Self-effacing music professor’s arrangements and compositions heard widely
ROME, Ga. — His name appears in churches near and far each Sunday — wherever choral music still finds its rightful place in corporate worship. While Stan Pethel is not omnipresent, his good works seem to be.
More than 1,200 of his musical compositions and arrangements have now been published. They are played and/or sung with great regularity by church choirs, school choruses and other musicians including marching bands.
While a highly trained and accomplished musician who heads the fine arts department at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has taught for 43 years, Stan is not snooty about it.
He’ll jump into a bluegrass jam session, perform silly Ray Stevens songs with his son, or bang out a Southern gospel tune on the piano with the same excellence and enthusiasm.
And, come Sunday, while far-flung church choirs and instrumentalists make use of his many, beautiful arrangements and compositions, Stan leads the worship music at Everett Springs Baptist Church nestled in a scenic pastoral setting — beyond the reach of cell phone towers.
The small, rural congregation is several miles north of the bountiful 27,000-acre campus from which he will retire next spring. The church is one of several congregations over the years to benefit from Stan’s willingness to serve with humility and giftedness.
Stan’s special talent for trombone, among other instruments, is rooted in economics. As a youngster he wanted to play the saxophone, he said.
However, his father brought home the brass instrument with the slide, announcing: “The sax was too expensive.” But Stan took to the trombone just fine.
Stan shared his gifts and story during a September dinner event at First Baptist Church of Rome, Ga., sponsored by the Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith Board of Directors.
The musical interview was conducted by Kathy Richardson, provost at Berry College and a Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith director. She is also a former member of one of Stan’s church choirs.
Stan confessed to becoming “a band nerd” after a health issue kept him off the basketball court as a teen. But it did not keep him out of the action.
In the 10th grade he thought it would be cool to arrange the popular music of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass for his high school band. So he did.
Then at the University of Georgia he took a class in musical arrangement from band director Roger Dancz.
“He liked my work and after I finished his arranging class, he said, ‘How about writing the shows for the next two years?’”
So for his junior and senior years at the University of Georgia, Stan wrote the halftime shows for the Redcoat Band.
Stan’s deepest musical roots, however, are in the church.
“I was always in church music,” said the Gainesville, Ga., native who “grew up on the red hymnal.”
And gospel music was in his blood.
“My dad was a gospel piano player,” he said, “and I wanted to play like my dad.”
Stan took piano lessons and discovered a gift for it. He was carrying on a family tradition traced back on his paternal grandmother’s side.
“They were a bunch of pickers.”
He was influenced as well by his uncle, James Pethel, who retired from Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., after 37 years of teaching music and serving as distinguished composer-in-residence.
“He’s 14 years older than me; he was a piano player,” said Stan of his uncle. “So you can imagine when I was 6 and he was 20. I was so impressed when he was writing music on the piano. I thought that was pretty cool. He was my early role model.”
Pethel’s love of music comes with a wide embrace of various styles.
“I’ll do any form of music,” he said, before adding one qualifier: “I won’t do rap, hip-hop. But outside of that I’m good to go!”
Stan is best known for his choral pieces that church choirs often sing. This is his sweet spot. He beautifully arranged a hymn — on the spot — for his listening audience in Rome.
“Choral [arranging] is a lot easier. I was used to writing for bands — flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones — then if you throw in an orchestra — violins, violas, cellos, double bass, percussion — we’re talking about a score with 30 lines,” he explained.
“Now a church choral piece: soprano, alto (one line) then tenor, bass (another line), piano part — four lines. I could do one overnight. I can do one in two hours if I get started.”
Of the hundreds of works, the best seller has been his composition “Come Down, Lord.” He also has a collection of arrangements of “Great Hymns for Intermediate Piano,” “Praise and Worship Hymn Solos” (for various instruments), “Celebrate Emmanuel: A Christmas Musical” and many, many more published pieces.
And he is readily available for writing commissioned pieces as well.
“I write choral stuff for various churches and for high schools,” he said with a smile. “…Whatever you need, I’ll write it for you.”
He has written school fight songs — including both the fight song and the alma mater for local Rome High School.
Fight songs for churches? Not yet.
Church music has changed in recent years and “the market has gotten smaller,” said Stan without expressed bitterness or judgment.
His first published piece appeared in Gospel Choir magazine from Broadman Press in 1976. He wrote and published heavily over the next 25 years or so including some popular choir cantatas.
“They were selling well and everything was going fine, but nothing stays the same,” he said. “With the praise teams and praise bands, churches are losing their choirs. I don’t think it’s going away completely, but it’s certainly smaller than it was.”
What has not changed, however, as Stan eyes retirement from his academic position next spring, is his love of music, exceptional gifts and strong personal faith.
The published results of those talents and commitments make worship more meaningful for many each Sunday — most of whom don’t take note of the name “Pethel” listed again and again after an anthem or offertory music in the Order of Worship.
Stan and his wife Jo Ann, an accomplished pianist and music teacher as well, continue to pass along the musical bloodline. All three of their children are educators, two of whom hold doctorates in music.
In fact, it might seem that music has consumed Stan’s life as a teacher, department head, composer, arranger, choir leader and music minister. But not so.
Stan finds time for running up and down the basketball court now, as he was unable to do as a student. And he blows his whistle as well at volleyball players who foot foul, carry, double hit or get caught in the net.
He is a certified high school referee for those two sports. And he approaches his officiating tasks with the same intensity, excellence and good humor as his music.
“Hey ref! Is this your phone?” he laughingly quotes one of his heckles. “It’s got four missed calls.”
It is good exercise, discipline and lots of fun, he said. Call it revenge of the band nerd. BT
Story By John Pierce • Photo By Scott Willis