In May of 2009, four graduates of the BJU fine arts program were honored by the John Ness Beck Foundation for excellence in sacred composition, sweeping the 2009 awards. (Read Scott Aniol’s article about it here.) Previous winners have included accomplished composers such as John Rutter, Craig Courtney, and Howard Helvey. The winner in the published anthem division this year was Molly Ijames, a gifted composer who has also become a friend and adviser on ChurchWorksMedia.com projects. I thought an interview with her would be honoring to the Lord, edifying to readers of MTC, and helpful for those interested in sacred music.
Thanks for doing the interview, Molly, and congratulations on your award. What is the John Ness Beck Foundation and how was it that you were recognized?
First of all, John Ness Beck was one of the co-founders of Beckenhorst Press, Inc., a sacred music publisher located in Columbus, OH. Beck died in 1987, leaving Craig Courtney to take over as editor/composer of Beckenhorst. The JNB Foundation was then established to recognize composers for traditional sacred choral writing. Several pieces are nominated every year, and a separate committee comprised of composers, music retailers, and university professors from various locations vote on which piece should win. This May, I received first place for my original anthem, “Song of Bethlehem” (mp3).
Can you tell us the background on the piece?
All pieces of art have a personal story as the artist gives it shape, I guess, and this one turned corners several times. In October of ‘08, I was looking through one of my favorite hymnals (“Hymns of Grace and Glory”) one Saturday morning during my time with the Lord, and found “Sing a Song of Bethlehem.” I liked the progression of thought that the 3 stanzas held, so I scribbled the text on a 3×5 card and went for a walk. By the end of my walk, I had the melody completed in my mind, along with a certain sound I wanted to achieve. In the next several days, I finished the piece and sent it to Beckenhorst. Craig liked the music, but had some concerns about the poetry in the text. So the idea was posed to have his friend and collaborator, Susan Boersma, rewrite the text, using the same idea. Susan and I bounced back and forth ideas for a few weeks, and finally settled on the final draft in November. Meanwhile, Craig and I communicated back and forth on the compositional form, which resulted in an in-person meeting at Beckenhorst when I was in town during Christmas break. Craig is an excellent editor with a very keen eye for a piece’s potential. He strongly suggested “unison here,” and “a soft statement there,” and by January’s end, the piece had exhausted us both. It went into print and was finally released in the spring of ‘09.
What other pieces have you had published, and with which publishers have you worked?
My very first published anthem, “The Holy Heart” (mp3), an arrangement of a copyrighted tune, was released with Beckenhorst in the fall of ‘07. I then had 2 anthems published under SoundForth, an arrangement of “Merciful God” (sample), a Getty text/tune, and “O God, My Joy” (sample), an arrangement of an original hymn by Paul Keew and Brian Pinner. I have 2 anthems published under Lorenz, “Rejoice, Emmanuel Has Come!” (mp3) and a simpler two-part, “Forever I Will Praise You,” both settings of original poems by Eileen Berry. My third Beckenhorst anthem was released this spring, an SATB arrangement of “Abide With Me” (mp3). Also, this fall SoundForth will be releasing two brand new anthems – a vibrant setting of “Come, Christians Join to Sing” with brass accompaniment and optional congregation, and a solo/SATB arrangement of a new Getty text, “What Grace is Mine” to the tune of Londonderry Air.
You mentioned SoundForth, where you’re currently employed. What led to your working there?
After I graduated from college, I became a teacher and church pianist in 3 different Christian school and church ministries. I directed elementary and high school choirs, accompanied church choirs, congregations, soloists, and instrumentalists, and taught piano students. I often felt drained by the added responsibility of finding adequate and challenging music for my students, so I would write for them, which usually relieved me from having to hunt for new music. I found during that process that I loved writing more than teaching, so I prayed that if God would allow me to write and learn more about composition, I would do my best to serve the teachers and directors who were looking for fresh music. Providentially, in September of ‘05, I ran into Karen Kuehmann, then the director of SoundForth, and she and I formed a friendship that eventually resulted in my move to Greenville in July of ’06 to work at SoundForth. Free classes are offered to faculty and staff, so that fall I began taking lessons with a former college teacher. After a semester, he decided that it would be best if I studied with Joan Pinkston. Joan and I formed an instant bond, and God began using her as a mentor to develop not only my compositional efforts, but also my challenge my character as well. Joan points her students to offer their music as a sacrifice to the Lord, no matter where their individual ability may lie. Her role on the BJU faculty has strongly influenced several BJU grads, some who are now professional composers. I’ve watched as she invests her own musical energies in her students’ pieces, leaving her little time for her own compositions. So many choral pieces exist out there containing her ideas and prodding, yet no one will ever know! And while her students gather earthly royalties from those published anthems, she is accumulating heavenly rewards that nothing on earth could ever compare.
