From Graveyard to Concert Halls,
Sherwood's Music Fills the Air

Almost daily, recorded funeral hymns were broadcast over the grounds of Monte Vista, a 100-acre cemetery in the Smoky Mountains foothills town of Johnson City, Tennessee. As a four-year-old with his childhood home situated in the middle of Monte Vista, young Will Sherwood, whose father was the manager of the memorial park, began playing those funeral hymns he heard day in and day out on his family's upright piano. 

"All black keys" (the key of F# Major, typically one of the most difficult keys to read from scores) fit his tiny hands just right to form the basic hymn chords and melodies. At the age of eight, his Aunt Mabel, organist at a local Presbyterian church began taking him to her church on Sunday afternoons to learn to play the pipe organ-- his feet could barely reach the pedalboard of the organ console. After a few lessons from a Baptist church's organist, as a fifth grader, he became organist at another Baptist church in 1964, and subsequently another church where his brother-in-law was minister.

Sherwood recounts the rather ecumenical tour of churches in his career: Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Trinitarian, and now for the past twenty years, Unitarian.  He has learned all styles of music, from Gospel to Baroque, from A Mighty Fortress to Godspell, and has learned to work with all styles of people and environments.

Ups and Downs, Stories to Tell
Just like the arm motion of directing an orchestra, his performances have had a few disasters along the way, which Sherwood took as valuable learning experiences.

He recalls one such concert at Southwestern Baptist Church, where he was organist for 4 years while he was a high school student. To put in practice his coursework in composition and arranging, he had arranged and written orchestra parts for a variety of instrumental combinations, but had failed to allow enough rehearsal time for the amateur instrumentalists. "In front of a packed house, the result was grueling, as you might imagine," he grimaces. But he learned from this to ensure that instrumentalists were competent, knew their music, and that there was sufficient group rehearsal time.

After preparing for weeks for an organ recital at Tufts University, he arrived for the concert and warmed up as usual, and then waited for the concert's start time, which for him is the worst part of performing. At about 15 minutes past the appointed time, the administrator arrived and admitted that she had "forgotten" to publicize the concert and would need to re-schedule it. Ever since, Sherwood has been a stickler for early and thorough publicity.

Introduction to Choral Music
An hour's trip on public transportation from his college dorm in Pittsburgh brought Sherwood to an audition/interview for his first organist-director position. He had never conducted a choir to any extent much less conducting from the organ console. With head and neck limbered up to give the appropriate cues, he launched the choral part of his career, learning as he went.

Don't Throw Away Those Pipes
A new pipe organ was being given in memory of his Aunt Mabel and the old 1917-vintage Estey instrument was being thrown out. Being the recycler that he is, Will, assisted by his older brother, hauled about 20 truckloads of pipes, windchests, and other miscellaneous "debris" to another aunt's basement. During his senior year in high school he rebuilt the instrument, and subsequently it moved with him to his current Sterling residence where subsequent alterations ensued. By the way, his weak spot still exists for adopting ranks of pipes that are being thrown out-- don't try to walk through his basement!  The hometown pipes flank all upper-story walls and balconies of his 3-story concert hall living room, and are playable from a J.W. Walker 2-manual tracker instrument which is his pride and joy. He has learned much of the pipe organ building trade by rebuilding his own instruments.

Concert Organist
Churches haven't been the only venue for Sherwood's music. At the age of 24, he appeared as guest soloist with the Boston Pops, and has had concert tours in Europe as well as various concerts in the states. Fortunately for both Sherwood and the audience, he is able to use his technical skills to correct problems on the spot. Before one concert in Italy, the town was experiencing a brown-out which caused the electricity to supply a lower voltage. Several important pipes for the pieces he was playing wouldn't sound. He was able to adjust the solenoid mechanisms to be able to respond to the lower voltage and the concert went on!  And then there was the recent wedding in Connecticut where two trumpet pipes ciphered (stuck) just minutes before the ceremony, and using last week's church bulletin placed under the pipes to block the air, the processional went on uninterrupted.

Distractions from Music
Music has never been Sherwood's sole vocation: his multi-talented palette of engineering, computer, and management skills keeps his calendar jammed with a plethora of competing projects. He is an engineering manager at Intel (formerly Digital & Compaq) in Hudson, but also a commercial photographer, neon artist, graphic designer, and web designer. Perhaps scheduling and prioritization are his biggest challenges, but the creative endeavors seem to get the most attention.

Form follows Form
Using "happy collisions" of ideas and cross-pollinations of themes in art and music, Sherwood finds he can enrich tasks he is working on by combining skills and perspectives from multiple disciplines. For instance, music composition, graphic design, and art photography all utilize the concept of melodic shape, harmonic textures, and rhythmic motifs. The only difference really is the medium. The process of creating in each medium still requires an iterative approach to refine and polish; it's just the end product in the visual arts results in an artwork that is essentially static in time and space, and music performance is temporal (and thus requires additional preparation for ensuring a perfect rendition each performance since there is only one chance with no possibilities to go back to edit or refine).

The "First U" Years
Upon hearing from a colleague that there was a job opening in Worcester, Sherwood telephoned only to find out the resume submission deadline had already passed, but nonetheless persevered to have them at least look at his background and consider an audition. He hurried his paperwork to the church to be greeted by the secretary, her dog by her side in the office, and landed an audition. The committee was impressed not only by his "choir-side manner" and ability to improvise, but also by his pipe organ repair skills - a cipher happened at just the wrong time during his audition (and he disappeared into the chamber to fix), but maybe it was just the "right" time, since he got the job with flying colors.

He brought organization to the music program and has expanded the palette of First U's musical repertoire to include not only Renaissance music, but also Gospel and Jazz; not only the Old Masters and Gregorian Chant but also New Age and Earth-centric; not only Original Versions, but also thrilling Descants, Variations, and Improvisations. He was charged with the seemingly insurmountable task of taking a low-energy music program and breathing new life into it to put it on the (Worcester music) map, as a way of ministering to the congregation and the community and attracting new members. He has been a fundraiser, advocate, and curator for the church's instruments: acquiring two Steinway "B" Grand pianos, housing a two-manual harpsichord, and incremental improvements to the pipe organ prior to the steeple and roof fire of 2000. The complete rebuilding of the pipe organ has allowed the opportunity for significant changes and enhancements: the console was relocated back to its pre-1964 center-balcony position along with the choir pews; the façade opening was widened for clearer sound egress; major chamber revisions were made as well as the addition of new ranks of pipes and extensive refurbishing of the re-used pipes. The Æolian-Skinner really is a new instrument to last the millennium and beyond.

See additional information about the church fire, and organ restoration; and details on the instrument.




Will Sherwood directing a choir rehearsal from the piano

Sherwood accompanies and directs the First U choir from the keyboard at a Christmas Eve service at Worcester's Mechanics Hall while the church sanctuary was being restored after the June, 2000 fire.