As much as social media can sometimes be off-putting it is also frequently a valuable source of information. Such was the case this week when I happened to see an obituary posted for my high school choral director Mr. Stillings. I am fully aware of his first name and yet forty two years after graduation it still doesn’t feel seemly to use it in reference to him. He is still and always my teacher and one of my first mentors; my Mr. Stillings.
I began singing at an early age, and had already recorded a gospel album by the time I was fifteen. When I got into high school I was a pre-college arts major, heavily involved in the schools vocal music programs. Though I had already been singing professionally for some time before my placement audition I froze when asked to sing for Mr. Stillings. It was only scales, but my pulse raced and my throat clutched. Mr. Stillings was polite and kind and placed me in the first tenor sections of the choir, men’s choir, and vocal ensemble.
My second year the school had selected Oklahoma as the spring musical production. The ensemble was singing through the score prior to auditions and I was apparently belting out the familiar tunes with more unreserved gusto than I realized. I barely noticed that Mr. Stillings was peering over the top of the spinet piano with a quizzical look on his face, even as he continued to perfectly play the score without missing a note.
After the session Mr. Stillings asked to speak to me. “Where did that come from?” I felt the creeping up of the internal freeze as he asked the question with an indeterminate intensity. “What,” I asked? “That voice” he said. “Where have you been hiding that beautiful voice?”
I can feel the question to this day. It wasn’t that anyone had never complimented my singing before. But I held Mr. Stillings in high musical regard and I had feared what his assessment might be of my musical capabilities.
“You need to stop hiding that voice and use it. You have it for a reason. And I will expect you to fully use it from here on out.”
I was then cast as the male lead of Oklahoma, a role I never got to play as the result of an emergency knee surgery. But the gift had been given and the lesson had been learned. It was the first time I realized that any talents I might possess are given to me to be fully given. Hiding and withholding my gifts dishonors the Great Creator and the very act of ongoing creation. I am here to shine forth with the radiance of God in whatever form that may take.
As a result of Mr. Stillings counsel I went on to sing out loud for many years. I had many wonderful directors, teachers, and coaches during that time. But it was his affirmation that propelled me forward into a musical and entertainment career. Modest as that career was, it reflected the admonition of my mentor who had the courage and wisdom to confront me in my hiding.
Even as I type these words I realize that when I left the entertainment industry to engage in full time ministry I have once again been mostly hiding my musical gifts. Hearing that Mr. Stillings is now gone from the earth re- ignites his advice within my heart. I can see and feel him looking over his spinet and into my soul. His question lands differently now. “Where did that come from?” The voice and the passion came from Source. The loving prod came from Mr. Stillings.
I will sing again, Mr. Stillings. With whatever voice I have left I will not hide. Music is a gift of the Creator, and I will sing for It and for you. I will sing to thank you and to honor you, to keep your teachings alive and active in me. I know your influence is singing in countless other grateful students.
And I know you sing on as well.