A Night of Celebration honoring Sam Marley
When: 7 tonight
Where: Gainesville First United Methodist Church, 2780 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville
How much: Free
After spending the last 47 years as a director of music at First United Methodist churches across the South, Sam Marley knows that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. And he doesn’t try.
"We’re here to lead the congregation in worship, but we sing for an audience of one. And that one is God," said Marley, Gainesville First United Methodist Church’s director of music, about his choirs.
"As our senior pastor says, ‘There’s excellence and there’s perfection. We can’t achieve perfection, but with hard work we can be excellent.’
"My challenge to them is to bring the best we can to every worship service."
It’s a challenge he’s issued for nearly two decades in the sanctuary of the church off Thompson Bridge Road. Sunday, April 29 will be the last time they heed his call. After 19 years, Marley will take his last bow.
"There’s some sadness and some anxiety, but it just felt like it was time," Marley explains.
"My first thoughts were, ‘How can I talk you out of this,’" said the Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor, after learning of Marley’s intentions.
"Music is in and of itself a message. Music is that one universal thing that touches our hearts. The person who gives leadership in that area is crucial to that church’s ministry.
"(Marley) has been a joy to work with and he will be missed."
Although he’s spent a good portion of his career in Gainesville, some might say it was happenstance that brought the Marley family here from Beaumont, Texas, in 1993.
"A lady in my choir in Beaumont and her husband moved to Gainesville to retire," Marley recalls. "One day, I got a call from her saying the director of music job was opening up and she asked if I was interested in the position.
"I was pretty happy where I was, but under the (premise) that you always check something out, I did a little research and wound up exchanging letters with the church. They invited me for an interview and I was fortunate enough to be offered the job."
Prior to his current position, Marley served as the director of music at the First United Methodist Church of Beaumont for more than 21 years. Before that, the North Carolina natives filled the same position in First United Methodist churches in Griffin and in Bryan, Texas.
He found his calling as a teenager in Bristol, Tenn.
"In high school, I began singing in the youth choir at the church that my mother and I were members of. I went with a bunch of friends. I didn’t expect to, but I really enjoyed it," Marley said.
"That’s where I found a love for choral music.
"I heard a college choir perform while I was in high school and I think that was the first time I heard what I call a refined choral sound. It may not be as refined as some, but to my ear it was pretty good. I think that was the moment that kind of lead me here."
Marley’s instinctive love for music, paired with technical knowledge learned while earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s in music, was something lacking when he first relocated.
"When I arrived, I found a bunch of very excited people here. They were ready to work," Marley said.
"What I also found was that for the last couple of years before I came, they lacked a real leadership and someone with a vision for what a church music program could be.
"They’d had that in the past, but there was a little bit of a gap. I saw it as a great opportunity to try my own wings, take what I knew and turn it into a viable music program."
That program has blossomed to include seven different choirs with singers ranging from age 3 to senior adults, two handbell groups and several smaller singing ensembles.
"You never have the exact same group of people here any two times," Marley said, "but there are a lot of very dedicated people who are here most of the time.
"Those are the ones who are the core of our music program. I’ve really enjoyed working with them because they challenge me to work hard and to keep my standards high."
Preparation for services begins months in advance.
"I usually plan three to six months out. If I didn’t, I’d feel like I was behind," Marley says.
He attributes the success of his early planning to Walton supplying the sermon topics and Scripture contexts way in advance.
"I look at the text before I look at the music and if I can, I try to find things that relate to the sermon topic for the day," Marley said.
"That’s not always easy to do, but I can almost always find something that’s in the ballpark."
The music varies from classics penned by the likes of Johann Bach, to "good ol church anthems that speak to the soul," and even some contemporary pieces.
"He is a very flexible person. (Marley) has worked very well in including all types of music, not just the music that he really loves," Walton said.
"He understands that different styles and songs reach different people."
To make sure that the music reaches its target, Marley introduces new material during rehearsal six weeks before it is to be performed — eight weeks if it’s an especially difficult piece.
"You’ve got to be able to internalize the music and that takes a little time," Marley explains.
He typically sings the new material as the choir members read the music. He then incorporates "the dreaded count singing," a technique he picked up singing with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus for the last 19 seasons.
"Count singing is where they sing the rhythm of a piece using numbers instead of words," Marley said.
If a piece is a keeper, it gets added to the music library, now more than 600 titles.
"I pulled out a lot of dead wood when I arrived and filled in some of the gaps," Marley said.
"Someday, someone is going to come along and pull some of the stuff that I bought and that’s fine. That’s what it’s all about, constantly improving the level of music.
"It’s the natural progression."