Early in the same year Dr. Tim Bruster joined the staff as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Mark Burrows (yes, that same guy from the Children’s story), occupied the position of Director of Music and Worship at First Church. Mark, who had served as Director of Fine Arts from 1999-2002 and was named Music Director in early 2003, was already on the brink of creating something, well, different, that would unknowingly open the door to creativity in music programming, the likes of which this church had never before seen.
It Began Outside the Bachs
“When I pitched the idea of Outside the Bachs, which would be an international composers’ competition we would host, to Dr. B, I really wasn’t sure how he would respond,” Mark reflects. Because of his own background in choral music (a graduate of Centenary College and member of its famous choir) I felt like he might see the merit and the fun of it — as well as the opportunity for positive exposure for our church. In true Dr. B fashion, he listened, considered all the moving parts of this unusual and monumental undertaking, and said, ‘Go for it!’”
In 2004 Mark and his Fine Arts Ministry team set to work creating Outside the Bachs, a Cliburn-esque competition for aspiring choral composers that drew 120 entries the first year. “We put a push pin in a globe from every we got an entry submitted from — Israel, Germany, Canada, France, South Korea, and so on,” Mark remembers. Describing the selection process as “incredibly hard” (Because each was a brand new, original piece, there was no recording of anyone singing it, so the committee had to try to imagine the potential of these very complex pieces via sight reading), Mark adds, “It took a lot of imagination to know which five were going to be the best.”
Once chosen, the five finalists flew in for a whole weekend in which they were treated to true Fort Worth hospitality (including but not limited to Joe T.’s and a Justin Boots!). They rehearsed their pieces with the choir on Saturday, were introduced during worship on Sunday, and all five pieces were performed by our choir at the Sunday night concert. One of the judges, a professor at TCU, remarked, “I could never convince my choir to do something like this. This is crazy.” The crazy to which he refers was the performance of these show-piece compositions with things like eight parts, sung a cappella, which would be really hard for the average choir to tackle after months of rehearsal, not one day.
The grand prize winner was granted a $1000 commission to write a new piece that would be premiered at the next Outside the Bachs competition, set for 2006. As a church, we held the Outside the Bachs competition three times, and after two of them Mark says he sensed the choir fatigue that told him the concept had run its course. “Every great idea has a flip side,” Mark adds, “and it’s how you manage those that makes the difference.”
Another milestone in the First Church Music program was the birth of our Adoramus Vocal Ensemble. Although Mark started this audition-only chamber choir early in his tenure as music director, he says its pivotal moment came when an Englishman named James Brown (not the rock-n-roll one) happened to hear Adoramus rehearsing when he was at First Church for Outside the Bachs. “They’re mahvelous!” he exclaimed, and then offered to arrange for an invitation for Adoramus to perform at Tewkesbury Abbey in the English County of Gloucestershire. “You can’t just call them up and go,” Mark says of the choir’s ensuing tour and performance at some of England’s great cathedrals. “These are major cathedrals, and you have to have someone vouch for you.”
Thus began the creative innovations that have continued to play a pivotal role in Tim’s legacy of enabling, empowering, and encouraging creativity in our music programming over nearly two decades of First Church music ministries.
Big Tent Music
Under Tim’s leadership and full support of our “Big Tent”, the First Church music ministry wasn’t limited to the sanctuary choir loft. Growing alongside — and essential to — the thriving eleven:eleven service was its own special band, first led by Rev. Tom McDermott and then Brad Thompson. Touted as one of Fort Worth’s best cover bands, the eleven:eleven band attracted guest artists such as guitar legend Buddy Whittington, and noteworthy singer/songwriters including Peter Mayer, Elizabeth Wills (who now is part of the band’s leadership team), Sara Hickman, Hannah Kirby, and others. Eleven:eleven music that melded the sacred with the secular and the spiritual with the Spirit-filled continues to bring “nones” and “dones” to church who otherwise would not likely be part of a faith community.
When the satellite service, First 7th, led by our soon to be Senior Pastor, Rev. Lance Marshall, evolved into a new service called The Gathering, contemporary worship music, a “praise band,” joined our music ministries. With Tim’s encouragement, and continued imaginings of Lance and his team, The Gathering Band, led by current Director of Communications, Clint Church, blossomed into a new facet of First Church’s music offerings. This style of worship music melds the sacred music and lyrics First Church has become accustomed to in traditional worship services with modern instruments like, electric guitars, bass guitar, keyboard, and drums.
No mention of First United Methodist’s Big Tent music ministries would be complete without this lighthearted and genuine example of Tim’s own brand of supportive — and even participatory — leadership known as the Cross Road Singers — and its spinoff, this Fifth Street Bluegrass Band, of which Tim was its enthusiastic, guitar-picking tenor.
