… and in our spare time …

In the early days of FotoTechnika we gladly spent hours and hours at work, getting the business underway. But alas, well-meaning friends constantly reminded me that “all work and no play makes John a dull boy.” We didn’t pay much attention to their admonitions until we rediscovered what we really wanted to do in our (ahem) “spare” time: MUSIC.

Back in our college days, before I was a photo major and before Saundra settled in with commercial art, we had both been music majors. Both of our families have a rich musical tradition; my dad and Saundra’s mom were both church organists, as is one of our brothers-in-law to this day. My sisters have married talented musicians and we all have had musically talented offspring, so much so that we can pull together a rather impressive vocal ensemble from time to time.

Saundra and I, and my two sisters all sang in the then Florida Junior College (FJC) Chorale in the 1970s. At the time the chorale was directed by Don Thompson, who was affectionately referred to as “Mr. T” by his students. He was a most gifted “organic” director — a passionate individual who could energize music with emotions pulled from the singers, often emotions they had no idea they possessed. During his 14-year tenure as director, the FJC Chorale went on a number of unprecedented overseas concert tours. Saundra had the opportunity to go to Europe in the Chorale’s first overseas tour in 1973, then she and I went with the group to Vienna, Moscow and Leningrad for three weeks in 1975; in fact it was while in Leningrad that I proposed to her (using the now infamous, “I’m going to wear white tails for our wedding” line). My twin sister and her soon-to-be husband sang their way around Israel, Italy and Greece in 1977 and my younger sister chilled out in Scandinavia in 1979.

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After college we pursued our adult lives, always active in church music programs, with the exception of a few years when our daughter Sarah was young. We have been in some really wonderful church choirs and ensembles, but they just couldn’t compare to being in an auditioned chorus that performs a huge variety of music, both sacred and secular. There’s something to be said for spending months rehearsing and perfecting repertoire vs. having to get a different anthem ready for Sunday worship every week. Little did we know that as we were leading our busy adult lives, events were beginning to unfold that would allow us to have that choral experience again.

Mr. T stepped down from his position as the FJC Chorale director in 1983 and his (now deceased) wife asked that Saundra and I organize a surprise reunion of as many of his former students as we could find in 1984. We formed a committee that dreamed up a fictitious wedding of two of his previous students to lure him to the event. Fun was had by all, but the only musical entertainment was from the barbershop quartet from the 1977 Chorale.

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For the ensuing years Mr. T’s former students begged him to conduct them in a reunion concert, but he steadfastly refused. One evening in 1994, after imbibing some social lubricant with some former students, he finally relented, but with one condition; Saundra and I, two of his most trusted student assistants, must organize and manage the event, leaving him with only the responsibility of conducting. We jumped at the opportunity and in December 1994 the Don Thompson Era (1969-83), FJC Chorale presented a reunion concert. After about a half dozen rehearsals, we performed with over 60 singers to a full house. The concert was a thrilling experience for everyone who attended, singers and audience alike.

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The ’94 reunion concert came along just at the right time and absolutely left many in the group wanting more. We realized just how therapeutic music is, how choral singing is one of those rare endeavors where the whole has the potential of being greater than the sum of its parts. That is an experience that can be intoxicating in a very positive way, providing an outlet to relieve the stresses of everyday adult life. In the days and weeks following the concert this group became a committee who talked Mr. T into allowing us to form a community chorus under his direction. He had three conditions: first we get 40 singers to sign their commitment “in blood,” second, Saundra and I would be managers for life, and third, he would not receive compensation – instead the group would bear his name. The group agreed and in May 1995 the Don Thompson Chorale (DTC) was born with that committee as its first board of directors. Mr. T conducted us for seven years, and after a stellar performance of Brahms’ Requiem in Spring 2003, he announced that he would retire after our Patriotic Concert in July. Mr. T eventually moved back to his hometown of Thomaston, Georgia where he resides today.

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The next fall Michael Dell, our accompanist since 1999, took the reigns and led the group until the end of 2009. In 2010 we decided to direct ourselves using some of the bountiful talent from within the group. Today the DTC is still going strong and Saundra and I still manage it. (We will have some exciting news about our Fall season, so stay tuned to the DTC website and Facebook page.)

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Like I said earlier, we are a very musical family. Five other members of our family sing in the current DTC; our daughter Sarah and her husband Thomas (who had the Chorale sing at their wedding), my twin sister Anne Miller and her husband Gary and their son Joel.

