John Ferguson Conducting

John Ferguson — An Interview

Nathan Proctor

About John Ferguson

John Ferguson

John Ferguson (known affectionately to students and colleagues as “Ferg”) is an organist, composer, conductor, and author who served for twenty-nine years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, as Elliot and Klara Stockdal Johnson Professor of Organ, and Church Music and Cantor to the Student Congregation, retiring in June 2012. His responsibilities included directing the church music program, teaching organ, and conducting the St. Olaf Cantorei, one of the college’s mixed voice upperclass choirs. During his tenure, the organ department grew in enrollment and in quality, producing many dedicated church musicians, graduate students, and competition winners across the country. He is respected as a fine teacher and performer, and his skill as an improviser and leader of congregational song has received national acclaim.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Ferguson’s degrees are from Oberlin College, Kent State University, and the Eastman School of Music. He taught at Kent State for fifteen years, during which time he also served as Organist-Choirmaster of the United Church of Christ, Kent, Ohio. In 1978 he and his family moved to Minneapolis, where he worked for five years at Central Lutheran Church, and in 1983 he was appointed at St. Olaf.

The Minnesota ACDA presented him with the F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 for distinguished service to the choral arts, and his colleagues at St. Olaf elected him to the college’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Ferguson is the composer of over 150 choral anthems and organ volumes, and the author of numerous books and articles on church music and organ building.

In retirement he enjoys traveling to visit family, designing and leading hymn festivals, adding to his many publications already in print, and working on a fourth book on the vocation of the church musician. In his spare time, Ferg enjoys his collection of vehicles, including historic military jeeps, classic muscle cars and Corvettes.

Interviewer’s Note: My first conversation with John Ferguson was the night of my junior prom in 2001. I couldn’t believe that this well-known composer and organist would take the time to call and invite me to study organ and church music with him at St. Olaf. We laughed together and that phone call changed the trajectory of my life. I was able to sing in the St. Olaf Cantorei and study organ with Ferg as an undergraduate, and over the years I have been honored to call him a friend and mentor. He was and continues to be at the ready: to offer music ideas, career advice, or show off pictures of his newest classic car. In my current position at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, it’s fun to be at the organ while he sings in the congregation. Ferg’s career in church music is a daily inspiration for me, not just because of the awards and successes, but because of his faithful servant heart. Everything he plays or conducts or composes is marked by an unending source of joy — joy for the community that will sing together, joy in the way the text and music interact, and joy in the Creator who has made all things.


The Interview

When did you first decide to become a church musician?

I think with lots of us in the profession, whether it’s choral conducting or church music, you sort of make this discovery gradually. I think it’s also true for me. I discovered great joy, in the same way that maybe singing in a high school choir or a junior high school or even elementary school choir, someone discovers Oh! This is fun! I like doing this! Then you take that one step further, and say well, maybe I’d like to do this professionally. And so, you take the plunge, you go off to college, hoping that you’ve got what it takes to become strong enough and good enough that you could do this professionally. And that’s sort of my story. Certainly my parents had no idea. I think the biggest gift they gave me was to say “we can’t tell you what to do, and we’re not going to stand in your way, we’re not going to worry about whether you can get a job; one way or another you’ll be employable, so if you want to shoot the moon then go shoot the moon.”

Certainly one of the things I think the ACDA does really quite well is this mentoring, this encouraging. I really think we have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to be mentors and to be cheerleaders. That also means that sometimes we step back and let someone else try it. And so if the performance of a certain piece isn’t quite as great as it would have been if we conducted it, the fact that someone we’re mentoring got to try it out is more important. It’s an investment in the future. You have to be willing to sort of let go, and encourage, and show that you’ve got confidence in somebody, so that they feel up to daring.

What was your first church job like?

