU’s collaboration with the church affords dual-mentoring opportunities between students and local residents, provides students with a real-world place to nurture and practice their skills, spreads the gifts of NIU employees beyond campus and, ultimately, boosts Baker’s pursuit of thriving communities.
“I think it’s good for our students. They get to interact with people who make music for the love of it,” Johnson says. “Sometimes our music majors get so wrapped up in the challenges and hard work of being a music major that they forget the joy of making music. They lose track of the power of sharing music with others, and how it can change people’s lives.”
Johnson brought his NIU Chamber Choir to perform the chilling “In the Bleak Midwinter” for the cameras; he also recruited four string players from the NIU School of Music to form a quartet that enhanced the majesty of “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”
William Koehler, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the NIU School of Music, is the church’s longtime pianist. Ron Barshinger, an NIU library operations associate and “a son of this church,” has played the organ there since 1990.
Deanna Frances and Chris Jackson haven’t worn the green-and-white choir robes nearly as long, however.
Frances, a senior music education and vocal performance major from Shabbona, and Jackson, a second-year graduate student in vocal performance from Cincinnati, are two of the current benefactors of scholarships administered by the school and the church through the NIU Foundation.
Created by a major donation made by an FUMC congregation member, the Samuel E. Bradt & Bertha Glidden Bradt Memorial Fund helps music majors pay for school while simultaneously adding their talents to the church’s music ministry during worship services and Wednesday night rehearsals.
“The opportunity to bring together different singing communities is a gift for all,” Johnson says. “When you take the talent and enthusiasm of the students together with the passion of the community, the net result is far greater than either could achieve themselves.”
Directing a church choir of local residents and students paints “a beautiful image of how multigenerational organizations work together for a unified goal,” he adds. “No one is too old or too young.”
Frances is enjoying the additional opportunities to sing and the chance to learn how to blend her voice with “other kinds of singers,” including some who are octogenarians and one who has special needs.
“I’m also learning a lot about dedication. Sally Mullis, a soprano in the choir, directs the children’s choir and the Christmas pageant, but music is not her career,” Frances says. “The TV special is a great way to show off the talent we have right here, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
She deeply appreciates the open arms that have embraced her.
“Everyone in the church is amazing. Everyone knows our names. They’ve been very welcoming,” she says. “My parents come to hear us sing, and my dad just loves it. He says, ‘Wow! This choir is really good!’ ”
Jackson keeps a close eye on Johnson’s approach to teaching songs to his volunteer singers.
“It gives me another view of music and music education. I spend a lot of time at school seeing how students learn, and it’s good to see how people who aren’t studying music learn. It’s been a good experience,” Jackson says.
He loves the commitment of the church choir members, he adds, and says he’s always more than happy to answer when they ask him if their pitch is on.
“From a technical standpoint, I need to have an ear for every possible voice,” Jackson says, “and they’ve allowed me to get my ear for music a lot clearer.”
Sharon Banks-Wilkins, who retired from the university in June of 2014 after nearly two decades of working for the NIU Board of Trustees, joined the church choir four years ago.
Banks-Wilkins appreciates not only the student participation – “It’s amazing how you can throw people together like this and still have a really decent-sounding group. I had a lady who was in the audience say to me that it sounded like one voice. I can’t wait to see the recording,” she says – but also her chance to learn from Johnson.
“I like singing in the choir because I love the music and the message it gives. Eric’s direction has helped me significantly over the years with my voice. I sang in school, and a teacher made me stop singing altogether. She said she couldn’t hear anybody else,” she says.
“Now I’ve learned to sing differently. Eric has helped me come back to where I should be as a singer. We’re very lucky to have him,” she adds. “It’s not only the training he gives us, but the music he picks has a wonderful message for our congregation. He also gives us a message lots of times in our rehearsals, going more in-depth into the meaning of what we’re singing.”
The Rev. Paul Judd, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, is happy that his congregation can provide “a home away from home” for NIU students as well as an avenue for them “to share their talents.”
More than that, he adds, “we offer encouragement to students that, even after they leave school, there’s a wonderful outlet for music in worship, and it’s a great way to continue the connection.”
Judd, appointed to FUMC in July, is proud of the close connection between the church and the university.
Being “a loving neighbor” to NIU is not only critical, he says, but scriptural.
“We have so many gifts of music in this church,” Judd says, “and when these people come together, it really is fellowship.”