Gavin Whitehouse passes the ETSS baton
Goosebumps covered the arms of Gavin Whitehouse last October. “We were at our Singing Stars Weekend event and we had 30 – 40 young people with us from the territory,” said the songster leader. “We also had a youth chorus from the Central Territory join us. We did a little mini–concert on Saturday night.” What happened next is indelibly etched in his memory.
“We sang a song called ‘I Have Seen The Glory Of The Lord.’ We had sung it a couple of times, but that particular night, I don’t know; I’m not quite sure what it was, but it just seemed like everyone in the group was focused on knowing the message of the song and on singing the message of the song. It was one of those moments when everything and everyone just clicked into place.”
Whitehouse, the outgoing songster leader of the Eastern Territory Staff songsters (ETSS), will soon pass the baton after 15 years as a charter member with the group. Erik Jones of the Empire State Division will assume leadership of ETSS. Jones is currently the deputy songster leader. Whitehouse, who joined the group at its inception in 2005 as a singer, will continue directing music in the PENDEL Division as leader of the PENDEL Brass and Singers.
Gavin will be motivated by such amazing memories with ETSS; when he sensed that heartfelt connection between himself, the Songsters, and their audience. “When they’ve made that personal connection with the song, then I know that they can communicate that to the people who hear us,” he says.
“As a songster leader, it’s hard to gauge the audience’s response sometimes, just because most of the time my back is to them, so I don’t get to see their faces,” he says. “As they are singing, I don’t have that direct line of sight. All I have is that connection before and after a piece.”
Nonetheless, Whitehouse still manages to get uplifting feedback. “It’s been nice to receive notes and stuff like that from people on Facebook. They appreciate the music. So, that’s been good.”
In particular, Gavin remembers one song ETSS sang two years ago at a Commissioning event. “It was called ‘Lest I Forget.’ I remember getting a number of notes from people who said how much that song and the words of that song touched and encouraged them,” he says.
Gavin grew up in New South Wales, Australia. His parents were commissioned as Salvation Army officers when he was seven. He lived in four country towns and in rural cities. He later studied for a bachelor’s degree in music education from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
What stands out for him as the most interesting thing that has happened since becoming songster leader in the United States was an opportunity to minister in Barbados, W.I., a couple of years ago.
“For the 15 years we ministered within the territory, that was the first time that we were able to take our ministry outside,” he says. “It was a big privilege just to see a different side of the Army.”
Although he’s been to Puerto Rico and several countries in South America, the Barbados trip was his first to the Caribbean. “We were part of a Youth Councils Weekend,” Gavin recalls. “It was very focused. People turned up in uniform Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday morning. Just the energy and enthusiasm that they had for the Army and the Lord was amazing.”
Coming to the U.S. was the biggest cultural experience, musically. “For me, having been part of the songsters in Sydney, I found that ministering here was a bit of a culture shock,” he says. “ETSS was a lot more traditional Army than what I was used to in Australia, where the Hillsong style is popular.”
Under the leadership of Bandmaster Bill L. Rollins, who was the first conductor of ETSS, Whitehouse grew to understand and appreciate the Army’s rich musical culture in the U.S. Rollins, an African American who helped bridge the gap between traditional Army and ethnic music styles, was also the divisional music director for the Massachusetts Division.
When Whitehouse became songster leader, he continued ETSS on a path of discovery as they embraced new genres. “I think we’ve become a little bit more contemporary than probably what we were previously. I have tried, especially on Sunday mornings, this concept of the Songsters leading worship.
“They are using arrangements of worship songs to lead the congregational singing. That’s the step that I’ve tried to take as leader. I think it’s worked well on our Sunday morning ministry weekends at local corps. We do what a worship team would do with a 3–song worship set but do it as a songster brigade with choral arrangements of those worship songs.”
Making music, mastering challenges
After ministering as a pianist for the group for seven years, Whitehouse became songster leader in 2012. “ It was exciting, even daunting when the announcement came,” he says. “I was humbled by the trust that people put in me. That first weekend in September had been a busy week for me because my daughter Charlotte was born, my first child, on Monday morning and I had my first rehearsal on Thursday.”
Trying to find the right repertoire and getting ready for rehearsals consumes most of Whitehouse’s time with the group. “We often have just two days of rehearsals before a weekend,” he says. Six months in advance is sometimes the amount of time he will need to prepare. “I need to be on top of that material myself before getting in front of the group.”
