Those of us who read and think that the concept of “one eternal round” (I Nephi 10:19) is a lofty and ethereal concept need to sit down and chat with Barb Lewis, a professional LDS musician from Pennsylvania.
As a little girl, she and her family would attend their community church each Sunday, then come home and listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on “The Spoken Word” program on the radio. Perhaps it was their voices that inspired her own musical talents and love of choirs. As a young adult she was selected to serve and sing with the U.S. Singing Sergeants, where LDS friends in the group introduced her to the full gospel. She was soon baptized and eventually married an LDS trumpeter in the Air Force Band.
The beautiful circle that that began as a little girl with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will circle around to them and The Spoken Word this Sunday, February 17, 2013 as her son, Justin Wayne Lewis, the winner of the 2012 Mormon Tabernacle Choir Guest Conductor Contest, leads the world famous choir. He will raise his baton for the 360 singers after their Spoken Word performance in the Conference Center.
Justin, age 30, is a member of the Springfield Ward, Annandale Stake in Northern Virginia.
It was late April of 2012 when the Choir announced the contest via the media and Facebook. Hopeful contestants were to submit a YouTube video of them leading the choir’s recording of “Ode to Joy.” The entries were posted on the Choir’s Facebook page where viewers could vote for their favorite. The top 10 videos were taken to the Choir for them to make the final selection.
For Justin, entering the contest was a no-brainer. He’d been leading choirs since he was a toddler!
Both his parents are professional musicians and were still performing in the famed U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants (his mother as a singer and his father playing the trumpet) when Justin and his two sisters, Becky and Emily, were born. His earliest memories include watching his parents perform in uniform under the baton of the Air Force’s most talented conductors, often with celebrity conductors or singers, and frequently at the Nation’s famous memorials and monuments in Washington, D.C., where they lived.
“We have family videos of me leading pretend choirs when I was just little. Any stick was always a good baton!” he says, relaxed and friendly as I interviewed him in his Springfield, Virginia home, while his young sons napped.
His mom started him at age 3 and his two sisters on her other musical passion: strings. With his sister Becky on the viola, Emily on the violin and Justin on the cello, they became a family trio that played for weddings and special occasions. He quickly developed a passion for the cello that has become an integral part of his life and his livelihood. His sisters have also acquired advanced degrees in musical performance.
He was only 12, just a deacon, when a wise bishop called him to be the ward chorister.
“Now that I look back on it, it does seem unusual to call a deacon to serve, but he did. I also picked the hymns based on topics from the bishopric as well as conducting in Sacrament meeting. I was always worried about ending the sacrament hymn and making it over to the deacon’s bench before the priest started the blessing!”
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, (in Pennsylvania where he moved when his parents left the Air Force) Justin continued to pursue music. He is also a gifted singer like his mother, but the cello was always his first love. He attended a magnet school for the performing arts from kindergarten through 9th grade, and then attended a public high school with a very strong music program. There he continued not only with his cello and all the various orchestras, but with singing, theatre and in the production end of the school’s film and television broadcasting program.
As he graduated from high school, he won a full-tuition scholarship to Temple University where he majored in cello performance. “I loved it, and the only thing that was a downer that freshman year was the knowledge that I was going on a mission, no matter what, even though I knew it would mean losing my scholarship.”
At age 19, in June of 2001, he began his service as a missionary in the Arizona Tucson Spanish Speaking mission. He vividly recalls his first interview with his mission president. “Elder Lewis, I want you to know that you are here to serve the Lord. At this time you’ll not be practicing, performing or being a cellist.”
“I was very OK with that, as my only desire at that time was to serve a worthy mission.”
At the end of his mission, he did have the luxury of playing for a very special baptism. He and his companion had a baptismal service where ten (yes ten!) of their investigators (some were from the same family) were all baptized on the same beautiful day. The mission president asked him to perform a special musical number for that very special day.
“My fingers were tender from not playing for so long, but it was like riding a bike. It all came back.”
When he returned in the summer of 2003, not only did the skills come back, but so did his full scholarship! He returned to Temple University and graduated in 2006. He then went on to Penn State.
