Mark Graham grew up in First Christian Church of Denton. He attended the University of North Texas College of Music, where he earned a degree in piano performance.
After graduation, Graham followed his professional music career to New York City, where he was a piano accompanist on Broadway.
Then, he left North America to play in orchestra pits for touring Broadway companies.
Nine years ago, Graham returned to Denton, and to the church of his childhood, where he was named the new music director.
“I was utterly burned out with musical theater,” said Graham. “My parents were bringing me here when I was in single digits. I was the choir director for a little while, and then I left. I left and I was in my 30s. I wasn’t attending church anywhere. I was very distant from the church in general.”
When Graham first returned to Denton, he said previous pastor Rodney McClung asked him to take the music director’s job.
“I said I wasn’t interested. I’d been attending for six weeks when I discovered that the church had added a music room and had the most amazing piano,” he said.
Soon, he was directing the church’s music. Graham said there was an adjustment between musical theater — which requires a musician to follow a conductor and pay attention to fellow musicians and the performers — and directing a church music program.
Church music, Graham said, has to invite congregants into communion and worship.
“The sermon feeds the intellect. Communion feeds the spirit. Music feeds the soul. It all feeds the soul,” Graham said.
The Rev. John Burton, the pastor of the local Disciples of Christ congregation, agreed, and said worship would be lacking without music.
“It’s important on two levels. The first level is that this is the social grease that helps a service flow. A service without music is bulky and clumsy. And music speaks to people in a way that a sermon doesn’t,” he said. “It’s artistic, not intellectual. When people listen to a sermon, they’re passive. When people listen to music, they participate.”
Burton said Graham has brought jazz, bluegrass and contemporary popular music styles into the liturgy.
“Mark makes the music harmonize with the rest of the liturgy. People come to the service with different needs. I might hit one note with the sermon, but Mark hits all these different notes and creates harmony with the rest of the service,” Burton said. “I’ve been in seven different churches, and I’ve never had the luxury of working with someone like Mark. I tell him the direction I’m taking the service, and I talk to him about the message. I trust him completely to come up with music that will work. He is so gifted. I give the music to him and he does it and its beautiful.”
Graham said he considers the message and then thinks about the sounds and textures that will communicate it through song. Generally, the congregation joins in hymns, and the sanctuary choir sings most Sundays. There is a men’s gospel quartet and a youth choir that goes by the name C-Unit.
Graham has used what Burton calls “his network of excellent musicians” into services as well. The local bluegrass-folk band the Boxcar Bandits have played during services and ensembles have brought sacred jazz into services.
“In the last 10 years, there is all this thought process about the kind of music you play during worship and the music you perform, because you aren’t performing when you are playing music in worship,” Graham said.
Across the religious spectrum, people who officiate liturgies have a common philosophy: In worship, the audience is God or the sacred. The ministers on the altar don’t entertain the congregation, they invite the congregation into communion with the holy. Graham said he leads singers and musicians in appealing to the congregation and propelling them to a deeper place.
Graham said music connects with people in mysterious ways.
“I lost my father to Alzheimer’s disease,” Graham said. “We were at [Texas Health] Presbyterian [Hospital Denton], and I went home and got his music. He had a lot of tastes. Early R&B. He loved swing music, like Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. But he also loved Willie Nelson and the Eagles. I took his music to the hospital and played it. When I played swing music, he woke up and moved his hands like he was playing an instrument. He hadn’t been responsive in days, but he responded to the music. That’s certainly something that I think about when I plan the music.”
Graham is planning a concert series that will bring music lovers into the sanctuary for secular programs, and he is also the director of an upcoming music school.
And along the way, Graham said he’s found more peace and faith again, thanks to the men and women who sing in the choir, and the congregation that thanks him when he’s included music that stirs their hearts.
He also said that he’s been delighted to find a spot saved for him in the church of his childhood.
“I have discovered here that, beyond any forethought or belief, that you can go home again.” Graham said. “I don’t know if I’d have the spiritual life I have now without this church, because frankly I was going through a cynical phase.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
A CELEBRATION OF CAROLS
What: Christmas cantata by Joseph Martin featuring the sanctuary and youth choirs of First Christian Church of Denton with strings, winds, trumpet, piano, harp, handbells and percussion
When: 10:50 a.m. worship service on Sunday
Where: First Christian Church of Denton, 1203 Fulton St.
On the Web: www.fccdenton.org
Education: Denton High School Class of 1978; bachelor’s degree in piano performance, University of North Texas, 1984; studied piano under Luisa Bardas, Martha Baker, J. Wilgus Eberly, Adam Wodnicki, Stefan Bardas; network engineering program, Southern Methodist University, 1999.
Music awards: semifinalist, Chopin International Piano Competition in Poland, 2009; quarter-finalist, Concours de Grands Piano in France, 2007
Family: Fred Graham, father (deceased), and Sidney Sue Graham, mother