An Interview with John Ness Beck
by Marshall Sanders
Creator celebrates every church musician and worship leader, and the ministry of which they are a part. We regularly turn the “spotlight” on people involved in local ministry in order to help inspire and provide ideas for others. John Ness Beck was born in Warren, Ohio, on November 11, 1930. Although he had begun piano lessons at an early age, he did not feel that career prospects in music were bright enough to pursue. In 1952 he was graduated from the Ohio State University with B.A. and B.Sc. degrees with a major in English. A year after graduating, he joined the army, where he served for two years. During this time he was assigned to Special Services, and became increasingly involved in arranging for various music groups. Ultimately, he decided that his interest in music could not be denied, and after discharge from military service, he returned to Ohio State and completed B. Mus. andM.A. degrees in music with composition as his major.
First, he was a faculty member of The Ohio State University School of Music. After seven years of teaching harmony and theory, he left the university to become owner and manager of The University Music House, a retail sheet music store in Columbus. While managing his business and developing the publishing company, along with continual composing and arranging, he also served as choir director of the University Baptist Church in Columbus. His reputation as a composer and his experience as a choral director soon led to an increasing demand for appearances as guest conductor and lecturer at various clinics and festival throughout the country.
With his increasing involvement in publishing, it became necessary for him to sell his retail store in 1975, and devote full time to reviewing and editing manuscripts, engraving them, and designing and producing their covers. This interview with John was done in late 1978 or early 1979 during a visit he made to the then Garden Grove Community Church, now known as the Crystal Cathedral. It explains such things as how Beckenhorst Press got started, and how the name came to be. He also references some societal issues that seem very relevant today.
CREATOR: When you began writing, what was your philosophy?
BECK: Ten or fifteen years ago I wrote almost entirely difficult, challenging things. I thought my “market” would be northern Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists. I felt the South was basically “hardcore gospel” and I told myself to forget them. Now I’m finding the southern-based denomination like the Baptists, for instance, to be moving toward more sophisticated, challenging material, and back up north, the more musically conservative denominations are really “going for” some of the more rhythmic contemporary material. It seems that everybody is broadening.
CREATOR: What do you consider to be your VOCATION?
BECK: It’s a combination of things. I have my writing and arranging, but we also have the publishing company. That seems to really take a portion of my
CREATOR: How many composers do you publish ?
BECK: We have about thirty.
CREATOR: Are particular writers more prolific than others?
BECK: We have John Carter and Michael Jothen, who are both, incidently, from here in Columbus. We really began the whole publishing thing with those two and myself, and then slowly began to get more exposure. We’ve since added many new writers. We’ve found that so many excellent writers are without publishers.
CREATOR: You number all the measures on the things you publish, don’t you?
BECK: We’ve found it so helpful for rehearsals and for me especially, since I do so many reading sessions. I remember all the times when I’m doing another publisher’s work, and the time wasted in getting everyone back to the same spot quickly. It’s proven to be quite a help in the informal church choir setting.
CREATOR: You do both arranging and composing, correct?
BECK: Yes, but lately I’ve been doing more of my own texts. I just don’t seem to find the time to read and research for texts, and then secure proper copyright permission and so on.
CREATOR: Do the text and the music usually come at the same time?
BECK: Usually the text generates the music. If the text doesn’t “sing” to me, then I must have the wrong text.
CREATOR: Are the Scriptures aprimary source for your texts?
BECK: When I don’t write the text myself, I’d say most are from the Scriptures.
CREATOR: Do you ever get up in the morning telling yourself that you must come up with something that day?
BECK: Oh, I’ve certainly tried to force things. I’m sure most writers do from time to time. My successful pieces have just come to me. Like “Every Valley,” I was having dinner with a couple of friends, and the idea just started going through my head. In fact, I think I had most of it together by the time we were finished eating. The next morning I had things to do so I decided to put it aside for awhile. Immediately it started getting fuzzy and I felt I’d better get it on paper. From the time I started putting it down, I think it only took four hours. I ran it down to our store and showed a few people. It wasn’t but a couple days and the revisions were complete, I’d engraved it, and finished the cover. I do my own covers and at that time even did my own engraving. I called the printer and told him I thought I had a “Hot” one and in just ten days from that dinner-idea, I had printed copies ready to go.
CREATOR: “Every Valley” has been your top seller?
BECK: Yes, we’re just over sixty-two thousand now.
CREATOR: Do you ever scrap one after you ‘ve finished it?
BECK: Shelve one? Do I ever! In fact, after I’ve played one, two or three hundred times in completing it, I often feel like shelving one I shouldn’t.
CREATOR In what direction is your writing going now?
BECK: Well, for about a year I’ve become somewhat stale.
CREATOR: ...running out of ideas?
BECK: I seem to be losing perspective. I’ve been so saturated with music, both with my own and others that we publish, that I can’t really tell whether a work is good or bad.
CREATOR: That must be frustrating?
BECK: Oh! (laugh) it’s maddening.
CREATOR: Then what are you getting into to revive yourself?