When I asked what his intentions were with a degree in music, knowing how difficult it is to make a steady living as a musician, Justin responded, “Well, I’d grown up with musicians and I knew that you had to be able to do more than one thing, i.e., being just a cellist. For example, though my mom sang for years, she now teaches strings both privately and in the school system. I knew that any future father-in-law would need authentic reassurance that I could make a living as a musician, so I have always considered and been open to any musical professional avenue, be it in public education, military performance, etc. and structured my education around making myself well-rounded and marketable.
This young musician has taken school seriously.
“I got my Bachelor’s in 2006 from Temple University, then a Master of Music in Cello Performance from Penn State in 2008. I also got my Pennsylvania and Virginia Teaching Certificates in 2009; then back to Penn State for a Master of Music in Conducting 2010. I am finishing my Doctor of Musical Arts from the Catholic University of America where I am studying cello and conducting. The coursework is complete, although I still have some recitals and some lessons to go.”
Two years after he had returned from his mission he helped with a summer music festival at the University of Maryland for the National Orchestra Institute. One of the violists, Jennifer Jackson from Salt Lake City, caught his eye immediately. Not only was she the sweetest and prettiest girl there, she was LDS with matching values and a shining testimony.
Her own list of musical accomplishments at such a young age was remarkable. (The link to her website is also below.)
Although it was not love at first sight for her, it wasn’t too long before the notes connected. He made sure that he assigned himself to string ensembles that she was playing in. They courted long-distance for the next year and a half, eventually marrying in the Salt Lake City Temple on June 16, 2007.
For an incredibly romantic honeymoon, the newlywed musicians spent that memorable summer traveling and performing throughout Europe and Brazil with the Schelswig-Holstein Musik Festival based in Salzau, Germany. The festival, organized by Leonard Bernstein and funded by the German government and private sponsors in the 1980s, makes it possible for young musicians from all over the world to make music together in Germany. The young musicians were housed in the Salzau Castle and surrounding estate, and rehearsed in a barn turned concert hall next to the castle.
Just before their first anniversary Jenny was selected to be a violist in the elite U.S. Army Strolling Strings musical ensemble, to be stationed in Washington, D.C., which had been home to Justin as a young boy, and not far from his family in Pennsylvania. Justin became a middle school choir director and teacher for Prince William County public schools.
“Now that’s a fun job!” He says with a laugh. I found I just love 6th and 7th graders! You might have a spring musical program in mind at the beginning of the year, but that all gets changed as those young boys’ voices change over the course of the year.”
The couple now has two young boys of their own Jackson, nearly 3, and Josiah, 19 months.
In addition to being parents and musicians, they also manage the Suzuki camps for the northeast area. The summer music festival is held in Hershey, Pennsylvania each summer. Its purpose is to enrich the lives of young musicians by teaching music through the Suzuki method. Their philosophy is that every child can excel at music through a program called the “mother tongue” approach. The program attracts hundreds of young violinists, violists and cellists ages 3 to 18 and their parents from 22 states, and has a program in place to aid students with limited means who truly want to learn.
When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir announced the contest last spring, it was a fun opportunity to submit an entry since Jenny is also a budding and very talented photographer. They had recently bought a MacBook Pro laptop not knowing that it had an extensive program to make videos. She also had a great new camera she was learning as well. The contest was the perfect opportunity to practice with both the computer and the camera. When you see the video, her photography talents and patience with a computer are very evident.
When asked about shooting the video he smiles and laughs again. “Oh, we went out to the woods in the back of our home, to the Washington D.C. monuments, and all over. We just had a good time that day. We didn’t worry or fret too much, we just did it!”
As a delightful side note, Jenny has also posted a priceless video of their two little boys watching the prize-winning video. At this time it has almost as many views on YouTube as the original video with their daddy.
Two years before the contest, Justin won a U.S. Air Force audition to serve as a conductor, which is his current career path.
