When Robert Stovall directed his first Methodist choir, he was still in college. It was a part-time gig at Sierra Vista United Methodist Church in San Angelo, Texas, where he was a member. In the summer of 1978, shortly after he graduated from college, Robert and Cindy, whom he met in college, were married in that same church. And now, some 43 years later, it is to Sierra Vista UMC that they will return — just as regular churchgoers. “Moving back to San Angelo is something we’ve wanted to do all along,” Robert relates.
What will it be like to return to his home church, sit in the pew, and be just a regular churchgoer? “I don’t know,” he says with a grin. “We’re going to find out. Cindy’s a little worried about whether I will want to critique the service, compare it, how they do their music, what they do in worship, etc., but that is not what I’m about,” he assures. “I just want to go and have a worship experience and leave afterwards and talk about the sermon and the experience without having to worry about all the details underneath that experience. I’m actually looking forward to that.”
Will he be lured into resuming his spot in front of the choir?
“Nope!” He assures with a laugh. “And Cindy also told me not to sing,” he adds.
A Texas Choral Giant
The newlywed Stovalls left San Angelo in that same summer of 1978 so that Robert could officially begin his career as a high school choir director at Lamesa High School, home of Mark Burrows, who was in middle school at the time.
“Robert Stovall is truly one of my music heroes,” reflects Mark Burrows, “he has been part of my consciousness since I was in middle school and there’s almost nowhere in the choral world you can go without bumping into him.”
One of Mark’s favorite memories of Robert is when he sang “Jesus Loves Me” in his home church in Lamesa. “When Robert sings anything, from a complicated work to the very simplest of hymns, he communicates the very essence of it,” Mark relates. “It’s not voice to ear; it’s heart to heart. I still can’t believe that the way he sang “Jesus Loves Me” made my mother cry.”
Besides that rich baritone voice that has permanently imprinted both “Mary Did You Know” during Advent and “Were You There” on Good Friday on our psyches during his time with us, Robert’s acclaim throughout the choral world, especially in the State of Texas, is something most people in our church don’t even realize.
As a former president of Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), Robert presided over the main music education organization in the state of Texas, and in fact, this enormous annual event held in San Antonio each year for more than 20,000 people from musicians to educators to publishers, from choral to band to orchestra, and from elementary school to college. “TMEA’s annual meeting is considered by most in the industry as the third national conference,” Mark says. “And Robert was its president.”
Along with TMEA, Robert also served in key leadership roles with Texas Choral Directors Association (TCDA) where he is just wrapping up his term as church music vice president, and American Choral Directors Association (ACDA).
The road to Robert’s acclaim in the choral world that started in Lamesa included high schools in Andrews, Fort Stockton, Midland, Garland, and finally Birdville, where he met Peggy Graff in 2002. A fast friendship and seamless working relationship was formed during their five years there together. This is the connection that brought Robert to First Church.
Laughing as she recalls first observing Robert’s legendary light-up-the-room charisma. “I always thought, how can I get that? she says. “So, I bought a book.” She laughs again, then declares, “Didn’t work. I have always considered myself to be a fairly positive and enthusiastic person, but Robert is on a completely different level. Being in the classroom turns on an energy you usually don’t have. It’s another mode entirely — up about 350%. Robert just lives there.
“I became a better musician and choral director working with him at Birdville,” Peggy reflects. “I was really a sponge, trying to soak up everything he taught.” She pauses, then adds, “and Choral Union is made up of so many choral directors who I think really enjoyed being sponges, too. Hopefully, they’ll take his influence — their favorite “Robertisms” with them into their own classroom for the next generations of choirs.
“Before coming here, I was very happy as being the Director of Fine Arts for Fort Worth Country Day School,” Robert remembers. “It was also the first time in a long time I didn’t have a choir to direct, and I guess I didn’t realize how much I had been missing that. Then one day Peggy called me and asked if I would be interim while they did a search for this position. I was glad to help. And the more I stayed here, the more I felt that I wanted to be a part of this church, and above all, this music family. As I retire, I can’t POSSIBLY think of a better way to end my music career/teaching career. This is the cream on top of an extremely thankful career.”
In his five years at First Church, Robert says he is proud of many things, chief of which was being able to establish our Gift of Music concert series. Each year this series of concerts, presented at least monthly from September through June, offered a wide variety of music styles, genres, and performers from among the best in each of their fields. Robert says that while this experience was a lot of work to prepare, schedule, promote and often, perform, each of these concerts was very important both personally and professionally.