“I’m trying to find that right selection for the Sunday morning of Commissioning that I think will speak to the cadets who have been commissioned and also speak to the congregation in that service,” he says.
Two things have been the most challenging aspects of this ministry,” says Whitehouse. “The first is personnel. We’re trying to make sure that we have people in the right spots and in all stations all the time, so that we’ve got a good core group of singers. People’s lives change from year to year. They frequently have to move on from the group. We also have some officers who change appointments.
“The other challenge is preparation. We try to structure the rehearsal times so that we are revising and polishing songs that are already in the repertoire while also learning new songs for that particular weekend or future engagements.” In doing so, Whitehouse is careful to preserve their voices throughout the strenuous process.
Singing after COVID–19
The coronavirus pandemic has caused government mandates against singing, particularly in church groups. The big question on everyone’s mind is, What will be the outcome with respect to the Songsters?
“Well, I think at the moment, it’s kind of up in the air as to when the Songsters will sing again,” says Whitehouse. “That’s the biggest challenge because we only get together four times a year anyway and we’ve already missed two engagements.”
“I’m praying for Erik Jones as he takes over the mantle,” says Whitehouse. “I just pray that we can find a solution. I pray the scientists find a vaccine soon so that we can get back to singing and praising the Lord corporately as a body of Christ; first as a congregation, and then as choral singing groups.”
Whitehouse says he will miss the ETSS fellowship. “I’ve made some really strong friendships,” he says. “I’ll miss having that four–times–a–year interaction with them. I’ll miss making high quality music with them.”
A typical ETSS calendar includes Commissioning weekend, Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings, a ministry weekend (the first weekend in March somewhere in the territory or in the case of Barbados, outside the territory), and finally a similar weekend in October (the Singing Stars event happens every other year). “It’s like the Future All Stars, but for the singing,” says Whitehouse.
“I was part of the Songsters on the first weekend in 2005 at Old Orchard Beach when they were first formed,” Whitehouse recalls. “My wife and I were barely in the country less than a week. We were there for that first rehearsal. So, it’s been great to see how the group has grown in those 15 years in terms of their musical style and the impact on the territory.”
Now, Whitehouse will devote more time to Jennifer, his wife, and children: Charlotte, Avery, and Eden. “I have four more weekends a year that I can spend with them,” he says.
by Warren L. Maye
Greetings from ETSS members
“He’s always positive whenever I’m doing anything with him. He’s always asking, ‘Is there anything that I can do to be helpful?’ ‘How can I make this a better experience?’ ‘Is there anything new I can write?’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make something special and to go the extra mile. Gavin has played a huge part of starting the Singing Stars event which has opened up singing to a new demographic of people and age category to singing in The Salvation Army. He’s always looking for opportunities to minister in new ways.”
—Derek Lance, NYSB Bandmaster and Territorial Music Secretary
“It’s been my pleasure to sing under the leadership of Gavin Whitehouse over the last several years. Gavin’s passion for music is only exceeded by his passion for the Lord. His attention to the message of the music results in that message going forth clearly as the Songsters sing. Whether it’s at the Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings, where the congregation is praising God right along with the group or at the Palisades Center Mall, where the audience may or may not even know the Lord, the message of the love of God is clearly proclaimed. I firmly believe that has been Gavin’s mission throughout his time as leader of the ETSS.
—Lt. Colonel Patricia LaBossiere, ETSS Executive Officer
“Gavin has been a wonderful leader for the ETSS. He is a knowledgeable and skilled composer. I have enjoyed singing his music. In my role as Songster Secretary, I have found him to be easy to work with and he is a good friend.”
—Robin Rice, ETSS Secretary, Soprano
“Singing under Gavin as the leader of the Eastern Territory Staff Songsters has been a heartwarming pleasure. Not only is he a gifted writer and arranger of music, but the Holy Spirit can be clearly seen as his motivation and reward. I am blessed to call him my friend and to have enjoyed so many memorable moments in ministry together.”
—Major Carl Avery, Tenor
“Gavin started as a vocalist with an amazing voice and then became the pianist, and then the songster leader. In that process, I saw his adaptability. He made smooth transitions at every turn. His commitment to deep, sound words and to us sharing the meaning behind them as worship leaders was the most important thing. My hope and prayer for Gavin is that he will continue to share his heart and bring the spirit of worship and excellence in music to PENDEL.”
—Envoy Patricia Wood, Songster Sergeant