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In 2012 Gary and longtime friend and DTC member, Joe Proctor decided to sing with The River City Men’s Chorus (RCMC) in the summer. The RCMC is a short-term group that starts rehearsing in May and performs a several concerts in July, then disbands until the next summer. The DTC normally takes a summer break in June and July, but in 2012 we were in the thick of preparation for another reunion concert scheduled for the Labor Day weekend. This reunion concert included both current and former members of The Don Thompson Chorale along with Don Thompson era FJC Chorale alumni and was to celebrate Mr. T’s upcoming 75th birthday.

While still preparing for the reunion concert, Saundra and I attended a very impressive RCMC concert. Not only did they sound amazing, all the proceeds from their summer concerts went to help local cancer victims. I promised Gary and Joe that I would consider auditioning for the group in 2013 — but back to the reunion concert.

The reunion concert was pretty much my idea. In the summer of 2011 we made contact with Susan Bishop York, an FJC Alumni who lives in the San Diego area. Saundra told her to drop by a rehearsal if she was ever in town. As fate would have it, she was going to be in town the week of our first rehearsal of the Fall season in August. Susan was one of Mr. T’s favorites from some of the first years he directed the FJC Chorale. We knew we would be in big trouble if we didn’t let him know so he could come to town to visit with her. We decided to let a few other people know and before we knew it we had a little mini-reunion going for our first rehearsal. We didn’t get loads of rehearsing done, but we sure had a good time.

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Afterward, I thought, that wasn’t so hard, Facebook had opened up all sorts of new ways to contact alumni, why don’t we do a full blown reunion concert? So in early 2012 I got permission from the board to produce a major concert. Saundra signed on pretty quickly since she always loves an excuse to reunite with our FJC alumni. But several alumni, including my good friend Ron Harris, the first president of the DTC, thought I had rocks in my head, especially when I told him I wanted to book the Jacoby Symphony Hall for the event. His opinion changed after a trip to Thomaston to visit Mr. T. Don’s health was failing and suddenly we were confronted with the notion that this could be our last opportunity to be with Mr. T as a group.

At the beginning of the week of the concert Mr. T found himself in the hospital in Thomaston, but checked himself out to join us. He was honored by his family, students and peers, and he was even able to direct our closing selection, Hymn and Prayer for Peace. On every level the concert was a tremendous success. Within months afterward we learned that Mr. T was diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It was then that we realized how providential our timing was.

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Fast forward again to April 2013. As promised, I auditioned for the RCMC and was accepted as a first tenor. Wayne Bailey, the director, couldn’t believe his good fortune to now have four men from the DTC in his group. Truth was, because he didn’t interfere with other groups’ regular seasons, he was getting the pick of the litter from several of Jacksonville’s community choruses. In addition to the DTC, the RCMC has members from the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, the Orange Park Chorale, the Big Orange Chorus, the Jacksonville Men’s Chorus and several other groups. Part of the plan is for proceeds from the RCMC concerts to go to a different charity every year. In 2012 the group raised over $10,000 for Wolfson Childrens Hospital and in 2013, again raised over $10,000, this time for the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, which helps families of children with cancer.

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Not only did I sing in the chorus, but FotoTechnika also had opportunity to donate its talents by printing posters, programs and save-the-date bookmarks for the concerts. And in typical DTC manager fashion, I also took on the responsibility of securing and transporting risers for the concerts. (I just couldn’t let well enough alone and only sing.) All of this at exactly the same time we were moving the business to our new location. I must admit, my voice was in the best shape ever at the end of the series and setting up a half dozen choral risers for the various concerts left my muscles toned as well.

In early 2014 Wayne Bailey made a surprise announcement. On the heels of his success with the River City Men’s Chorus (which is now in its 5th season), he has created the River City Women’s Chorus which will also peform in the four fund-raising concerts for the Dreams Come True organization this July. I encouraged Saundra to audition and two other ladies from the DTC also joined; and the RCMC gained yet two more men from the DTC. The sound of a 40-voice men’s choir and now a 40-voice ladies’ choir is really something. Even though Saundra and I are both in our late 50s, all this singing has kept our voices in their best shape ever, but the camaraderie that exists between us and our fellow choral musicians is the icing on the cake. Oh, and guess what, I’m assisting Wayne with this group, too. This year I will have even more risers to haul since we will have over 80 singers on risers when the men’s and women’s choruses combine for the final selections on the program.

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Even though it seems we never go on vacation, we are fulfilled and there’s no chance that John is a dull boy. Being able to unleash our passions through visual arts at FotoTechnika and the performing arts by singing in various groups is both our pleasure and our privilege. We would be pleased to see you at one or more of our four concerts this July and at our DTC concerts this Fall. All concerts are free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. And for heaven’s sake, if you have the talent for singing in a group setting but haven’t found the right group, please contact me or Saundra. We’d be happy to help you spice up your spare time.



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