In the spring of 1989, the interim director of chapel music invited a fifth-year faculty member named Rodney Wynkoop to conduct a concert for Duke Chapel Choir. That was his first of nearly 580 now and counting.
Wynkoop, professor of the practice of music, will retire as director of chapel music next June after 29 years of conducting the Chapel Choir. Originally joining the Duke Music Department in 1984, Wynkoop found himself conducting in Duke and Goodson Chapels, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, several retirement homes and other caroling venues. Beyond the states, he has also conducted in China and will conduct four to five concerts on a tour of Spain this upcoming summer.
A hard sell
After nearly three decades on the job, Wynkoop said he still recalls how immediately he felt the synchrony and connection of the Chapel Choir during that first concert in 1989. But upon first being offered the position of director of chapel music, however, Wynkoop was not interested.
“I liked having my weekends free,” he said, adding that he had been going to church for a very long time—first at Yale, then the University of Chicago and now Duke—and that he was not necessarily prepared to make the transition to a far busier schedule.
But William Willimon, dean of Duke Chapel at the time, would not give up so easily. In Wynkoop's opinion, it was Willimon’s “hard sell” that ultimately convinced him to come aboard.
Wynkoop added that several members of the Chapel Choir at the time were very vocal in expressing their desire to have him be their next conductor moving forward. And all of that combined was enough.
“I talked with my wife and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” he said.
Twenty-nine years later, Wynkoop recounted some of his fondest memories on the job. The one he cherishes most? When then-President Keith Brodie used his family foundation’s money to send the entire Chapel Choir and chorale to China for a couple of weeks in Jan. 1997.
While in China, the Chapel Choir and chorale visited Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou and sang a variety of different folk songs, spirituals and even some local music that included an ancient Chinese New Year’s text, Wynkoop said.
To this day, Wynkoop’s East Campus office still features the giant red banner gifted to him and his singers by their hosts during their trip, which features the Chinese translation for “Welcome Duke Chorale.”
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As Wynkoop reminisced, he identified several favorite pieces of music he conducted through the course of his career including Brahms’ Requiem, Bach’s St. Matthew passion, the Mozart Requiem, the Verdi Requiem and Bach’s B-minor mass.
He added that conducting the performance of Handel's Messiah—a Duke tradition for the last 84 years—has also been a special experience.
"They instantly fall in love with the music, and the process, and the event," Wynkoop said. "That's magical to me and that's what I aim for [in my rehearsals]."
Planning the perfect goodbye
Although Wynkoop had not seriously begun thinking of retiring until this fall, he left no stone unturned leading up to the night he made his announcement. He said that he waited until a Wednesday night to deliver the news of his retirement, which is chapel choir rehearsal night. To make sure he would be the first to break the news, Wynkoop prepared a list of everything he wanted to say and the sequence he wanted to go in.
“I had called my sons because I didn’t want them hearing about it because they’re on social media all the time, and they’re in college,” he said. “I also had an email ready to go to the senior staff of the chapel, and I had a text to my siblings and my mom."
Wynkoop noted that he will miss every minute of rehearsals and concerts with the Chapel Choir. But, he is looking forward to a more open schedule.
One of the first things Wynkoop said he would like to do after June 30 is spending a weekend with each of his boys at their respective colleges. He also said that he would like to do some traveling after retirement, and added that he is looking forward to having more time to just sit out on his back porch and do crossword puzzles, watch the birds come to his feeder and be reflective.
Nevertheless, Wynkoop will still be doing plenty of conducting after stepping down as Director. Beyond Duke Chapel Choir and Chorale, Wynkoop also conducts the 150-voice choir Choral Society of Durham and its 32-voice Chamber Choir as well as another professional-level choir in the city.
He added that he will continue to work in the Duke Music Department and support Chapel concerts moving forward.
“The Chapel is where my family grew up, and it is part of who I am,” Wynkoop said.
Between now and the time he officially steps down in June, he said that he hopes he will learn how to say goodbye in a way that allows people to look back on and treasure the memories he has shared with them, but also in a way that enables them to move on.
The choir resounds
Wynkoop explained that he encourages all of his students to take chances and be willing to be wrong. For example, one of his goals is to help his new first-years realize that they are now part of an environment where engaging meaningfully in what you are doing is more important than simply getting things right, he said.
“Sure, we want to get stuff right, but in the process we’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “And I’d much rather have you make them boldly so I can hear them and so that you know what your brain told you to do, and then we can tell your brain to do something different."
Elaine Brown, who has sung with Wynkoop during all of his years at the Chapel as well as in the Vocal Ensemble, wrote in an email that Wynkoop inspires her every time he conducts the group.
“Rodney always finds a way to encourage the choir to dig deep into ourselves and make the best music possible,” she wrote.
Several other members of Chapel Choir reflected on their fondest memories of Wynkoop.
Betty Gettys Sturkey—a choir singer since 2000 and director of development at Duke Chapel from 2010-2015—wrote in an email that Wynkoop was a “natural teacher.” She added that he always works to help his singers understand the theological meaning of the text and tune, in addition to what the composer was seeking to say with the composition.
Raymond Buck—a choir member from 1979-1983 and 2002-present—emphasized Wynkoop’s ability to pull the group back together during particularly lethargic Sunday morning rehearsals. He praised Wynkoop for how much he cares for each of his singers both personally and professionally.
Darla Miller wrote in an email that although she has only been singing in Chapel Choir for eight years, those eight years have been the most musically fulfilling of her life, thanks to Wynkoop. His quest for perfection, constant encouragement and belief in his singers makes singers want to do their best, she added.
Wynkoop offered a parting message to his choir, encouraging them never to settle for the path of least resistance.
“Don’t accept things the way they come to you most easily,” he said. “Look for the things that are deeply meaningful and important and go after them. Your job, your studies, everything has the potential to take your attention, and a lot of that is very specific and concrete. But keep a part of you that is looking for the true meaning behind why we’re here, and make sure you go and do it."