Photos by Gina Turner
Meet Virilene Freemen, an accomplished musician, who has painted the canvas of her life to portray a beautiful symphony full of friendships and experiences that have brought immense pleasure and success, not only to herself but to many others as well; a most harmonious and delightful melody!
When did your love of music begin, and who inspired your career in this field?
My father was my inspiration. He grew up in a musical family, and although not performers, they were good musicians. Music was important to him, so he made sure that, at age seven, I was enrolled in piano lessons. At that time, we lived in the Smoky Mountains, and I loved playing outside. Coming inside to practice piano was not always my top priority. But my parents said if I was not going to practice, then they would not need to make the sixty-mile trip every Saturday for my piano lesson. So, I practiced!
My father was an electrical engineer and worked for a major company. He was also a fine singer, an excellent musician, a church choir director, and an accomplished saxophone player. He bought pieces of music so I would learn to play them and be able to provide piano accompaniment for him on various occasions.
He also took me to concerts. By the time I was in high school, I was asking everyone to leave me alone, I just wanted to practice! My father’s attention to my early musical education inspired and enabled me to develop the skills and confidence that guided my career. During my junior high years, I was asked to teach piano lessons, and I have done so ever since. In high school, I was student director for the band. These responsibilities contributed toward my earning a music scholarship for college.
What degrees did you earn and what positions have you held?
I earned a Bachelor of Music Education at Southwest Texas State in 1959, and later graduated with honors with a Master of Music in Music Literature from the University of Houston in 1972. My post-graduate work was done at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City from 1979-1983.
I served as Choir Director at Angleton First United Methodist Church (FUMC) from 1979- 1982 and oversaw the adult choir, the youth choir, and two handbell choirs. I then took the position of Choir Master at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Angleton from 1982- 2003. My responsibilities included serving as organist, pianist, and the adult choir director for both the English and Spanish services. From 2011-2012, I served as Interim Choir Director for traditional worship services at Bellaire FUMC.
I have served as a consultant for International Piano Teachers Foundation, teaching certification classes for piano teachers. And I was a participating member of the National Pastoral Musicians Foundation from 1983- 2003, attending international conferences in St. Louis, MO, Indianapolis, IN, Pittsburgh, PA, Long Beach, CA, and Cincinnati, OH.
I taught music in elementary schools in Columbia-Brazoria ISD, Danbury ISD, and Our Lady Queen of Peace School. I taught at Alvin Community College and afterward held the position of Associate Professor at Brazosport College.
You have touched countless lives through teaching and serving in so many places. Please share with us some of your performance experiences.
I have had many wonderful experiences when performing with various choirs and have had the opportunity to travel worldwide for some of these events. For five years, I greatly enjoyed singing with the Houston Masterworks Chorus. One of our venues was the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Another memorable experience was when I sang with a Houston choir. We traveled to Italy and performed in Assisi, Florence, and Rome. While in Rome, we were privileged to have an audience with Pope John Paul, and to sing for Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope John Paul presiding.
Twice I performed in a choir at Carnegie Hall in New York City and had an interesting experience during one of those visits. The performance hall is surrounded by a large hallway adorned with pictures of people who have performed there. As I toured this area, I came upon the picture of my favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor of the late Romantic period. My favorite piece of his is Piano Concerto No. 2, completed in 1901. I was astonished and thrilled to learn he played this piece in Carnegie Hall the night I was born! I obtained a copy of this recording during my college years and played it until the grooves were worn through. Then I quickly found another!
I also sang with a 300-member choir at a four-day international festival in Bern, Switzerland. We performed a concert with an orchestra under the baton of the great Sir David Willcocks. An extra treat was our trip through France the following week. We toured Notre Dame Cathedral, an experience for which I am especially grateful since it was devastated by fire in 2019.
What is your singing voice type, what are your favorite styles of music, and are there other composers whose work you admire and enjoy?
My answer will be a bit amusing! My dad as church choir director had me sing alto because I could read music. Later, in college, I sang the lowest alto part when our choir performed in the San Antonio Opera Company’s staging of the opera Martha. After lessons and a degree, I found out I am actually a soprano! As for my favorite genres of music, I would have to list several styles including classical, jazz, worship music, and even barbershop quartet music. But most of my training and teaching has been in the field of classical music.
I listed worship music as one of my favorite genres, and there are two living composers whose works I enjoy. In fact, I have had the delight of getting to know both composers, Michael Joncas and David Haas. Michael’s On Eagle’s Wings and David’s You Are Mine are both exceptionally beautiful pieces. I have had my choirs singing You Are Mine and currently have our congregation singing it as well. Such worshipful pieces!
Speaking of worship music reminds me of another experience that really touched my heart. For over thirty years, I have attended the Texas Conference Choir camp at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center in Palestine as either a director or an attendee. This conference is for all ages. We begin the day by singing hymns in Copeland Hall. As I entered the Hall during my first time at the camp, I was met by the voices of 700 people singing to the glory of God! What a joyful sound! I realized what heaven is going to be like!
Another memory of note is a trip my husband and I made in 1985. For a month, we traveled all over Europe by car and stayed in bed and breakfast inns. We went to England, Belgium, Germany, as well as Austria, where we spent a full week in Salzburg. This was the 300th year of Bach’s birthday, and Europe was alive with concerts honoring the composer. It was a month filled with sightseeing and concert, after concert, after concert! Glorious!
You have given us a full repertoire of memories, responsibilities, places, and events! What are your future plans, and what advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
My husband Norm and I married eight years ago and moved to Huntsville a year later. We absolutely love it here! He is retired, and my plan was to retire as well. But my love for people and music has continued to keep me busy. I teach piano lessons and serve as director of the traditional choir at the First United Methodist Church.
I enjoy time spent with my three adult children and their families. My oldest daughter, Valeria Hudson, is a Methodist pastor and a fine musician. She is the mother of my oldest grandchild, Michelle Hutchinson, who is married to Michael, with a precious five-year-old, Isaac. My middle daughter is Laura Garner who is married to Kirk, with two college-age children, Katherine and Joel. She is a writer under the pen name Laura Domino. My son Howard Martin and his wife Maria are parents of Alex, Nico, John, Madison, and Brenna, and live in Austin, both educators with Austin ISD.
I do love teaching and watching students “light up” when they realize their success in learning. When I was a consultant for International Piano Teaching Foundation, I found myself multi-tasking, teaching at school during the day and directing a choir at the church, as well as teaching private piano lessons. It has always been clear to me how one of these ventures affects another one. It is a blessing in each role to see the growth and inspiration within myself and how that flows over into my students. I have learned that, every day when I go to the piano, I am a new person, not the same as I was the day before. What goes on inside of us shows up in our playing. I finally realized to not be upset about this, but to enjoy and appreciate that fact. It is liberating and expands our musical experience. It has been a healthy and good thing musically, and I try to give that to my students.
Music has helped people of all ages overcome things, emotionally and educationally. We as teachers can nurture, inspire, and console. If we dance and lift our songs to the skies, it carries over to others.
Thank you, Virilene, for sharing your life’s melody with us, such a sweet song and a glory to God! I am sure you would agree with George Eliot when he said, “Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.” And as Hans Christian Andersen so aptly stated, “Where words fail, music speaks.”