Dedicated to 3

In April 2012, the Wausau Lyric Choir will be premiering my setting of the Mary Frye poem, “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep.” It is a piece I was inspired to write due to the unexpected and unrelated deaths in 2005 of three people I had been close to: Fred Washa, a senior citizen volunteer and friend whom I co-wrote and staged children’s musicals with in my first teaching job at Muskego; Tom Hill, the middle school principal I worked with at Wisconsin Dells; and Bridgette Wegert, a talented former student at Wisconsin Dells.

I heard about Fred’s death from former coworkers in early 2005. He had passed away while on a trip in South Dakota. Fred was 49 years older than I, and for the 4 years we worked together in Muskego, one of my favorite people to be around. Initially it felt like an odd pairing because of our age difference, but I soon realized we had a lot in common, and we both viewed the world in much the same way. I loved working with him. He was endlessly positive, full of energy and always talking optimistically about the future. He once explained to me why he made a point of smiling, waving or saying hello to every stranger he met on the street, whether he knew them or not. He said his mother once told him it was our job to spread friendliness in an impersonal world. I’ve practiced this simple act ever since, usually receiving smiles back, and remembering Fred often.

Shortly after Fred’s death, my wife, Teresa, gave me a bookmark with Mary Frye’s poem on it, scripted in beautiful calligraphy. The words touched me, and reminded me of how I still saw Fred in all those strangers’ smiles and greetings. I knew it would be something I might want to set to music, but struggled with the text at first; the words are very potent, and I was probably still in the early stages of dealing with Fred’s death. I didn’t write anything down, but mentally set down a few melodies and phrases that stayed with me.

Tom Hill was one of the first people I met when I interviewed for the Wisconsin Dells Choirs position in 2000. Throughout my career there, Tom’s support for my program had been steadfast, and his friendship honest and true. He died unexpectedly while working at home during the summer of 2005, just a few months after Fred’s passing. The strongest memory I have of Tom was the early September day he came into my first hour 8th grade choir unexpectedly, to tell me that there had been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He spoke in calm tones, and his whole demeanor helped me not only to process what had happened, but also modeled how I could help my students cope in the days ahead. He just wanted to let every teacher in the building know what was going on, and made sure the message got through by personally delivering it. I’ve remembered that day a few times in the years since, when I’ve found myself faced with the unpleasant task of delivering regretful news, and tried to model my words and actions after his.

Not long after Tom’s death, and just before school recommenced in the fall, I learned that Bridgette Wegert had died suddenly at home, only weeks before she was to have started college at UW-Eau Claire. She had been a gifted, passionate and articulate student, having sung numerous solos and being capably self-reliant when it came to preparing her music. She was also a leader, and occasionally spoke up to remind her peers that in order to achieve excellence as singers we needed to be “dedicated, determined and disciplined,” and put our “whole selves” into the effort. Her death shocked our community, and emotionally wounded some of her peers, badly.

Somehow, this last tragedy released the flood gates for me and this poem. I started writing ideas down, beginning with the opening duet motif. It felt like 2 friends walking along, pausing, and reflecting. But I still struggled with the power of the words themselves. It felt like a tinderbox of emotion, and I worried that my struggle to write music for them might be cathartic or therapeutic for me, but emotionally painful for others to actually sing or hear. Eventually, I just set it all aside.

As they say, ‘life goes on.’ And so did mine after that, keeping me busy enough with school and our growing family at home. I didn’t really try to work on the piece again until after we moved to Wausau, while I was transitioning to the role of stay-at-home dad. I consciously decided to be more dedicated to composition, and started looking at some of my half-finished pieces. That was the fall of 2009, and by the summer of 2010 I thought I had ‘finished’ this piece. But I also felt that it was something more personal than just another new work, and wanted to find the right opportunity to have it performed appropriately and well. After sharing the score with a few trusted souls and receiving some helpful feedback, I also realized that it still wasn’t quite right in a few places. I also sent it out tentatively to a few choir directors whom I thought might be interested, but nothing came of that.

Then, in 2011, I was asked to serve as guest director for the Wausau Lyric Choir while the regular director, Lucinda Thayer, was teaching abroad during the spring of 2012. I had been a member of the choir for 2 years, and deeply enjoyed the challenge of the music and camaraderie of the group in general, so I agreed. Part of the job involved choosing repertoire, and I asked Lucy if I could consider one of my own pieces. She approved, and I decided to include this one. But I still needed to address that nagging sense that some passages were not quite right.

Around this same time (June, 2011), my father passed away after a relatively short battle with cancer. He had often been a sounding board for me and my compositions, offering assistance when asked, and enjoying my successes with me, too. He and my mom rarely missed a concert of mine, whether I was performing, conducting, or just having a piece of mine sung. Dealing with his death really helped me process some of my worries about this text and my setting of it. During the fall of 2011, I cast off my last shreds of doubt and plowed forward, fleshing out the troubling passages and finally finishing the piece. It wasn’t until I heard it sung during rehearsal in January of 2012 that I really knew that it all worked.

Those that we love but see no longer live on in our hearts, in our memories, and even in our actions at times. I hope that this piece serves as a fitting memorial to the three people who truly inspired it, and that it might offer solace to the grieving, and quiet comfort to those who remember loved ones lost.

February 23, 2012