I was excited recently to have the opportunity to interview Tom Whittemore. Tom is the music director at Trinity Church Princeton. I am one of the two organs scholars at Trinity, which means that Tom is technically my boss. But much more than that he is also a mentor and great example for me, a young organist very much interested in beginning my career in sacred music.
Tom is undoubtedly among the top church musicians in the country and is also respected in England. He has had an extensive career not only as an organist and choir director but also as a singer from a young age. I have heard many of his experiences and stories but only piecemeal, a little bit after choir rehearsal, something else between services. Therefore, I was very much looking forward to this opportunity to actually sit down and talk undistracted by young treble choristers or the start of the prelude. I was interested in finding out about Tom’s life but also what had shaped him and how he sought to teach this to the choir.
At age 7 Tom began singing in the Choir of Men and Boys at Trinity Church New Haven, an Episcopal church with a long tradition of high-quality music in the Anglican Choral Tradition. Tom sang with the choir through high school and was also organ scholar there during his last two years of high school. Tom says that choirs such as Trinity New Haven are one of the few places where a child does the same things as an adult and is treated the same. These experiences allowed Tom to push his personal growth. As a head chorister for two years he also learned about leadership, not only musically but also in dealing with other people.
During this time Tom also sang in operas at Yale University such as Noah’s Flood and The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten. When he was 13 he was the main treble soloist for the European premiere of Bernstein’s MASS: “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers” in Vienna and recorded it for broadcast on BBC.
Hearing the exceptional Aeolian-Skinner organ at Trinity Church and playing it for fun after the services piqued Tom’s interest in the organ. And following high school Tom studied organ formally at Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkins University in Baltimore. During this time he also frequently accompanied at local churches. Following college he worked briefly at All Saints Church in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania and then for many years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Since 2003 he has worked as Music Director at Trinity Church Princeton where he runs that large music program, directs the two semi-professional choirs, and trains the treble and teen choristers. Aside from his experiences I was also interested in how Tom teaches the choir the significance of their role in worship. He says that by focusing on the right things, which for Tom means the text, this will come naturally.
It was not just the serious things that I enjoyed learning but also the side tidbits—that Tom played jazz trombone at one point or that his mother’s cousin sang cigarette commercials on the radio. It was all of these stories and more that greatly expanded my understanding of Tom’s life and influences, stories that just don’t come up during the passing of the peace or while checking anthems for Sunday but that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn.