Loose Ends 3/15: Music Director inspires young minds

By Pam Hersh

The elderly couple living at Stonebridge Senior Living Community retirement community in Skillman interrupted my perusal of sparkling water bottles at ShopRite, in order to tell me I “had” to write about an upcoming choral concert at Stonebridge in mid March.

“These kids from the Princeton United Methodist Church (PUMC) bring an energy that if we could bottle it, it would be better than drinking from the Fountain of Youth – certainly better than that sparkling water you are contemplating,” joked the gentleman.

Thanks to the church’s proactive volunteer publicist Barbara Fox, I already had been alerted to the beneficial effects of the PUMC Children’s Choir and the talents of PUMC Director of Children’s and Youth Choirs Tom Shelton.

Attending a performance of the PUMC Children’s Choir at Westminster Choir College on March 4, I got greater insight into not only the infectious energy of these children, but also the talents, passion and commitment of their choral director.

With a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s of music in choral conducting from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Tom Shelton, since his arrival in Princeton seven years ago, has been an effervescent addition to the Princeton music scene. In addition to being the PUMC youth choir director, he is an associate professor of Sacred Music at Westminster Choir College.

In the Westminster job, he focuses on children’s and youth music and teaches classes in conducting, sacred music, and music education.  His “give-back” initiative is leading a neighborhood children’s choir program that he founded for Princeton Young Achievers at the Princeton Henry Pannell Learning Center. When he is not educating, he is creating – by writing choral church music; more than 50 of his compositions have been published.

“I know I am probably doing too much,” said Shelton, “but adore what I am doing and the kids keep me fueled, as does the creative process of writing.”

Shelton, who oversees two choirs at PUMC – the Pre-K-First-Grade Choir and the Second- Grade-to-Fifth-Grade Choir – said he loves “singing the praises (pun intended)” of the PUMC choir program.

The choir program at PUMC (Vandeventer and Nassau Streets) is free, open to church members and non-members, and has many benefits for the children. In addition to training youngsters in “natural and joyful” singing, said Shelton, the choir builds valuable life skills, boosts self-confidence, strengthens self-discipline, builds social skills, and raises IQs and standardized test scores (a proven fact).

After each concert, Shelton has the choir members greet every member of the audience so the young performers get a sense of the importance of “outreach and connecting with people who are not in their immediate social circles.”

Before he came to Princeton, the 52-year-old music educator and composer taught middle school choral music in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County for 18 years. During that time, he was selected Teacher of the Year for both Atkins Middle School and Kernersville Middle School.  In 1999 the North Carolina Music Educators Association presented him with the North Carolina Middle School Music Teacher of the Year award.

Intertwined with his music education career has been his musical composition career. “The composing feeds into the choir directing…. When children and youth feel what the lyrics are saying, the beauty comes alive,” said Shelton.

The PUMC choirs performed for Stonebridge residents the musical “Lost Then Found”- based on the three “lost” parables, (Luke 15:3-24). Shelton wrote it 15 years ago with his older sister Camilla Pruitt, also a church music composer and aficionado.

“The process of collaboration was easy and natural…. I went to her house one weekend, and we managed to write the entire musical,” he said.  “I come from a Greensboro, North Carolina musical family in which all of the kids (Tom and four sisters) spent a lot time singing in church.”

His sister came up an idea for a new musical composition highlighting the multiple women playing important roles in the Bible. “I can’t wait to start working on this – I just have to make the time,” said Tom who believes he can accomplish this without a miracle.

As inclusive and diverse the PUMC Children’s Choirs are, grownups are welcome only as audience members, not participants. So I will have to look for other ways to be smarter, more social, more likeable, and more energized. It sounds like I may need a miracle – or just a continual infusion of the energy from Tom Shelton’s choral projects.