‘Touched’ with a gift:Brother & young sister inspire Greenwood Community Church music program

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Two prodigies are taking Greenwood Community Church by storm.

John Black, 20, was the first child baptized by Pastor Clark when he began his tenure at the church in 1996. Eighteen years later, the pastor hired Black as his director of music.

When Cathy Schobel, a Greenwood congregant since 2004, heard that a teenager would be taking over the church’s music program, all she could think was “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” But Steve Parkinson, a Greenwood congregant for 19 years who served on the committee that hired Black, says that Black’s enthusiasm sold him. Despite the committee’s hesitation about a 19-year-old’s ability to wield musical authority over adults 30 years his senior, Black had a track record that belied his youth: At the time his candidacy was being considered at Greenwood, he had already been the director of music at both Barrington Presbyterian Church and St. Martha’s Church in East Providence.

Once installed at Greenwood as the director of music and choirs and the church organist, Black set about transforming the program into a veritable powerhouse. A small choir for congregants grew to six choirs for adults and children of all ages, two handbell choirs, and instrumental groups of all kinds, with Black working to foster new instrumentalists and vocalists from within the congregation. Soon Black had enlisted his 15-year-old sister, Christian, as an accompanist and assistant to help him handle the wave of interest in his additions to the program.

The changes were instantly felt.

Since Black’s arrival, attendance at the church has risen, the volunteer community has been reenergized, and choir members are amazed at the difference Black has made, especially given his youth. The church, Parkinson says, has simply “become more.” “It’s been a very healthy thing for our congregation to have him here,” says Sue Desmond, a choir veteran with 40 years of singing at Greenwood under her belt.

“People are very responsive with him.” “He has brought so many people out of their shells,” Schobel says.

The repertoire on offer has also gotten a boost from Black’s initiative. Despite Greenwood’s continuing commitment to “traditional, liturgical music,” Black reports that he’s managed to sneak in some gospel and twentieth-century works, including “All the Gifts” from the musical Godspell. Christian, who plays twelve instruments and was recently accepted to the Rhode Island All State ensemble on five of them, has put her considerable skills to work in Greenwood concerts, filling in when an extra instrument is needed and occasionally composing for the choir. Sometimes songs in Latin or Spanish are included (only German inspires some eye rolling, Black says).

The Blacks seem mature beyond their years, and not only because of their preternatural musical gifts. Dressed in a suit and tie that he’s been wearing, according to Schobel, since childhood, Black speaks seriously of his commitment to the ministry aspect of his work. Both Blacks credit God with having “touched us with His gift.” If their parents (both attorneys) “had a plan” when they put both kids on the piano bench, “God had a plan for us since Day One,” giving them both the gift of music in order “to glorify Him.”

Both see the music as a way of inspiring further commitment to the faith. And both strive, Black says, to ask themselves whether they are “living spiritually.” At times this instinct can conflict with the Blacks’ considerable artistic talents, which often inspire awe in the congregants. As Black plays the postlude on organ, Schobel says, the congregants “just sit there, mesmerized, sometimes when people clap.”

Black says, “we want it to be more about church.” He often reminds his choir that they are there to “serve our congregation and to glorify God in our music,” says Desmond.

Black admits, though, that he and Christian do enjoy “getting good” on their instruments as well, and brings this high artistic bar to his work with the community. “He works us to death!” says Schobel. “He says we’re just gonna do it one more time and we do it ten more times.” Desmond agrees that John is “definitely the most challenging person I’ve ever sung under.” But, she says, “It’s also the most fun I’ve ever had.” Black is “just inspirational.” In fact, the concert choir, which includes non-congregants, has brought, Black says, new people to services and into the congregation.

Black also seems uncannily suited to the social aspect of his job. Dressed in a suit and tie that belies his age that he has reportedly been wearing since he was 4, Black, as Schobel puts it, “has a natural tact about him” and “is very gentle with people’s hearts.” “If people don’t know the gospel, Schobel says, “all they have to do is look at the Gospel according to John Black. He really sets a high example of how to be with people…of how a Christian should be.”

In addition to his full-time position at Greenwood, Black currently attends Rhode Island College and performs throughout the state as an accompanist and singer. A professional organist since the age of 12 (hired after five months of studying the instrument), Black’s instruments include piano, organ, voice, and “some brass instruments-mainly trumpet.” He also performs with the Providence Singers, who often hire him as an improviser on the organ. He sings with the Providence Philharmonic once in a while. Christian, of course, can improvise too, and on several instruments. In addition to a busy Christmas schedule of performances all over Rhode Island (John is performing at Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions while Christian is singing with the Rhode Island Children’s Chorus), the Blacks will be presenting Greenwood’s Christmas concert on December 11, part of the church’s community concert series. One of the first endeavors in Black’s revitalization of the music program, the series includes every ensemble from the program and has played in past years to packed houses.

When asked how long they expect their wunderkind director to stick around, the congregants aren’t sure if they’ll get to keep him for much longer. It probably won’t be long before “someone’s gonna scoop them up,” Schobel says, referring to both Blacks. A congregant from Black’s former church in Barrington warned her, she says, that she wouldn’t have him for long. Parkinson agrees that “someone with that kind of talent…has to keep growing.” But, he laughs, we’re “hoping we can stall him.” “We’re just enjoying him as long as we have him,” says Desmond.

As for the Blacks’ own plans, Christian will go to college in a few years, and Black reports that it would be “very hard” for him to leave Greenwood. Both reiterate that they’ve found support of all kinds in the Greenwood community, for both their education and professional endeavors. But with a full performance schedule and a track record at Greenwood that would be impressive in someone twice his age, there’s no telling where Black will be in five years. As Desmond puts it, “He can do whatever he wants in life.”

“He just turned the world around,” Schobel says.

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