The Crossroad Singers, a standing musical ensemble directed by Dr. David Grant, longtime church member, TCU Professor and theologian sings several times each year during 11:00 am worship. In early 2015, David and Tim decided it was high time for a Gospel Concert in our Sanctuary that featured both the Crossroads Singers and a newly formed Fifth Street Bluegrass Band. With all the characteristic tight harmonies and acoustics of traditional bluegrass music and a mix of soulful gospel favorites, this concert was designed to inspire reflection on all the ups and downs of life.
Saying that like so many other types of music throughout history, Bluegrass music is inspired by religious faith; similarly, old-time gospel music frequently centers on transcending the hard realities of daily rural life.
“One of the things that I so appreciate about our church,” David reflects, “is that there is an appreciation for the various types of music that have expressed the faith of Christians through the centuries.”
Improvements and upgrades to the sanctuary that punctuated Tim’s leadership of our church began on August of 2010, when the Trustees agreed to replace the red carpet of the sanctuary floor with slate. Describing the acoustics that made our sanctuary “where all good sound went to die,” Mark says that this improvement made our sanctuary’s acoustics much more conducive to quality music programming and attractive to groups we wanted to invite to come here to sing. This, he adds, has not only helped with exposure and music outreach, but it was also the first step before the pipe organ project could be done, because the organ must be “voiced” to the room.
In 2013, with funding at last complete (longtime church members Ann and Hank Paup, for whom the organ was named, provided the lead gift that made this construction and installation possible), work began to install our 150-rank Anne S. and Henry B. Paup Sanctuary Pipe Organ, the third largest instrument of its kind in Texas. With the installation of Dan Garland’s “Magnum Opus” pipe organ came the reimagining of the chancel and choir loft area to make it more versatile, expandable, and functional for a wider variety of First Church music ministries.
Following Mark’s transition to Children’s Ministries, the choir was led by Taylor Scott Davis, another young, up and coming composer with a heart for music ministry. Taylor and his choirs built upon this rich history of First Church music and combined talents with the Worship team to add two very special Holy Week traditions that remain today — the interactive, experiential Maundy Thursday communion service and the Good Friday Tenebrae Service, one of which debuted “Return to Me,” a major original choral work by Taylor Scott Davis with original texts by Terry York. Devoted to the traditional Stations of the Cross journey, “Return to Me” gave these familiar scripture texts powerful new resonance for a deeply spiritual experience of Holy Week. Taylor’s leadership empowered growth in our music ministries from growing Sunday morning choirs to hosting concerts, stage productions, and special services such as “Return to Me” and our “Here Is Hope” All Saints’ concert, as well as continuing to build upon our experiential Holy Week, Easter, and Advent services.
Another amazing asset added to our music program under Tim’s leadership was none other than our talented organist Peggy Graff, who brings a wealth of knowledge, a master’s degree in sacred music from SMU Perkins School of Theology, and tenure among the top echelon in the American Guild of Organists for which she will serve as Dean in the coming year. “Peggy is a very gifted pianist and organist and blesses us every week in worship, as well as in the countless special music events she has been part of organizing in her expanded role in our music ministries. She brings to our church not only musical expertise but a compassionate heart for ministry and people with a deep love for Christ and the church.”
Soon after joining the staff full time, Peggy was charged with leading the consecration and dedication of our newly installed Anne S. and Henry B. Paup Sanctuary Pipe Organ. Working with a committee Tim appointed from our church leadership, Peggy coordinated both the service of consecration with a reception to honor major donors, as well as a dedicatory concert held on March 22, 2015, for which she brought in Dr. Bradley Hunter Welch, a world-class organ virtuoso whose thriving concert career put him at the top of international organ competitions and as featured artist in many prestigious American Guild of Organist Events.
See You at Church
Robert Stovall, who followed Taylor as director in 2016, was a former associate of Peggy’s in the Birdville Independent School District who also had a rich history of leading United Methodist church choirs to new heights, wherever he went. Our choir was no exception. Robert began as interim director (thanks to his connection with Peggy), and his manner, rapport with the choir, strong connections, and legacy of leadership in Texas choral music and education made this choice clear to the search committee. Calling upon the enormous strength of the teamwork he and Peggy had honed through the years, our music program again blossomed in new directions.
“Through our Gift of Music Concert Series our church has hosted thousands of people in the sanctuary through this true music outreach,” Peggy says. “We’ve been blessed to be able to host top concert organists such as Bradley Hunter Welch, (and will host Peter Conte — the Wannamaker organist at Macy’s in Philadelphia — on May 6), Chelsea Chen, Yoon-mi Lim, and Clive Driskill-Smith, as well as to serve as the FW-AGO exam site for future top organists. We have also hosted top collegiate choirs, award-winning high school choirs, a bluegrass concert, a wide range of instrumental artists, Spectrum Chamber Music series, DFW Brass, Fort Worth Symphony with Dr. Bradley Hunter Welch (a second time), and premiere choral guest composers including OSU and Dr. Z. Randall Stroope.”
