As a fourth-grader growing up in Alabama, I was challenged, as were most kids those days, to participate in school fund-raisers.
Our class was given the task of helping to raise money so we could visit the state capital, to learn more about our Alabama heritage. Ironically, it was still during a time of deep-rooted segregation and racism -- 1968 to be exact.
Our teachers chose a fund-raiser requiring us to sell items with biblical themes -- framed pictures, watercolors and a vast number of little figurines. We also sold Bibles bound with different fabrics. As a bonus, we'd get little prizes if we recited lengthy Scriptures and verses. (We all know now that this would be against the law today, and the school system would be sued for allowing such an open religious expression.)
Well, can you imagine what I did to get my special prize? I memorized all of Psalm 23, and was very excited because I received a small Bible, and got a chance to recite the Psalm in front of my class.
Little did I know at the time, this would be the beginning of a life-long love affair with this very passage of Scripture, and my inspiration to study and internalize the works of many great composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Handel, William Dawson and Mahler.
As a kid, I was fascinated with great orchestral works, big-band jazz groups and black college marching bands. My band director knew I loved orchestral music and took me to see my first orchestral concert when I was 12. We went to hear the New Orleans Philharmonic perform some 60 miles from our hometown.
It would be years before I heard live orchestral performances again. At this juncture in my young life, I was rapidly developing into a decent instrumentalist, playing both piano and percussion instruments -- and taking lessons on any other instruments I could.
I had some wonderful influences in my uncles Bill and Kenneth, who started me out playing piano and drums, respectively, at around age 4. I was given the chance of a lifetime to fulfill my dreams, not knowing that one day I, too, would be that person performing, writing and conducting music; scoring movies and television shows; and making records for artists everywhere.
As I began to grow artistically, I realized that I loved to write songs and instrumental pieces, and was beginning to imitate people like Quincy Jones, Gerry Goldstein and Thad Jones. I was very blessed to always have a gig playing piano and organ for a church or in somebody's combo, giving me access to other people who would play whatever I wrote.
However, it seemed as if I was never fulfilled. I often felt that my compositions didn't represent my innermost convictions. Psalm 23 always seemed to be a constant refuge for every challenge in life I faced. After all, I was legally blind, and was always being told that I'd never succeed as a composer -- let alone, a black composer.
Beginning with the words "The Lord is my shepherd," the passage essentially says that one is never alone and, with God's help, can conquer every obstacle against all odds.
In time, the first few verses of this eloquent writing became a lingering melody that I'd sometimes play on my viola or piano. Eventually, it became an oratorio for mezzo-soprano.
As it turns out, I realized that I'd been lifted by such an important message, and I was not only compelled to let these same words become life within me, but obligated to bring such an important work to people everywhere.
At this cross-in-the-road, my heart leapt with excitement because I knew that this music should represent the greatness of the Psalm and have nothing to do with me. What an awesome and humbling responsibility, indeed. I know that the Psalm has been a guiding post throughout my life and, like many things we latch onto, a definite point of stability.
Dr. Gregory A. McPherson is director of music at Israel Baptist Church of Baltimore, as well as an award-winning composer.
To hear an audio clip of McPherson's oratorio based on Psalm 23, go to baltimoresun.com / psalm23