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July 15, 2007

In Memoriam, Howard Don Small


UPDATE: Constance Schey has established a memorial page for sharing reminiscences about Don Small. Go to http://www.res-miranda.com/HDS1.html

I lost one of my most important music mentors, and the world lost an incredible church musician on July 13, 2007. Howard Don Small served as Canon Musician at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, Minneapolis, from 1971 - 1998. Although many things will be said about his extensive professional accomplishments, I wanted this blog entry to be a more personal remembrance.

Although I only sang under Don’s direction for about five years (first in the Cathedral Choral Society and then in the Cathedral Choir), working with him had a profound effect on me as a musician. Let me mention a few ways.

First, his focus was always on the inextricable connection between music and worship. Choirs were not in church to perform. They were there so be an integral part of worship. That always took precedence. (Choir directors do not universally hold this view!) Singing with him exposed me to the world’s greatest choral literature - such a gift.

Don conducting.bmp

Second, he expected and received excellence from everyone - the very best we could possibly give, every time. In turn, he gave the same himself. His dedication and passion for sacred music inspired all of us to continue learning, striving, and improving. Singing under his direction gave me the encouragement to keep trying and stretching.

Third, he valued and supported community. The annual overnight choir retreats were truly bonding experiences for all, and he and Emma frequently opened their home for parties and celebrations. Through the choir, I made some very good friends and shared times of joy as well as sadness. A fellow choir member referred me to Groves Academy for our son; it was truly a godsend. I came to realize how much Don, Emma, and St. Marks were at the center of a hub of vibrant choral activity in the Twin Cities. Everyone who was anybody knew them and their work; many had studied or sung with Emma or Don.

One of my most cherished memories is participating in the recording of the CD, “Blessings Great and Small� during June 1997.

Blessings G+S.jpg

Steve Barnett was the producer, and Preston Smith was the recording engineer. The whole experience was professional at the very highest levels. I had a number of out-of-body experiences during the marathon sessions, just as I am now, savoring the memories while listening to the CD.

Don had experienced a number of health challenges over the past decade, but memories of him are strong and very much alive. Thank you, Don. Rest in peace.


In January 1998, at Don’s retirement party, I had the privilege of “representing� those who joined the choir in the 1990s as we extended tributes during the evening. I found the notes from what I said, and they seem like a very appropriate way to close this entry. Here goes:

Sometimes things that we do as part of our everyday activities touch others’ lives in ways that we never planned, expected, or heard about. You have touched my life in several ways, and it is out of gratitude that I recount a few stories.

I moved to Minnesota in January, 1990, and Susan and our son Mark followed that summer. We first lived in an apartment near Summit and Dale in St. Paul, and we attended the church of St. John the Evangelist. By autumn, we moved to our current home in Falcon Heights; commuting to St. John’s was difficult and not sufficiently rewarding to continue.

I don’t remember how we heard about the Lessons and Carols service at St. Mark’s - perhaps from the newspaper or from a friend - but it was either that Advent or the year following that we attended for the first time. We were both quite moved. About halfway through the service, I remember that Susan and I looked at each other, and without saying a word, said, “This is the place we’ve been seeking.� Thus, your music ministry had a direct connection to our joining the parish of St. Mark’s.

I had sung in a number of choirs through the years and fantasized about how wonderful it would be to sing with the Cathedral Choir. I talked to a number of people about it, including Lee Brant, whom I met at a newcomer’s dinner. All were enthusiastic about my interest, but all spoke of the “C� word - commitment. At that time, my job was totally consuming, and I couldn’t foresee making the time commitment necessary. Not long after, however, I read the announcement in the bulletin about the Choral Society. It seemed to fit my situation perfectly, as the time commitment required was limited, but it would give me the opportunity to sing under your direction.

I distinctly remember the first season I gathered my courage to come to Choral Society. It was winter, and the first rehearsal was to be on one of those terribly cold January or February nights when schools and offices had been closed and the city was very quiet, except for the howling snow. Not knowing whether rehearsal would take place, I called the Cathedral, and surprisingly, was put directly through to you. I asked if the Choral Society rehearsal for that evening would proceed, given the bad weather. Your response was simply, “Well, I’ll be here.� The simplicity, clarity, and assuredness of your response resonated strongly to me, and I was there too! To my amazement, almost 40 people showed up that night, on time for the downbeat. This told me a lot about your professionalism, dedication, and ability to inspire the best in others.

A third small encounter with you led me even further down the path. I had already been singing with the Choral Society for about 3 years at the time of the celebration of your 25th anniversary at St. Mark’s. On the way out of the service that Sunday, I stopped to shake your hand in congratulations, and in thanking me, you said, “I hope you’ll join us for Summer Choir.� That small bit of encouragement and connection, offered simply, was all it took to move me to the next step.

My time in the Cathedral Choir has been transformative for me. My spirituality has deepened considerably. As I remarked to a friend who asked me about my experience, “How could you sing those words week after week and not be affected?� My skill as a musician has improved, thanks to your musicianship, Emma’s contributions, and lessons I have taken with Brian and Rick. I feel that my grounding has been re-shaped and re-discovered. I never think about the “C� word [commitment] - as it’s simply there. I never doubt that I’ll be able to follow through as a full participant. To the degree possible, I now plan my professional commitments around choir, rather than the reverse.


Your retirement evokes many feelings in me:
appreciation - for your qualities of professionalism, musicianship, and leadership - as a teacher myself, I have learned from you;
gratitude - for the opportunity to grow, learn, and deepen my spirituality;
sadness - that you will be leaving, but also;
happiness - that you will be able to be relieved of the extreme pressure of your role to do things at a manageable and enjoyable pace. (Will you be composing?? I hope so!)

So Don, Godspeed on your journey. Thank you for touching my life in small but very impactful ways. I am sure that my few vignettes are not unlike those that could be told by many others. And I hope that when I retire, a few students remember me with the fondness that many (such as I) remember you with.

Indeed, Godspeed on your journey.

from the Fauré Requiem
In paradisum deducant angeli; in tuo adventu sucipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem.

God’s holy angels lead you to paradise; may saints in their glory receive you at your journey’s end, guiding your footsteps into the Holy City Jerusalem. Choirs of angels sing you to your rest, and with Lazarus raised to eternal life, may you forevermore rest in peace.

Haddayr, Another choir member, posted this moving remembrance of Don.

Posted by hgroteva at July 15, 2007 12:40 PM | Choral Music | In Memory / In Honor


Thanks. I still find it difficult to believe he's really gone.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods at July 15, 2007 1:51 PM