My first church job was in college. I was the organist and the director of the children’s choir. They had an amazing musical tradition for this relatively small Presbyterian church. They had a choir with four paid section leaders and a really fine choir director. In my home church where I played until college, there was an enormous amount of music making but it was not at the level that I discovered here. I began to see what the possibilities were. They had a really nice pipe organ, and I still laugh about one of my first— what should we say, off the wall?— creative experiments: the junior choir was doing a piece about Mary, Jesus’ mother. And it seems that Jesus was misbehaving and she couldn’t find him. So then you were supposed to have an adult soloist who would sing “Mary, Mary, where are you?” And this appeared throughout the piece, it was always twice: once forte, once piano. And I thought, hmm. Mary should not be close to us, because she’s trying to find Christ. So I put her inside the organ in the swell box, which has these louvers on it so that you can control the loudness. She was instructed just to sing out, and I would close the swell box when she was supposed to be quiet, or sound far away. It worked quite well! I guess I still remain known for doing sometimes strange things, from the standpoint of using the building, and spreading people around the space. So this was my first attempt.

Who are choirs or conductors that inspired you in those early years?

Well, Robert Fountain. [Fountain was a professor of singing and conducting at Oberlin from 1948-1971]. Both musically, technically, and maybe even more importantly from the standpoint from how one nurtures a group, you could not find a better role model than Robert Fountain. I learned so much by watching him, singing with him, and after I started having an adult choir to conduct, thinking back to what went on in those rehearsals. And how Fountain would approach an issue—whether it was a musical issue or a people issue. I realized that technique is important, that insight into the musical structure is important, but if you don’t figure out how to build your ensemble into a family, the music making never will reach its full potential. And that’s where Fountain had I think really unique gifts.

I still think that I’m inspired by the legacy of Robert Shaw. I consider myself privileged to have been able to sing with him. He conducted the Oberlin choir more than once, and it was really eye-opening to work with him on a Bach cantata, which we were going to do with the Cleveland Orchestra. That was a really amazing experience.

John Ferguson Conducting

Who are conductors that inspire you today?

My twenty-nine years in “advance study” in choral conducting at St. Olaf have got to be considered. I am a very different conductor now than I was when I arrived at St. Olaf in 1983. The tradition at St. Olaf of having many choral ensemble conductors gives everyone, including faculty colleagues, innumerable role models. You have the chance to observe and see [what your colleagues do], and you say to yourself, Okay is that something I could do naturally? Is that part of what I really am at the core? So for me to observe these people [Colleagues like Kenneth Jennings, Robert Scholz, Sigrid Johnson, Anton Armstrong], and watch them [was very inspiring]. And for that reason I always loved our annual Christmas Festival. I always tried to arrange it so that most of the time I could be somewhere on stage, on a folding chair, or on the organ bench, so I could watch everybody conducting. The other thing I think that was true here was that we really did appreciate each other as colleagues and friends. And we could talk really amazingly candidly about what each other were doing. And we had that kind of trusting relationship.

Why am I a choral conductor?

As an organist I discovered early on that one of my primary jobs was to conduct the most important choir in any church — everybody, singing. And so, much of what I’ve thought about as a choral conductor has to do with how do you communicate nonverbally, through your music-making, and when conducting a choir perhaps your gestures, and your face, what the music is about. I also think that the joy and the unique thing that choral music brings, whether it’s a congregational hymn, or Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, or a Penderecki passion, or a Bach cantata, is that we have music plus text. And I see the job of the conductor as: to help bring alive what the composer imagined in responding to a specific text.

What choral pieces stand out as favorites?

Well, the Randall Thompson Alleluia. We used that as our encore on tour all of the years I was in the Oberlin choir. So it was a little bit like the onion where you peel away layer after layer. I watched how my understanding of the piece grew, marveled at how Fountain communicated subtleties and the elegance of that piece. And so I’ve always loved any chance I have to conduct it. One of my favorite times was a daily chapel service at St. Olaf. Campus Pastor Bruce Benson, on Easter Monday when we met, talked about the word alleluia and how it was a sound “on the breath.” And so singing was related to life, and to breathing, and the continuation of life. He talked about alleluia, and then we were supposed to respond to that by singing the Randall Thompson, which we did. The choir really heard Bruce, and I think it opened a new level for them. They really sang it beautifully. The funny part about it though was that Miles Johnson, the director of the St. Olaf Band, was there with a big brass ensemble and the postlude was going to be the “Hallelujah Chorus” with brass and organ. And he was so turned on that he took a tempo so fast that it was all I could do to keep up! Afterwards I said “Mity! What were you doing?” He said “I couldn’t help myself, the Alleluia was so wonderful!”

