Woody Bynum Returns Home with SEARK Concerts’ “Summertime Serenade”July 24th, 2014 by iPhone
“My husband and I knew something was amiss when our three-year old son started playing recognizable tunes on his toy piano,” said Judith Bynum in a recent conversation about her son Woodrow who will be returning to Monticello in July to present a concert at the Fine Arts Center at The University of Arkansas at Monticello under the auspices of SEARK Concerts. “A few weeks later, he came home from church and played the hymns we had sung that day. Before long, he was propped up on our old upright and began reproducing every song that came into his head.”
Woodrow Bynum was born in Dermott, Arkansas in 1975 and moved with his family to a farm in Collins (Drew County) four years later. His mother, Judy, was a pianist and taught Woody and his sister Jody to sing. As a child Woody spent hours each day at the piano, working out melodies and (as he called it) “crude” left-hand accompaniments. “I was no prodigy. I could work out melodies, but my concept of harmony was very rough. Sometimes after church I would sneak up to the organ loft and get some ‘pointers’ from Ms. Suit, our organist. I remember her showing me how to invert chords and even chastising me for using parallel motion. I was still being chastised for parallel motion at Juilliard, so I don’t think I ever learned that lesson.” Woody learned the American songbook along with his Montrose Academy classmates during their annual spring musicals under the leadership of Tot Barnes. “We sang hours of songs—the best songs, and I can still sing those pieces by heart. Tot Barnes and Marilyn Jo Borgognoni taught me to love music and made me believe the everybody could learn to sing.”
In his childhood, Woody struggled to balance music with baseball and school work. “All I wanted to do was play the piano and sing. It drove my friends crazy…I think my sister is still recovering!” he said. He didn’t receive any formal training until his trombone lessons in sixth grade. “Joan Koskoski, the Drew Central band director, agreed to give me some trombone lessons over the summer so that I could enter band the following year with my sixth grade classmates. That was when I learned to read music.” He said that being in band was like being a kid in the candy store. “I can’t believe the level of musical talent at Drew Central. The band was so musical, and students spent every spare minute in the band room practicing and getting into trouble.” In seventh grade, Woody joined the choir and was selected to sing at the American Choral Directors Association Convention. “Bennie Carol Wade (now Dunavan) urged several of us to audition for this. I remember her getting me out of class to tell me that I had been selected.” He travelled with Wade to Louisville to sing in the choir made up of singers from all over the country. “This was when I got bitten by the bug. I had never heard sounds like this before, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Woody’s grandmother, Mrs. H.S. (Corine) Lane suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In his eighth grade year, he moved in with her on Wood Avenue in Monticello so that she could have a few more years at home. He transferred into the Monticello School District at that time and began taking lessons with the legendary Marjorie Mae Bond. “She had been my mother’s piano teacher and had studied at The Cincinnati Conservatory with a student of Chopin’s. To me, she was larger than life.”
It was during his eighth grade year that he also auditioned for the Arkansas Youth Orchestra. “I don’t think they were overrun by good brass players, or I never would have gotten in. Each of us had to have a private instructor on our instrument, and Ms. Holley agreed to teach me French horn.” Bankie Holley, long-time band director at Monticello not only taught Woody French horn, but also singing, solfeggio, and even gave him conducting lessons. “She is one of the finest musicians I have ever known. Even now when visit with her; I’m astonished at her knowledge of repertoire. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and mentor growing up.”
The summer of his ninth grade year was spent among the lakes and pines of Michigan at The Interlochen Arts Camp. He enrolled there as a singer and trombonist, but said he quickly learned that he wasn’t at the level of the other instrumentalists. “These kids were world class players. I knew my brass playing days were numbered.” He took the opportunity to enroll in organ lessons with Robert Murphy who had an amusing time reworking the ‘technique’ Woody had taught himself while playing the organ at Dermott United Methodist Church. “I was shocked to learn that I was supposed to wear special shoes and that both of my feet were needed to play the pedals. Organists are supposed to keep their knees and ankles together, and mine refused to cooperate.” Eventually, Mr. Murphy won the battle. Inspired, Woody returned to Monticello and was given permission to practice at First Presbyterian Church on their M. P. Möller pipe organ. “I spent so many hours in that church. It was like a second home to me in those days.” He even recalls being grounded once for coming home too late from church. “I tried to point out the irony to my parents, but that didn’t soften their resolve.”
