BRATTLEBORO — Susan Dedell has served as music director at St. Michael's Episcopal Church for the past 30 years. She said she's proud of the fine singing - not only of the choirs, but also of the congregation - and of the strong community spirit that music can yield, a spirit she believes will live past her tenure.
She grew up in Muskegon, Mich., and started piano at 7. In her early teens, she said, she had her first paying gig on a “little Hammond organ at the Lutheran church upstreet. Back in those days, everyone went to church. I played the two services, and between services, I got to read.”
Growing up in a racially diverse environment, Dedell was exposed to a range of music, including gospel and jazz. Though she's classically trained, her love of those styles is still heard through her work.
She went to the University of Michigan as a piano performance major, but after three years switched to a major in biochemistry, thinking of going into medicine or research.
Music got the better of Dedell.
While a remarkable teacher, director, organist, and pianist, she has maintained a science-driven curiosity.
She developed markedly eclectic tastes early on in her musical evolution.
“From college in Ann Arbor we'd go to Detroit and hit the dance clubs, so I have a fondness for Black music and spirituals,” she said.
At St. Michael's, she stretches far beyond the Episcopal hymnal, often selecting from an African American hymnal, a copy of which sits in the pews next to each Episcopal one.
She also offers a range from classical works to music influenced by Sacred Harp and Appalachian traditions as well as works of her husband, composer/musician Paul Dedell.
'Assured there was music here'
With her former husband, Jonathan Klein, and their son, Ben, Dedell moved to the area 40 years ago.
“We knew this would be a good place to be, to raise a child - and to grow our own food,” she said. “I knew about the Bach festival, so I was assured there was music here.”
Soon thereafter, Dedell met Kathy Stockman, who'd founded the town's first music school, now a part of the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC).
From that exchange, she was linked to Blanche Moyse and began assisting with various aspects of the New England Bach Festival.
The director of choral music at Marlboro College for several years, Dedell was also director of the Brattleboro Concert Choir (formerly Brattleboro Community Chorus) for 29 years, presenting works that mirrored her eclecticism and raised bars of expectations.
Throughout the decades, sowing connections in the area's fertile music ground, Dedell has been influenced by and has influenced such pillars as Tony Barrand and Peter and Mary Alice Amidon.
'The essence of being a music director is building something'
A 40-year member of the BMC faculty, Dedell earned respect on the local music scene early on. Only a decade into her Windham County years, St. Michael's found her.
“Paul Thompson was rector, and they were looking for a music director and organist,” she recalled. “He called me and asked, 'Are you interested?'”
“I said, 'sure.' I auditioned. I remember it well. I was 38. I'd forgotten my organ shoes, so, I did my audition on the organ barefoot.”
Since her time serving as music director under Thompson, Dedell has worked with two interim rectors as well as with Thomas Brown, now the Episcopal Bishop of Maine, before the Rev. Mary Lindquist became rector.
Celebrating Dedell, Lindquist says: “Working with Susan these last 10 years has been a huge joy. Besides being an excellent musician, she is a font of creativity, as well as a deeply faithful person who loves and cares for the people she serves.”
For Dedell, “the essence of being a music director is building something. Envisioning, creating, teaching, then finally vanishing.”
When she started at St. Michael's the choir was very small, “but instead of pumping it up by bringing in ringers from the musical community, I wanted to build a musical culture from St. Michael's people.”
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the adult choir had grown to 32 voices and the children's contingent to 27. The expectations are to regain - perhaps exceed - those numbers post-pandemic.
“I like to build programs,” Dedell said. “I'm a long-timer. Anything of value is an investment over time. The mission is to build skills and a program that will outlast you.”
Music for spiritual nourishment
Karen Guthrie, a former organist/choir director herself, reflects on Dedell's career.
“Susan is a rare combination of exceptional musicianship and commitment to using her gifts in the service of something bigger,' she said, “offering music as a way to inspire and deepen the spiritual aspect of our lives.”
Guthrie said that Dedell “helps each one in the choir to hone their skills and thus contribute to that effort.”
Choir veteran Christopher Wesolowski echoes those sentiments.
He described Dedell as “a consummate teacher” - “not only regarding our music, but how it functions as ministry. She combines the invitation to hard work and dedication with joy and laughter.”
Years ago, Dedell discovered she was truly drawn to work with young people: Having had a chance to work with many fine young Brattleboro singers on two Bach festival programs, she's long held the approach of “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
Not simply performance driven, she wanted to impart the gift of music that might last a lifetime to her young singers. Thus, as she built the adult choir at St. Michael's, she built the St. Michael's Choir School several years ago.
To teach, Dedell said, “is to imagine a long arc that you might not be part of as it carries forward. We have kids who started singing at 7 who are now in their late teens or 20s. I'm sure they will keep singing and learning in their “post-Susan” days, and that is such a happy thought.”
Reflecting on many years working with Dedell, Jonah Johnson, 17, says: “She taught me to accept myself for the singer I am and the person I am - and to acknowledge my potential.”
His peer, Caleb Fritz, adds, “she helped me to love my voice and, in turn, to love myself.”
Supported by the church, the Choir School is open to all and has, indeed, drawn many non-parishioners. From the start, Dedell wanted such training to be free and open to the community.
Rev. Lindquist applied for and was awarded a grant to start a choir school; after the grant phase ended, St. Michael's picked up the expense and has supported it for eight rich years since.
The choir school performs at various programs, and its students are the core cast for the unique mystery plays presented by Winged Productions.
Longtime collaborators, Susan Dedell and husband, Paul, who is head of middle school at Hilltop Montessori in West Brattleboro, have created music for the greater community that spans a range of styles and content.
In 2014, under the umbrella of St. Michael's and supported generously by a former parishioner, the late Helen Daly, they founded Winged Productions.
Its focus, according to the church's website, is on the “basic animating questions that lie at the heart of the human experience - delving into these fundamental questions with curiosity, humor, and thoughtful perspective.”
“Pursuing wisdom rather than knowledge, and esteeming poetry as much as fact, Winged Production programs are intended to facilitate access to a fuller level of understanding, through the transcendent mediums of music, art, and science.'
Winged has produced original instrumental and choral works, chant workshops, and adaptations of historic mystery plays in broad collaborations with guest musicians such as Kathy Andrew, Judith Serkin, Moby Pearson, Robin Mathithias, and the late David Tasgal; with The Company of Strangers Puppet Ensemble; and with guest cellist Paul Wiancko.
“That program with Wiancko and a fantastic group of professional string players - Tavener's The Protecting Veil - was really a musical high point,” recalls Dedell. “The aim is to bring music that might relate to how we think about the divine into the community - not religious 'divine,' but how we think about 'the other.'”
'We must always be listening and exploring'
As Dedell celebrates 30 years at St. Michael's, she is proud of what she's shared beyond church walls. Whatever venue she's in, she looks to expose the community to a wide range of music and text.
“One good thing about being a music director is that you get to do music you like - which, of course, is essential: 'If you're not behind it, you can't present it,'” she said. “And it's fun to be able to explore new ideas, and then share those with others.”
Curiosity, she added, is important for all musicians.
“We must always be listening and exploring - risking and just being alive!” she said.