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Church music director reaches end of the road

Kenny Kemp
The organ alcove at St. John's Episcopal Church is like a second home for Brenda Vanderford. She retired in September after serving as music director and choir director for 44 years.
Kenny Kemp
"Playing the organ,...
Kenny Kemp
...I was always nervous...
Kenny Kemp
...I was nervous every single Sunday of my life."
Courtesy photo
Growing up in Richmond, 4-year-old Brenda Vanderford was already fascinated with the piano.
Courtesy photo
By the time she reached grade school, Brenda Vanderford was taking piano lessons.
Courtesy photo
In 1967, Fulbright scholar Brenda Vanderford was on a ship leaving for a year's study in Cologne, Germany.
Courtesy photo
A Photo from the late 1960s shows Brenda Vanderford in her customary position at the organ console at St. John's Episcopal Church.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the time she was a teenager, Brenda Vanderford knew exactly where life would lead her. She had what she calls "a path." In church, her heart soared when she listened to the organ. The rich, robust sound thrilled her. That was it. Her destiny.  That passion for music eventually earned her a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany. Later, she played a recital at Washington National Cathedral, a first for a West Virginian.After graduating from the Oberlin Music Conservatory, she got a master's degree at Northwestern and landed a teaching post at Tuskegee Institute, then a predominately black college in Alabama. In 1966, she arrived here to teach at West Virginia State where she remains as associate professor of music. In 1968, she started a stint as music director and choirmaster at St. John's Episcopal Church. In September, after 44 years, she retired. With the same clarity that fostered her career, she just knew it was time to step down.She turns 70 this month. "I grew up in Richmond, Va. My father was a municipal judge and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. "I asked at a very early age to take piano lessons. When I was in my teens, I asked to take organ lessons. I was drawn to the organ. My church didn't even have a big pipe organ, but I just loved the music. "So unlike most teenagers, I had a path. I've always thought of it as a calling. "I would go to church and sit through the prelude, the first hymn and the songs, then when it came time for the sermon, I'd go in kitchen and talk to the organist. That's where she would go in between. "When I said I wanted to study organ, my mother found me one of the best teachers in Richmond, and he became my mentor. I asked him where I should go to college. He said, 'What do you mean? You are going to do what I do.'  He went to the Music Conservatory at Oberlin College, so that's where I went. I went to Northwestern to get my master's in organ performance. "My first job was at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which at that time was totally black. It was founded by Booker T. Washington. I was one of four white faculty members. My parents were concerned, being from Virginia. I always had my way and they didn't ask me not to do it, but I know they were worried.
"I'd never known anybody who was black. In Richmond, I went to a totally segregated school system. I was a little afraid about Tuskegee, but everybody was so nice to me. "Johnella was my friend there. She was hired as the piano teacher the same time I was hired. She lived in Petersburg, not far from Richmond. When she found out I'd been hired, she called me and wanted to get together and before we went.
"Her parents drove up and parked in front of the house. I asked her to invite her parents in, but she said no, they could stay in the car. It wasn't five minutes before we had a phone call from a neighbor. 'Do you know there's a car in front of your house with black people in it? This was the '60s. "I accompanied the choir and played the organ in the chapel. They had a wonderful choir. We went on tour. They did some spirituals, but they also did standard literature. Their conductor didn't want them to be classified as just singing black music. "I stayed a year. The job at West Virginia State opened up through the Northwestern placement office. I started there in 1966 as an instructor. They had an organ then, so I instructed organ and theoretical studies, theory. That's what organists are known for. We're supposed to know theory, which is a laugh. "State had integrated when I came, but it was definitely predominately black. I taught one year at State then got a Fulbright Scholarship to go to Germany for one year, and they held my job. I'm still there, an associate professor of music.
"When I came back, that's when I came to St. John's. "In 1978, I was the first West Virginia organist to play a recital at the Washington National Cathedral. The choirmaster there, Doug Major, had lived in Charleston in his teens. He was a friend of David Morton's and David told him about me. The recital was a great success, a real feather in my cap. Everybody cheered. "When I first came to St. John's, I didn't know beans about English cathedral music, but David Morton did. He preceded me and when I retired, he took over. "He did Evensong services. I didn't even know what Evensong was. It's a totally sung service at 5 o'clock. You don't preach. It's all music. We have it now twice a year at least. He taught me, so when he left, I carried on what he started. "I wasn't raised Episcopalian. I was confirmed in college. When I wanted to change churches, my mother, a Presbyterian, said I had to talk to Rev. Crawford first. I went to talk to Rev. Crawford and told him I wanted to change churches. When he asked me why, I said it was because their music was so much better. He said, 'Well, that's a good reason.'"I retired in September after 44 years. You know how a voice just speaks to you and says you've done this enough and given it your all and now it's time to let someone else do it? That's how it was. I wasn't dissatisfied. I just felt it was time. "I'm still teaching full time. I didn't want to be totally retired. I just wanted less. Of the two jobs, you would think school would be the most stressful, but it's not. Directing the choir is stressful. All those personalities. Picking the right music. Keeping the congregation happy. Keeping the rector happy. It's a lot of pleasing people."Last Christmas as I went in for the midnight service, I told David I didn't think I had another 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' in me. But I did. "It's hard to get younger voices, but we have gotten a few. I'm not good at recruiting. They just came to me. I always said the Holy Spirit just sent them to me when I needed them. "The only thing that ever got me really upset was when [rector] Jim Lewis first came. We're now the best of friends and learned to work together very well. One of the first things he did was take out the choir stalls to open up the front altar space. So the choir set in chairs with their books on the laps, and they kept dropping them. I was just so hurt by that, but I worked through it. When he left, the McLeods came next, and they put it back the way it was."People say I surely will want to come back and play some. Right now, it's a done deal. I've said goodbye. But down the road, well, who knows?"I do enjoy traveling. I went to Italy two years ago and plan to go to Spain this year. Other than that, I'm kind of feeling my way. I'd like to do something, something just for me, something that makes me happy. Playing the organ, I was always nervous. I was nervous every single Sunday of my life. Most organists will tell you that."I've always felt that music was my destiny, and I've been very successful in my job. I've been successful in my friendships. I have really nice children and grandchildren. I've been blessed." Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-348-5173.
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