One of audiences' favorite Sonnenberg Station pieces this season has been "We Are Not Alone" by Pepper Choplin. It's a simple, heartfelt a cappella anthem offering a solid comfort that God is with us always, regardless of our circumstances.
The article below, written in 1998, is a great profile piece on Choplin, giving insight into the person behind the composition.
December 4, 1998
The News & Observer
THE MUSIC MAN
By Eleanor Lee Yates; Correspondent
RALEIGH -- It's Wednesday night at Greystone Baptist Church. The evening meal is over; choir practices have started. There's lots of Christmas music to work on. In a back room crammed with a piano and metal folding chairs, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders practice their hallelujahs.
"La la la," intones Pepper Choplin, their minister of music.
"La la la," repeat the children, in perfect unison.
"A little stronger now," Choplin says.
"The girls are singing too high," complains a boy in the back.
A half-hour later Choplin works with the adult choir. Between sessions he's running from room to room in the church, getting music, checking with church members about times and dates and who's performing what.
Choplin plans all the music for Greystone's worship services. He also writes much of it.
Choplin has composed 50 choral anthems sold by a major music publisher to church choirs all over the country. Choplin recently released his first CD, "Psalms of the Wood," made up of 13 anthems and distributed by GlorySound, a division of Shawnee Press Inc., which publishes Choplin's choral music.
"The recording started in February, but the company had been planning it for a while," says Choplin, a lanky, fair-haired man who bears a faint resemblance to entertainer John Tesh. A GlorySound producer was scheduled to come to Raleigh but was called to another project. Choplin told the company he thought he could produce the project - then wondered what he'd gotten into.
"I had never produced anything," he says. The learning curve was a sharp one, like cramming in two years of college. Choplin assembled a number of singer friends, including two members of the Greystone choir and two ministers of music. Musician friends helped out on pennywhistle, guitar, hammer dulcimer and accordion. The musicians recorded instrumental versions of the anthems. Then came 15 hours of recording sessions spread over two days for the vocalists.
The melodies of Choplin's songs are distinctive. Some have a folksy feel, others an Irish bent. Still others are grand and formal.
The choirs at Greystone are thrilled with Choplin's success. But because Choplin is so affable and down-to-earth and they've known him since "back when," they feel comfortable putting in their occasional two cents' worth when he tries out new compositions on them.
"They're pretty bold about their critiques," Choplin says.
BORN TO PERFORM: Choplin's parents recognized early that their son enjoyed music and did their best to encourage him. He took piano lessons at 4. He was reading music at 5. A Raleigh native, Choplin was active in New Hope Baptist Church as a youth, participating in several choirs and performing in musicals. At Millbrook High School, Choplin played trumpet in the band but always was eager to learn new instruments, adding banjo, guitar and recorder to his repertoire.
Choplin's unusual first name is not a moniker - it's real. "My parents were creative, but it caused me some trouble," Choplin says, so growing up, he used his middle name, Dean.
He majored in music education with a voice principal at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He took only a couple of composition classes. During summers, he performed a stage act at Carowinds. He took only a few composing courses.
Choplin's first job was music minister at Myrtle Grove Baptist Church in Wilmington. During his two-year tenure, he decided to pursue his interest in composing. He enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, to earn his master's degree in composition. After graduation, Choplin worked as music minister for a church in Orlando, Fla.
"I didn't write anything for three years. There never seemed to be enough time," he says. He had married his wife, Heather. Daughter Kelcy, now 13, and Erin, now 10, were born. "Then we needed a musical to perform and I just decided to write one. I did it on deadline, kind of like I was on an assembly line," he recalls.
The 40-minute musical, "The Heavens Are Telling," was a hit with his church and motivated Choplin to make more time for composing. (The musical is being performed this Christmas season at many Triangle-area churches. Among the churches presenting the musical are The First Presbyterian Church of Garner, New Hope Baptist Church in Raleigh and Ephesus Baptist Church in Durham, all Dec. 13.)
In 1991, a year after Choplin arrived at Greystone, Shawnee Press published an anthem from his musical. Shawnee, in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., has regularly published Choplin's work since. Fred Waring, noted choral conductor and bandleader of the Young Pennsylvanians, established the company in the 1930s.
Krista Hoell Montgomery, director of advertising at Shawnee, says Choplin is one of most creative and freshest composers to "come along in a long time."
"His music is very spiritual and moving. It leads people to worship," she says. "He has a folk quality. He incorporates instruments that are not traditional."
Choplin separates his church duties from his composing, doing his writing in his home office which includes a keyboard, a piano and a computer. He hooks the computer to a keyboard to write most of his work.
"I get the concept down on the piano. But the computer is so versatile. You can write music in one key, hit a button and instantly transpose it," he says.
BUSY DAYS: As minister of music, Choplin's duties include planning the music for worship services, working with the adult choir, an adult ensemble, the youth choir and three children's choirs. He is also an outreach minister, which means visiting the hospitalized and the ill. Greystone Baptist, on Lead Mine Road, has about 650 members.
The Rev. Gene Watterson, who arrived at Greystone as senior pastor 10 months ago, says he knew of Choplin by reputation long before. "He has a huge reputation among ministers," Watterson says. He noted Choplin's rare musical talent but also his gift for human relationships.
"He's a very genuine Christian, in his outlook and his actions. He has great integrity. When he says he'll do something, you can take it to the bank," Watterson says. "I have no idea what the future holds for this young man, but I have visions of his being a major player."
Brian Perkinson, a Greystone member, joined the choir shortly before Choplin arrived. "He made us more disciplined," Perkinson says. "We always had fun but were less attentive to all the notes. Now we pay attention to all the notes. Pepper has improved the quality of music at Greystone. We learned to work harder without losing the fun."
Perkinson says the choir loves to give feedback on Choplin's works in progress. "We like to think we're part of 'composition by committee.' We don't hesitate to say the composer was wrong."
Sometimes choir members are perplexed when they open up their crisp, black-and-white sheet music to practice one of Choplin's songs. It's not the same as the printouts he gave them before the music was printed.
Choplin, of course, had done some fine-tuning. He uses a variety of music in the services, with just a small percentage being his own. Perkinson notes that Choplin excels at choosing music, which communicates the message of the minister's text, of tying hymns and music to the sermon.
Six years ago Choplin thought seriously about going into composing full time. He went to Nashville, where much of the Christian-music industry is based, and talked to contacts and acquaintances. But church ministry, he decided, is for him.
"There's a lot of insecurity in chasing the big time. I'm in a good position now. I didn't see anything worth changing my life over," Choplin says.
For more information: 'Psalms of the Wood' retails for $15.98 and can be purchased in Raleigh at Burrage Music Co. at 4900 Green Road, at Lifeway Bookstore at 3000 Wake Forest Road, and at The Sign of the Fish Christian Bookstore, 1657 N. Market Drive.
Copyright 1998 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.