Nassau Presbyterian Church’s Sue Ellen Page is says that a person’s spirituality is bigger than the music and instruments traditionally used in church worship.
Putting that faith into practice, the church’s director of choirs is preparing for its Nassau Arts Concert Series’ “Sing With Us” event on Saturday, February 2.
With a special guest conductor, an afternoon workshop for young singers, and a concert that also serves as a benefit for a local organization, the event works on many levels.
But the highlight is the 7 p.m. gathering of voices that includes several area choirs and an open invitation to the community to join in concert. It will be led by Boston-based conductor, composer, and writer Nick Page (no known relation to Sue Ellen).
Nick Page is the founder and artistic director of the Mystic Chorale, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization that creates participatory musical experiences. The group promotes singing as “an act of compassion, believing that when we create harmony we make the world a more beautiful place” and “become a healing voice for our communities and ourselves.”
According to Nassau Arts coordinators, “Nick Page liberates the old model of the sing-along, bringing choral groups and audiences together to sing powerful songs from around the world in celebration of many styles and cultures. He is dedicated to teaching people of all ages that they are capable of great miracles through the simple, yet powerful, act of singing.”
Sue Ellen Page says that bringing Nick to Princeton is part of the church’s mission. “We strive to be a congregation, among other things, involved with the community. We see the music program here as a mission.”
She says that the active use of music is something that connects people, especially families.
The process is also a gift, one that links her with her family’s love of scared music and its power.
“My parents were both church musicians,” says Sue Ellen. “My father was supposed to go into his father’s business, but he wanted to be a musician and graduated as a conductor, singer, and trumpet player. My mother had a music degree and was a pianist, organist, and singer. I got my teaching skills from my mom and my musical ear from dad.”
Though married 40 years to Eric Johnson, a family therapist and Drexel University faculty member, Sue Ellen decided to keep her family name to honor her parent’s commitment to serving the church through music. It is a tradition that her daughter, Amanda, follows, being the third generation to study at Westminster and now serving at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Though Sue Ellen has a strong connection to Princeton, she was born in Keokuk, Iowa, a town named after an Indian chief and located on the Mississippi River. When she was four years old, her parents decided to study sacred music at Westminster Choir College and moved to Princeton, where they attended Nassau Presbyterian Church.
In 1955 her parents found a church that would hire them as a couple and went to First Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the era of Rosa Parks and the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
Against the backdrop of racial segregation and social tension, Page says she learned an important lesson. “I remember my parents telling me that it doesn’t matter what a person’s skin color is, that God created all people equal.” It is something that she took to heart.
The family stayed in Montgomery to 1963, when her father took a position at a church in Santa Monica, California. A few years later they moved again to Phoenix, Arizona, to assist Page’s aging grandparents.
“I finished high school in Phoenix, but I don’t really think of it as home,” says Page.
Home was in music and her continuing involvement with Westminster Choir College. Page followed her parents’ route and returned to Princeton to study and receive an undergraduate degree in sacred music and music education.
Then another event connected her to the region. “I met my husband here in Princeton when we were both students.”
In the following years, Sue Ellen studied in Austria, received a specialist diploma from the Orff Institute in Salzburg, and soon became a teacher in Rochester, New York.
Then, without realizing it, she returned home.
“We came back to Princeton in 1978 so that I could do graduate work at Westminster Choir College. We had a child, then another. I also taught in the sacred music department during that time, so I took my time completing the degree. Staying here this long was an ‘accident.’ We were going to raise our family in Colorado,” she says.
Page’s work as the director of choirs for children and youth came unexpectedly in 1982. “I was not looking for this position and finishing up at Westminster, teaching (music performance) part-time, and volunteering at West Trenton Presbyterian Church. I was teaching students how to teach. But I was having little interaction with children. I was out to lunch with a friend who I did not know was involved in Nassau Presbyterian Church. I said that I was tired of teaching people to teach without actually teaching children myself.”
The friend connected Page with the church that she had attended years ago with her parents and started working there part-time. “If you told me 31 years ago that I would still be here I would have said that you are crazy. It’s my home congregation. I became full-time in 1987.” At Nassau Presbyterian, Page serves as the director of choirs for children and youth and plans events. She has also been involved with music as community outreach. One such project is the creation of the Trenton Children’s Chorus.
