More than music: Organist’s departure leaves a void

This Sunday, Rodney Ayers ends more than 22 years of service at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton as its choir director and organist to move to a position with a large parish near Providence, R.I., a move brought about for family reasons. His departure is a great loss to St. Matthew’s. Rodney has an extraordinary capacity to stir the spirit whether at the organ or piano keyboard, singing, teaching classes for children and youth, or helping to plan Arts at St. Matthew’s musical events.
Rodney works closely with St. Matthew’s Rector Mary Grace Williams to see that each service is unified in theme and direction in music as well as in liturgy and preaching. His teaching skills likewise are really extraordinary, and he is a magnet for young families and their children. More than a few children as young as four years old come up to the organ as he plays the postlude that ends the service to watch him in performance and then stay afterwards to talk with him and try out the organ. Rodney readily encourages them, and their parents quite naturally love it, as does the whole congregation!
Rodney doesn’t limit the superb education of his students to music theory and performance alone. His Yale graduate degrees in theology as well as in music have prepared him well to help young people understand the full significance of what is happening in each Sunday’s church service: how the hymns and anthems relate to the Bible readings and the sermon, and how all work together to create a unified and powerful worship experience. Rodney’s style of presentation is always spirited and lively, highly interactive, and filled with wit and gentle humor. In fact, surrounding Rodney is a special grace, thoughtfulness and genuine concern for others that really radiates and that makes people want to be engaged. That is a great gift and one that has richly blessed the congregation.
So Rodney has regularly marshaled 40 or more young people from second grade up on Sunday mornings and has communicated to all of them and the senior choir as well, youngest to oldest, what they are about: How the music has been chosen specifically to fit the readings and the sermon — the heart of the service’s specific message. How on a rainy or gloomy day, children, youth, and adult choristers need to provide the musical “sun” to gloriously brighten the overcast as they “preach in song.” How important precision is to the totality of musical preaching, but also how the message communicated most of all needs to reflect the joy, the mystery, and the transcendence of that being sung. In short, how important it is what the choir does, from youngest to oldest, and how much it matters that the choristers do it with heart and to the best of their ability.
It is surely true that people of all ages in the congregation love the music that Rodney both creates himself and enables the adult, youth, and children’s choirs to perform. It is equally true that they are captivated by his brilliance in doing so, a brilliance that radiates joy. His example reminds young people of the excellence to which they themselves can aspire in whatever they choose to undertake. And even beyond his brilliance, what these young people see, feel, understand, and absorb themselves (returning to sing at St. Matthew’s on school breaks even as college and graduate students) is what everyone across the whole congregation senses: the breadth of Rodney’s love for the youngest to the oldest and his desire that everyone achieve all of which he or she is capable.
In David Brooks’ recent book, The Road to Character, Brooks identifies as one of the hallmarks of character an understanding that “your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment [in which I am found] need in order to be made more whole? What is it that needs repair?... As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, ‘At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?’” Rodney’s enormous talents meet the needs of the world around him in so many ways for children, youth and adults alike, and it is clearly his deep gladness to meet those needs — needs which are fundamental to a rich life, whether one is young or old.
Rodney’s unfailingly joy and demonstration of excellence have a powerful impact on those blessed to be the beneficiaries of his calling. He will be sorely missed.