In addition to the summer music camp, Interlochen Center for the Arts has an arts boarding school called The Interlochen Arts Academy. Woody attended the academy for his last two years of high school. “I begged my parents to let me go. I knew it was the place for me.” Robert Murphy continued to guide his organ playing and instilled in Woody his love of church music. “He (Murphy) would arrive in his 1970s Chevrolet land-yacht at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning and pile all of the us organ students in the back. We were responsible for playing the opening and closing voluntaries at Central United Methodist Church in Traverse City and singing in its famed choir.”
During his time at Interlochen, singing began to play a bigger role in Woodrow’s music making. “The male voice takes so long to mature, and unlike pianists who can study major repertoire at an early age, singers have to be very patient.” When he enrolled at The University of Michigan, he did so as a singer. “I still took organ lessons (with Robert Glasgow), but singing had become my focus” Woody’s singing teacher was the great English soprano Lorna Haywood. “I remember seeing her name on the Robert Shaw recording of the Britten War Requiem. I was star-struck! Haywood overhauled his technique and guided his promising career with care. “She knew how to say ‘no’, and often added a few choice words of her own to go along with it.” Eventually, Woody made his professional singing debut with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and was a young artist at The Detroit Opera House. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he was offered a place in the Juilliard Opera Center at The Juilliard School in New York City. “My dad had told one of his friends that I was going to go to Juilliard. The friend went home and told his wife that I was going to Jolliet (a correctional facility outside of Chicago).” He studied singing with Beverley Peck Johnson who was ninety-seven at the time. “She had been my teacher’s teacher. We all adored her, but she was not to be trifled with. I left her apartment in tears more than once.”
Woody’s singing career took off during his years in New York City. He made debuts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall singing with choirs and orchestras around the country. During this time he also sang with the choir of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue with Gerre Hancock. Church music, which had been such a huge part of his life, began calling him back. In addition to singing daily services, the choir toured extensively and performed major concerts with orchestra. “Sometimes at Saint Thomas I was a soloists, but usually I was in the choir. It made no difference to me. I was having the time of my life.”
In 2006, Woody learned of an opening for a Director of Music at The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York. He applied, and after a lengthy interview and audition process, was selected. The Cathedral was the first Cathedral built on a European scale in the United States. Its choir, the oldest continuously singing of its kind was started in 1872. The all-professional choir is made up of highly trained boy trebles ranging in ages from eight to fifteen, and twelve professional male singers who sing the alto, tenor, and bass parts. When Bynum took over the choir in 2007, it had fallen on difficult times. “We only had four boys singing at the first service I conducted. I had a crash course in recruiting!” Now eight years later, the choir is among the best of its kind, singing weekly services and a number of special concerts each year. They have toured to England, singing at Gloucester and Hereford Cathedrals, and plan to return there in 2015.
Bynum now balances his duties at the Cathedral with a full schedule of singing engagements. He performs regularly as a member of The Handel & Haydn Society of Boston (which is celebrating its 200th year) and continues to do solo work with orchestras and choruses. He serves on the voice faculty of The College of Saint Rose in Albany and sings recital programs such as the one he will perform in Monticello.
Woody will be joined in the performance with fellow Juilliard graduate and concert pianist Ryan Reilly. They will perform a wide variety of selections including works by Copland, Schumann, and Ravel to name a few. They will be offering a master class to local music students the following day. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact SEARK Concerts at 870-460-1060 or visit searkconcert.org.