One of my pieces that I think I have special memories of is a piece for viola and choir, which I wrote for Christmas Festival and Cantorei on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and the reason it’s so special is that the year we sang it was the year Schindler’s List came out. The text keeps using the word ransom. I realized the choir had taken ownership of this piece at an extremely deep level because most of them had seen that movie, and identified with the horrendous story that it was telling of the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. And so to talk about Christ coming as a ransom all of a sudden it took on very special meaning.

Were there any things you did in church or college settings that were ways of recruiting or building programs?

I really think the best way to recruit is to have a good quality choir. When the choir sings, you cannot overlook its excellence. It’s easy to talk about how great something is, but: prove it. I think as a culture, especially with youth, we tend to be a little cynical. So you can say to someone “Hey look at this, you should try this, I know you’ll really like it,” but if they hear it themselves [it’s a different thing]. And I think your best recruiters often are not you, but the members of your group. But then you have to be reminding the group that that’s part of their job.

[In my church choirs], I started doing what I called an interview or an appointment (not an audition). I was actually more interested to know the person than I was to decide on how well they could sing. I think in the college situation, I didn’t have trouble checking with one of my colleagues, if a particular student had sung for someone and then they came and wanted to sing with me [the next year]. I did learn that some people who came to me as sophomores who were not all that great as singers, but who really wanted to be in my choir, were people that I should take very seriously. Because that level of commitment meant they were always there, and that they were trying to get better. Many of them would sign up for voice lessons, and some of them became really key leaders in the dynamic of the group. So I learned a good lesson: that just being a great singer might not be enough.

Are there any special performances or trips that you remember with choirs over the years?

Yes, an enormous treat were the two national ACDA conventions that I did. I designed a — well, let’s just call it a hymn festival — for the convention in Washington, DC at the National Cathedral. Obviously that’s an incredible treat. Although I had played there before, this certainly was the most wonderful experience of my times there.

And then the second one was the ACDA convention in Chicago when we did another of these programs in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. I knew about the organ there which had just been restored, and was justifiably famous for being a wonderful instrument. I was given permission to sort of choose the choirs I wanted. So I selected the church choir from Highland Park UMC in Dallas, where I knew David Davidson, the director. Then we had the Grand Rapids Symphony Children’s Chorus and I also could have my choir, the St. Olaf Cantorei. The other thing that I did was I figured out how to use the famous carillon in the building. So the event actually began with bells pealing outside and then was taken up by bells pealing inside, and I thought oh that’s cool. You can use the whole building!

Another was the first of the CD recordings that the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians decided to do, and they asked me if I would do it at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis. We arranged that the St. Olaf Choir would be the lead choir, and the massed choir numbered about a thousand, plus three hundred [from four invited church choirs], plus the rest of the church being full to the doors. And when we started the first hymn, I said to myself, all right Ferguson. You are not in charge tonight. You’re just going along for the ride.

As you listen to choirs today, how have components of choral music evolved or changed, in your career?

One of the things I’ve noted is the development of a school of choral singing in this country which encourages women to sound like boys. And so that’s producing a very different kind of sound from, say, the more robust sound that Shaw was looking for, that Fountain was looking for, or that the St. Olaf Choir conductors have looked for. My greater concern is to encourage people to sing well and naturally. Certainly one of the things that has always helped me is my interest in scrambling the choir— singing in mixed formation— and I was very pragmatic about that with the Cantorei. We might have a clump of five basses because I really needed to get enough guys together to build up a head of steam or whatever [the choir needed].  I wasn’t formulaic and rigid about it the way Robert Fountain was with the Oberlin Choir.

Many people know you as a composer. What led you to be a composer, what guides what you do?

