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‘A blessing and a great gift to my spirit’

G. Phillip Shoultz, III speaks with the Presbyterian Association of Musicians about this summer’s Worship & Music conferences

by Presbyterian Association of Musicians | Special to Presbyterian News Service

G. Phillip Shoultz, III and saxophonist Ned Boyd perform “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” during a Presbyterian Association of Musicians concert offered up this summer at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of PAM)

Editor’s note: Recently, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians connected with 2021 Worship & Music Conference Adult Choral Director
G. Phillip Shoultz, III for an exclusive interview. PAM discussed his reflections on the June conference, the impact of singing spirituals, our shared heritage in Christ and the future of music in worship.

PAM: Thanks for taking the time to join us, Phillip. What were some of your favorite moments at this year’s Worship & Music Conferences at Montreat Conference Center?

GPS: It was truly a blessing and a great gift to my spirit to be back at PAM’s Worship and Music Conferences at Montreat this June. The sheer beauty and serenity of our surroundings always brings a sense of deep and abiding peace within my soul that allows me to step back, pause, and reflect on what is truly important in life and in who God is calling me to be.

This year’s conferences were particularly inspiring because of the overwhelming sense of gratitude we all experienced having the opportunity to truly sing together again. I loved everyone’s willingness to abide by the protocols to keep us all safe, everyone’s courage and tenacity in reconditioning our singing voices behind masks. I loved the willingness to let the Holy Spirit truly lead us and guide us through worship in ways that we don’t often experience together. The worship leadership, preaching, music making, singing, conversations, meals — everything embodied our theme of being “Gathered in God’s Name.”

I only hope that we are all blessed enough to share these seeds of gratitude, cooperation, and care for each other in our home communities as we continue to navigate our way to the other side of the pandemics that have enveloped our world.

G. Phillip Shoultz, III directs the Chamber Choir during a concert held as part of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music conferences. (Photo courtesy of PAM)

PAM: During the Thursday evening Chamber Choir concerts, you spoke to the audience about recognizing our shared heritage through the singing of spirituals. Would you say more about that?

GPS: As I mentioned during the concerts, the Negro spiritual — or African American spiritual, if you prefer — is a core component of our country’s musical identity. The spiritual was created on this soil, after our ancestors of African descent with more melanin in their skin (Yes, I said ‘our’ ancestors, because I truly believe we are all siblings in Christ) were relocated to this land without any choice in the matter. They were separated from their families, forced to abandon their language, and taught the principles of the faith that we now share.

What is most amazing to me is that while the intention in all of these things was to break the spirit of our enslaved African ancestors, they actual found strength in the Old Testament stories of liberation. The stories of Moses, Joshua, Daniel, Jonah, Ezekiel, and others actually gave them an abiding resolve that ‘a brighter day’ would be ahead. Then, you factor in Jesus and the deal was sealed — no one could ever steal their joy.

Now, this is not to say that there wasn’t great pain or hardship or struggle. Instead, it is to note that these two things can be true for our excluded and oppressed African ancestors. While they were physically enslaved, they were not slaves. They may have lost agency to their own bodies, but their spirits and souls remained free, and their resiliency fueled by a deep and abiding faith in the promise of an everlasting future is what undergirds and sustains our Black community to this day.

Now you may wonder why I share all of this to answer a question about singing spirituals. The reason is that it is important for us to note that, as Americans, we all have a relationship with the Negro spiritual. It is our music. You cannot separate it from the American story. For some of us —those who look like me — the relationship to the spiritual resembles and reflects the experiences of exclusion and mistreatment that have accompanied our walk as Americans. For others of us, the relationship to the spiritual is much more complicated for many factors — perhaps guilt or shame, but all connected to the mistreatment of our enslaved African siblings.

We are at a point where we can no longer deny these relationships to the Negro spiritual. We all must take time to learn the stories connected to these songs. It is time for us to learn how certain songs signaled the way to freedom and to understand how the songs evolved with slight regional variations because of being passed down through oral/aural traditions. It doesn’t matter where we live, or what the size of our congregation is, we all have the ability to connect with culture bearers from the Black and/or African American experience. This is the time for mostly white music directors, pastors, choirs and congregations to develop real and genuine relationships with persons of culture so that you can learn more about these songs and the “performance/presentation practices” that connect to the history, so that we can begin to bridge across differences that have separated us for far too long.

The Chamber Choir dances during a concert held as part of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music conferences, held in June at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of PAM)

I truly believe that taking the time to do this not only elevates and amplifies the important role this body of music plays in our culture and faith tradition, but it can also help us to begin to grapple with issues of diversity and difference present in mostly homogenous communities that we fail to notice or acknowledge.

PAM: Who are some of your favorite living choral composers? What pieces of theirs would you highlight?

GPS: Gosh, this question is so tricky because I could list names for days and weeks. So, for the purposes of this answer I’ll just list of few that I think are truly gifted and have music to offer for our worship services: Kyle Pederson, Karen Marrolli, Marques Garrett, Tom Trenney, B.E. Boykin and Reginal Wright.

PAM: When you think about the future of the church as a whole, what role do you think music has in the journey forward?

GPS: Music is an essential component in the church’s ability to be God’s light in this world. We as musicians and pastors have to get out of our own way and stop trying to classify music by genre and labeling worship services (e.g., traditional and contemporary). If we are truly to be about God’s work and truly believe that music is, as Martin Luther said, the “handmaiden of the Word,” we will recognize that so many musical sounds, genres, and instrumental combinations can support the themes and stories found in Scripture. If we allow ourselves to choose music that speaks to the message of the moment, regardless of the ‘type,’ I truly believe that our worship will be more faithful and more people who currently are not listening might tune in and pay attention.

G. Phillip Shoultz, III is known for fostering community and inspiring action as artist, educator, consultant, speaker and pastoral musician. Phillip serves as Associate Conductor/Director of Learning & Engagement of VocalEssence, where he founded the Singers of This Age. He is also Cantor for Worship, Music, and the Arts at Westwood Lutheran Church, a member of the Graduate Music Education faculty at the University of St. Thomas and serves as host for Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concerts. The winner of the 2015 ACDA Conducting Competition and recipient of multiple Teacher of the Year honors, Phillip lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, with his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Malachi and Lydia.

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