I tell this story often enough, but the truth should be revealed: I joined choir to meet girls. I mean, I also hated whatever book we were reading in Mini Course, but I knew that the ratio of gals to guys would certainly be working in my favor, and let’s face it, Middle School was a tough place. Tacie Heavner, saw raw talent in me, and threw me into “The Washingtonians” - a middle school show choir that (in many ways) functioned as an advanced ensemble. I don’t remember the context, but one day, I remember her saying “Mr. Thompson will not deal with this at all,” regarding a disciplinary matter in the context of a rehearsal. Enter: the mythical figure of “T!”
Becoming a member of Sentinel Sounds became my primary focus. I started finding my voice and realizing that I had an aptitude for vocal music. I don’t remember the circumstances, but when I got to Fort Hill in the fall of 1999, T brought me into Sentinel Sounds as a Freshmen. For context: this was, the arts equivalent of being on the Varsity Football Team. I was thrust into a world where the expectations were high, and I was blissfully ignorant enough to just come along for the ride. One of my fondest memories of my Freshmen year in Sentinel Sounds was a rehearsal where we were singing Bruckner’s Locus Iste – I sang the low F in the last few bars, (which apparently had been lacking because of range issues in the bass section), and the room lit up. All of those upper classmen were looking at me, and T had this smile on his face that I’ll never forget. Show choir was undoubtedly the focus, but he also taught us ensemble skills, and gave us elements of the choral canon that were important to our development as an ensemble.
Speaking of show choir, the refrain of “we’re working second shift,” or “you need tap shoes” became familiar in our homeroom ranks. We did get down time, but we were always preparing for some competition or showcase in both Show Choir AND Concert Choir. T taught us that we were privileged; that we had a gift, and that he had a vision for those gifts. Little did we know the extra work was teaching us all lessons that maybe we didn’t understand right away - I was just trying to get my algebra done. Because the Sentinel Sounds had their own rehearsal period, we staged a production of Godspell my freshmen year. The run of the entire show was almost derailed because of a traumatic and unfortunate incident that engulfed Bob’s whole family. We had a substitute the next day, but he came in and talked to us that afternoon, and the show went on. It was, and is still, one of the most emotionally charged and deeply moving performances I have ever been a part of.
Everyone in Sentinel Sounds had to try out for Maryland All State Chorus, and in the months leading up to the audition we would spend rehearsal time singing through excerpts, and drilling sight reading exercises. Having been lucky enough to have been accepted into the mixed chorus in all 4 years of high school, provided me with a window outside of our local bubble. Upon arrival, I had to pass a part-check, which was daunting enough, but once we got into rehearsal, I realized that this was next-level. The musicianship was so high, and I got to encounter dynamic and well-known conductors in the choral realm including the famed Dr. Eph Ely and, of course, Dr. Paul Rardin, who was the reason I eventually attended Towson University to study music. Bob was the ensemble manager for the Senior Mixed Chorus and EVERYONE was afraid him. He did come across as stern and very direct – just as tight a ship as you would expect. Other students would say “He’s your teacher? WOW – what’s that like?” I knew who Bob was and I could honestly say to them “It’s great!” To see him sharing the stage with these other great conductors and to be in charge of the logistics of this large of an endeavor was inspiring, and just another facet of Bob as role model for what I’d eventually become.
I was also blessed to be cast in several leading roles at Fort Hill, including Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Techincolor Dreamcoat and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. There were other instances where I got supporting roles, and in one such case, starting to get a bit “too big for my britches,” I started acting pretty short with him – I wanted to be the lead! He let this go and took my snarky comments and attitude in stride, but after a few days of this he pulled me out of the classroom and into the auditorium and let me have it! It was the reality check I needed to be told that not everything was about me, or in this case, for me, and that it’s often more important to be a part of the whole than the center of attention. He was so incredibly patient with my shitty attitude and saw when there was a teaching moment. He knew his students needed to be ready to deal with the short-comings and failures we’d encounter in life.
T and I worked together on myriad productions at Cumberland Theater even before I graduated high school. It was quite a different dynamic and calling him ‘Bob’ took some getting used to. At first, we were on stage together. I remember very distinctly singing the letter quintet (Most Honorable Judge Turpin) in Sweeney Todd which was a really challenging sing – It was Staci, Emily Morozek (James), Josh Ruppenkamp, me, and Bob. Eventually, Bob transitioned to the role of Stage Manager after Harold left, and I was working on staff in the summers doing everything from Box Office to set construction. One of my main responsibilities was as lighting assistant to Joe, which meant after hang, design and tech rehearsals, I was in the booth running lights and sound for the shows. I spent many summer nights talking with Bob over the janky intercom phones we used, in between frantic passages of him calling multiple cues in a row. The most fun I had though was going down to Carmichael’s Pub after work (once I turned 21 – or at least close to 21) with Don, Gary, and Bob. If we flashed back to 2008, I could tell you exactly what each of us would order, to the letter, but we never had to order – they were already bringing the drinks over when walked in the door.
After getting my bachelor’s degree in voice performance at Towson University, I decided I wanted to pursue conducting and went on to do a Master of Music in Choral Conducting at Temple University. Following a 4-year stint back in Cumberland after my MMus, working at Our Lady of the Mountains Parish and co-founding Mountainside Baroque, I went on to the University of Washington in Seattle to complete a Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting. It was in 2018 that I was in the sight-reading room at the Allegany County Choral Adjudications. I had adjudicated this festival before from the floor, but never sight-reading. Bob walks into the room with Concert Choir, and just as a I remember, the group was trained within an inch of their lives – they looked like a small army, except they were smiling. I say “hi” to Bob and he seems a little [uncharacteristically] nervous – I bet you would be, too, if your former student was adjudicating your choir. What I wanted to say to him in that moment, which I couldn’t at the time, was “relax! You made me – show me how it’s done one more time.” He, of course, did, and they absolutely nailed it.
Bob Thompson made me. He was the first person I encountered in my young life that DEMANDED excellence, but it was never for him; it was always for you. He provided us opportunities and gave us a window to the world beyond Fort Hill, Allegany County, and even Maryland. When he raised his voice, there was always a lesson to be learned, and when we got that lesson, it was his delight to bask in our success. I look at the last 19 years of my life, having chosen a career path he introduced to me, and I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be who I am today without Bob Thompson.
As I was out for a run on the morning Bob died, trying to sort through all of the emotions swirlingly around in my head, I kept coming back to that Kirby Shaw arrangement of “Hand in Hand” that he always used for a closer to various events. I was trying to remember the words to the bridge, completely oblivious to my surroundings, when I heard a car horn that startled me. “Dr. Mullaney!” – it was one of my own choir students. If that wasn’t Bob trying to comfort me…
Rest easy, Bob, and thank you. You will be missed, but your legacy lives on in all of us.