My experience sharing the stage with Michael W. Smith

On the stage of Edman Chapel, hundreds of musicians watched David Hamilton raise his arms, a serene smile playing across his face. Instruments hovered in the air, waiting for the first note to breathe life into them. Bows waited a fraction of an inch above strings and more than a hundred singers watched for our cue, the first word taking shape on our tongues. The audience waited in breathless anticipation for the moment they had come for, the moment when four Wheaton ensembles would join together with Michael W. Smith to praise God with one voice. I had the privilege of participating in Women’s Chorale and had a front row seat.

The concert, which took place on Thursday, Oct. 18, was a fundraiser for the second addition of the new Armerding Center for Music and the Arts, which will include a new lobby area, a choral rehearsal and a new concert hall.

It was also a night of worship and powerful music. I asked other members of Women’s Chorale what they felt during the performance. Junior Grace Mamalat, chaplain of Women’s Chorale, described the experience as “a glimpse of what Heaven will be like” with everyone “praising and glorifying God together.” The night of worship, which included four Wheaton music groups as well as Smith and Hamilton, was also an embodiment of Wheaton’s pursuit of musical excellence in performance.

This concert with Smith, whose wife, Debbie (80), attended Wheaton College, is one of many examples of the opportunities and connections provided by Wheaton’s vast alumni network. What’s more, Wheaton’s unique position as both a respected Christian college and an excellent conservatory means that guest artists of international renown are not only open to collaboration with Wheaton, but actually seek it out, according to the Dean of the Conservatory, Michael Wilder. “This was Michael W. Smith’s idea,” Wilder told the Record. “It was impulse and generosity that started this .”

For many Wheaton musicians, the opportunity to perform alongside a world-renowned Christian artist was a surreal experience. In an email interview Mamalat said that she had grown up listening to Michael W. Smith, but never thought that she would meet him. Mamalat said, “Just to be able to personally meet, work and perform with him was eye-opening…. Being able to meet someone who was so important in childhood was something felt touched by.”

After weeks of rehearsal and anticipation, the day of the concert finally arrived. I felt a sense of God’s providence and blessing above the normal confusion over rehearsal times and locations, changes in plans and tweaks in the program logistics. For some of the performers, including myself, the day’s activities began with a question and answer session with Hamilton and Smith. This was an opportunity for all music majors to ask questions and gather valuable wisdom from two world-renowned Christian artists.

During this question and answer session, Hamilton shared many valuable insights that are relevant to music majors and non-music majors alike. He stated that an important part of being a Christian in the arts industry is “learning that my value is not dependent on what I do.” He continued, “I’m not a human doing, I’m a human being. God’s the one who’s spoken our value.” These words of encouragement set the tone for the rest of the day as preparations for the event continued.

Sophomore Jackie Boutcher, assistant business manager on the cabinet of Women’s Chorale, said that it was “both challenging and inspirational to hear their stories about their experiences in the music industry and the struggles and triumphs of composition and songwriting.”

A few short hours after the Q&A, hundreds of musicians gathered in Edman for the first and only rehearsal as a complete ensemble. It was with some trepidation that we took out our music and instruments and waited for Hamilton to take his place at the director’s podium. Voices were hushed and positions were decided, mics and cameras adjusted. Once the rehearsal was underway, however, the ensembles responded positively to Hamilton’s infectious energy. Mamalat remarked afterwards that Hamilton “had so much  joy … in our rehearsal with him.”

I saw this joy pervade the entire rehearsal process. There are always challenges in working with a large and diverse group of musicians, but everyone involved clearly found joy in working together to glorify God. Joy derived from the ability to work together with so many different people is important from both a musical and a Christian perspective. According to Mamalat, “it is a beautiful opportunity to fully embrace the vastness of the Kingdom of God … God has given each of us divine gifts, and just to think that God has brought all of us together (all our gifts and talents together) to build His Kingdom — wow! It’s incredible!”

Smith expressed his excitement about this collaboration, saying very simply that “tonight’s going to be awesome.” Even though this concert was a completely new experience for both himself and Hamilton, Smith did not seem daunted by the collaboration process. “I like it because it’s an adventure,” he told the Record. “The unknown is exciting to me.”

Wilder also had a lot to say about the importance of working cooperatively within the conservatory. “Any big project brings with it collaborative joy — doing work together — and so it was for all of us, students, faculty and guest artists,” he said. Without the joint effort of many performers with diverse gifts, music making at this scale would not be possible.

However, the ability to work together with a large variety of people has significance far beyond the conservatory. Wilder pointed out that the Wheaton ensembles are composed of musicians with unique backgrounds and experiences. According to Wilder, the people on stage are “people who’re involved in the conservatory as majors in other fields.” In fact, he emphasized that about 50 percent of the ensemble members are not music majors.

“Music at Wheaton College isn’t about just those who are pursuing music degrees — it never has been,” Wilder concluded. Thus, not only was the concert a chance to collaborate with diverse musical groups, but it also brought the entire campus together in a unique way.

The concert’s emphasis on joyful campus-wide collaboration was meant to be a reflection of the purpose of the new Armerding Center, which will be partially funded by the concert revenues. Wilder made it very clear that he envisions this new building, which will also house the conservatory, will benefit the entire campus.

“Let’s be really clear about this,” Wilder said pointedly. “The Armerding Center for Music and the Arts is host to the conservatory of music, but it will also host everybody else on the campus and thousands of other people, so it’s not that it’s only the conservatory that lives within the Armerding Center. Certainly, you’ll find the conservatory there, but you’ll find hopefully everybody else on campus and well beyond.”

This intentional inclusivity even extends to the architecture of the new building. “Weput a 15 degree slant on the new part of the building and part of that allows that front door to the community to be more obvious … and allows the door to the college to be more clear … we’re excited about what that symbolizes,” Wilder said. Music can, and should, be an instrumental part of the campus experience — and the new building is meant to reflect that reality.

“It’s community building.” Wilder added, smiling slightly at his own musing. “It’s a little like the Rec Center, or Beamer. I mean no one’s sitting over there going, ‘Wait, are you majoring in food? What are you doing out here?’ … We all go there to eat, right?” In the same way, the Armerding Center for Music should be a place where music and non-music majors come together to engage in a fundamental part of campus life: worship through music.

The Smith and Hamilton concert, then, wasn’t just a fundraiser. It also wasn’t merely a night of worship. In the same way that the new Armerding Center is meant to be a way to unite everyone on Wheaton’s campus, the concert was a celebration of what worship in the Kingdom of God should look like.

There was a variety of styles and genres represented, from the intricately structured and elegant melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov, to the expressive freedom of gospel and pop tunes, to the meditative power of the Christmas song, “All is Well.”

There were also worship songs which invited audience participation, an element that turned out to be a very powerful component of the concert. In fact, Boutcher thought that the experience of standing and singing with the entire audience was the most impactful part of the night. “The sound of hundreds of people in worship was truly moving and very gratifying as a musician and performer,” she told the Record.

In the end, worship at Wheaton isn’t about who is a music major or who is a biology student. It isn’t about who has won a Grammy Award or who has sold the most records. Glorifying God, with or without music, can and should be something that unites our campus, our country and our world.

Wilder emphasized how important collaborative worship is in the kingdom of God. “Surely God smiles when he sees this collection of people all offering him due praise and doing it with one voice. Surely this is pleasing to him, and that of course is quite pleasing to us.”

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