Who are some of the other composers who are expanding the influence of Mrs. Pinkston?
Actually, all of this year’s JNB winners are/were her private students. We are all different ages and varying professions and seasons of life, yet all have learned composition under her guidance at one time or another. In fact, last year another BJ grad, Jess Turner placed, and so did Joan Pinkston herself. In 2004, Dan Forrest won first place. The award money given from the JNB Foundation to BJU students in the last 4 years, if added up, totals $29,000.
Speaking broader than just the JNB winners this year, though, there are several sacred composers whose music is influenced by their training at BJU. James Koerts, James Barnard, Dan Forrest, Dan Kreider, Alexander Kruchkov, Nathan Arnold are just a few. All of these people either graduated in my class or a year before or behind me. Dan Forrest and I remark often that we can see God working in several people in our class to be “the next generation” of composers and musicians, hopefully to carry the torch to the next generation, should the Lord tarry.
What is your current role at SoundForth?
My job title is “Product Evaluation Coordinator,” but I think of myself mainly as a team-player with the rest of the office. We have 9 people in our office, and although all of us have specified responsibilities, we are all called on to deal with customers, orders, advertisements, and other routine demands of the day. In addition to those responsibilities, though, I handle all of the submissions, assist on the annual Bible Conference recording, travel to represent SoundForth at various conventions, and handle the contracts and paperwork for all of our instrumental/piano publications. I am also growing into an editorial role for many of our choral publications, although many of our composers are seasoned veteran writers who don’t require much editing.
What is the heartbeat of SoundForth, and how are you able to influence the development of its ministry?
Rick Nichols, our Director, and Kurt Stephens, our Operations Manager, strive to make sure that all of our products, whether printed or produced, are relevant, artistic, appealing, current, and approachable. We do try to keep them as affordable as possible, too, especially in such an uncertain economy. The demands of our customers’ needs often vary depending on what market we’re targeting, but our main desire is to provide as many churches and schools as possible with the tools they need to make their music ministries successful.
One thing God allows me to do at SoundForth is to advise our customers on what music to buy for their students and choirs. Because I wished I had had someone to call on when I was a teacher, I feel burdened to help musicians who might be experiencing a current lack of resources.
Another joy I have in this ministry is to help provide music for corporate worship services. At SoundForth, we often try to find a way to include a hymn version of the melody and words on the back page of a choral anthem. After the choir “teaches” the congregation by singing the anthem, the congregation then has the tools to sing it as a hymn.
You mention congregational singing and efforts to “bridge the gap” between choral and congregational music. I love that. What are you encouraged by as you look at worship services in fundamental churches? What, if anything, concerns you?
My burden is for churches to not only sing hymns and anthems that are theologically-centered and musically engaging, but to center their worship services on a theme or progression of thought. Sadly, some churches form haphazard services, which appear to lack coherency and flow. Hymns often become reduced to mere “inserts” to connect one agenda item to the next, or a movement-coverer for people on the platform. My desire is to see the music portion of our services form a unified whole with the rest of the service, directing hearts and minds to God, and helping to accomplish the same goals as the sermon.
Finally, what advice would you give to would-be writers and composers? How about to those planning or leading corporate worship?
Being such a newcomer to composing myself, I lack great words of seasoned experience. But the thing I’m passionate about is making sure that God is seen, and not me. The way I as a musician should play in a worship service should have the aim to remove myself and exalt my God instead. My music has potential to distract or define, depending on how I play or direct. Of course, we will never have perfection in our personal abilities, but our goal, even in our human frailties, should be to clearly point the listener to God and His Word. That is the true calling of a leader in a corporate worship service.
Whether we are called to serve the church as the “arm,” or the “leg,” or the “eye,” we all form one body serving together. Even within one church’s musicians, there are usually different strengths and gifts from person to person. How magnificent to serve a perfect God Who chooses us and distributes to us the necessary gifts to serve Him with. My prayer is that my life, whether as an advisor, a composer, a pianist, or someone who answers our office phone, can reflect Christ and point others to a God Who deserves our full and whole-hearted praise.
Filed under: Church Music, Churchworksmedia.com, Interviews, Music, Worship | Tagged: Church Music, Joan Pinkston, John Ness Beck Foundation, Modern Hymns, Molly Ijames, Sacred Choral Music, Song of Bethlehem, SoundForth |