It started because of necessity. The first things I did were in Ohio. I had a colleague, who worked for a music publisher part time, as an editor, and said to me “Ferguson, I love your hymn accompaniments, I’ll guarantee we’ll publish it if you’ll write them down.” That ended up to be a series of six volumes which are now published by GIA. [Then] at Central Lutheran I found myself thinking a lot about psalm singing and antiphons and writing them for the choir. I began to discover that this was fun, that you could get these nifty sounds out of the choir if you did this or that or whatever, and I experimented a lot with voicing: which part sings what? Where do you put the third in the chord? And if you put the third here, the effect is totally different than if you put the third, say, in the first sopranos instead of the second tenors or whatever. And then that really got me going.

John Ferguson Playing the Organ

Of course most of what I have done I guess I would call “elaborate arrangements” more than original compositions. And often if I’m introduced as a composer I’m quick to say that I usually rely on someone else to give me a good idea. There are some original pieces, and one or two that are real favorites, but some of my hymn arrangements like “Jesus Loves Me,” which Anton [Armstrong] asked me to do for the St. Olaf Choir, are a special treat for me to hear.

What do you see as the church’s role in choral music?

I think there are two things. Maybe the most important one is the potential in the church to continue to encourage the tradition of choral singing. One of the things I frankly worry about a little bit is the prodigious growth of community auditioned choirs. And one of the things that’s happening is that with our busy schedules, we find people who can sing quite well choosing to be in the auditioned community choir, and then quitting the church choir. And in the long run I think that’s dangerous. Because we’re turning something that can be a real delight for volunteers into something a little bit more elitist. Those of us who are serving the church need to really keep at it, and not get discouraged, even when the size of the group starts to diminish, and keep working to make the group as excellent as possible. Which is still what I think is one of the things that draws people to get off their duff on an evening and come out to rehearse! If we sort of give up or let our standards slip, then I think we’re going to be in trouble, even more than we may be right now. I think we still need to be thinking about church choir as a place to learn about music making.

The second thing I would say is this issue of standards. I think some people have high standards because they’re doing it for art’s sake. I like to think that I keep my standards high because I am doing this as a gift to God, and for me that’s really important. It involves standards for quality in performing but it also means thinking about quality music, and especially thinking about quality text.

What words of wisdom would you give to church musicians?

  1. Don’t give up.
  2. Build a really healthy relationship with your colleagues. And that means that sometimes you may have to compromise more than you’d really like to.
  3. Be sure to get to know, and never cross, the administrative assistant to the senior pastor, or the head custodian.
  4. Constantly keep in mind the need to be the advocate for enough financial support to enable you to do what needs to be done with the groups. It is very easy to take the music for granted if you aren’t involved in having to make it. We need to be an advocate and we need to find other people who can be advocates.
  5. Do good stuff. And many times, the good stuff does not have to be hard. In other words, good or quality, those are not words that equal difficult. As Anton [Armstrong] has said often, there’s nothing more challenging than to sing really beautifully in unison. And I think that’s worth reminding ourselves: difficulty is not necessarily a guarantee about anything. Except perhaps fear.
  6. Keep a sense of humor! You have to be able to laugh. You just have to.

Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions or gifts you have made to our vocation?

I think that’s a difficult question to answer. I hope that I have left a legacy of some pieces that are challenging but accessible, and that have something to say, which will lend them to being sung for a while. It’s been a real joy to do this, to do a piece and take it either to my church choir or to the Cantorei and hear it sung.

John Ferguson on the Organ

Also, I hope that there are some people who have worked with me who have decided to keep the faith, and do it. I’m sitting across from one right now [interviewing with Nathan Proctor]. Certainly there can be no greater delight than seeing folks that you’ve had the privilege of mentoring, pick it right up and keep it going. I think that’s really very special. I think it’s also true that you could have someone come back to you ten years later and say, “You know, I still remember how much fun I had.” Or, “I still remember when we sang at this person’s funeral.” Or, “we sang on that Easter morning, when the world was pretty much messed up. But the music carried the day.” And that’s what it’s all about.

 

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