Saturday, January 21, 2012

"When Soft Voices Die"

Composer Drew Shearin, 1994-2011

Music, when soft voices die, Vibrates in the memory.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Yesterday's performance of the Butler Chorale was one I'll probably never forget. Invited to perform at the Indiana Music Educators Association state conference, we traveled north to Fort Wayne with two busses full of singers, members of the Butler Symphony Orchestra, and school of music faculty. I was most proud of our students, who sang and played with polish and fervor.

What made this so memorable for me, however, was the very real reminder of music's ineffable timelessness.

One of IMEA's important functions at this conference was a composer's competition for high school musicians. Numerous works were selected for performances by solo and chamber ensembles, bands, orchestras and, of course, choirs.

Drew Shearin's work, "The Sweetest Air is Most Often the Thickest," was selected as the winning choral work in the fall of 2011. Tragically, this talented and inspiring young man was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter.

The Butler Chorale was honored to perform the world premiere of "The Sweetest Air." Though neither I nor my students had the opportunity to know Drew personally, we did have a connection, through Butler alum Dave Elliott, on the faculty at Drew's high school (Knox, IN), and through Butler alum and staffer Kristin Flodder, who had worked with him at a summer band camp. From these first hand accounts, I learned very quickly what an extraordinary young man and musician Drew had been.

When I learned that some of Drew's family, including his mother, would be in attendance at our performance, I spoke with my singers about what to expect...there would be an emotional energy in the concert venue (the beautiful sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne). It would be up to us to communicate Drew's music and words as sensitively and accurately as possible. And we should prepare ourselves to see, and possibly become affected by, the range of emotions the occasion might invoke.

Before beginning to conduct Drew's piece, I spoke briefly to the audience, saying how honored we were to be entrusted with the work of one so obviously talented and special. I also admitted that, though none of us on stage had the chance to know Drew, I was certain that he had family and friends in the audience. And so for them, for all of us, we wished to hold a brief moment of silence in tribute and memory to Drew.

Then, we sang. The room was as quiet as I've ever experienced, except for some subdued sniffling. I was touched to see my students' tender reactions observing the audience response as they performed. Finally, the work drew to its tender, poignant and cathartic close ("I awake to find my fall forgiven.") I kept my arms extended for a prolonged moment after the final cutoff, then very slowly allowed them to drop to my side. The silence persisted, probably for a full 90 seconds. I remained motionless, allowing "the room" to dictate the moment. Finally, the applause began, slowly at first, then quite strongly...and certainly not for us, but in honor of a young man whose presence was felt through his music by all who were there.

Speaking with Drew's family after the performance, I was honored to receive a gift from his mother: a framed poem that had been read at his funeral. It contemplated the beauty of an unfinished musical composition, asking finally, "is it unfinished, or is it endless?"

Though tragically short, Drew's life continues to touch and move us. I am grateful to him for this remains, the heart and the spirit triumph over the messy mortality of our physical selves. Thank you, Drew Shearin.

(Read more about Drew and hear his music at

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