It’s impossible to imagine where contemporary music would be if it weren’t for church choirs. Their melodic and harmonic sounds as they chant and sing together essentially laid the foundation for everything we listen to today.
“There is something very beautiful about it,” Ken Dyer, choirmaster at the Church of the Ascension in Rockville Centre, said. “If you think about it, music history is all bound up in church music.”
Dyer, 61, has led the Episcopal church choir for the past 25 years and has established a repertoire ranging from classical works by composers such as Bach to the hymns, spirituals and choral compositions of the 20th century.
Dyer grew up in West Islip, and at 13 he began taking piano lessons. Then, one day while he was sitting in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church following Mass, he decided to get up and start playing. “The next thing I knew, there was someone standing next to me,” he recalled. “That’s when the organist offered me a job.”
Dyer was 16 when he was hired to play one Mass a week at the West Islip church. Although he left the parish to study theology at St. John’s University in Queens, the passion he felt for music never waned. While at St. John’s he worked as an organist at Our Lady of Grace in West Babylon, performing seven Masses on the weekends.
“That was a lot,” Dyer said, “but it provided me with good experience and helped put me through college.”
He had a number of other jobs along the way, and in the 1980s he had his first experience with an Episcopalian congregation in Kew Gardens.
Dyer had initially set out to become a priest, and joined a seminary, but quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for the life of the cloth. Then he realized that he could make music his career instead of just doing it on the side. So he enrolled at the Copland School of Music at Queens College, where he earned a degree in music education. He also received a master’s in urban and multicultural education from the College of Mount St. Vincent.
He went on to work as an educator, teaching chorus to students in Brooklyn for 25 years before retiring from the profession. And over the years, he performed at a variety of churches — Lutheran, Christian Scientist and Catholic.
In Queens, Dyer became friends with a priest in Woodhaven, and regularly substituted for his organ player. After the priest left to join the Church of the Ascension in Rockville Centre, he kept in touch with Dyer. “He kept saying to me, since the minute he left, that he wanted me to come out here,” Dyer said.
As soon as the opportunity arose, he was offered the job as the church’s choirmaster. “And here I’ve been for 25 years now,” he said. “I love it here so much. I guess that’s why I’ve stayed through three rectors and various interims.”
When he arrived on Sept. 1, 1998, Dyer recounted, he was intimidated. Unlike the parish in Kew Gardens, which had a choir of only six people, the Church of the Ascension had 12, and most of them could read music and were used to a higher standard of performance. “But I came to see that I had a role here,” Dyer said, “and that I had something to bring to the table.”
In addition to his duties as choirmaster, he has also composed and arranged his own music for the choir, which it occasionally performs.
Dyer said that what he values most about his job is the people he gets to work with every week. “There is something really wonderful about coming together and singing that is unlike anything else,” he said.
He describes the choir as being like a big, dysfunctional family. Sometimes there are disagreements, but that’s to be expected with any group of talented people who work together so closely, so often.
You also never know whom you might meet in rehearsals. In Dyer’s case, it was his future husband, Ken Mensing, who joined the choir around the same time. The couple have been happily married for 22 years.
“There are only a handful of people that are still in (the choir) from when I started,” Dyer said. “There’ve been a lot of changes over the years.”
The biggest change took place in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Dyer said it was the first time in as long as he can remember that the church was closed. “I went months without playing the organ or directing the choir,” he said. “We did the best we could, but now things are back to normal and the church itself has not recovered completely.”
Since the extended absence, attendance at the church has diminished.
But, asked about the future of its music program, Dyer said he planned to continue his work as a choirmaster for the next five to 10 years before he considers retirement. He doesn’t plan to be performing when he’s 80, he said, but he added that he was concerned that it’s become more difficult to persuade members of younger generations to commit to dedicating the time. Still, he is confident that the music program will continue long into the future.
“I hope there will be a resurgence in church music,” Dyer said. “Right now we have a young man who is about 9 or 10 who plays the piano for us occasionally, and he’s very good. So there is hope.”