Faculty Profile: Charsie Sawyer September 5, 2008
The name, “Charsie,” is an heirloom worn by several women in her family, including her mother, whose other significant gift to her daughter was a generous musical legacy. “My mother played piano and sang,” said Calvin College professor of music Charsie Sawyer. “She would sit me beside her and teach me a variety of songs from Rogers and Hammerstein to Thomas Dorsey.”
Singing on tables
Sawyer began singing at an early age at the Ebenezer Church of God in Christ in Youngstown, Ohio. “They stood me on the offering table to sing when I was three,” she said. By the age of seven or eight, she was studying both piano and organ.
Those early influences have shaped Sawyer’s eclectic approach to music: “I love it all,” she declared: “I love art songs, opera, spirituals, gospel, musical theater, jazz, piano concertos, symphonic music— basically music!”
Before cultivating her musical talent, however, Sawyer needed to rethink an earlier career goal. “My first inkling was to be a surgical nurse like my aunt, whom I adored,” she said, “but my thoughts and passions were consumed by music, which became my focus, my study,” she said.
A lyric coloratura, Sawyer has refined her musical gifts at Youngstown State University, the University of Michigan and in scores of churches. “I have been blessed to sing the music I love in a variety of venues,” she said.
Heroines and institutions
Sawyer has performed such heroine roles as Marguerite in Faust and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi and Olympia from The Tales of Hoffmann, while singing with companies such as the Charlotte Opera Company and its touring arm, the North Carolina Opera Company. She has also taught at, among other institutions, Lincoln University, Western Michigan University, Hope College and the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
Sawyer came to Calvin College in 1996. She describes the move and the events that followed it in biblical terms: “It was a Damascus journey, as far as I’m concerned. There has been good, bad and ugly, and, throughout it all, there has been victory.”
A gospel revival
Upon her arrival at Calvin, Sawyer was given directorship of the Gospel Choir, a group that began in the 1980s as a “come-as-you-are, “non- auditioned” student organization. In 2002, the Calvin Gospel Choir became a credited music department ensemble, which tours nationally and internationally. This year, the choir will sing in South America and record a song with Pastor Marvin Winans, a six-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist and entertainer. “Through gospel music, we can express suffering, there’s joy, there’s healing and there’s deliverance,” Sawyer said. “It’s a wonderful means of bringing people together in a universal way.”
Throughout her Calvin career, Sawyer has transcended categorization. She continues to exercise her classical skills in an array of professional performances. A prolific scholar, Sawyer has focused a good part of her research on African-American and women composers, recording CDs such as The Unknown Flower: Song Cycles by American Women Composers and Art Songs by Black American Composers.
"Aside from the fact that I think she brings in, obviously, a voice from the African American tradition, she also brings, I think, a dimension that is much more grounded in real relationships,” said Calvin professor of music Joel Navarro. “She has a really great sense of what works and what doesn’t work. She cuts through much of the intellectualizing and the bureaucracy that we tend to think about. She has away of seeing things as they really are.”
Passion for diversity
Sawyer, Navarro added, is also passionate about fostering a more diverse faculty at Calvin. “She cares a lot about the college,” he said. “I think she is a really important voice around here.”
Sawyer’s mother remains a potent inspiration. “Another amazing thing about her—in her 60s, she earned a degree in child care and taught for several years,” she said. Sawyer is proud of the name that has adorned so many branches of her family tree: “I googled it the other day,” she said. “There are a lot of young Charsies now.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing