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Jameson Varpness: The choir is better when all voices have a place

By on March 31, 2019 in Arts with 0 Comments
Jameson Varpness: director of music ministries at Grace Lutheran Church has a piano in his office and bookcases lining his walls full of music.

By Susan Lagsdin

When Jameson Varpness first saw Wenatchee almost four years ago, just 26, just out of grad school in Nebraska and grateful for a first job in his area of expertise, he was stunned. 

“Nobody had told me it was like this! All the recreation… I’d never been hiking, never been skiing. Now I go all the time.” 

Newly hired as the director of music ministries at Grace Lutheran Church, he not only became an outdoorsman, he also immersed himself in Wenatchee’s lively music scene. He sees it as a kind of niche environment. 

“This is a perfect sized city — it’s big enough to have all these opportunities, and it’s small enough that you can actually get involved,” though he admits for some there’s a laughably tight overlap of schedules. 

He’s a trombonist in the Wenatchee Valley Symphony, directs the Appleaires women’s chorus, and plays piano in the pit at Hot August Night PAC productions. 

That’s all in his free time, of course. During the day and many evenings, Jameson does his job planning and conducting music for the Grace congregation. 

From the start, his autonomy let him gradually grow his own programs. “I came into the perfect situation here,” he said. “All the structures for music ministry were intact, and there were certain expectations, but there was no one individual I had to be compared to.” 

The job also held little of the “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome he’d anticipated. 

His light-filled church office is lined with (by count) 200 linear feet of shelving holding black boxes labeled #1 to #1491, full of choral scores. Three file cabinets hold music for handbells, brass instruments, organ and piano. But the star of the room is the shiny black Pramberger piano shipped intact, collapsed and bubblewrapped, from his Midwest college. (“I don’t even like to think about how they got it in here,” he said, eyeing the narrow doorway.)

A typical busy work week for Jameson involves researching and transcribing scores, planning curricula and holding rehearsals for up to six performing groups, three with Latin names: Catecheo  (resounding in the ear) is for 3rd to 5th graders,  Chancel Schola (paraphrased they learn to sing in the altar end of the church) is for 6th through 12th graders; mostly adults are in the Compline Choir (the last of the evening prayers) and the Voices of Grace main choir. 

Multi-age instrumental groups are The Bells of Grace handbell group and the Grace Brass. He also selects the Sunday morning congregational hymns. 

“A lot of what I do is communicating with everyone involved and figuring out who needs what when, from worship services to community events,” Jameson said. “There’s a saying: ‘the primary job of a musician is to make music, the second is to haul stuff.’” 

He’s familiar with both. 

Born in Minnesota to music teacher parents and trained as a pianist, Jameson’s career path seemed straightforward. However, he balked in college at the continual pressure of piano performance (note: tender encouragement brought him back). In that period, he found his métier in collaborative ensemble settings, which combined with a music ministry internship to set him in a rewarding new direction. 

He figures he’s hard to pin down as a musician; singing, keyboarding, teaching, conducting, and arranging all draw his interest, but, Jameson explained, “My particular form of creativity lives in synthesis. Communicating through art — setting things next to each other and allowing those pieces to interact and create meaning — comes much more naturally to me than starting with a blank canvas.” 

That meshes with his other passion: the power of people knowing and understanding each other, whether within a group of singers, among religions or in the region, and he’s eager to use his position to collaborate and reach into the larger world. 

That’s a big job, but he optimistically quotes Leonard Bernstein: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”

Jameson admits, “Our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or ELCA) is statistically one of the least diverse religious bodies in America. We’re not great at this, yet. But I think it’s changing — the tectonic plates are shifting, there are deep rumblings and my job is to keep my ear to the ground.”

These last two years have been hopeful ones. Performing Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert with Wenatchee’s Big Band for Black History Month, creating a Spanish language service with dual programs and liturgy, and celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation with other non-Lutheran churches were all big steps beyond the home altar.

Jameson believes that race and ethnicity, poverty and class are all viable concerns of the church community. And, as an openly gay man, he is equally sensitive to LGBTQ issues, citing trans women of color as, ironically, America’s newest and most vocal civil rights advocates.

How do you encourage a church to value inclusion and diversity? 

Jameson intends to do it with music, one note at a time.

And he’s going to do it with others, just as he conducts his singing groups, because, as he described, “The individual voices within a choir are so much less expressive than the whole ensemble working cooperatively… creating something that none of us could do alone is both immensely rewarding and a constant reminder that we need each other.” 

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