Meet A Member: Tom Dooling, First Presbyterian Church San Antonio

“There are so many commonalities between directing a community choir and the church music experience,” says Tom Dooling of First Presbyterian Church San Antonio. 

As minister of music at FPC, Tom oversees a robust music program—which includes a full-time organist and contemporary service music leader—that naturally features plenty of choral music. “I’ve found Chorus America has enriched me specifically as a church musician.”

Tom spoke with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about his career in church music and experience at April’s Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium in the most recent installment of our Meet a Member series.

Q: Tell us about the music program at First Presbyterian.

TD: I would say it’s probably typical of any church music program. We have three worship services every Sunday morning, as well as weddings and memorial services for the members of our church. I’ve got an adult choir, and we use eight professional singers who supplement the choir. The professionals also perform as a smaller chamber ensemble on occasion. We have choirs for our children from age four to fifth grade. We don’t have a program per se for our older youth—we tend to incorporate our more advanced youth into the adult choir, or use them as instrumental soloists and things of that nature.

We offer many different concert options here. We’re in downtown San Antonio—we have a noonday series that mixes sacred and secular music and helps us attract people who work downtown, in addition to our own members, as well as an Advent concert series and other liturgical concerts throughout the year.

Q: How do you find your professional singers for the choir?

TD: We like the people in our professional singing positions to have some longevity. I’ve been really fortunate—a couple of our professional singers have been with us for 20-30 years. We look for professionals or good musicians in the community who are looking for a musical outlet, who perhaps were an undergraduate music major or minor. About half of those singers do not work in music or the church, and about the other half are teachers. When I need to fill those positions, those are the corners of the world I go seeking.

Q: How did you come to pursue church music? How long have you been a church musician?

TD: Church music has always been a part of my life. I inherited that from my mother—she was a longtime choral singer and soloist. It was always a part of me, musically and spiritually, but I would not say it was something I came to easily. My mom tells me stories about when I was in the children’s choir—I’d be standing on the piano or refusing to let the director teach the class for some reason. I was rebellious.

When I was in college I started singing in paid church singing positions to supplement my income. It was really from that point forward that—in some facet of leadership, whether as a singer or conductor—I’ve been doing it ever since. For the first 14 of those years, it was primarily part-time. I had a completely unrelated career—but I always did church music. For the last 14 years, I’ve done this as a full-time musician. It was a big shift for me. And as a church musician, that’s where “call” comes into play—where you feel like God has placed a call upon your life to pursue that.

Q: You have attended a number of Chorus America masterclasses. Has any one in particular stood out? What have you taken from them that has been valuable for you?

TD: To be honest, all four that I have attended have stuck out to me. After I attend each one, my colleagues ask if Chorus America will repeat it the next year, and I say, “Well no—they’re really unique.” They are these one-off events that have all been wonderful in their own way.

The first one I went to was in Philadelphia. I have a love of choral-orchestral music. I think the Chorus America masterclasses that focus on this repertoire bring a unique insight to the topic—not just on the mechanical aspects, but actually seeing a podium coach in action, and talking about the technique of working with an orchestra and what orchestral players look for. It uniquely blends those things together, and it’s exposed me to conductors who work in totally different fields. That has been incredibly enriching. Being so far removed from my own undergraduate years, it’s also inspiring to be surrounded by these students in the early stages of their career who are aspiring to be great artists, teachers, and advocates for choral music.

"I tell my young students all the time, you cannot be successful just by being a great musical artist...You can be the best conductor on the podium, but if you’re not properly prepared, you’re not going to be successful.” - Tom Dooling

Q: What was your experience like at the recent Robert Shaw Symposium?

TD: To me, the Symposium was all about connection—and I’m not just speaking about the people. It connected me to my past and my development as a choral conductor. It was like going back to the mid-80’s when I heard a Shaw program and for the first time and remembering how it was literally life-changing for me, to hear a huge chorus sing with such precision and musicality.

One of the first things I did when I returned was revisit Shaw’s wonderful techniques of warming up the intellect and the ear. These are techniques I was familiar with that I hadn’t engaged in probably 10-15 years, and to rediscover them—which were the essence of Shaw’s technique working with his chorus—has been spectacular.

Q: You previously directed the Huntsville Master Chorale when you were in Alabama. Do you have any aspirations to conduct another independent chorus (i.e. one that’s not attached to another institution)?

TD: I’m still very much an advocate for independent choruses. I personally hope I’ll have the opportunity to do that work again. Within the church music context, we use our core of professional singers to function like an independent chorus at times. Concerts at the church with the smaller ensemble are a form of outreach. From a programming standpoint, being a community chorus conductor has really informed what I do as a church music director. We sort of have an internal audience—the members of our church. But we think of external audience too in terms of our larger community, and how to engage them.

Q: Tell us about one big success in your church chorus that you’re really proud of.

TD: Success for us is not described in a singular event or concert. One of the things we’ve done in the time I’ve been here is raise the level of our artistry on a Sunday-to-Sunday basis. Ultimately that is the vehicle that communicates the text and emotion of what we are trying to convey in the context of the worship service. I tell my choir on a regular basis that people may not specifically know that they’re impressed with your diction or phrasing, but they do know when something really speaks to them, without any sort of distraction. That by far is what I’m the proudest of.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?

TD: On the flip side of our success, the biggest challenge we have in church music is carrying our legacy forward. Any great choral program is built on its people dedicating their time, energy, and intellect consistently on a weekly basis. In this day and age, with so much other competing activity, that is a huge challenge, and it’s no different here. You try to think of creative ways where people can get a glimpse of what the experience is about, and hopefully they will be inspired to go all-in. It’s a delicate balance between making it as easy as possible for folks to participate, and building the institutions that maintain a high level of excellence.

FPCSA choir
The First Presbyterian Church San Antonio choir sings a recent church festival.

Q: What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

TD: Actually, as an inspiration from the Shaw Symposium, one of the things I’m hoping to do this fall is a performance of the Brahms Requiem. In our case, we’re going to do his four-hand piano version as a chamber work. The Florida State University students who were at the Symposium had just performed that version; that got the brain moving in that direction. While all the scholarship that was presented in Atlanta is fresh on our heels, we’ll take advantage of that.

Q: Why did you decide to join Chorus America?

TD: Honestly, it was my first masterclass experience. I was specifically looking for a rich masterclass offering, and it was through researching at that particular time that I found Chorus America’s opportunity. I got to know some of the staff there, and it was through that first encounter that I became a believer in the work that Chorus America does—in the advocacy of the choral singing experience, and the amazing resources, particularly on the website, both of the scholarly type and those that are super-practical.

I tell my young students all the time—and I can tell you from my own experience—you cannot be successful just by being a great musical artist. You have to think through the operational details of what you’re going to do. You can be the best conductor on the podium, but if you’re not properly prepared, you’re not going to be successful. I think seeing the way that Chorus America blends that training made me a believer in what the organization is about. Now when I talk to people about where I’ve been and what I’ve done, I tell them if you don’t know much about Chorus America, you really need to get to know more about it.

Q: When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

TD: Certainly family is a big part of what I do outside my work. What my wife and I enjoy more than just about any activity is hanging out with our daughter, who is in sixth grade. I’m also very blessed to work with phenomenal colleagues who are good friends too, so we enjoy being with one another outside of work. My wife and daughter are both very musical, so my vocation and avocation are often blended, and that’s fun.

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