BECK: I’m interested in getting back on the drama stage. We have the Columbus Civic Theatre here and I’m going to get involved. I just need something
fresh; something to really get deeply into for a time. I’ve gone away for a couple weeks; even to relaxing, refreshing places, but that’s just not what I need. Oh, I’m still writing, but it’s just not “flowing” like it has.
CREATOR: Has most of your writing been choir works?
BECK: Basically, yes. My masters thesis was a piano quin- tet and I’ve done a few things for band, a small collection of piano solos, and a couple vocal solos.
CREATOR: Is piano your main performing instrument?
BECK: If I have one (smile).
CREATOR: How did “Beckenhorst” come about?
BECK: It started as a partnership with John Tatgenhorst and myself. He’s a prolific writer for band; marching band, stage band, and concert band. He arranged for six or eight state universities. He just became so involved in free-lancing, and that’s what he really enjoys, that he just can’t have a “good time” with the business end.
CREATOR: Have you thought of changing the name now that he is somewhat uninvolved?
BECK: It’s become somewhat established and to come up with a name that can still be registered with ASCAP is almost impossible. Before we came up with Beckenhorst, we sent in a list of thirty or so names and all had been “taken.” We’ve kept Beckenhorst and really feel satisfied with that.
CREATOR: When did you get to the point that the royalties and the publishing could actually support you?
BECK: Well, we actually started with a retail business centered around materials for the individual musician — training materials and instrumental education series. We did that for thirteen years before we actually decided to start publishing.
CREATOR: Where do text ideas come from, now that you’re writing most of your own?
BECK: Well, for instance, last summer when we were out at the reading session at the music seminar at Garden Grove Community Church, I came away so excited. I left there for Chicago and then on to New York, and all the way things began to happen. It always seems that way when I leave Columbus (smile).
CREATOR: . . . you must relax better out of town.
BECK: I suppose. Something happens in my life, I see a need, and texts and music seem to come into my head that fit that purpose.
CREATOR: A word that we use in our Society a lot, is “diversity.” Your music seems to be so SO diversified.
BECK: ...OH, thank-you.
CREATOR: Have you intentionally tried to keep variety for yourself and to meet the varied needs?
BECK: I’m just never happy writing the same piece twice. I want to say something new and different. One of the first times I met Don Fontana (Garden Grove Community Church music director) he sounded a bit apologetic about their diversity out there. He’s come a long way and so have I. I really feel sorry for people who are so impoverished that they never get out of the Renaissance or the Baroque, or feel that nothing worth-while was written before 1750 or after 1850. The whole gap can be so enriched.
CREATOR: Most music directors lean toward a particular area of interest. It’s so hard to sell diversity to many of them.
BECK: I wonder at times how my theatre experience has affected me. We have to learn to reach people in various moods with various forms of expression.
CREATOR: You write simple music and hard music. Is this also to achieve variety?
BECK: I think when I started, I was out to impress somebody. I admit I had a great time trying to be innovative in writing challenging material. People appreciated it and I sold some music. But I began having directors come up to me and say, “I like your music, but my choir just can’t handle that level of difficulty.” I began to realize that all ranges of music have their place, even within the same choir. Now I’m trying to spread myself over a broader range, and I’m certainly feeling better about it. It’s actually made my life more enjoyable. I read an article on Norman Rockwell shortly after he died. He couldn’t really believe that a work was good unless it was popular. I feel much the same as I try to communicate and reach people. Sure, there are collateral benefits in sales for writing all “popular” material, but it’s got to be a combination to keep music in check. Besides, sales aren’t the only directing force. For example, I know that every note I write over a “G” for soprano will limit sales considerably by half steps, as I go up — the higher it goes, the less copies will be sold. Yet, I don’t want to reduce everything to the most common denominator. I begin to think that if no one asks for a high “B6”, that we will ultimately lose the capability to provide it. We’ll knock ourselves out trying to reach that occasional “C” that is “required” in some works. Therefore, periodically I must ignore sales somewhat (smile) and stretch myself and my market. It’s good for me and I maintain variety that way.
CREATOR: That allows your material to be sung and appreciated by the most capable choir too.
BECK: Sure. Like the Garden Grove choir, who have the ability to do most anything. If everybody were sitting there at the common denominator, it would be different.
CREATOR: Many churches are realizing that to minister to all the musical tastes and abilities represented in their membership, they must “tackle “ handbells, brass choirs, rhythm sections, woodwind and string ensembles, and even drama and dance. The minister of music is almost forced to get involved.
BECK: So much has been done in that respect in the last two decades. I remember when some things just weren’t permitted at all — like trumpets and percussion instruments of any kind.
CREATOR: ...and now it’s happening everywhere.
BECK: Oh boy - they’re taking over, and I’m rejoicing in it. One doesn’t have to look very far to find a Psalm that fits about any type of accompaniment.
CREATOR: I’ve heard music directors say that there’s just nothing new, that they can’t seem to find anything fresh.
BECK: ...one has to stay expansive enough to entertain new concepts.