“Trenton Children’s Chorus was my husband’s idea. In Rochester I was teaching in a community music school in the city with children from all backgrounds working together. I missed it and wasn’t sure if I could stay at Nassau Church if I didn’t have it. My husband said, ‘Why don’t you see if the church can get a choir together in the city.’”
That chorus was founded in 1989 by Page along with Trenton music educator Marcia Wood. Starting with volunteers and 11 children, the chorus now has more than 100 students, a paid staff, advisory board, and volunteer support. It meets at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Trenton, two days after school.
The idea of bringing voices together led to Nick Page, whose world travel and study of international musical traditions give him a multi-level appeal to diverse communities. “I heard about Nick for years, had seen him work at professional events, and thought that I had to bring him to Princeton. So I started talking with my colleagues, and we decided that we would do it.”
While the concert in itself is positive, Page says that organizers always wanted to do something else and help worthwhile groups by using events developed through the Nassau Arts Concert Series to help other groups benefit. “Each of the four concerts is done in partnership with other area organizations, and each benefits a different non-profit,” she says. Instead of an admission charge, a free-will offering will be taken to support the work of a community organization.
One such event on the current concert schedule was co-sponsored with Princeton Historical Society and benefited the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen; the next was developed with Witherspoon Presbyterian Church to benefit Centurion Ministries. After this February 2 concert, the final one will take place on Saturday, March 9: Brahms Requiem, presented with choirs from Nassau Presbyterian, All Saints Church, and Trinity Church at the Princeton University Chapel to support Crisis Ministries of Princeton and Trenton.
The organization selected to benefit from “Sing With Us” has a special meaning to Page. “We always thought that it would be involved with groups. We tossed ideas around and decided on CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates of Mercer and Burlington Counties). It focuses on youths and children who — through no fault of their own — are in foster care. It’s youth supporting youth in a way to raise funds to help provide advocacy for children in foster care.”
The choice appealed to Page, who is the mother of an adopted foster care child. The biological mother of three, she says that when the youngest was nearing graduation from Princeton High School (where all her children have attended), her husband requested that Page consider adoption. “It took the better part of a month, then I said yes. It took nine months before our daughter arrived. She was 13,” Page says.
Of the gathering of voices for the upcoming event, Page says, “I believe that the very talented and the moderately talent can sing together, not exclusively, but I believe that the modestly talented gain by hanging with the more talented.”
But that sense goes deeper than that. “I believe that we are given by our creator many gifts. One of those gifts is the beauty of the world, the sound and the touch of the world. All of our senses are engendered by our creator. We are called scripturally to return that gift to our creator. I believe that whenever I am in a concert.”
It also goes back to her father’s advice about God creating people equal. “I do believe that when we make music together we can’t be angry at each other. I believe — as any jingle writer will tell you — that we remember what we sing. I chose the texts of songs carefully. If we sing those texts together, it’s an affirmation and intentional way of building community.”
Page adds, “One of the things that appeals to me about Nick is that he believes the same thing. He makes his life work using music from around the world and all humanity. He involves the art craft and beauty of singing together.”
Together is the key word. “The groups participating in ‘Sing With Us’ include representatives of the American Boychoir, Princeton Girl Choir, Princeton Area Homeschool Choir, Princeton United Methodist Church, Nassau Presbyterian Church, Westminster Conservatory, and friends of singers from these ensembles,” says Page. They meet in the afternoon and work with the guest conductor.
Then at 7 p.m. the singers, coordinators, and conductor will join to present the community the opportunity to join in song. “Nick Page really means that middle word ‘with’— the choir won’t sing ‘at’ the audience, rather, the audience will be invited to sing with the chorus he has worked with all afternoon,” says Sue Ellen. “I feel that it has been an extraordinary blessing in my life. I work with children from when they’re bitty to when they graduate to high school. It’s a very special relationship,” says Page of her life in song.
When the idea of a personal calling arises, Page replies by saying that a Latin word for “calling” is “vocare,” the root of our word “vocation.”
She also mentions a phrase that she learned in the South, one appropriate for the upcoming event, “Ya’ll come.”
Sing With Us, Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, Princeton. Saturday, February 2, 7 p.m. Open to all. Free-will offering. 609-924-0103 or www.nassauchurch.org/create/singwithus.php.