Beautiful Music

Karen Scribano   -  

It was snowing heavily on the day in December of 2007 when Christopher Ellerston had his first experience at St. Mark. “I had been asked by Mark Babcock, St. Mark’s organist & choirmaster at that time, to play brass on a Sunday morning.  I was a student in his choir at Central College. I brought my bass trombone and played with the choir, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’d had up to that point in my college career,” remembers Ellerston. “And then I had to drive home!” Thank goodness the positive memories of the performance outweighed those of the weather. “I kept coming back over the years, playing cello or singing, and it was always a warm and welcoming place.”  Almost seven years later, he received the call to take over as organist & choirmaster here, and summer 2024 will mark his 10th anniversary at St. Mark.

In his position, he plans all the hymns that are sung during traditional worship, prepares the liturgy setting for each season, rehearses with the choir on Wednesday evenings, organizes any instrumentalists who are collaborating with them on Sunday morning, and, of course, plays the organ, which includes a prepared prelude and postlude each week. He also oversees the Fine Arts series at St. Mark and plays with the handbell choir.

On Sunday mornings, he loves hearing the voices of everyone in the sanctuary. “I love playing and hearing the congregation singing down below,” says Ellerston, “especially when they sing loud and full of worship!  I find it such a meaningful part of worship when we are all brought closer to God in song.” He puts a lot of thought into the hymns he selects each week.  “I want the words that we sing to reflect and enhance what we hear in the rest of worship, so that when Pastor Bob shares his message, people will tie that to the music, making it easier to remember. I hope people are impacted by that and will want to share that message and positive feeling with others.”

His talent for directing the St. Mark choir is evident in the beautiful sounds that fill the sanctuary each week, especially when they perform a major choral work a couple times each year. One of the things he is particularly proud of is the ability to share these works that challenge both the choir and himself while providing an enriching listening experience for the congregation. “The first year I came, we did Savior of the Nations, Come hymn festival. Dr. Folkerts, an amazing organist, came in and played. And then, this last fall, I actually played those same parts, which I could not have done ten years ago. I know I have grown as a musician, which I hope inspires others,“ says Ellerston. “Now I’m looking forward to the major work we’re performing in December (this coming Sunday): Taylor Scott Davis’ Magnificat – it has a lot of strings and woodwinds, and we’ll use our new timpani set. It features a solo as the voice of Mary. This is my first time directing this piece, and it is a beautiful work.”

Ellerston draws inspiration for his selection of major works from several sources.  “In the beginning, I took suggestions from Mark Babcock, and we had done Fauré’s Requiem at Central College, so I did that here my first spring.  I hope to do that again next year on the 100th anniversary of Fauré’s death.  I’ve also drawn from my college study abroad experience – I spent a year in Vienna – so we’ve done a couple of Mozart masses and works from lesser-known composers. I do a lot of listening and thinking about what will work well for this choir and what will be meaningful.”

One of the most interesting ways that singing is meaningful for a choir is the physical connection it provides.  Ellerston explains, “There’s research that says that, because we are all singing and breathing together at the same time, our hearts are all synchronized in that moment, which is really an amazing thing.  Scripture tells us we are all part of one body, and we really are when our hearts beat together.”

Sometimes, that “togetherness” can have humorous effects. The choir currently has between 30-40 members who gather in the choir room to practice. “We’ll be working on a song,” shares Ellerston, “and the sopranos are singing these loud, high notes, which is great! But then some of the members’ Apple watches beep a notification that ‘the sound has reached over 90 decibels’ and our hearing could be affected! We’re sounding great but getting warned about being too loud!”

With a Master’s degree in music education (choir pedagogy) now under his belt, Ellerston cares more than ever about teaching and sharing music in ways that resonate with his singers and audience. “I hope the music that we sing and the interactions we have in worship inspire us all to be kinder, better people each day,” he reflects.  If, between the message and the music, hearts are beating in synchronicity on a Sunday morning, then that’s beautiful music, indeed!