“Music in church should exalt, uplift, and convict.”
~Frederick Waggoner, Charter member of Knoxville Handel Society
Frederick, a bass and charter member of the Knoxville Handel Society, was certainly on point when he predicted that the above quote would set the theme for our interview. His respect and passion for sacred choral music was evident.
Frederick spent the first third of our time together telling me about many of the people who have mentored and supported him. He even spelled each name in hopes that I would mention them all. The middle of the interview was me coaxing him to please talk about his own studies, awards and career goals. He could not stay on that topic long before he verged into contemplating which educational and professional paths would offer him the greatest potential to give back to the younger generations in his local community.
For as long as he can remember, Frederick has been singing. He simply describes his voice as ” big.” As a tiny child, he enjoyed duplicating operatic music that he heard on PBS television. Frederick grew up in Payne Avenue Missionary Baptist Church. Their director of music, Murphy Strong, was the first to recognize and nurture Frederick’s talent. Frederick sang his first solo when he was six years old. He soon was touring with a gospel group. At age ten, he was invited into the adult chancel choir at his church to sing tenor. Mr. Strong was the first to recognize that Frederick has a voice that is more suited for classical than for gospel music.
When he graduated from high school, he accepted a job with the City of Knoxville and never gave a thought to pursuing more education or to singing anywhere other than in church. He did not have the most rudimentary musical education and his focus was supporting himself financially.
The choir director of Fountain City Presbyterian Church, Bob Eubanks, asked him to sing a solo for a funeral in 2014. This was the catalyst for Frederick’s foray into classical music. In 2015 Frederick was visiting First Baptist Church Knoxville when the congregation sang one of his favorite hymns. Since he was seated in the back balcony, he relaxed and sang full voice. To his shock, Wendell Boertje, the choir director, found him after the service and persuasively encouraged him to immediately join the choir. Frederick was hesitant, not only because he could not sight read, but also because he knew that he had no experience blending his massive voice with a group. He explained, “When you sing gospel, you can sing how you feel, it’s not just note-for- note.” Nonetheless, Frederick was at the next rehearsal and his relationship with Dr. Boertje and First Baptist Church continues to this day.
Frederick began to be recognized due, in part, to the fact that the worship services of First Baptist Church are televised. The first time he sang a solo, he received a standing ovation. People he did not know called the church and asked him to sing at funerals. He began to realize that sharing his voice could be a ministry.
At age 29 Frederick quit his job and enrolled in Carson-Newman University in a vocal track. It has been a struggle in every sense, even with exceedingly generous financial support from a benefactor at First Baptist Church. Frederick is grateful for all the teachers and professors and friends who patiently mentored him through sight-reading and ear training. Today, while managing his studies, Frederick is a paid section leader in the choir at First Presbyterian Church, a charter member of Knoxville Handel Society, and a soloist for major productions at Carson Newman University and in Knoxville operas. In both his freshman and junior years, he won the regional competition of National Association of Teachers of Singing.
As he contemplates his graduation from Carson Newman University this December, Frederick wonders about his future. It is evident that he has two powerful passions. The first is choral church music. His second motivation is to improve the futures of the young people in his neighborhood in East Knoxville. He sees their talent and their energy, and he yearns to provide them with the same encouragement that he has so gratefully received. Frederick aspires to fulfill the challenge offered by Maya Angelou, ” When you learn, teach, when you get, give.”
Whatever the future holds, it is evident that Frederick has the talent and dedication to make a powerful impact.
“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.”
The goal of the Knoxville Handel Society (KHS) is to promote and preserve sacred music – with a primary focus to encourage participation by young students. My delightful visit with 15-year-old Katherine and her mother Maria and brother, Karl, corrected my misunderstanding of that purpose. It is not necessary to push young musicians to enjoy the great composers. It is simply our job to offer them an opportunity to respond to the joy that is already within them.
Katherine enthusiastically explained that she has been participating in choirs since she was a young girl. When she was seven, she attended a musical workshop for adults in Manchester, England. The director recommended her for membership in the North West Honour choir. Her time with that group, under the direction of Bob Chilcott, reinforced Katherine’s enthusiasm for singing choral music. From then on, as her family frequently relocated, she connected with classical choirs wherever they lived.
Katherine and her family believe that all children have special gifts. They are grateful that they have the opportunity to homeschool so that Katherine and Karl can follow their unique passions. When she was only two, Katherine sang, “God Bless America.” This prompted her mother to inquire about vocal lessons, only to learn that the teacher accepted students at a minimum age of 5. When the teacher heard a recording of Katherine singing, she accepted her as a student.
No one had to tell Katherine that she should enjoy classical choral music. When she was eight years old, she was playing hangman with her family and she chose the quote from J. S. Bach, “The chief end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
Katherine first learned about the Handel Society after seeing a concert announcement in a church bulletin. Knowing that Handel was a baroque composer, she was eager to check it out. Katherine exuded that baroque music is the genre that evokes the most passion for her, saying, “With Bach, when the choir is mentally present, it is so amazing. You live and breathe it!” She further explained that a choir should be experienced as only one voice for each musical part. Her cross-cultural experience taught her that choirs are welcoming, saying that they are confident as individuals, “but they don’t try to stick out.”
