Fort Worth

March 21, 2014

Fort Worth church to celebrate composer’s works

Sterling Procter, though slowed by a muscular disease, lets the music flow through him.

The old gospel song says God's eye is on the sparrow.

It doesn’t mention the parrot.

But if that bird were in the hymn lyrics and some church wanted a special arrangement for its worship service, Sterling Procter could sit at his keyboard and within a week create a note-perfect score for a brass quintet or full orchestra, complete with musical plumage.

Faced with a deadline, he might write it overnight.

The Dallas musician’s favorite T-shirt pictures a clock on the front and a confession:

“If it weren't for the last minute, I’d never get anything done.”

Procter is an internationally known figure in the world of church music.

The Dallas native who performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years has produced a large body of music for brass, organ, choir and orchestra.

Famed concert pianist Van Cliburn planned his own funeral which was held last year at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. The first hymn on the order of service was Procter’s orchestral arrangement of When Morning Gilds the Skies.

Tom Stoker, minister of music at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, first heard Procter’s hymn arrangement shortly after it was written, years ago, and marveled at its imaginative introduction.

Stoker told the composer “That’s the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever heard.”

The hymn will dawn again Sunday evening when Broadway Baptist Church stages “A Festival of Hymns” celebrating the music of the prolific 64-year-old composer.

The event will feature a 45-member orchestra, a choir of 250 voices from five Fort Worth churches and the Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn Organ.

The gift of music

When Procter is alone in his home studio working on a piece, a hymn text in front of him, where do the notes he hears come from?

In a contemplative moment the composer looked at his hands.

His fingers don’t work as well as they once did.

He no longer can play the guitar or his beloved French horn. Some days buttoning his shirt is a challenge.

Six years ago Procter learned he has a rare degenerative muscular disease for which there is no known cure. The insidious disease is robbing him of his strength, his energy, his dexterity, his ability to walk.

But gratefully the larceny is limited.

The thief can’t touch his creativity or the source from which that gift flows.

“I believe music comes from the center of the universe,” Procter said. He recited the words of the Persian poet Hafiz. “I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through ...”

A smile lit his bearded face.

“I can’t express it better.”

A fitting ring tone

From an early age, Sterling Procter possessed an ear for music.

As a small boy he quit piano instruction after the third lesson when his teacher rapped his hands with a wooden ruler.

He played piccolo in the Dallas Kimball High School marching band, French horn in the orchestra and guitar with the jazz band.

He performed three years with the famed One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas where he earned a masters degree in music performance.

Procter joined the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in 1972. A few years later he left, temporarily, to develop the Festival Brass Quintet and pursue his talent for composition.

His interest in hymn arrangements dates back to his teenage years when his church youth choir sang My Eternal King. That rich harmonic anthem by Jane Marshall so impressed him that he asked the choir director for a copy of the music and taught himself to play the hymn on the piano from memory.

“It’s a beautifully crafted piece and somehow, by then, my ear knew it,” Procter said. “Everything I’ve ever arranged has some element from that anthem.”

Procter’s All Creatures of our God and King is a personal favorite because he wrote the arrangement during a difficult period in his personal life. He found unexpected, and welcomed joy, in the music.

“I still love hearing it,” he said.

The hymn is the ring tone on Procter’s cellphone.

‘A real leader’

He had what he called “the best seat in the house.”

He sat atop a riser in the center of the orchestra, surrounded by fellow musicians and symphonic sound.

But in March 2012, during the last of three weekend performances at Bass Hall, Procter discovered he lacked the strength to manipulate the keys on his horn.

When he walked off stage after the concert he knew the time had come to retire.

“It wasn’t hard at all.”

The orchestra lost more than an accomplished horn player.

“Sterling was a real leader among the musicians,” said Mark Houghton, the orchestra’s first horn. “He understood it all, musically. He could articulate what we do, and why we do it.

“Work hasn’t been the same without him.”

Procter said that if he’s a “gifted” musician it is only because of all the gifts he received during his life. His father who loved to sing taught his son how to harmonize. That was a gift. His mother gifted her encouragement. When Procter was in junior high school a band director, his neighbor, offered to give him French horn lessons.

“I don’t have a horn,” Sterling told him.

“I’ll loan you one,” the man said.

So rather than waste time dwelling on a disease he can’t control, the composer chooses to keep writing sacred music and count his blessings.

He smiled at Sebastian, a pet blue-winged macaw, perched lightly on his shoulder.

Procter checked his cellphone and thought of Carol Anne. The woman he married last year is a musician. She runs marathons. He talked about the support she provides, her caring nature and, as a hymnist might put it, the blessed assurance of unconditional love.

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