John Fast

March 7th, 2016

John Fast

The longest-serving member of EMU’s music department, John Fast, grew up in Minnesota in a former General Conference church that viewed Eastern Mennonite as “a conservative place way out East, with rules about musical instruments and how to dress.”

Indeed when he arrived at what was then called EMC to teach in September 1975, he found “there was a lot of worry about an organist coming to campus.”

Two sisters – Edith and Marilyn Steinbright of Norristown, Pennsylvania, donated a $50,000 organ to Lehman Auditorium in the early 1970s, but Fast discovered that there was an “underlying assumption that the organ will not be used with singing.” Among the more traditional Mennonite churches, only a capella singing was permitted in 1975, and Eastern Mennonite was part of this tradition.

To understand why the environment felt so different to Fast, who arrived as a professionally trained organist, consider this: Instrumental music was banned from WEMC broadcasts until the early 1960s, as was use of the piano in the music department.

In his 32 years at EMU, John Fast has quietly persisted in winning “converts” to his view – and to that of the church in which he was raised – that instrumental music is, or can be, as sacred as a capella singing. In the last decade or so, Fast’s organ music has been included on recordings produced by the EMU music department, including choral music recordings.

Fast, who has Russian Mennonite ancestry, grew up on a farm near Mountain Lake, Minnesota. He showed an affinity for music, picking up enough of the basics about the organ to “stumble around” as the accompanist for the junior choir when he was a high school sophomore.

The large grain-producing family to which Fast belonged – he was the eldest of seven children – was not oriented toward producing musicians. Yet when the talent of Fast became apparent, the family enabled him to develop his gift.

Despite no money for extras and the ever-pressing chores on the farm, Fast’s parents paid for music lessons and permitted him as a high school junior and senior to remain in town after school each weekday, walk to church, and practice the organ. This meant that farm and household work he would have done before dinner needed to be shouldered by other family members.

Fast majored in music at Bethel College in Kansas. From Bethel, he went to one of the top music programs in the country at Indiana University where he earned a masters degree and a prestigious Organ Performer’s Certificate.

Today, Fast teaches organ, piano, and music theory courses at EMU, in addition to serving as organist and choir director of Park View Mennonite Church near the university. His is the organ music one hears at Commencement and worship services at the annual Homecoming weekend.

Fast feels that most Mennonite churches have moved toward having a balance of music types. A capella singing often predominates – and Fast is very supportive of this tradition – but organs and other instruments have found a place in the Mennonite music world too.

Like his colleague, Ken J. Nafziger, Fast hopes to see improvements made to the facilities in which the music faculty labors. After the 1975 renovation of Lehman Auditorium, “we could tell from Day 1 that the acoustics were poor for music,” Fast says. “Downstairs our facilities were semi-
adequate in 1975, but now they are woefully overtaxed.”

Fast points out that EMU’s musicians are training hundreds of youngsters in EMU’s preparatory music program each week. “They are the future. We should be building for them and their future.”

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