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The Music Man: Tom Brown raises the bar for church choirs

illustration by Noel Kalmus

Four senior pastors. Three interim senior pastors. Too many associate pastors to count. One music director.

Tom Brown has been Director of Music at Covenant for 25 years. “What’s kept me here is the ambitious attitude of our adult choirs and their willingness to sing good music that spiritually enriches worship. Our choirs don’t merely entertain or appease congregants. We are a very active ministry with a rather diverse complexion.”

When pushed, Tom will admit that his vision has led the way, but it’s only worked when coupled with the ‘yes, let’s try it’ attitude of the choirs. “They have not been stodgy. No one ever says, ‘that will never work here.’” It wasn’t always like that. Tom had to work hard to sell a few of his ideas over the years. “There were people on the worship committee who were very suspicious about the Hanging of the Green service.”

Tom said the pushback was normal. “You tend to wait a while to initiate new things. But in the first year, we started the Hanging of the Green service and immediately did a version of Jazz Sunday.” Tom said both events were met with great criticism, but the risk paid off. The Hanging of the Green, innovative when Tom proposed it, is now a cherished tradition. Similarly, Jazz Sunday is a day of all-church fellowship that unites the church.

Changes

While the structure of the choirs is much the same as when Tom joined the staff, he has made numerous additions. “We’ve added groups like the Covenant Folk Band and we formalized GraceNotes, moving it from a volunteer group with no leader and eight performers to a group of 20. We’ve added special services that have become traditions, like Jazz Sunday and Hanging of the Green.”

Other special services throughout Tom’s tenure have been the Worldwide Communion, where the choir performed music of the world, and Gospel Sunday, which was popular for many years. “Some of the special music springs from my own musical interest and abilities,” Tom said. “A new leader may not be fluent in jazz, but could do a bang-up Gospel Sunday.”

In addition to singing in worship, Covenant choirs have maintained a concert schedule. “I am proud of the fact that we have a decent to strong congregation audience for our concerts. I have colleagues who don’t do concerts anymore because they can’t get anybody to come. We almost always have 200 to 250 in the audience, sometimes more. Our Bluegrass Mass filled the Sanctuary for two nights.”

Tom’s influence extends beyond Covenant’s music ministry. Covenant’s acolyte ministry was his brainchild, which he started with Melanie Williamson. He also spearheaded the idea to expand and train lay liturgists. “I created the first training workshop. We immediately had 15 people sign up. At the Saturday workshop, we read together, looked through the order of worship and talked about presentation styles.”

Recently, Tom collaborated with Associate Pastor Jon Wasson to create Beer and Hymns. “I hope this takes off and is a periodic event,” Tom said. “It’s a good expression of the church in the community and something I’m disappointed to be leaving.”

Raising the Bar

Tom said there are too many lovely services and concerts to pick a favorite, but the Bluegrass Mass performed by GraceNotes in 2011 was such a unique work for choirs that it stands out. Tom’s colleagues from other churches came to hear the concert. Cindy Couch, who at the time was directing the choir at Westlake Presbyterian, told him after the concert, “You’ve raised the bar for all of us as far as what church music can do in Austin.”

“I always remember that comment,” Tom said, “because I do things that make us a leader and an innovator in what traditional music can be. We stretch the limits and the boundaries in the context of what can be done in traditional music.”

Others feel the same. In an email to Tom after a concert, an audience member told him: “The choir concert was incredible! I was so moved by the music, the perfect harmonies and the song choices that I’ve thought about it for days after.”

Tim Hurst, a choir member for 12 years, said, “I was drawn to sing by Tom’s talents in the musical traditions of jazz, gospel, early American hymns, as well as all the cultural and classical traditions from worship around the world. “To say that Tom Brown is a guiding light as our Minister of Music is an understatement,” Tim said. “He has helped pastors and interim pastors amplify their sermons with hymns from many different Christian traditions. His experience of music has inspired us all in our prayers, in our confessions, in our taking of the sacrament and in our joy of giving in the offering.”

Harold Skaggs, a choir member for 20 years said, “The best words for Tom are flexibility, giftedness and the ability to excel in various genres, like jazz and gospel and religious and baroque. He excels in all of that. I’ve noticed in the 20 years that I’ve known him that he’s become more mellow and more spiritual. He’s more oriented to music as worship, rather than music as music.”

“I’ve always been impressed with Tom’s attention to detail and his musicality,” Jan Skaggs added. “He gets good music out of us.”

For the past five years, Melanie Dixon has been Music and Worship Assistant. “Tom’s been a good boss,” she said. “He’s laid back and forgiving, and he’s so talented. He has an incredible ability to play the piano and make stuff up on the fly to go with the hymns.”

Melanie has learned a lot from Tom. “I’m a much better singer. He’s always, always teaching about vowel sounds and consonants and style and dynamics and what the composer intended and the feel of the pieces.”

Melanie, in her worship assistant role, appreciates Tom’s worship knowledge. “He’s a good lay liturgist. He’s so thoughtful and careful with the creation of the flow and the timing and the feel of the worship service,” she said.

Stacy Curtis has worked in various roles for Tom for 12 years. “Tom is open and supportive of my creativity and encourages me to think outside the box. He has a wonderful sense of humor and keeps things positive. Also, what musician would not enjoy working with a person as effortlessly talented as he?

“I have learned so much from him about choral conducting and the importance of picking meaningful, theologically correct literature,” Stacy said. “I have learned about cohesiveness in worship planning, and also about flexibility.”

Stacy continued, “The number one thing I have learned from Tom is to approach all situations with grace. Tom has shown me that no matter the circumstance, God is in charge. If I can have faith in that, even difficult situations will work themselves out.”

Limitations

Perhaps Tom’s music program was too popular. Covenant’s choir loft is designed for about 40 singers, and the Sanctuary Choir has had about 70 active members for the past several years. “They don’t all fit and I think that discourages growth,” Tom said. “When you look at the choir loft, you think ‘it’s full; they don’t need me.’”

The small loft has necessitated putting up risers for certain Sundays, which has been a challenge. However, the facility issue has not slowed Tom. “I tried to do the things I would do with perfect facilities and Covenant always said ‘yes.’ They had a lot of trust.

What’s Ahead

Tom got his first church job at age 17 and has been a part of church worship for more than 45 years. Even when he had a job in academia, he still worked weekends at a church.

As Tom and his wife, Ann, pack their bags for New Orleans, he recognizes there are many things he’ll miss about church work.

“I will miss making music in the context of worship. I’ll miss the choirs—that’s the heart of what I’ll miss: Wednesday nights, Sunday nights and a lot of warm friendships.

“I’m far from perfect and I’ve got a lot of people who know my imperfections and still pretty enthusiastically allow me to be their leader.”

Tom is excited to have more freedom on the weekends and will take advantage of the family nearby. His mother will live with him and Ann, and their son and family will be just a few blocks away.

As for how he will spend his hours, Tom said, “I don’t have a formal plan. I will write more and hope to publish more music. I look forward to practicing piano a few hours a day and work on playing jazz,” he said. “I hope God has something in mind that I don’t fully know about yet.”

Posted by Stephanie Schultz at 12:59 PM
Sunday Worship Times

Traditional Service
8:15, 9:30 and 11 a.m.
Sanctuary

Contemporary Service
11:05 a.m.
Fellowship Hall

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Covenant Hall is open Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon.

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