Editor’s Note: Dr. Stan Pethel is Professor of Music Emeritus at Berry College near Rome, Georgia. He has been on the music faculty there since 1973, having served as Chair of Fine Arts from 1994 to 2013. He holds Bachelor of Music, and Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Georgia and a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from the University of Kentucky. In addition to his duties as Chair of Fine Arts at Berry College, Dr. Pethel taught music theory, composition and arranging, world music, and low brass lessons. He retired from Berry College in May 2016. Dr. Pethel is a widely published composer and arranger with over 1300 works in publication with 30 different publishers. His writing includes works for choir, piano, organ/piano duet, symphonic band, jazz ensemble, orchestra, handbells, solo instrument and piano, and various chamber music ensembles. He is a regular recipient of the ASCAP Standard Award. Dr. Pethel has served as minister of music at several area churches in the Northwest Georgia area.
He is married to Jo Ann Pethel, a pianist and music educator. They have three children and five grandchildren.
JMG: What and when was your first published piece of music? How did it feel to see your music and name in print for the first time?
SP: It goes back a way. Back in 1976 I composed a setting of Patrick Henry’s Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech, four movement oratorio style, college choir level. The Berry College Concert Choir performed it and it was a big success locally. There was a fellow in the audience that wanted to publish it, so he started a publishing company. Well, nice idea and it sold a few hundred copies, but that company didn’t last but a few years even with some anthems added later on as well.
My first “national” publication was a setting of a text from the 1956 hymnal, Are Ye Able Said the Master in a denominational publication titled Gospel Choir in the late 1970’s. Those periodicals became a great outlet for my writing in those days. It’s still rewarding to see your name in print.
JMG: What do you enjoy most about the compositional process?
SP: It varies. Sometimes it’s a blank page to a completed work. This can happen with anything from a symphonic band piece to a piano prelude.
Other times it is the arrangement of an existing tune in a different treatment, or perhaps an existing text to a new tune.
Either way, it’s a matter of creating a moment in time for listeners using music. Music for me, is basically using notes, rhythm and often lyrics to create a meaningful and interesting experience for the listener. The neat thing about music is that it can be re-created, maybe not exactly the same way, but basically it can happen again and again. Just think of the classics by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, et al.
JMG: Who have been the most influential people in your writing career?
SP: I’m sure my fellow composers and arrangers in the church music field will agree that we have been given special gift from God to do what we do, and a unique role to play. It is up to us to use that gift in a responsible way.
Along the way there are those who help you develop your skills. Here are mine:
My high school band director, Ron Evans, a fine musician and conductor. He started me on trombone and became my mentor. My arranging career started in high school doing Herb Alpert tunes and other pop tunes charts for my high school band.
My college music composition instructor at the University of Georgia, Dr. John Corina, an oboist, church musician, organist and composer. He made me get serious about music composition.
JMG: You have a musical out with JMG (on the Alfred Sacred imprint) titled “There’s a Song in the Air.” Tell us about that!
SP: I’m a child of the 1956 Baptist Hymnal and one of my favorite carols was and is There’s a Song in the Air.
It’s a fine melody that I could use in a simplified “leit motiv” kind of way, and it includes a lot of the Christmas story.
It will sound great with a smaller choir and even better with a large one. Traditional telling of the Christmas story with familiar carols and original music. An optional drama is available on-line for no charge.
JMG: With the changing tides of church music styles over the last few decades, what encouragement can you give to choir directors of today’s church?
SP: We have witnessed some major changes or perhaps better stated a broadening movement in church music in the last 20 years that is primarily generational in my opinion. I remember the first time I saw a drum set in a church sanctuary about 1966 for the musical Good News. Scandalous! Now it’s rather commonplace.
I would encourage today’s church music leaders not to abandon the importance of choral singing and congregational participation. Avoid the “performers on stage syndrome” and keep the emphasis on congregational participation, quality of music, and a worship centered presentation. Musical literacy may be on the decline, but the historical foundations of music for the church have not changed.
There are churches of all sizes and styles these days. Music leaders will hopefully lead in worship with both new songs and the heritage hymns of our faith.
JMG: Is there a writing project you have yet to tackle or hope to accomplish?
SP: Not really. Over the course of my career I’ve composed and/or arranged for everything from unaccompanied flute to full orchestra with a saxophone section! There’s even a concerto for trombone and orchestra from my graduate school days. Maybe a soundtrack for a documentary?
JMG: Do you have a favorite story of conducting something you wrote?
SP: I get some comments at Composer Days that are quite interesting.
Concert attendee: “Every song you right is better than the next one.” (Think about that )
Concert attendee: “The music you write has meant so much to my husband since he lost his mind.”
Concert attendee: “Your music is like water to a drowning man.”
And my favorite:
Elderly lady: Stan, “You look just like my third husband.” Me: “That’s something. How many husbands have you had?” Elderly lady: “Two!”
JMG: “Getting to Know….Stan Pethel” - Our “Lightning Round” of quick questions and answers:
-What is on your summer reading list?
SP: My two favorite authors are Joel Rosenberg and John Grisham. I read just about anything they write. Right now, I’m in process of reading John Grisham’s Gray Mountain.
-What types of music do you listen to most?
SP: Southern gospel, jazz standards (especially anything with a good trombone soloist), and blue grass.
-What is your favorite vacation spot?
SP: The Caribbean. Jamaica, St. Lucia, Bahamas, etc.
-What is your favorite summertime frozen treat?
SP: Pineapple sherbet! Mayfield preferred, but any brand will do.
JMG: Thank you, Stan, for your time today. You’ve long since earned a following with music directors literally around the world for your playable and singable arrangements. Keep up the great work, and we’re honored to have your music with Jubilate Music Group.