To say that music has been an integral part of professor Charsie Randolph Sawyer’s entire life would be only a slight exaggeration. She was performing at a very young age as a singer and an organist in her hometown church in Youngstown, Ohio; so young, in fact, that her feet barely reached the organ pedals. She would go on as an adult to earn her bachelor’s in music from Youngstown State University in 1977, and then master’s and doctoral degrees in vocal performance at the University of Michigan in 1980 and 1996, respectively.
Although she began her career singing opera, one of the most extraordinary qualities of Sawyer’s career is her stylistic versatility. Equally at home in opera, musical theater, art song, oratorio, gospel and jazz, she has made a point throughout her career of being open to a variety of musical cultures, traditions and sounds.
Sawyer’s stylistic diversity is an extension of her deep commitment to classical music training. She has had a lifelong interest in black composers and has highlighted the work of African-American women “classical” composers, in particular, in her scholarship and performance: she used a sabbatical to compile the volume Art Songs of African Descent by Women Composers, she recorded the solo Cd The Unknown Flower: Song Cycles by American Women Composers, and she has given recitals throughout the Midwest, England and Eastern Europe drawn from this repertory.
Her commitment to diversity is also evident in her more than 30-year career in church music, whether as a singer, worship leader, clinician, editor or author. She has worked with a wide variety of denominations and traditions, looking to bring believers closer to God through styles that they may or may not be familiar with. Sawyer describes, for example, using jazz for spiritual growth in the edited volume Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation.
Looking back, it is clear that Sawyer came to Calvin’s music department at a pivotal moment, helping it begin to shift from a narrowly Eurocentric and classical orientation to something more inclusive. She helped facilitate this progression by encouraging a diversity of styles in her vocal studio; directing and supporting musical theater projects; including pop, gospel and hip-hop styles in her classroom teaching and, perhaps more obviously, leading the Gospel Choir.
The Gospel Choir began as a student-run ensemble in the 1980s but rose to new heights after Sawyer became the director, eventually touring nationally and internationally and recording several CDs. The ensemble combines both the openness and rigor that have exemplified Sawyer’s career: it’s a ‘come-as-you-are’ choir and no expectation that students can read music, featuring charismatic worship music from the U.S. and around the world, but is led by a classically trained musician who expects excellence from her students.
Her signature combination of popular and global styles, classical technique and ministry focus is also demonstrated in her most recent publication, Gospel Vocalises & Warm Ups: Engaging Mind, Body and Spirit. Sawyer’s inviting and professional leadership of this group has tended to attract a disproportionally high number of students of color and international students, for whom the ensemble has become an important source of community.
Sawyer hopes the Calvin community will continue to pursue real relationships and God’s calling. “Music is organic, so [there is] organic expression that goes from heart to heart through music, words, lyrics and the sound of all the instruments,” she said. “They’re not the same, but they play together. The world is not all the same, but we must learn how to play together.”