Like our co-founder, Dr. Don King, Katherine hopes to have a medical career, in her case, as a veterinarian. She expects to always include choral singing as a means of refreshment. She does not resent the time required to rehearse both on her own and with the group because she credits the challenge as being a means for providing discipline in her schedule and a sense of freedom in her soul. Her life reflects the admonition of Mrs. Thatcher that satisfaction comes from accomplishment.
Even though Katherine’s preferred choral music is baroque, she is enthusiastic about the opportunity to learn American spirituals for the KHS concert in the summer of 2020.
As her younger brother Karl explained, it is fun to learn the culture of an area from the music.
Even though David and I have participated in KHS since its inception, we both admit that we never had any awareness of each other. This realization set the tone for our examination of what is unique about KHS — and the possibilities for the future of the society.
David is well-connected both locally and state-wide, particularly in church music. He was born in Knoxville and graduated from Doyle High School in 1980. He will soon celebrate his 35th reunion with his class from Carson Newman College where he received a bachelor’s degree in church music with an emphasis on voice and choral conducting. In 1985, he married Cindy, a soprano in KHS. Their daughter, Sarah, lives in Chicago where she works in the music industry; their son, Andrew, and his family live in Knoxville where Andrew is general manager and the director of training for the Buddy’s Barbecue.
“We all come to the Handel Society from different walks. It is the job of the leadership team to take this assembled throng and make a choir.” ~ David Smith, Co-Assistant Conductor, Knoxville Handel Society.
While David studied Church Music at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a church in Western Kentucky persuaded him to accept a call. Three years later, he returned to the Seminary while serving First Baptist Church in Brandenburg, Kentucky. He calls this his “exodus from Tennessee.” After returning to Knoxville in 1992, he sang under the direction of Wendell Boertje at Central Baptist Church in Bearden and directed an 18-voice auditioned ensemble. After Wendell retired in 2010, David served as interim minister of music and obtained a masters from The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies.
Since 2013, David has served as associate pastor for music and worship at Valley Grove Baptist Church. He leads a youth choir, instrumental ensemble and a 50-member adult choir. He challenges singers to strive for excellence, confident that “only a little extra effort separates excellence from mediocrity.” He has high expectations of the groups he directs, especially in the sacred context.
Even though David meets every criteria to be called a “musician,” he describes himself as a well-rounded man who values family (especially Thursdays with his granddaughter, Gracie) and community. He enjoys individual sports, such as fishing, as well as team sports, and has served several seasons as the public announcer for Tennessee baseball.
In addition to singing, David extends his time talents and gifts to include the responsibilities of conducting and administrative tasks of KHS because he loves the art of choral singing and has “a sense of accomplishment when the work is finally presented.” For him, music is worship and he offers God his best just as he encourages the musicians under him. He is confident that “from these shared experiences, community is built.” He particularly welcomes his new teammate, Elizabeth, and he shares her optimism for the future of the Knoxville Handel Society.
“I have great confidence in Wendell as a leader and as a teacher. I feel safe as a musician knowing that he is going to lead us.”
~ Elizabeth Eaker, Co-Assistant Conductor of Knoxville Handel Society.
In the fall of 2018, I encouraged my friend, Elizabeth, to allow me to introduce her to Don King, Co-Music Director of the Knoxville Handel Society. She admitted that she was tempted to ask to sing in the concert since she had sung with Dr. Everett McCorvey, Director of the American Spiritual Ensemble, when she was pursuing her Masters in Music in Choral Conducting at the University of Kentucky in 2003-2004.
Elizabeth and her husband Chris are sensitive to the need for balance, both in their lives and in the lives of their family and friends. They recognized that her professional commitments at that time did not leave space for the intense rehearsal necessary for Handel Society. They mutually agreed to “make it work” for Elizabeth to join the choir in the spring, assuming she might be invited.
Elizabeth had received her Bachelor’s in Music from UT in 1996. She taught choral music at Bearden Middle School from 1997 until 2014 when her son, Luke, was born. Since then, she has balanced pursuing her professional interests with full-time mothering. Some of her opportunities include 2015-2018 teaching musical theater part-time in a dance studio; and directing theater music for the Word Players in both 2016 and 2018. Since 2016 she has enjoyed leading home school choirs.
Like most members of the Handel Society, Elizabeth has many options to spend her time, energy and talent. She said that she strives to do the “best thing, not just the supposedly needed thing.” In that context, she chose Knoxville Handel Society. She said that she immediately recognized that “this choir is going places and I want to be part of it.”
As much as she enjoys teaching and conducting, she never wants to walk away from singing herself. She emphasizes that the works performed by the Handel Society “feed my soul”.
When Wendell Boertje, Director of the Handel Society, asked for volunteers to serve as assistants, Elizabeth recognized the importance of the conductor’s role. Leading a choir at this level requires more than one person.
Without the charismatic vision of Don King, the choir will need to regroup–making this the perfect time for Elizabeth to join the leadership team. With her professional skills, experience and deep commitment to balance, she is poised to make a significant impact on the group. She never forgets that music, especially sacred music, is beautiful and that singing should be fun. Joy radiates from her and it is contagious.