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What started as a promise of one-month piano rental and lessons back in the fall of 1964 has turned into the ticket to endless opportunities for George Mann. From conducting a spirituals concert to directing musicals, George has had his hand in just about every corner of the Fort Smith area’s music scene.
Originally from Van Buren, he stayed in Arkansas for college, attending Ouachita Baptist University. He then went to Louisville, Kentucky for seminary, getting a master’s degree in sacred music from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s there that George met his wife, Sheila.
“I don’t know that I really intended to come back to Arkansas. We were living in Kentucky, and I was attempting to work on a doctorate because I wanted to teach at the college level. And the summer of ‘84 my father died, kind of suddenly, so the next summer I came home on vacation to check on mother and make sure everything was OK. And my college roommate, who was a church music person at the church down the street, said: ‘I think Goddard (United Methodist Church in Fort Smith) is looking for a choir director.’ So I came and interviewed that weekend and moved down here two weeks later. That was 30 years ago.”
Slowly, he began getting more and more involved in music throughout the community.
“The first thing I did was to join the Fort Smith Chorale, and that was my first ‘stick my feet in the water’ kind of thing with community music.” He still sings with the Fort Smith Chorale. But it doesn’t end there.
“I had never done any musicals until 1987. Patty Stiles was the drama teacher at Fort Smith Southside. She was going to do Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and she was desperate for a piano player. So I played the piano for her for that musical and for every musical after that until she moved away. And I segued from sitting at a regular piano and playing to working with keyboards and creating orchestral scores electronically. Gosh, I did all of the spring musicals with Southside for 25 years.”
Being a music minister, singing with the chorale, and being involved with 25 years of local productions would be plenty, but George finally got to teach at the college level. In 2000, Westark Community College, now U of A Fort Smith, needed someone to teach the music appreciation course. “So I agreed to come in three days a week and teach a music appreciation course during my lunch hour. And I’ve ended up teaching private voice and also Opera and Broadway Musical Theater Workshop.”
George branched into Community Theater in 1994 when the Fort Smith Little Theater (FSLT) needed someone to play piano for the summer musical. After that, he became the music director for the musicals and ended up directing entire shows in 2009. “Everything that happened happens because of the piano,” he said. Along with creating the orchestrations for Southside and the FSLT, George makes soundtracks for other area schools, theater programs and has even sold soundtracks as far as Los Angeles and New Mexico.
On a day-to-day basis at Goddard United Methodist, he helps the ministers plan the worship services, plays piano and organ, and conducts the chancel choir. There’s also an adult handbell group, a children’s handbell group, and a youth handbell group, along with a 30 voice children’s choir.
“But the biggest thing we do here is the spirituals concert. This year is the 25th, and it’s going to be big. We just started doing it because 26 years ago I went to a choral workshop and the clinician said, ‘It’s just not possible for a white choir to sing spirituals authentically.’ I was like, the quickest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t. That’s it. And so as a result, I made the acquaintance of Barbara Tucker, who is a gospel singer from Houston. She and I, in addition to coming here every year for our concerts, have concertized together in England, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and several churches here in the U.S.”
The annual spirituals concert is typically held in the fall and features the choir members along with guest performers.
George summed up his amazing career thus far, saying, “I’ve done things I never thought I would do. And they always turn out so well. Most of the stuff has come open to me as a result of someone needing a piano player.” He’s thankful that back in 1964, after begging his father, he told him they could rent a piano for one month. “He ended up buying that piano and an organ. I still have that piano in my living room.”
He went on to say, “I feel like one of my biggest gifts is as an encourager. There’s nothing I like better than seeing the light bulb come on and hear the results. I guess if I could do any one thing for a living it would be to accompany singers. I have a love for good singing. My dream retirement is Salzburg. In the afternoons, there’s a group that gives Sound of Music tours, and I’d like to be a tour guide. Then in the evening, there’s a Sound of Music dinner theater, and I’d like to be the piano player for that.” Hopefully, we won’t lose him to Salzburg anytime soon!
George said one of the most common comments he gets after performances is “Where do you find all of these good people?” He always says, “They live in and among you. They are here! Fort Smith has exceptional talent.” And his talent and pride in his music draws people near. It’s like talent crawls out of the woodwork to work with him. I can personally attest to that. This summer, I was a part of the cast of The Wizard of Oz at the FSLT, directed by George. And we had amazing actors driving to rehearsals each night from Oklahoma, dancers from around the area, amazing set builders, seamstresses, and even the perfect dog to be Toto. He just has magic in putting things together. And the way he could coax gorgeous 6-part harmonies out of a group of amateurs was nothing short of a miracle.
When I asked him for any parting thoughts about the music in the Fort Smith area, he said this: “People have said to me throughout the years, particularly with the piano playing, ‘Why are you staying in Fort Smith? Why don’t you go to a big city, blah blah blah.’ And my answer has always been that the people of Fort Smith are as worthy of top-notch entertainment as anybody in the world is. And we’ve got it.” And we have George Mann to thank for much of it.
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