12/15/17 — St. Luke United Methodist Church's music director to retire on Dec. 31

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St. Luke United Methodist Church's music director to retire on Dec. 31

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on December 15, 2017 5:50 AM

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The St. Luke handbell choir performed at the White House in 1993. Bess Edwards-Sawyer is front row, third from the right.

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Director of music and organist Bess Edwards-Sawyer prepares to retire after more than 26 years of service at St. Luke United Methodist Church.

Bess Edwards-Sawyer has directed choirs and played the organ at church, has taught piano to young people and has even taken her choirs to the White House on two occasions. Music and the church have been an important part of her life for as long as she can remember.

But that is changing this month.

The 65-year-old will retire Dec. 31 after 36 years in the United Methodist Church as a professional musician.

The first seven years of her career were spent as minister of music/organist at Queen Street United Methodist Church in Kinston. She has been at St. Luke United Methodist Church since 1991.

Edwards-Sawyer remembers being interested in music in first grade.

"Music was my favorite class at school, and I liked to sing at school and at church," she said.

She took private piano lessons from the third to the 12th grade.

"I love the church music," Edwards-Sawyer said. "I began playing the organ in some of the opening assemblies we would have at church when I was a sixth grader."

She became one of her church's organists when she was in high school.

When her father gave her a gift of 25 handmade cowbells when she was in 12th grade, Edwards-Sawyer taught herself to play them.

"It's like learning to play the piano," she said. "It's just a matter of picking up that cowbell and putting that cowbell down."

Her music education continued at Greensboro College, where she received her bachelor's degree in music. From there, she went to Northwestern University in Chicago for her master's degree in church music with a concentration in organ. She also received training in harpsichord.

"I chose church music because I felt called as a member of the church," Edwards-Sawyer said. "I chose that early on because I knew I wanted my setting to be in the church, training choirs, directing choirs and playing the organ."

She will remember St. Luke as a very friendly and committed church, whose musicians are dedicated -- taking their job seriously as musicians ministering to the congregation.

One of Edwards-Sawyer's most favorite memories will be the music camp she started 26 years ago at St. Luke, which is held every July for youths 3 years old through sixth grade.

"We teach class after class in handbells, music, singing, music fun, music and movement, guitar, harp and more," she said. "We end the week with a closing concert. It's just a beautiful thing to see."

One of the highlights of Edwards-Sawyer's career at Queen Street and St. Luke churches has been two trips with her choirs to the White House to perform for the visitors taking a tour at the holidays.

"We went one time when George Bush the elder was president," she said. "I had broken my foot and was in a cast and a wheelchair. We had been told we would meet President Bush, then it looked like we might not.

"I told one of the officials that this was our dream. The day he was flying to Somalia, we were invited to the tarmac and President Bush stepped out onto the tarmac and shook my hand and the hands of several of our members. We'll never forget that moment."

In addition to being music director at church, Edwards-Sawyer has also taught piano to students for 36 years.

"The majority of my students compete statewide and nationally and are recipients of many scholarships," she said. "I'm very proud of that.

"The best part of teaching for me is not about my teaching piano as much as it's instilling in the students to become good citizens, to use their minds creatively. Records prove that they become better students as a whole through their knowledge of music."

Edwards-Sawyer believes that music is important because it challenges the students so that they become creative in their thinking. And it challenges them to be critical in their thinking.

"Music is a science, math and certainly language," she said. "It incorporates all those basic skills that we strive to teach in school. Music is the opportunity to assist in those areas in a very wonderful way that children can relate to."

Edwards-Sawyer also believes that music should begin before the child is born.

"You would play classical, soothing music and sing lullabies," she said. "It is proven that the baby is much more well adjusted."

And music can help senior citizens as well.

"We have our Monday Morning Music Ministry here and we go to the nursing homes and we sing," Edwards-Sawyer said. "A patient who has Alzheimer's will sing every word better than we do. It's a known fact that music is the last thing that will go. I've seen it over and over."

Music runs in her family.

Edwards-Sawyer's husband, the Rev. William Wade Sawyer Sr. plays piano, and son, Weil, plays the organ at Gordon Street Church in Kinston and is the music educator at Eastern Wayne Elementary School.

"I am retiring after much thought and prayer," Edwards-Sawyer said. "I will miss everything I do. I've had the best career. There has not been a day in my career that I have regretted."

But she will continue teaching piano in her home and she will also teach music one day a week at Montessori School.

"We need to make music a priority in our learning and keep that art alive in this world," Edwards-Sawyer said.