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Saltwater Portrait

T.J. Thomas: St. Peter’s minister of music

New York native celebrates 10 years in Lewes
February 18, 2020

For T.J. Thomas, it wasn’t necessarily love at first note. But as he grew older, his interests changed, and now, as minister of music at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, he’s immersed himself in music.

“In my experience, music really does have the power to transform lives,” said the 33-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y.

Thomas said music can draw people into a closer relationship with God. “There are a lot of different ways people get drawn into a faith community like this,” he said. “Music is one of those ways.”

Thomas came to St. Peter’s 10 years ago after spending a year as interim music director at a church in Emmaus, Pa. The first time he’d been to Delaware was a day trip in the dead of winter to check out the Cape Region before applying for a job at St. Peter’s.

“I remember getting out of my car at the end of Rehoboth Avenue and thinking why would anyone ever want to live here?” he said.

As he would learn, summertime is very different. But the region has changed a lot over the last 10 years, with more and more people moving to the area. During the same time, St. Peter’s has also grown, nearly doubling its parish. 

“I’d like to think the music program has been a large part of that,” Thomas said.

When he arrived in 2010, St. Peter’s had an established volunteer adult choir. The previous Minister of Music George Bayley had a done a great job of putting St. Peter’s on the map in terms of music, Thomas said. “George kind of greased the wheels for growth,” he said.

In addition to maintaining a strong adult choir, Thomas has added a bell choir. It’s so popular, he’s had to add an Intro to Bells class to accommodate more people.

One of his proudest accomplishments has been the popularity of St. Cecilia’s Guild, an outreach ministry of the music program that aims to offer high-quality concerts to the community. Now in its fourth season, the concerts, which are free and open to all, feature a variety of music, from a large community choir from Maryland to intimate performances by vocalists or small ensembles.

“The only reason we’re able to offer this to the community for free is that we have donors, both parishioners and friends in the community, who appreciate these events and contribute to make them possible,” Thomas said.

Thomas is a member of the Lewes Chamber Players, which will perform five concerts this season. The group comprises violinist Sylvia Ahramjian and cellist Ovidiu Marinescu, and Thomas on organ.

As if he’s not busy enough, Thomas organized a choir trip to England to perform at Ely Cathedral. In 2018, 37 singers from Delaware performed Choral Evensong in a church that dates back to 1083. Choral evensong is a daily evening service that features mostly singing.

For many in the church, it was a big deal. “That was a smashing success,” Thomas said. “I think for a lot of my singers here that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They’ve already been asking when we’re going back.”

The trip took a lot of time and effort, Thomas said, but he would like to take another group back in the next three to five years.

Thomas was born and raised in a small town called Hilton about a half hour northwest of Rochester, N.Y. As a young boy, Thomas shared the interests of many who live in cold-weather areas – ice hockey and skiing.

Although he started taking piano lessons when he was about 8, he gave it up for a while to play hockey. He didn’t revisit music again until high school, when a choral conductor inspired him to pursue a life in music. He studied organ at Eastman School of Music, a well-known and respected institution in Rochester. From there, he attended Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., earning a bachelor of music education in 2008.

Although he always had a passion for church music, he didn’t think it was something he wanted to do full time until he started working at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “I had a first-rate mentor there,” he said. “His name is Mark Laubach. He was really responsible for mentoring me and my career. That’s where I learned most of what I know.”

Besides organ, Thomas is adept at most keyboard instruments. In May 2017, he played a restored harpsichord during a special performance at St. Peter’s, a predecessor of the modern-day piano. The harpsichord takes a different approach on the inside. Where a piano strikes the strings, a harpsichord plucks them.

Thomas also considers choral conducting one of his instruments.

“That’s a large part of what I do here,” he said. “I train vocal choir and bell choir. It’s not unlike a band. Everybody’s got their little part, and you’ve got to make it all fit together.”

He’s also teaching a group of adults how to read music with the ultimate goal of teaching them how to sight sing, meaning they can pick up a piece of music they’ve never seen before and sing it accurately.

Along with teaching piano lessons once a week, Thomas said the time and effort he invests in his students is well worth it.

“It’s rewarding to see folks who have this lifelong dream of singing in a choir or playing the piano and now a bit later in life and they’re realizing that dream of being able to contribute in a musical way,” he said.

Recently, Thomas has been an accompanist for Cape Henlopen High School, playing for many of the school’s concerts and traveling with students last December to sing at the National Christmas Tree.

“It’s neat for me as a full-time church musician to have a bead on what’s happening in the wider community,” he said.

Outside of church, Thomas also enjoys being a crew member on the SV Osprey participating in the beer can races in Lewes each summer. “It’s nice to put my cellphone down for a few hours and just enjoy the weather and the fresh air,” he said. “I think what I like about it is that I’m not in charge.”

Meeting people outside the church is also a benefit, he said. On his days off, he enjoys riding on the local trails and cooking.

When asked what he listens to outside church, he said he’s an NPR junkie. He also has an admiration for jazz pianists. “It’s always something I wished I could do,” he said. “So much of it is improvising. I’m kind of the opposite musician. It’s a skill I admire.”

 

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