“This is a sanctuary, and you belong here,” said Deen Entsminger, Belmont University Professor of Music.
At first, I didn’t know how to respond. All I wanted was to tell him that my financial aid had fallen through, and that I was required to drop all my classes. But it was two weeks into the semester and in Deen’s mind, I was already part of the Chamber Singers family.
Many get to know the fun loving side of Deen Entsminger, but as soon as he spoke those words to me, I started to see his true character. The chamber choir circle, while under his stewardship, is a place of refuge from the storms of life. It is a place where the students are not only a member of a choir, but they are part of the family. Knowing, seeing, experiencing all of this leads everyone to assume that this is how it’s always been. But as I sat down with Entsminger, he took me on his personal journey of redemption.
When did music enter your life?
My mom and dad always had records of all the great singers. I’d learn these songs because I’d go over and pick them up and start over again. Then in 6th grade, Mr. Wymm Price, just before lunch or recess, would bring out his battered old guitar and just start singing. He didn’t require anything of us, he would just sing. And when there was a refrain, he'd say, ‘Sing along if you want.’ And so, I began to learn musical form.
And he had a face on him like he really liked it! I had not seen that before because I've been listening to records. And sometimes on TV you'd see somebody performing, but it's back in the day with a black and white set and it has bad reception. But this man was standing right in front of us and he liked what he was doing! He was expressing himself and it made him happy. And I thought, ‘This is making me happy!’ So, I joined in.
Did you join choir right then?
Well no, we didn’t have a choir in middle school. That wouldn’t happen until the 8th grade.
When did conducting come into play?
Oh, how sweet. June of 1966, I was 16 years old. My choir director tells me that there’s a week-long choral camp in Virginia and that I needed to go. So, I’m sitting in my place [at camp] and up on the stage walks our conductor. What was so remarkable about this man was his hands. He was simply getting us to sing by waving his hands!
I’d never seen that before. My high school choral director conducted us from the piano. His hands were always on the keyboard, so he nodded at us to come in. And there it was. I'm 16. I'm looking at this man. And I went, ‘I want to do that.’ I couldn’t recover from that. I'm getting emotional right now, just remembering Paul Salamunovich. One of the great choral conductors of the time.
Tell me about some of the challenges when first starting your career.
First thing out of the bat was being angry. After graduating from college, I got a job as a choral director of a high school in Richmond, Va. I had gone to a conservatory of music and woo, it's a big deal when you're at a conservatory. I graduated with maybe more problems about my need to share myself with others. I wasn't a teacher, I was choral director, and I was a good one. And I wanted people to know that.
I had impatience for the time it took a group of kids to learn something and I'd get angry at them. The next time they took a pass at it, they sang a little more quietly. I go, ‘Hey! Come on, come on!’ I had raised my voice. Well, when I raise my voice, their voices diminish.
One time I looked up and I saw some sopranos talking and they were over to my left and I just, I took my hand and slammed the piano. I hurt my hand so badly, but I was really ready to make a point. I slammed the piano. I just pointed at them and I said, ‘What are you doing? You're wasting time in here! You're talking while I'm trying to do work!’ One of the sopranos sheepishly said, ‘Mr. Entsminger, we were having a problem with page seven and we were trying to go over that part.’ They were talking about the music and I, I got mad at them. I had to change my behavior quickly.
What did you do to change?
The metaphor is I'm up on a pedestal, not that they’d built, I built it. I was so far away from them that they could not appreciate what I was doing. I wasn't letting them appreciate it. I was controlling their responses. And at some point, they just decided to either quit or bring me down. And some of them who were really interested stuck around. They just toppled me. I came crashing down right into the room with them.
I was so young, I didn't realize that this was a shared experience. I was thinking it was all about me. And the moment I realized it didn't have to be, that’s when I returned to my child-like state. I had to start over and be vulnerable. I had to [tell myself] that ‘the very people with whom you are being vulnerable have already been vulnerable to you. They've already joined you. They're in.’
And I realized they wanted to know why the music was that beautiful. So, I'd spend the rest of my young life building the vocabulary to tell them why something was so magnificent. And the moment I did, oh my gosh, the ensemble began to throw their heads back. I don't mean that literally because that's not a good vocal posture, but I'm going back to what Mr. Price did. His head would rise up and then he'd sing that loud note. Well, my choir began to do that too now that they wanted to, because I'd learned to invite them.
Turning Point is a new series in The Contributor that focuses on the moments where people’s lives were changed.