Interview – St. John UMC’s Karen Horton: Uncommon Organist & Outstanding Choir Director

This week we focus on another key Anchorage church musician. Karen Horton has been a mainstay in Anchorage’s musical community. She is in her 20th year of teaching music in the Anchorage School District.

Her first ten years with ASD were spent at Williwaw Elementary, while her second ten years were and remain at Rogers Park Elementary. Countless students have had their musical knowledge and skills, shaped and sharpened by this remarkable woman. [img_assist|nid=162209|title=Karen Horton – Lighter Moment at St. John’s Rodgers Organ|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=252]

Church worship music is currently undergoing a drastic change their leaders hope will halt the mass flight of attendees from their churches. I am intrigued by her insights regarding this phenomena.

Karen’s academic background includes a Bachelor’s in Music Education, Major – Organ from University of Central Arkansas, graduate studies at University of Oklahoma concentrating in organ performance, and a Master’s degree from Louisiana State University with a Masters degree in Vocal Pedagogy. I first became aware of her talents when I went to a Christmas program at St. John UMC where she ably led her talented choir through Vivaldi’s Gloria. What a beautiful concert! It was then I determined to find out more about her wonderful talents.

CT – How many years have you played the organ and led the choir at St. John?
KH – My husband Darrell and I started singing in the choir in 1995. I became St. John’s organist in 1996. In January of 2004, I also became the choir director.

CT – In light of the fact that so many church choirs in Anchorage has disbanded, to what do you attribute the long-term success of St. John’s choir?
KH – We have a feeling of purpose and community, the desire to aid in worship and the knowledge that what we do is for the glory of God. The music is one of the big draws. There is always the challenge to stretch the choir musically and to grow toward a closer relationship to God. We perform many different styles and so there is constant variety. We perform everything from chant to Rutter, from Sacred Harp to Handel, from gospel and spiritual to contemporary and traditional hymns. Besides, we just love to sing!

CT – What do you believe the main function of music to be in worship?
KH – Music reaches people on many different levels. It takes the spoken and written word to a new dimension that touches us both mentally and emotionally. As a choir, we are leaders in worship and music should be selected carefully to enhance the worship experience. Music should also be an avenue for the congregation to participate in worship (the work of the people.) Thus, music for congregational singing should be chosen carefully, to encourage people to reach a profound understanding of God and ourselves and as an opportunity to express praise, adoration, humility, service, hope and dedication.

CT – Today’s church music scene is getting louder, more contemporary, and less theological. What is your interpretation about what’s happening?
KH – The contemporary music I hear on the radio seems to be all about the beat and the driving energy of the percussion. The lyrics tend to be superficial and repetitive. I have not listened to much of the contemporary church music but what I have heard seems to fit this pattern. I haven’t figured out why it needs to be so loud. Often the church, in trying to reach the unchurched, has made the music more simplistic and the driving rhythms and loud instruments “yell” at us so that we are overpowered with sound.

We are given no opportunity or inclination to listen to the quiet inner voice that asks us to question what and who we are and what we can contribute in service to God and the world. What good does it do to say “God loves us” and to say “I love God”, and “God is awesome and wonderful” but not take it to the next level of commitment? There are times when we need to shout “Alleluia” but there are times when we also need to reflect and be still. Faith is more than just feeling good about ourselves and praising God. A “childlike faith” is a great beginning but there is more and our music needs to help us journey to the “more.”

When I select music for the choir, the words are my first concern. I ask myself “What is the message? Are these relevant for worship? Do these help in our faith journey?” In our hectic, stress filled lives we are looking for guidance, support, comfort, strength and peace. Don’t misunderstand me. There is good and bad in all styles of music. (Even Bach wrote some doozies!) If we are using contemporary music as our main style, we should be looking for the good. We should find the theologically meaningful music and encourage and support its use.

CT – What has been your greatest challenge as a music leader for a major Anchorage church?
KH – Church choirs perform the most with the least practice of any musical group I know. We are always striving for perfection but have the Sunday deadline of two anthems every week. Our volunteer choir ranges from the “I love to sing but can’t read music” group to people with graduate degrees in music. It is a constant challenge to select music to help them grow musically and spiritually and to keep all of them engaged and excited about what we are doing.

​There is also the balance of performance and ministry. We strive for perfection (it is after all, our offering to God) but must realize that what we do is an expression of faith and that our goal is to create a worship experience that draws both the choir and the congregation closer to God.

CT – What Biblical theme is your personal favorite as a performance theme?
KH – That’s really a tricky question. I tend to select music based on the liturgical year. I also try to coordinate the theme with the pastor’s sermon topic when I know about it far enough in advance. There is good and bad music of every style and in every theme. Whatever liturgical season where the music is relevant and well done always tends to be my favorite. ​If I have to pick a “theme,” I’d say it is that God is among us and in us and that we have the assurance that no matter our struggles and concerns, joys and celebrations, God is always present.

CT – What is your favorite sacred choral piece?
KH – Requiem by Maurice Duruflé reaches to my innermost being and never fails to touch me when I hear it. “Sing My Soul His Wondrous Love” by Ned Rorem and “Set Me As a Seal” by Rene Claussen are two of my favorite anthems.
*During our interview, Karen animatedly shared her story of having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of playing Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain op. 7 (1942) on the organ in a master class for Durufle himself.

CT – What is your favorite sacred organ piece?
KH – The key word here is “sacred.” Of the sacred organ pieces there are two that immediately come to mind. J.S. Bach is the ultimate organ composer for me. His chorale, “Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland” (Savior the the Nations, Come) BWV 659 from the “Eighteen Chorales,” is sublime and is filled with beauty and the mystery of the incarnation. It is unfortunately more than five minutes long (also an Advent piece) so I don’t often have the opportunity to play it for services.

​I seem to be picking two favorites for everything but there is so much good music out there its hard to pick just one! My other favorite to play and hear is “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us) from the Nativité du Seigneur (the Birth of the Lord) by Olivier Messiaen. I love the symbolism of the descending pedal tones of the toccata showing the descent of Christ to earth. In this piece, Christ doesn’t come quietly but with a mighty sound and there is no missing his birth! And besides, its just plain fun to play!

CT – I understand St. John is going to a more contemporary music format. Do you agree with this approach?
KH – Only one of the three morning services will be using the contemporary music format. The other two will be traditional services. I understand that people worship in different ways and have different needs (which is why I as the choir director always seek to include many different styles within the traditional music format) and hope that people will find the style that best meets their needs. I go back to what I stated earlier about their being good and bad music in all styles. I trust that the planner of this service constantly seeks the “good” and strives to make the music theologically meaningful for the congregation.[img_assist|nid=162210|title=Karen Horton in Familiar Territory|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Thanks to you Karen for sharing some of your story in this interview. You are an inspiration to me and many others.

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