October 2016
An Inevitable Accident

Robert McConnell

Robert McConnell

“And when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.” (2nd Chronicles 5:13-14)

My journey in church music has been both accidental and inevitable. I had been deeply involved in the music program of my home church – Church of the Savior Lutheran in Paramus, NJ – serving as the pianist in the praise band, writing music for the choir, and filling in from time to time for the organist. This ended with college where I took a break from the Church altogether. I studied composition and conducting at Northwestern University with the intention of becoming a professional full-time conductor. By the conclusion of my Master’s degree no one had yet told me that making a living as a conductor was virtually impossible for someone in their 20’s. My mother had been telling me since high school to take organ lessons and I began studying with Maggie Kemper in the last year of my Master’s. I was by no means greatly proficient, but here’s where the accident appeared. Stephen Alltop recommended me for an organist job in Barrington which the church was desperate to fill. I could play hymns well enough and some easy repertoire, but I asked him if he thought I was qualified for such a job. He said no, but that I would become qualified. So I took the job and stayed a year, during which time I practiced a lot. This is what I mean by “inevitable”. During my Master’s degree, I had a spiritual reawaking in my Christian faith that not only got me back into church, but also catalyzed a vocation for church music. After a year of non-stop practicing, I was ready for a larger job and accepted the Music Director position at St. John’s Lutheran in Wilmette, where I have been since 2010. Since that time, I have received a DMA in orchestral conducting at Northwestern. Although my career as a conductor might change the way my vocation in church music is expressed, nevertheless I expect it to remain undiminished.

In writing this article, I unearthed the first newsletter article I wrote for St. John’s in October 2010 in which I described my philosophy of church music through the passage in 2nd Chronicles quoted above. It remains as relevant for me now as then. I see my vocation as a church musician to “bring the glory down.” When all is said and done, I judge the success or failure of my ministry on whether, through music, people have had a tangible encounter with the living God. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of music ministry in this encounter, but as the passage above makes clear, music is an important part of the process. Whatever I do in the future and however my vocation is expressed, I hope I can always be part of making the God’s presence real for the people.

Robert McConnell
Music Director and Organist, St. John’s Lutheran Church of Wilmette

Posted in Past Testimonials.