CREATOR: You‘ve been really involved in repertoire sessions...
BECK: ...really involved! Last summer I believe I was home only three weekends. The rest of the time was spent at reading sessions.
CREATOR: Who usually sponsors those?
BECK: I suppose retailers are the most common sponsor. Of course there are seminars and conferences of various kinds. Recently I was involved in this Praise Gathering in Indianapolis and came in contact with performers like Cynthia Clawson, who just amazed me. I’m a real fan of pop music, and the influence it is making in church music.
CREATOR: Hank Bebee is doing some beautiful choir things in the pop style.
BECK: Oh yes, and I love it. I wish I could write some of that stuff (smile).
CREATOR: Have you ever done anything with soundtracks?
BECK: No, I’ve never given that too much thought. But with this surge of pop styles, that might be something for me to get in to.
CREATOR: Finding the fine line between treating a church choir like educated professionals and inexperienced volunteers is difficult. It’s a popular question that we’re asked. What direction do you feel a music director should approach with his people?
BECK: It’s very difficult for me to talk about “how-to’s.” I’ve always been more on intuition. But even in the way I treat a choir — I feel you just have to be sensitive to people as human beings, being somewhat incognizant to human nature. However, I push! And I push hard sometimes. I believe it was Joseph Clokey who said, “If the music is over their heads, lift their heads!”
CREATOR: Of course, the director’s attitude and approach becomes critical here?
BECK: Yes. I believe people will respond to what is honestly expected of them. We’ve done some things with my choir that they were really intent against, but we pulled them off because they felt it was what I really wanted them to do. There is some “selling” there too.
CREATOR: You have a church choir here in Columbus?
BECK: I used to. It’s a very small church with I guess no more than 200 average attendance, but they have always maintained a high musical tradition. It was really established by an exceptional man who was very much ahead of his time. He had that church integrated twenty years before integration was even an issue. And he had done the same thing in the development of the music program. I never accepted a salary — I just enjoyed working with a choir who appreciated good music and who was really interested in their part.
CREATOR: Did you write especially for them ?
BECK: Oh yes. I remember I wrote “Litany for Thanksgiving” for them. It was somewhat humorous. Being a university church, the choir was greatly enriched by the students, when the students were there. But this one Thanksgiving vacation I knew I’d have no tenors and the church needed something “splashy,” yet kind of easy.
CREATOR: Is it three-part?
BECK: Actually, no; it goes to, I guess, five-parts occasionally. But it was written around what I had. It also involves the congregation, the minister as narrator, trumpets, and so forth. Everybody gets into the act, and that’s something I feel very strongly about. The people should be involved. I attended one church for a while that had almost entirely a paid, professional choir. How that affected that church’s music program! The choir was there doing their own little thing, and the congregation was out there somewhere doing their thing. I just didn’t feel any unity. I now incorporate the congregation in many of my anthems.
CREATOR: Do you often incorporate additional instruments in the accompaniments of many of your anthems?
BECK: Occasionally. It seems to present a publishing problem. It really depends on the length of the piece. If we can put the instrumental parts in the back without appreciably raising the cost, then that’s ideal.
CREATOR: What do you think is in the future for the church music program, say in the next fifteen years?
BECK: I’ve been giving talks on this very subject and I’m not sure that I’ve yet come up with very satisfying answers. It all centers around my desire to reach people and to give them something to which they can respond. To do this, one has to almost psychoanalyze the national temperment of the sociological forces loose today. Some of the things I did two or so years ago definitely were affected by some personal things I was going through: the death of my parents and other problems, not the least of which has been the severe winters here in Ohio. I wondered if what I was feeling was strictly a personal thing or if I was sensing it in society in general. I think now, that I do sense it in society. There’s just so much insecurity, and why shouldn’t there be? We don’t know whether our power will be shut off, lose heat for our homes, whether schools are going to be able to continue – things we’ve always taken for granted suddenly become speculative. The confidence is just not there. There’s been so much dedication to thrills and toys; what will be the next “thing” to make us happy. I believe we’re becoming disillusioned with that. One of the biggest problems in this country is depression. I’m taking a more positive approach. The last thing I wrote was “Hymn of Courage.” We’ve got to head back toward the point where we rely on ourselves, develop more confidence in our own abilities. So you ask, where are we going? I believe it definitely depends on the forces at work. For instance, if we do actually have a depression, that will obviously affect church music. When people can no longer afford so many toys, I think that will push them back toward more community involvement. Values may change drastically and what is done artistically would certainly reflect the changes in the times. To predict would be hard. In my travels around the country, I do reading sessions a lot of the time where both sacred and secular music are represented. Both church and school directors are there. You would not believe the apathetic, depressed state school directors are going through. Their budgets are being slashed, and their rooms are cold, causing apathy among the students. The educational philosophy is definitely having its effect. One fellow came up to me and felt there was just too much music being published that wallows in our depression and problems. That hit me right betwen the eyes. Positive, vital, uplifting things – that’s what I’ve been doing lately, and I’m going to continue in that direction. Let’s look up!