AW 1958 stok   yankee lake choirschool AW 96
by Marilyn Keiser

Mentoring: Sustaining the Legacy  

I have a vivid memory of the day I met Alec Wyton.  Having just arrived in New York City to begin graduate study at Union Theological Seminary, I decided to take my parents to see the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I would be studying organ.  We found our way to the Choir School and learned that Alec was away for the morning.  Just as we prepared to leave, he came striding down the sidewalk toward the Choir School.  We were introduced and Alec immediately asked if we would like to hear the Cathedral organ.  We followed him up the winding staircase to the organ loft and just before he started to play he said,  " Isn't music fun?" My father quoted him for years.

Making music with Alec at your elbow was always fun, and, in fact, it was a deep joy.  I studied organ with Alec over 7 years, as a Master's and Doctoral student at Union and then 4 years as Alec's assistant at the Cathedral. Alec was a gentle and encouraging teacher.  He shared with all his students his practice and performance secrets:  pedal exercises,  strong inner rhythm, listening for long lines, preparing hand shapes,  playing into the keybed ( " go to the bottom of the keys", he would say), practicing difficult passages backwards.  Alec also shared his deep love of music- Byrd motets, the anthems of Gibbons and Tye, the string quartets of Beethoven, the music of Bach, Messiaen, Britten, and a myriad of other 20th century composers.

During the years I was Alec's assistant, I was touched by his generosity of spirit and his accessibility.  Whenever a visitor arrived who wanted to hear the organ, he was ready to drop whatever he was doing and play the State Trumpet for them. Alec's generosity of spirit and care for people carried over into his work with the American Guild of Organists, which he served as President for 5 years.  During those years, the Guild gave birth to Music, the A.G.O. Magazine ( later The American Organist), an AGO Retirement Plan and a Guild sponsored health insurance program.

 I remember Alec’s consummate musicianship.  The Cathedral’s Choir boys, who attended the Cathedral School, rehearsed 11 times during the week and sang daily services.  Alec never once played an Anglican Chant in the key in which it was written, always transposing the chants to a higher key - usually up a 3rd.  His improvisations for those quiet, daily Evensongs were always fresh and original.

I remember Alec's remarkable, spontaneous sense of humor.  When he returned from the installation of the Presiding Bishop at Washington Cathedral , he remarked that he had heard the Cathedral's new State Clarinet!   One evening in choir rehearsal with the men, he told the basses to sing , "... like cellos in heat!" His humor did not leave him , even when I accidentally erased the only copy of the prepared tape of Richard Felciano's " Words of St. Peter" on the Sunday morning we were to sing it.

It has been said that our teachers are with us for life.  I feel Alec's presence when I practice, when I perform and especially when I teach.  Just as Alec often quoted his own great teacher, George Cunningham, I find myself quoting Alec to my students and to my church choir. My students and choir members have become accustomed to hearing his name and his wise council:
" The State Trumpet is effective in inverse proportion to the amount it is used."
In a Bach trio sonata, " Let your right hand be an oboe."
" Be sure your hands and feet are right over the notes you are going to play before you play them."
“As Church Musicians we are pastor, teacher and performer – in that order.”
" On the day of a concert, treat yourself like a race horse."

Alec once said to me that" teaching is the sharing of enthusiasm." Alec's incredible musicianship, his love of music, his open spirit, his deep caring for people, and his boundless enthusiasm made a profound mark on me.  Thank you, Alec.