In addition to a busy annual concert schedule, under Robert’s leadership our music ministries team embraced performance of a series of master works that populate the bucket lists of most serious choral musicians (John Rutter’s Magnificat, Mozart’s Requiem, Julian Wachner’s “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo” and “Requiem of the Living,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”). During this time our Choral Union has performed musicals, a Broadway Revue, summer concerts, and a smattering of other special programming, all with the full endorsement — and often the participation of — Dr. Tim Bruster and his wife, Susan.
Calling upon Robert Stovall’s unique connections in the world of choral music, our First Church Choral Union was invited to be part of the Texas Methodist Chorale with Deer Park United Methodist Church and St. Paul United Methodist Church in Amarillo to go on a 10-day tour of Ireland, singing in some of the greatest cathedrals and venues throughout the Emerald Isle including a full concerts at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, participate in the mass and afterward sing a concert in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, and another full concert at St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church on the Green in Galway City.
Robert’s rich baritone voice, engaging wit, and sincere enthusiasm for his work led to his being featured each week to promote First Church of worship and the special music to be presented — signing off each week with his own engaging brand of evangelism, “I’ll see you at church.” “Robert was really good at bringing people in and getting people excited about music and singing and hymnody,” Mark reflects. “He is such an extrovert — and exactly what this church needed in that time.”
An Unexpected Twist
Because of the nature of the Covid-19 spread (singing was considered among the top “super spreader” activities) and the church’s thoughtful response to public health advice for keeping our congregation safe and playing an important role in helping quell community spread, the music program was among the last to return to its full, in-person participation.
However, even during pandemic, our First Church music ministries showed up consistently online to offer comfort, encouragement, and antidote to the pervasive stress, worry, and anxiety surrounding this unprecedented time in our church and in our world. In creating her own series of uplifting music moments, broadcast one each day through May (Hymn a Day May), June (June Tunes), July (July Lullabies), and August (Dog Days Duets), “Peggy Graff and Friends” continued to invent ways to reach out and comfort our church and beyond with music during the entirety of 2020. When it came time to plan the traditional Advent Music, even knowing we could not gather as a congregation, Robert, Peggy, our talented section leaders, and the Choral Union found new ways to connect with the congregation, including an intricate, demanding, and exquisitely beautiful production of “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” an ancient English Christmas Carol from the mid 1800’s. Recorded in audio and video by section, then edited and mixed to be presented as one choir, this epic project was the culmination of teamwork, perseverance and compassionate commitment of Robert, Peggy and their team.
“During COVID, the number one no-no was singing,” Mark observes. “The fact that we were still able to do what we did musically, and that we still have a robust choir and music program is an amazing tribute to the legacy and strength of this program. Holding steady is a victory now.”
A New Era Dawns
On May 1, 2021, following Robert Stovall’s April 11 retirement, another young and talented director, Thomas Williams, stepped boldly into the role of First United Methodist Church’s Director of Music and Worship Arts. Taking the reins on the heels of the pandemic, Thomas was the wholehearted choice of the search committee led by SPRC Director Julie Compton, who said of this choice, “Thomas brings to this next era of First Church music ministries nearly two decades of commitment as “an extremely motivated pastoral musician and conductor who recognizes the importance of making disciples through fostering individuals’ gifts in music and worship arts.”
As a talented choral leader, vocalist, and keyboardist, Thomas says that he also strives to maintain a high standard of service through encouragement, participation, and education. His passion for sacred liturgy and hymnody brings to our church a blend of knowledge, talent, and a servant’s heart for corporate worship.
With experience in leading both traditional and contemporary worship, Thomas says his primary focus is on promoting the importance of who we worship and not how. “It is important for the church to have unity in worship rooted in scripture and our rich Wesleyan heritage,” he adds. “I am passionate about liturgy and congregational song and believe the songs and creeds that our congregation recite, ultimately shapes their faith and builds disciples.”
Peggy Graff, who will continue as Organist and Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts, says she looks forward to how this next chapter of First Church music ministries will build upon its past while crafting new layers and nuances of this ministry for our future. “I enjoy working with Thomas and collaborating on how we can best meet the needs of our whole congregation,” she reflects. “I’m looking forward to how we will continue this legacy of creating beautiful music that connects people deeply with their faith and their relationship with Christ.”
Regarding Tim’s leadership during her tenure at First Church, Peggy says, “Tim has been such a quiet, supportive presence for all of us. When a leader lets you do your job, offers support when you need it, and is deeply appreciative of what you do and why you do it, well, you want to do more, you want to continue to reach higher. He doesn’t gush, but also, he doesn’t miss anything. He is specific in his praise and appreciation, and that sets the stage for doing things you never imagined you could do.”