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by Hope Andersen

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photos by Carolyn Herring
and Chrissie Knight

 

ONE of Martin Tel’s earliest memories involving music comes from his youth in Graham, Washington, where he and his family lived on a farm in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. Tel recalls listening to his father’s singing "all the psalms he had learned" in Dutch as he milked the cows.

Tel, who joined the Seminary community in August 1996 as the C. F. Seabrook Director of Music, belonged to the Tacoma Christian Reformed Church and worshipped there in his youth. For Tel, the strength of that experience was that, because there were both morning and evening worship services on Sundays, there were more opportunities to sing. And congregational singing is what Tel loved—and loves—the most.
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"I love hearing a group of relatively untrained voices raising a roof," he says. "Not that we shouldn’t strive for excellence in church music, but there has to be a time when people can just enjoy singing together."

A member of the American Guild of Organists, Tel has been awarded numerous scholarships including the Ringerwole Organ Scholarship, the Joe J. Dahm Music Scholarship, and most recently the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, for which he and his wife, Sharilyn, spent a year in the Netherlands. There, he did research on the organ as an instrument of accompaniment and studied organ improvisation and design with Hans van Nieuwkoop of the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam. He also worked with Jan Luth, a specialist in Dutch liturgical music, at the Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap of the University of Groningen. Tel is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Musical Arts in Church Music program at the University of Kansas.Obviously a talented organist, Tel nevertheless chose to pursue a liberal arts undergraduate degree at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, because, as he says, "I didn’t think of myself solely as an organ performer. I wanted to be a generalist." Still, the focus of his first master’s degree, which he earned from the University of Notre Dame in 1991, was in organ performance.

It was during these years that Tel began to experience what he calls "a tension of calling."

The third son of Dutch parents who emigrated from Friesland, in the northwest Netherlands, at the end of World War II, Tel acknowledges the importance of his heritage in shaping his attitudes toward music. "The Dutch hymn-singing culture is not refined," he says. "It is a folk culture, a culture in which authenticity and unity, rather than a ‘polished quality,’ is revered. And behind the unison singing is the organ, inciting the boisterous singing." For Tel, music has primarily emotional attachments; it will always be an emotional experience.

This is not to suggest that Tel lacks formal training. On the contrary, he began playing the organ as a young boy and continued studying the instrument throughout his adolescence. "Being the third son," he says, "there simply weren’t that many chores left to do. So, my parents encouraged my interest in music." Already at eight years old, he was playing the offertory anthem during worship. Later, he took advantage of the resources available to him at nearby Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound, where he studied with organists David Dahl and Edward Hansen.

"I didn’t know whether I was called to be a pastor or a musician," he reflects. "But I did know that I wanted to pursue theological study."

His desire prompted him to pursue a second Master of Arts degree, this time in Christian education, at Calvin Theological Seminary, which he completed in a swift two years.

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While at Calvin, Tel became increasingly aware of the crisis in church music, a crisis that he believes stems in part "from our contentedness to live with half-truths. When we separate the counterpoints of relevance and excellence, this becomes apparent." Simply put, Tel is wary of church music that settles for current musical trends or that "paints a happy face on God" at the expense of genuine interest, content, and substance. He is skeptical, too, of excellent music that lacks spiritual integrity. He quotes Harold Best, dean of the

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