Kenneth J. Nafziger

March 8th, 2016

Kenneth J. Nafziger

Kenneth J. Nafziger

In trying to sum up Kenneth J. Nafziger’s 30 years as music professor at Eastern Mennonite University, it is hard to know where to start. Do we start at the bestselling hymnal for which he was music editor?

His 15 years as director of an acclaimed Bach Festival? His dozens of appearances nationally, often internationally, as guest conductor or instructor each year? His love of the broad liberal arts? His efforts to build bridges to musicians in Cuba?

One good starting place might be Washington Post music reviews. One read: “The singers under Kenneth Nafziger’s direction were precise and well blended.” Another: “VOCE [one of a half-dozen groups regularly under Nafziger’s direction] has established a solid reputation not only for the quality of its performances but also for the ingenuity and imagination with which its programs are selected.”

One reviewer praised the ensemble’s “dynamic nuance,” which “helped give melodic lines a distinguished and ethereal sense of lightness and grace.” A final excerpt: “Superior choral music making… taut musical line and masterful blend.”

With such praise, it would seem that Nafziger could walk out the door of EMU tomorrow and work almost anywhere he wanted, especially given his academic credentials and track record. So why is he here?

Why Here?

“For the big money,” he quips, knowing that nobody who knows EMU’s frugal salaries or him will swallow that line.

Nafziger came to EMU in 1977 bearing a music doctorate from the University of Oregon and post-doctoral conducting experience with Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart, Germany, and at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt, Germany.

Today, Nafziger conducts the EMU Chamber Singers, VOCE based in Northern Virginia, Winchester (Va.) Musica Viva, and annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.

His output is prodigious. He seems tireless, able to juggle a dozen demanding tasks with no sacrifice of his standards of excellence. In 2007, Nafziger averaged two major public performances of some kind monthly, doubling that number the month before Christmas. During the week-long Bach Festival this year, he offered four concerts, requiring him to hold two-hour (or longer) rehearsals daily.

Loyal Performers

His performers show undying loyalty to him. For instance, Mark Hartman, who teaches violin, viola and music theory at Central College in Pella, Iowa, reserves each June to play violin under Nafziger’s direction. Hartman has performed in each Bach Festival since it began in 1982.

Principal oboist Sandra Gerster has journeyed from Baltimore to be in the festival since 1983. “I come back every year because the trust, respect and integrity that Ken Nafziger brings to the Festival is unsurpassed,” she says.

“He cultivates a safe environment where we are encouraged to take artistic risks, to try to perform something in a new way, where the musical process is valued and where the performances are truly expressions of emotion, not plastic displays of static perfectionism.

“I return because my colleagues have become my family, and I am constantly inspired, awestruck, heartened and buoyed by them,” Gerster adds.

In the July 1, 2007, issue of The Christian Chronicle (Churches of Christ periodical), reporter Bobby Ross Jr. praised Nafziger for his exceptional contributions to the first international symposium of sacred a cappella music at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

“The people I speak with are my fellow human beings. The people I sing with are my family,” Ross wrote, quoting Nafziger. The four-day symposium drew an estimated 400 to 500 scholars, theologians, musicologists and singers, representing Mennonite, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed Presbyterian, and Church of Christ congregations, among other groups that have a tradition of a cappella music.

If Nafziger was not drawn to EMU for its “big money,” perhaps he came to enjoy EMU’s delightful performance space?

Suggesting this is a sure way of eliciting either a scowl or a laugh from Nafizger, depending on his mood at that moment.

Better Space Needed

“The acoustics in Lehman Auditorium are so poor, it would seem that 80 percent of our work is in vain,” he says. “It is almost impossible to feel some unity between the performers on the stage and the audience. We can’t accurately hear what we are doing, though the audience response suggests that they can hear us very well.”

Nafziger says that Lehman was designed to be an all-purpose space for chapel activities, music, theater, film, speeches and “all kinds of stuff.” Rather than working for all purposes, Nafziger feels that no purpose is properly served by Lehman; either the auditorium should be renovated or a new performance space built. “A project of this proportion is waiting for the generosity of a donor,” he acknowledges.

Nafziger came to EMU for this reason: “When I was in graduate school, it became very clear to me that my undergraduate education at Goshen College was an amazing gift from my church. I was completely comfortable and prepared as a musician when I compared myself to others who had gone to other kinds of schools.

“In addition, I had been given a strong liberal arts education in the context of an active faith tradition. I knew that at some time I would like to give back to my faith tradition something of what it had given me. So when EMU called to talk to me, we had the conversation.”

Beyond Music Field

Nafziger enjoys crossing disciplinary lines at EMU. He has loved, for example, co-teaching at EMU with John Paul Lederach, renowned practitioner and teacher of peacebuilding skills. He also cherished the opportunity to audit non-music classes taught by university colleagues, such as Jean Jantzen on poetry and Lee Snyder on the American novel.

“EMU has given me a lot of freedom to explore and to expand into the community,” says Nafziger, noting that he has led a dozen musical ventures to Cuba, with EMU’s blessings.

“Music should not be disconnected with everything else going on,” Nafziger says. He views “friendships maintained past graduation” as one of the highlights of his career as a professor.

In choosing and editing music for the Hymnal, A Worship Book (1992), Nafziger enjoyed being “part musician, part historian, part poll-taker and part prophet.” (To hear Hymn No. 1,”What Is This Place,” performed by the Nafziger-directed Chamber Singers, with organ music by John Fast, visit

At the University of Minnesota-Morris, where Nafziger taught previously, he found one could practice any religion, or none at all, leaving a vacuum instead of parameters in which to explore values, ethics and worship. “I prefer to work where there is a central core of belief. You need that in order to have a conversation, or even an argument,” he says.

“Being away from the Mennonite community (as a graduate student and young faculty member), I discovered its value.”

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