Tom Fettke has been offering his creative compositional/arranging and producing gifts to church musicians for almost five decades. Many of his songs are staples in church choirs’ repertoires, having impacted millions of people literally around the world. And yet, this veteran is never one to rest on his substantial laurels, having just completed his newest Christmas musical for Jubilate Music Group (Alfred Sacred imprint) titled “God Came Near”, using the iconic Christmas writings of best-selling author Max Lucado. Tom took time out of his busy schedule recently to discuss with us this new work, his remarkable and celebrated career, reflect a bit on church music today, and even share with us a few of his favorite things.
Tom, you are regarded as a living legend in the world of choral music by a vast number of leaders and participants. When did your journey as a composer and arranger of musical works begin?
TF: Music has dominated my life since I was five years old. My mom and dad sacrificed mightily to provide me with training in the arts which included voice and piano lessons, drama lessons and even ballet lessons (which didn’t last very long!). My interest in the arts did not waver as I continued to mature. An interest in choral music came early in my development. I began attending a small church as a result of the missionary outreach of our next-door neighbor. Because the church consisted of a small number of followers I was privileged to participate in church musical activities at a much earlier age then is probably normal. The Youth for Christ movement -- most noted for their Saturday Night Youth Rallies -- was the most influential experience of my young life. These rallies were loaded with musical opportunities and were catalyst for putting my music performing as well as writing gifts to work. My facility grew as I continued to write for YFC and church choirs (I began church choir directing when I was 19). A lot of stuff was written before I began to think that maybe my creative efforts were publishable! It wasn’t until 1972 at 31 years of age that I had the opportunity and the guts to show my compositions to a publisher. To my surprise and delight all three of the ones I submitted were accepted. During the 17 years that led up to that moment I had experimented with “real choirs” and through positive and negative experiences I had discovered what works with church choirs and which compositional devices were most effective. More importantly, I perfected the art of voice leading which rendered my writing quite accessible; I wrote choral music that the church volunteer singer could sing effectively.
What was the name of your first published anthem and your first published cantata or musical?
TF: My first published anthem: “My God How Wonderful Thou Art” (1972). My first published Christmas cantata: “Love, Joy, Peace“ (1973).
Your best known anthem, with well over 1 million copies in print, is “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name”. When you completed the anthem and laid your writing instrument down did you have any idea that it would become standard repertoire for thousands of choirs in almost every denomination?
TF: There is a lengthy story behind the creation of “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name”, which is printed in some of the editions of the anthem. For this article let me recount the end of the story: Late one night in a music store, where I was working at the time, I was seated at a 9 foot Baldwin grand piano (1978); I played through and sang the completed anthem… It was an incredibly moving experience for me and I knew at that time, that God had chosen to touch this musical and textual creation. God wrote it! I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I was only a tool in the hands of God to display His handiwork.
What are a few of the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences as a composer/arranger/clinician down through the years?
- To give birth to musical works in the recording studio.
- To search for and discover new lyrics and musical devices.
- To see and hear 600 high school age young people touched and impacted by performing “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name”.
- To see lives changed and enriched through the ministry of choral music.
- To help and tutor “people with the gift“ achieve and succeed.
- To share my music experiences with my spouse.
- To bring glory to my God. Soli Deo Gloria!
- To find the lost chords!
What is one of your favorite or funniest memories from your experiences “on the road” as a clinician?
TF: A shredded wardrobe! I had a number of conferences in the South and South East packed in a four week period of time. My wife Jan and I decided to drive and make a scenic tour of it. After four or five conferences and 2 1/2 weeks on the road we arrived in Spartanburg South Carolina late one evening and ascertained we only had one change of clothing left. So we sorted and placed the things needing cleaning in the plastic bags provided… Trousers, dresses, sport coat, dress shirts, etc. I took the two bags chock full of stuff to the front desk requesting next day service. The next day we arrived back at the hotel about 6:00 PM expecting the laundry to be in our room but alas, it was not. I called the front desk. They had no idea where it was and said that the cleaners’ was closed for the night and they would run it down first thing in the morning. Luckily my reading session was in the afternoon the next day. The front desk called at about noon and said they were in possession of our cleaning and they would have it delivered to our room. Sigh of relief! Upon arrival, we removed the plastic and paper wrap things to find all of our clothing… Every last item shredded into long strips of fabric. Apparently an employee of the hotel thought our laundry bags were trash bags-- they ran them through the hotel compactor/shredder! When they discovered their error they placed the clothing in two more bags and sent them off to the laundry???!!! We will never know why they did that. A trip to a Spartanburg department store got us through the rest of the trip. After haggling with the hotel chain for a few months we were finally reimbursed for our losses.
What was your favorite thing about working with the writings of Max Lucado for “God Came Near”?
TF: I am blown away by all the writings of Max Lucado. He says things that no one else is saying in a style no one else is using. I call it “practical eloquence and simplicity”. Here is an example of this:
“Christmas celebrates a coming. An arrival. An Advent. Christmas remembers God showing up. Not showing off with Angel-driven chariots or Magic Kingdom fireworks. But showing up riding on a donkey, led by a carpenter, in the belly of a peasant girl. Christmas commemorates God’s most uncommon decision: to come commonly." *
Wow!!! Here are a few adjectives that I believe describe the characteristics of his writing:
- vividly expressive
When I work with Mr. Lucado’s writings I expect to be moved and inspired… And I am never disappointed! One more quote to illustrate my point:
“In the mystery of Christmas, we find its majesty. The mystery of how God became flesh, why He chose to come, and how much He must love His people. Such mysteries can never be solved, just as love can never be diagrammed. Christmas is best pondered, not with logic, but imagination.” *
What words of encouragement can you give to church choir directors in an age where church choirs aren’t as plentiful as they once were?
TF: Hang in there:
- Your choir can and will have an impact upon the spiritual well-being of the congregation. Prepare your choristers well (like a pastor prepares for the delivery of an inspiring sermon). Remember: God is excellent and He commands us to be like Him.
- Your choir can and will minister to the diverse body of believers sitting in the pew. Achieve this through a diverse repertoire. Each person responds to different kinds of stimuli. It behooves us to present a balanced and blended choice of anthems, hymns, and contemporary songs.
- Remember and take pride in the fact that choir participation offers the opportunity for musically gifted people to use their talents to glorify a living God. Discontinuing choirs and orchestras in favor of selective ensembles is a travesty.
- Your choir is a community of friends and believers. They minister to each other. They share the joys and heartaches of the Christian journey. They work as one to achieve a greater purpose -- that’s what makes it unique in the body of Christ.
- If you didn’t have a choir, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to rehearse and present “God Came Near”. I’m convinced that your choir, instrumentalists, and congregation will benefit emotionally and spiritually by a well-prepared and heartfelt presentation. Expect to be moved and inspired. Please tell me how your concert goes: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is on your summer reading list?
TF: “He Chose the Nails” – Max Lucado
What is your favorite hymn?
TF: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
What is your favorite vacation spot?
TF: Hawaii – the big island, if it survives!
What is your favorite summertime frozen treat?
TF: A Toasted Almond Chocolate Milkshake!
Thank you, Tom! We are honored to have you in our family of authors at Jubilate Music Group.
Read Tom Fettke's bio here.
Browse Tom Fettke's publications here.
* Max Lucado book quotations © Copyright Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.