When my voice finally changed I was welcomed into the church choir.
The director assigned me to the bass section in a seat between elderly Mr. Franklin and the beloved church pastor.
In awe of these childhood idols, I was suddenly terrified of warbling a wrong note. Nothing audible came out of my mouth for weeks.
But the adults graciously tolerated my lip syncing until I eventually dared to sing.
If only I had been under the musical direction of local legend Jeffrey H. Rickard in those days, I might have found my voice sooner. He is highly respected for bringing the best out of choirs and soloists.
And his award-winning artistry at the piano and organ has inspired congregations for decades.
A longtime University of Redlands associate professor of music and director of choral activities, Jeff has also served as minister of music at Trinity Episcopal Church since 1971.
In addition, he has founded several cherished musical organizations. For 37 years, Jeff was synonymous with the awe-inspiring annual Feast of Lights presented at the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel.
“The feast began in 1947 under the leadership of J. William Jones, a professor of church music at the time,” Jeff recalled.
“He was a great mentor when I was a student there. One early morning he woke me up with a phone call and said, ‘The sun is up, my boy, Why aren’t you?’ He was like an uncle modeling a work ethic and I later adopted his teaching philosophy.”
Upon Jones’ retirement, Jeff became the second director of the Feast of Lights in 1970 and continued through 2007.
“I retired after celebrating the 60th anniversary of the event,” he said. “That was a joyous experience.”
Busy as ever, Jeff has also established the venerable Community Chorus of Redlands.
“We began in 1979 and it’s been most fulfilling,” he said. “We perform three times a year. Our first program is presented the second weekend of December, just after the Feast of Lights. The First Congregational Church in Redlands hosts this festive event.”
The popular Christmas program is also presented annually at First Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, and at St. Rita Catholic Church in Sierra Madre.
“The performances at St. Rita are special to me,” Jeff disclosed. “I grew up in the area and attended school a block away.”
The second Community Chorus event is a local highlight of early March.
Titled “The Healing Power of Music,” this program is presented at the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel.
“We invite other choirs to join us,” Jeff revealed. “It’s a joy to present selections of sacred music and readings from the works of such notables as Gandhi and Mother Teresa.”
A third program is traditionally presented the Sunday before Memorial Day. “We call this our Family Music Festival and it’s especially upbeat,” Jeff said. “The eclectic program includes sacred and secular music, spirituals, swing, folk songs and Americana.” J
eff has also founded “Ensemble 21,” a group of select voices that perform regularly and he is director of the distinguished St. Dunstan’s Choir at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“I’ve always been drawn to music and played the piano practically from the womb,” he chuckled. “By age five I was playing the piano proficiently and then I took an interest in playing the organ.”
Jeff is also a choral composer. His work has been published in the Catalogue of Sacred Music Press of Lorenz Industries. He also collaborated with Kevin Blandford, a bagpipe virtuoso, to create popular CDs combining the organ and bagpipes.
“Playing classic hymns especially inspires me,” Jeff said. “It’s a thrill to sense excitement in the congregation. There’s a synergy. And that’s a rewarding form of payment I experience nowhere else.”
It’s worth noting that all of the programs he organizes and directs are free to the public. Jeff has not only made outstanding contributions to community culture, he is also beloved by the legion of singers who appreciate his legacy.
“Through the decades, I’ve been grateful for the students who have returned to tell me that our work together has mattered and impacted their lives,” he said. I, too, am thankful for the many uplifting occasions Jeff has put a song in my own heart.
As the legendary Ella Fitzgerald put it, “The only thing better than singing is more singing.”
Wayne R. Scott is an award-winning writer, producer and director who serves as president of LifeHouse Theater, Redlands.