Music is a family affair for Bill & Diane Thomas
An AAME arts award winners
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 27, 2016Music brought Bill and Diane Thomas together when they were in high school. Their first date was attending a high school choral concert in which Bill was singing. They've enjoyed making music together since.
They began their musical careers while still in high school. Bill directed the choir at a church in his hometown, while Diane played piano as a duo with the church organist in her hometown.
They attended the University of Dubuque in Iowa and married and had two children, Deborah and Tom, while there. "When graduation day finally came, Diane's grandmother, who was a teetotaler, said she felt like having a drink," Bill says.
Bill began teaching in Oregon, Illinois, where, in 1961, daughter Kathryn was born. During his seven-year tenure there, he developed a choral program that included half the student body. One of his students, Duain Wolfe, is director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.
Bill's work came to the attention of George Howerton, dean of the School of Music at Northwestern University. Dr. Howerton invited Bill to become his assistant while pursuing his master's degree. One of Bill's responsibilities during those years was preparation of the Northwestern Summer Chorus for a performance at Ravinia Music Festival with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
They moved to Bristol in 1970 when Bill accepted a teaching job at Sullins College, where Diane became staff accompanist.
"Weary of the big city, Bill began searching for a college position in a smaller community. He was drawn to Sullins for the opportunities it would provide for the children such as piano, ballet and horseback riding lessons, plus a wonderful summer camp for the girls," Diane says.
1970 was also the year Bill began a 36-year tenure as director of music at State Street United Methodist Church. Through the years, Bill added a youth choir, three hand bell choirs, a brass ensemble and a men's quartet. A children's choir was already in place, and Diane directed it from 1976 until 1999.
In 1972, Bill began a nine-year tenure with the Kingsport Symphony Chorus. In that same year, he served as musical director for a large-scale musical, "Carousel," under the auspices of Sullins College and Dogwood Playhouse. As performance dates loomed near, much of the set was complete but nothing had been done in terms of an actual carousel.
"Bill's creativity and artistic ability came to the rescue," Diane says. "He designed the horses, cut them out of plywood and painted them with the help of daughter Deborah. He also designed the awning and purchased the fabric for it that I sewed together."
"Carousel" was the first of 26 musicals for Bill. He worked with stage directors Jim Cunningham and Jack Phend of Sullins, Cathy DeCaterina of Bristol Children's Theatre and Theatre Bristol, David Browning, and Van Keyser of Virginia Highlands Community College between 1972 and 1986.
When Sullins closed in 1976, Diane began to teach at Van Pelt Elementary. "It was every elementary music teacher's dream job: I saw the students twice a week; classes met in a very large, clean room with space for movement activities; the principal, teachers and parents were very supportive, and the students responded well," she remembers.
While Diane went the elementary school route, Bill began to teach at King College (now University), where he was adjunct instructor of voice, music theory and music appreciation.
While at Sullins and Van Pelt, Diane was active in the community as a singer. She presented recitals, sang in opera recitals at Sullins and was the Brahms "Requiem" soloist with the Kingsport Symphony. She says the most "musical fun I had during those years was singing the role of Maria in Theatre Bristol's 1981 production of "The Sound of Music' with David Browning directing and Bill as musical director."
When Betty Layman, choral director at Virginia High School, retired, Diane transferred there, and Bill became a dedicated volunteer.
"Going from elementary music teaching to high school choral was like going into a different field," Diane says. "Although I had done a considerable amount of choral accompanying, I had never been responsible for the progress and musical development of a choral organization, especially a choral sound. In accompanying, my concentration was always on the director, trying to anticipate his or her every musical need. I also tried to be quiet and not interject my own ideas. (That's the hardest part.) I was unaccustomed to standing in front of a choir and being in charge.
"Fortunately, Bill had had many years of experience being in charge. So he was a willing presence and support and over the next few years logged hundreds of volunteer hours working with students. Eventually, I became more comfortable and confident in the role of conductor and called upon him only at concert time."
Diane's choral students dominated the choral scene in Virginia District VII, with many students having successful auditions and selection for district and All-Virginia choruses. Her choir auditioned and was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in 1995. In 1996, Diane was a finalist for the Virginia Music Educator of the Year award.
"Our superintendent once commented on my ability to attract both "jocks and nerds' into the program. The success of the program was itself an attraction, but more importantly, I think were the experiences of students in their elementary and middle school music classes. I was fortunate to have teachers like Sarah Scott, Jan Catron and Judy Dowe at the elementary level and Margaret Kearfott, Donna Fowlkes and Richard Rollins at the middle school who made music an enjoyable experience and one the students wanted to continue," Diane says.
"Bill's work with the students and his behind-the-scene help with many organizational aspects of the job were invaluable. I think it is easy to work with someone whom you admire. Bill appreciates my accompanying ability, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for his strengths as a voice teacher and choral conductor. As Duain Wolfe wrote at the time of Bill's retirement, "I am frequently asked who had the greatest influence on me in my decision to make music my life. My answer is always, my high school choral director, Bill Thomas. You introduced me to the great composers of western civilization and instilled in me a desire for perfection – the art of getting it right,'" she says.
At the time of Bill's retirement, a member of the youth, and later, Chancel Choir, wrote the following tribute: "You taught us, inspired us, encouraged us to do things we never thought possible. You believed in us and gave us gifts far greater even than that of music. You gave us confidence and self-esteem. You have given so much to so many through your kind, gentle presence and relentless pursuit of the finest in musical performance."
Bill also composed pieces for the choir, including a requiem. "I have always written with a particular soloist, duo or choir in mind. My music compositions are settings of sacred texts that I wished to use in worship.
"Composing music for worship was a very small part of my career that was all about working with amateurs, young and old, in elementary, high school, college, church and community. It was about teaching voice, directing choirs, teaching music appreciation and theory, and working to help the uninitiated strive to enjoy the benefits of quality performance and/or listening. My work in Illinois and for 46 years in Bristol and the Tri-Cities has proven to be a rich environment for this ambition," Bill says.
"It is an unexpected pleasure that we are being recognized for our careers by the Arts Alliance Mountain Empire, and especially to be in the company of the other four honorees whom we hold in such high esteem. Sharing this honor with us is every adult, youth, or child who has shared in our pursuit of excellence and search for beauty in the making of music; every teacher, organist, director or soloist with whom we have collaborated; and every patron of the arts whose support is essential," Bill and Diane say.
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