“Personally, it gave our members the opportunity to hear outstanding musicians, of all genres, perform their music in our magnificent sanctuary and chapel,” he explains. “Professionally, it allowed us, as FUMCFW, to be recognized as a supporter of our communities and the music in which they offer. We were able to offer them a place to perform knowing that the experience they had would be spread to others.”
High and Low Notes
Referring again to the caliber of musicians we have in our choir, Robert says that even considering the top choirs across Texas he has worked with and taught, at times this was the best choir he has ever taught. “This choir enjoyed being “taught” and they loved to learn,” he adds. “As a result, some of their performances were the best performances in my entire career. I’ve been really blessed with some great high school groups (five of which were selected to perform at TMEA, a huge honor in the world of high school choirs), but this group was special because not only did they want to be taught, but they wanted to be really good at what they sang. That made me work even harder!”
Of all the wonderful performance and Sunday morning worship experience memories Robert looks back on during his time here, what he says he will miss the most – and has missed the most this past year – is Wednesday night rehearsals. No question or hesitation. “Wednesdays nights with my choir energized me like nothing else,” he says, beaming at this memory. “I often couldn’t sleep when I got home because I was so filled with energy and excitement of this amazing experience working with, teaching, and learning from this choir.”
“Wednesday night rehearsing was also a euphoric time for me,” Peggy recalls. “I was so focused on every second of what he was doing with and asking of the choir with his direction. He allowed me to express myself musically — and he pulled that ability out of me just like he did everyone else. I was always glad to interpret things as he did phrase-wise; I always saw and felt the music the same way. And,” she adds, laughing, “I already knew where he was going to go back to in a rehearsal when he wanted to redo a section.”
Ministry of Collaboration
Peggy says that her ability and comfort in moving between organ, piano, vocals, and direction — all at Robert’s encouragement — allows her to use her gifts for the glory of God. “Being able to share this ministry and vision of First Church music with our congregation and our extended faith community all over the world has been extremely fulfilling.” She pauses, then adds, “To be able to collaborate with someone like Robert who shares that deep connection and commitment a daily thing was an experience of a lifetime. It was a pure collaboration for the highest cause—it was a ministry, it was an outreach, it was a glorification of God.
“He can pray with the best of them,” she elaborates. “Robert brought a lot of spiritual guidance to our choir,” Peggy adds. “He prayed for people, cared for people, reached out to them, and ministered to the choir and community. He was a true minister of music who in just five years gifted us with a legacy of music in our church that will live on.”
The Biggest Challenge of His Career
Calling this past year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting inability to provide our singers an opportunity to continue singing, the biggest challenge of his entire career, Robert says, “COVID made it very difficult for anyone to have a religious experience on Sunday mornings. Not having my full choir for this past year has been really tough — the worst! Directing that full choir is what I do! What I love!
When asked what the biggest lesson learned from his time here, Robert was quick to answer, “Do not take anything for granted. I’ll leave it at that.”
In his statement emailed this past week to Choral Union Robert said: “Our time together has been meaningful in many ways. Experiences create memories. Memories create common ground among friends. We have a HUGE PLOT of common ground.” That is the way I feel about my experiences with my church family. I’ll remember many things, events, and people from having my time at FUMCFW. For that, I am extremely grateful. It will allow me to take memories and friendships into my retirement.
Thanks to all! ONWARD!
A Tremendous Gift
Not to disparage anyone former FUMCFW choral directors, himself included, Mark sums up Robert’s tenure here well, “Robert was a huge shot in the arm for our church and especially the choir. He is just such a people person. It has been a huge breath of fresh air to have him here. As a staff member, he has been our Golden Retriever — a living wag. Never met a stranger; everyone is his friend. Positivity oozes out of Robert — always has — no matter what is going on. What a get for our church to have had him with us these past five years.”
Remembering his past decades of knowing and observing Robert in the fuller context of his entire career, Mark reflects, “Robert is a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get kind of guy. He’s done what he’s done for us here everywhere he’s gone. Throughout his whole career he would go to a place and turn its program into a “world-beater” choir. Everywhere Robert went, that choir became one of the best in the state.
However, the most surprising thing about Robert Stovall, Mark points out, is that for all his stature in the Texas choral community and his immense and amazing music talent — and all he’s done with that talent throughout his career — that is not the first thing people talk about when they describe Robert Stovall.
“I think it’s so telling the first thing people say about Robert is who he is as a person,” Mark elaborates. “The music part comes after, and I think that’s what makes him so good. God music is a by-product of how you treat people. He’s an outstanding musician—but the people part has always come first for him. Because of that,” Mark adds, “the music benefits, and we benefit. Robert energizes people — that’s his tremendous gift.”