News Column

Music is part of Christian message at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach [Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA)]

August 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Music, like faith in God, rings through Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach.

Aiming to attract a variety of listeners and viewers, the church's music program offers genres from classical to contemporary rock.

When he was hired as the Minister of Music in 2003, Stan Dewitt said his goal was to celebrate all kinds of music.

"I wanted to create a music program that could do Mozart one Sunday, a gospel piece the next Sunday and Mumford and Sons the next Sunday," he said. "And the thing that connected them was that they would all be done really well."

Although most of the music is Christian-based, Dewitt said the program incorporates songs that "may not be as obvious to some," like Lisa Hannigan's "I Don't Know," which is about being welcoming toward strangers.

"To me, that is a huge part of the Christian message -- come as you are," he said. "I could give dozens of examples of songs that I have chosen for us to do that most people would never think of in a church context, but fit perfectly."

Dewitt, a Cal State Long Beach music alum, said he wanted to be a musician since he was a child, and grew up playing guitar and singing in bands.

When the job opening at Grace First became available, Dewitt said he "fit the bill."

The program includes choral music, instrumental music and the "School of Rock" high school summer camp, which teaches students skills like songwriting, recording and performing.

Teaching young musicians these skills is a wonderful experience, Dewitt said. He said at this year's camp, which took place July 22 to July 26, there was a girl who learned how to play guitar for the first time and two other campers who were able to write the "most incredible, personal songs."

"Those moments are absolutely, indescribably moving," he said.

The program hosts a variety of performances, including the Grace First Concert Series in the spring, orchestral concerts and choir concerts.

Dewitt said some of his favorite memories are the songs the groups have performed, including Mozart's "Requiem" and Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb."

"I love being part of a music performance when everything is clicking, when the chords are perfectly in tune or when the band is playing in perfect synchronicity," he said. "It's one of the main things that I want to impart to the people in the Grace First music ministries. We do this because when those moments happen, they can completely transform the lives of everyone within listening distance."

The Concert Series, which began in 2004, has included celebrity performers like Wings guitarist Laurence Juber and Glen Phillips, lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Upcoming concerts are scheduled for the fall. There are also two services each Sunday, including a traditional choir-and-organ- centered service at 9 a.m. and a more contemporary band-centered service at 11 a.m.

Dewitt said anyone can join the program, and none of the groups require auditions or a fee to join. He said his goal is to help each member realize his or her own potential.

"God doesn't say 'be perfect,'" he said. "In fact, our faith teaches us that we are imperfect, but forgiven. That means that our music ministries are designed to encourage personal growth and community."

For more information about Grace First Presbyterian Church and its music program, visit gracefirst.org.

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