By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
When it comes to violinists, Tupelo’s Chris Thompson is about as real as it gets.
He first picked up the instrument at age 7, and followed in the footsteps of his father.
Abroad, he has played recitals in Italy, Taiwan, Tuscany and Switzerland. A bit more locally, he has studied with the best professors from Julliard School of Music and the Eastman School, both located in New York.
He also found a career with the strings and the bow, teaching the art to students at the University of Louisiana at Monroe for 28 years before retiring in 2010. He now teaches lessons for all age groups in Tupelo, and has never been happier.
“After retiring, I kind of reinvented myself. My wife can back me up when I say I’ve never been happier in my whole life,” he said.
But what he is most proud of is the music ministry he and his wife – an accomplished pianist and vocalist – have carried out in their 39-year marriage.
“Someone said to me once, ‘100 years from now, no one will remember what car you drove, but y’all’s ministry is annointed,’” he said. “It’s rare for someone with talent and dedication to commit their efforts to kingdom work.”
Seasons of the Spirit
Thompson’s latest CD, “Seasons of the Spirit,” takes the listener through the liturgical season with 17 tracks that run the gamut of styles from folk songs to high classical hymns. They are divided into Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
“ The challenge comes when you have to use an instrument to compensate for a vocal presence. You have to include every nuance of expression made with the human voice,” he said.
Thompson said he was particularly proud of the Easter and Pentecost movements on the CD. The 12th track, “Were You There,” was made famous by opera singer Paul Robeson, but Thompson forgoes the piano accompaniment present in a few other songs, letting a single violin do the talking.
“There is something powerful about that simplicity,” Thompson said. “I’ve seen it bring a linebacker to tears.”
The closing arrangement, “Meditation from Thais,” comes from a French opera that tells the story of a 15-year-old temple prostitute’s conversion to Christianity.
“Thais is a prostitute in the temple of Venus who is witnessed to by a Catholic cleric,” he said. “The song comes after her conversion, in a scene where she meditates on her salvation. It begins peacefully, to reflect the sublime peace of being saved, then gets stormy in the middle, to show the character is reflecting on her checkered past, then returns to the original mood.”
Thompson said though listeners who understand the significance of the movements might appreciate it more, even someone who knows nothing about Christianity would be touched by the music.
“If you know the scripture, you can see the topical relationships between the song instead of just thinking ