By Lori Gottula
Colton Martin felt the goosebumps on the back of his neck as the conductor held his hands in the air and passionately cued the choir for the final note of “Abide,” a new beautiful choral piece by Dan Forrest. As the chord came to an end, Colton and his fellow singers held their collective breath. Tears streamed down their cheeks and welled in Colton’s eyes. This was it. This was the last time that this particular group of people would ever sing together. Emotions ran the gamut from bittersweet to magical. And peaceful. The kind of peace that brings absolute joy. The kind of peace that only comes from doing something you love, something that takes you places that you never dreamed you would go. The kind of peace that Colton has followed since high school.
“Find your inner peace and follow it,” Colton said during a recent interview, “And you will always do what you are meant to do.”
Colton is one of those people who not only practices what he preaches, but does so on a grand scale. You see, the concert that was just described was held two weeks ago at St. Stephen’s House on Oxford University’s campus in the United Kingdom. It was the final concert of the year for the fifty amazing singers who make up a choir called the Westminster Williamson Voices. The choir hails from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, which is an affiliate of Rider University. And Colton is one of its members.
The Williamson Voices, a GRAMMY-nominated choir, composed of students who also regularly perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, spends two weeks every summer at Oxford as the choir-in-residence for the Choral Institute at Oxford. The institute is a seminar during which twenty-some conducting students from around the world learn to become better conductors by working with three or four of the most-recognized professors/conductors in the world. To do so, they need a choir. The Westminster Williamson Voices is that choir. The group performs the music that the conductors lead. It’s an opportunity for every person involved to become a better musician, and better person.
But how did a small-town boy like Colton become part of a GRAMMY-nominated choir that performs at places like Oxford University, a world-renowned university half-way around the world?
By following his peace.
The son of John and Mary Sue Martin of Falls City, Colton was reared in the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church, and attended Falls City Sacred Heart. A passionate Christ-follower, he thought he might someday become a priest. But music kept poking at him, trying to gain his attention. He had studied piano since the second grade, and always felt peaceful and joyful when he played, so he decided that the music ministry was his calling.
After graduating from Sacred Heart in 2010, he enrolled at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A Catholic liberal arts college in a small rural community, Benedictine was far enough away to allow Colton to explore his independence, but close enough that he could come home anytime he wanted.
He majored in music, theology, and philosophy, took piano lessons, and practiced two to three hours a day. He also started taking organ lessons because he hoped to be the Director of Music at a large parish someday, and knew he would need experience on the organ. However, when he had papers to write, or needed to practice, he found himself procrastinating by searching for and listening to choral music. Before long, sacred choral music became his passion. He couldn’t get enough.
It surprised him, too.
“I didn’t even like to sing,” Colton said. “It was too personal, too emotional. I didn’t want to be that vulnerable. And conducting? That scared me to death. Standing on a box in front of incredible performers, and knowing that you’re their leader, is daunting.”
However, he couldn’t ignore the amazing inner peace and contentment that he felt while listening to choral music. In addition, he knew that a degree in choral conducting would make him a better musician, so he decided to face his fears and step out in faith. When he did, it led him to one of the biggest and brightest places in his chosen field. Westminster Choir College is one of the oldest and most-respected colleges for sacred music in America, and employs some of the best instructors in the world. One of those is James Jordan, author of more than 30 textbooks that are used in university music departments world-wide. “We actually used some of his textbooks at Benedictine,” Colton said. “He was a major reason why I chose Westminster in the end.”
During Colton’s first year, he participated in a choir called the Westminster Symphonic Choir, which performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2015, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by world-renowned conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
Since then, life has been a whirlwind. Colton’s schedule is grueling. His major in sacred music, with an emphasis in choral conducting, requires much more than music classes. One must know how the body moves (kinesthesiology), different theories of teaching (pedagogy), how the vocal mechanisms work, and how to bring out the best in others. Colton has to be a master at the piano (he still takes lessons), and the organ (ditto). All of those things require time.
However, the things that take most of his time don’t even involve classes.
Colton has to be able to pay his bills while attending school, so he teaches piano lessons, and at times has seven to eight students each week. He also serves as the principal organist and accompanist for Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church in New Hope, Pennsylvania, so his Sundays are occupied. Whenever he needs extra money, he plays piano or organ for weddings and funerals. (This next year, he will begin serving as the rehearsal accompanist for the Westminster Williamson Voices, which will again take him to Oxford in the summer of 2017.) In addition, the multiple academic choirs in which he sings rehearse for five to six hours a day. One group performs a new concert with a different student conductor every two weeks.
“I know that seems impossible,” Colton said, “But it’s not because the choir is really like a family, so we love our time together. I know a lot of groups say that, but we really do. In fields like choral conducting, particularly in sacred music, the people are mostly Christ followers, so most are genuine and kind, and encourage others to be themselves. Being vulnerable is accepted. Expressing your emotions is accepted. When people are allowed to be who they are, they feel at home.”
That’s one of the reasons that Colton has been able to venture so far away, and reach for his dreams. Most people want to do that, but fear holds them back. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of losing loved ones. Fear.
“People are often their own biggest obstacles,” Colton said, “So I encourage every person I meet to create the life that he or she wants to live.”
And how do you do that?
By doing the things that make you strong. The things that fulfill you. The things that you would do without ever receiving a paycheck. Or, as in Colton’s case, by stepping out in faith, because if you’re doing what you are meant to do, then inner peace will follow YOU.
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