An Interview with Sacred Music Composer Tom Trenney

on

Upon meeting Tom Trenney, one can’t help but notice that there is something special about him. His calm spirit, nonjudgmental loving manner, high intelligence, mad musical skills, and ability to express himself blend to make Trenney a unique voice in sacred music.

He has earned a place of respect and appreciation from his colleagues and from the congregation of First-Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he serves. For the church, he composes, plays hymns, and conducts. He also does numerous talks about church music around the country, has an affection for the legacy of Fred Rogers, and is raising two adopted children with his partner.

The Early Years and Trenney’s Musical Education

Trenney grew up in Cleveland, Ohio as an only child. There was a piano in his basement that he began to play at the age of five. The tunes Trenney plucked out were from the Atari games he had been playing. 

His parents recognized their son’s gifts and began Trenney’s formal musical training. Margaret Syroney was Trenney’s first piano teacher, from the age of 5 until he was 18. Syroney encouraged Trenney to find his unique voice and encouraged him to explore creating music of his own. Later in life this encouragement would help Trenney in his improvisational skills at the organ.

Trenney also sang in a choir of men and boys and became very fond of the British choral tradition. Every year the choir would sing Handel’s Messiah and the great choral literature of cathedral choirs. 

Trenney also had the great privilege of studying with two of the finest organists in the world: Anne Wilson and later, in college, Todd Wilson. Trenney says that not a day goes by that he doesn’t use what he was taught at his undergraduate school, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and later the Eastman School of Music where he also studied choral conducing with William Weinert.

“We each have music born within us that no one else has ever made and no one else ever could. It is a rich blessing and a deep privilege to be part of helping others to set that music free!”

-Tom Trenney

Different Seasons of Life – Organist and Conductor

With Trenney’s early training at the organ, he became proficient enough to play at denominational services as well as National American Guild of Organists events. While he felt privileged to have these opportunities and to study performance with superb teachers, he also experienced the need to express his feelings and to share them with others through conducting and composing.

It was this evolution that continued to hone Trenney’s voice as a musician and as a human being. He became passionate about the process of facilitating music making with others. This is what inspired him to pursue choral conducting as a part of his ministry.

“What an opportunity it is that people can be in the room ultimately listening to one another but also expressing their own beauty at the same time,” Trenney said.

His own faith journey bonds with this as he considers the relevance of singing, particularly singing in church.

“The gift of life begins with our breath,” Trenney said. “God creates each of us to be an instrument unlike any other that ever has been and unlike any other that will ever be …. We offer that music back to God with our very breath. That breath becomes our voice and ultimately our song.”

Composing

The desire for personal expression continues to inspire Trenney – as does his eagerness to help people realize that their individual gifts matter and have a direct effect on the community at large. This ideal grew for Trenney on a trip to hear a work he had composed entitled Living Water that was commissioned by Lee Nelson and the Wartburg Choir for their annual Christmas Festival.

Two months before the festival, Trenney visited Wartburg to hear it performed and to talk with the choir about the composition. As he sat and listened to those amazing young people interpret what he had written, he understood that his ministry could have a wider affect on worshiping communities. 

As the choir aspired to delve into the meaning of the text and its union with the music he had written, he realized how his own philosophies about music could reach out through his compositions. Essentially, the choir had given voice to his ideals and his perspective about faith – and this made Trenney to want to compose more.   

“It surprised me. It opened up a whole new realm to me. I had always thought of music ministry as being a relational thing. Until that point, that meant I had to be in the room to help become a part of that experience,” Trenney said. “I discovered that I could be a part of worshiping communities without being in the room with them .… Composers and poets are in communion with us in a very real and mystical way.”

Mister Rogers and Holy Ground

In 2019, Trenney spoke at the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) about a person who inspired him. His topic was the similarities between Fred Rogers’ philosophies about education and the effect of making music in community. Rogers is quoted as saying:  

“I’m not interested in mass communications. I’m much more interested in what happens between this person and the one watching. The space between the television set and that person who’s watching is very holy ground.”

Trenney points out that Rogers had the same old curtains and sweaters throughout his lengthy PBS career. He didn’t need any gimmicks. He simply wanted to convey a priceless message:

“I love you just the way you are. There’s no one else like you. There never has been and there never will be.”

The holy ground between conductor and singer, between organist and congregation, between cantor and parish is just that – holy ground. Trenney believes that if we can convey these ideals to those we work with, positive change is possible – that we have the ability to create what traditional church music is about today. Essentially, together, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered.

“We each have music born within us that no one else has ever made and no one else ever could,” Trenney said. “It is a rich blessing and a deep privilege to be part of helping others to set that music free!”

View Tom Trenney’s compositions.  


Not yet subscribed? Sign up to receive our weekly Cued In newsletters.

Chris Titko
Chris Titko is the Church Editor for J.W. Pepper. Prior to working at Pepper, Chris spent 35 years serving various churches across the US. He has a degree in sacred music from Westminster Choir College and a degree in choral conducting from Indiana University Bloomington, with further graduate studies at the University of Oklahoma. He also serves as the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.