“What Jenny and I will both tell you about being hired for these military music jobs is that it’s a lot like a reality TV show. The positions are posted on military job boards online, and you make a written application, and submit videos. Those who are selected arrive all at the same time, on the same day (or two depending on the number of selected applicants) from all over the country. You’re all in there together for this ONE job. You can imagine the pressure in the room! The judges are the members of the band you’re auditioning to play with. Instrumental musicians are placed behind a screen where they can only be listened to. One by one, you audition. Then you are thanked for coming and you leave, or are asked to stay for another round. At the end of the auditions, you know whether you’ve made it or not because you’re the last one left!”
Due to budgets, personnel issues and other matters, he was not scheduled to begin Basic Training until last summer, a wait of nearly two years. He continued his education and work as a middle school choir director and teacher, while Jenny performed and they added another little son to their family. During these early years of their life together they have been very busy, but there has also been a lot of flexibility and a lot of team-work to take care of their little family and to serve in their ward.
After waiting for nearly two years, Justin finally went to Basic Officer Training in Alabama last summer. It was there that he learned that he had won the YouTube contest.
“Basic training is not a lot of fun, and I was away from Jenny and our boys as well, so it was really a tremendous lift to hear the news about the contest!”
He was given special permission by his training officers to speak on the phone to the media and news teams that wanted to interview him. You can see the Salt Lake City Fox news broadcast at the link below.
Justin is currently stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Virginia, a three hour drive from their home in Springfield, where he is Flight Commander and Associate Conductor of the U.S. Air Force Heritage of America Band. He drives home for the weekends, as Jenny’s commission is in Washington D.C.
The good news is that this long distance living is a temporary situation. True to their highest values in life, Jenny is leaving Strolling Strings this spring as her four year commission ends. Though her fellow musicians find it hard to believe she would give up her spot, she knows that her true calling is at home, and she can’t wait to get there and be there full time. She and Justin have just bought a home close to the base where he is stationed and are looking forward to their other delight: home improvement and decorating. They are avid do-it-yourselfers, adding woodwork, custom crown molding and other skills to their ever-growing list of interests and abilities.
What’s most extraordinary about them however is not their incredible experiences, history and future. It is the simplicity and beauty of their lives and the precious sweetness of daily living as they care together for their little boys, their home and each other. Yes, they are extremely talented and some might even say “intimidating” musicians, but it is their testimonies of the gospel and the Savior’s love that sings most purely through everything they do.
Arriving at their lovely home, there’s a colorful homemade birthday sign announcing a one year old child’s special day and a wreath that Jenny has made with friends using instructions and photos from Pinterest on the front door. Once inside, there’s a chirpy little parakeet that drives them both crazy, but the boys love. They are friends with one and all, old and young. They are beyond generous in sharing their talents to help young musicians in their Ward have an opportunity to learn and perform with them. They are frequently invited to perform at children’s baptisms, and never turn down an opportunity to serve in whatever way they can. The unexpected death of a toddler in their ward led them to arrange and perform a string trio of “Jesus Wants Me for A Sunbeam” with another professional musician playing the bass at the funeral. As the music soared heavenward in the chapel, tears of release flowed for each person present. One could almost see the Savior and the angels as they performed that day. Those present will never forget the healing comfort of their music that day.
Justin and Jenny quietly and humbly know that it is what their gifts are for.
So what’s to come for this very young and very special couple? Justin looks forward to years of professional military service doing what he loves most: conducting. Jenny looks forward to being there with him and building a family, a home and lives that are centered around the song that sings most loudly in their hearts, their testimonies of Jesus Christ and the restored Gospel, and the joy of eternal families. Both have, and will continue their circle of music as they teach, share, serve, love and provide joy wherever they go.
After all, you don’t conduct “Ode to Joy” and win a video contest together without knowing exactly where true joy comes from and sharing it every day.
FOX NEWS Announces the Winner Video
Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success – One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life. She has been providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999 presenting for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups. She is the owner and president at MyMiracleTea.com, an herbal detox tonic in keeping with the Word of Wisdom. She is mother of five and the grandmother of a growing number of delightful grandsons and granddaughters and lives with her husband, Bob, in Springfield Virginia, where she serves as the Visiting Teaching District Supervisor. She has been writing for Meridian since 2007. Her favorite foods are broccoli — lots of it! and chocolate frosting … just a taste every now and then. Her book is available at both Amazon.com and her website, CLICK HERE