As long as I can remember, participating in music in the church has been my passion. Because my father, Herchel H. Sheets, is a pastor (United Methodist), our family members were always at church, and singing was something we did as a natural part of life. In my elementary school years in the small mountain college town of Young Harris, Georgia, I studied piano and voice, and sang boy soprano with the church choir. I remember singing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” there. As a 10th grader in the north Atlanta suburbs, I began serving as our church organist, learning on the job, and after a year, started directing the adult choir and formed children’s choirs. How I appreciate those kind people who endured my inexperienced leadership! During that time I decided to major in organ and church music, and enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College, where I received strong training and education in music, with the nurture of music professors William Baxter, Hugh Thomas, and others, especially the organ teacher, James Dorroh, who took me under his wing. Dr. Dorroh hired me to assist him at Canterbury United Methodist Church, which was the most valuable type of experience, a sort of apprenticeship— I spent many hours in rehearsal with that excellent adult church choir, in directing the youth choir, in practice at the large four-manual organ, and learning choir and service accompanying skills under his able and patient tutelage.
In the year between graduation and enrollment in graduate school, I served as organist/choirmaster at Birmingham’s First Presbyterian Church, a beautiful church built in the late 19th century, complete with a real carillon — one played by a real person in the bell tower, not an automated system. Downtown Birmingham was regaled with live practice, mistakes and all, on the beautiful bells.
The excellent music school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign drew me to the plains of the Midwest, and I can tell you that the severe winter of 1977-78 was a real trial for this southern boy— for months I walked on sidewalks thick with ice and cut through every building on the path, in order to get away from the wind while walking to class across the expansive campus. Even my organ teacher, experienced as he was in that climate, suffered frost-bite that winter. Here again, God provided a teacher, Jerald Hamilton, who nurtured me with patience and excellent teaching, took me into his choir at St. John’s Episcopal Chapel and allowed me to serve as sub-organist.
Following the masters degree, I served for three years as full-time director of music at the First United Methodist Church in Griffin, Georgia. Once again, God provided the nurture of many persons, including the senior pastor, E. Owen Kellum, and his wife, singer and musician par excellence, Olive Long Kellum, who became, after a year, my in-laws. It was there that I married Vera Lynn, the prettiest, brightest, most charming young woman and fantastic soprano in that church choir. Since that time, Vera Lynn has been my loving partner in all of life, and my most excellent choir member and helper!
Vera Lynn returned with me to Urbana-Champaign, where she did graduate work (masters and all-but-dissertation) in education, and I completed my doctorate in choral conducting. In 1985, both Vera Lynn and I began serving as professors at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. We flourished in the rural mountain setting, as did our children, Ryan and Lindsay, who were born and lived their early years there in Daniel Boone country. During our years at Union College, I was the college choral conductor and organist and taught many other music courses, including theory, music history, conducting, voice, piano, and Dalcroze eurhythmics (in which I certified at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dalcroze Training Center in Pittsburgh—for more about the fascinating field of eurhythmics, see www.dalcrozeusa.org). For ten of those years, I served as organist of the First United Methodist Church in Barbourville. After 17 years at Union College, God called us to return to the vocations of our early married life, as a minister of music and public school teacher respectively, and so, in the summer of 2002, we came to the Gulf Coast and Spring Hill Presbyterian Church, where we are very happy in service and fellowship.
Here at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church, I feel that I am able to pursue my calling to help build Christ’s body through music ministry. It is my passion to help enable congregation members to offer their worship to God in music, in singing and playing instruments. I am grateful to the many persons who do so, in singing from the pews, or faithfully in rehearsals and worship each week. I invite each person to participate in music in the ways God calls you. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”