I am always curious about how people get formed. We don’t just come out of nowhere like Venus rising from the sea!
I am especially curious about artists. How do they find their way? For instance, how does a little kid from Fredericksburg, Virginia, become one of the most best organist-choirmasters in the world? I asked Ray Chenault the other day what his growing up was like. And he told me about his childhood world.
We talked especially about two men who formed him both as a person and as a musician. We all have Fathers in God and so here’s Ray thanking the Good Lord for his.
My dad was the number one tenor around Fredericksburg, Virginia, so he would often sing at weddings and funerals. He also would take me around to lots of revivals, bringing me along to play the piano. And he was the choir director at our church.
And every day my father delivered milk – we’d be getting around the route – and he would stop and talk with an old couple for an hour – I would want to be going home to play but my father would spend as much time as it took. He was greatly beloved. And he taught me that you learn a lot from people
On Sunday mornings, in order for him to be at church and direct the choir, he would have to get up at 2:30 in the morning to do the milk route. Then he would come back and pick me up to play the piano and we would go sing with some nursing home people. He did that nursing home stop every Sunday morning – about 8 am – we would run a bunch of hymns. It was an old retirement home and it wasn’t really kept too clean. My dad knew the power of music!
Then we would come back to Salem Baptist Church where he was the choir director. He was not much trained in music. He’d say to me hit “Rock of Ages” or something, and then all of a sudden people would start singing. My dad totally lived the importance of music and connecting with people. He was my hero.
My mother was very organized. She made us march to a strong tune. She had my father marching, too!
At a family celebration, somebody asked my father what would he do differently in life. And he started crying and said “I’d like to be like my son. I’d like to have the opportunities and success my son has had in music.”
(A thought from Martha: I think we sometimes live out the un-lived dreams of our parents. I really do. I believe I lived into the Episcopal Church as my father would have loved to. I think I lived a life working outside the home in ways that were not open in my mother’s time and place. It’s all good.)
Here’s Ray again. My first organ teacher was Harold Abmyer, Mr. A. Mr. A had judged me in a competition, so he knew I played the piano, and he and my parents were friends. My mother would invite him to dinner occasionally. She was a great cook – roast beef and mashed potatoes and blackberry cobbler!
Mr. A. came to the house one Friday night and ate dinner and he usually played after dinner, but that night he asked me to play. And he said tomorrow morning I am coming to pick you up for your first organ lesson and you’re not going to say no. So I went and had my first organ lesson.
And I don’t know what it was but I knew that I had found my profession. Then I started practicing and took to the organ like a duck to water and progressed quickly and studied with him for three years.
My little sister, who is a fine musician, wanted to study organ with Mr. A. so my father asked Mr. A to take her on. Mr. A. told our dad, “I don’t teach young kids.” And my father said, ” You are making a mistake. This is your legacy.” So my sister studied with him, and he eventually taught little nursery kids all the way up to grown ups with great success and joy.
Mr. A. was the organist at a big church, Fredericksburg United Methodist, and he had me helping him with their choral music. On a Palm Sunday the first hymn I ever played on the organ for a church program was “All Glory Laud and Honor.” Mr. A. sat right on the bench beside me with his hand on my back giving me courage.
As I mentioned, Mr. A. had lots of young students after my sister and me. And he helped many find careers. He listened to my father – that was his legacy. I always made sure he knew how important he was in our lives. I went back and played his funeral.
I’ve gone back to all my teachers and let them know how important they are to me. Having been a teacher at Lovett, I know what that means. I remember Beth had a kid who misbehaved. Years later, the kid wrote the headmaster and said Mrs. Chenault was the one who kept me in school. What that kid treasured most – that mentorship.
Beth and I met in college. I saw Beth first day in music class. And that was that.
I think we Saints may forget that “Mr. and Mrs. Chenault” taught high school and middle school for over thirty years and led the Fine Arts Department at Lovett.
Surely the loving family feel and lush all-in-it-together sound of our parish choir come from the Chenaults having learned everything there is to know about the formation of young people all those years. My daughter teaches at Lovett and she tells me the Chenaults are still iconic role models there to this day, years after they left.
Even today we have Lovett alumni in the choir and every year we have a number of GSU students who sing with the Chenaults. I love to go to choir practice because it feels like good family. People laugh and work hard. The friendships are inter-generational. The older members are pals and mentors, and the younger members bring life and fresh, gorgeous voices. Beloved Community.
And it’s no coincidence that Karol Kimmel and our children’s choirs have that same deep family of God structure. Like the Chenaults, Karol is that holy combination of gifted professional artist and gifted, loving personhood.
And it is so good to know that people never grow out of our choirs. People that move out of town come back when they can. (I’m looking at you, James Marshall and Susan Bolen among many others.) College students come back and sing in the youth choirs and reconnect with one another. Also, there literally is no telling how many musical careers have been launched by singing at All Saints’. Thanks be to God.
We are blessed at All Saints’. Choral music is not a product for our consumption. Music is a living gift of faith to be offered and passed around and around, and the children and adults in our choirs are being formed as they form us. Think of that moment at the end of the service when you have turned to follow the cross out into the world and the choir is all across the back of the nave and they move into a descant and a young GSU student conductor is usually leading everybody and we all sing our hearts out. That may be my favorite weekly moment at All Saints’.
May we always remember that we belong to the great Chorus of Creation in the name of the One who sings us into being and gives us voice and teaches each and all of us the gift of our very own song.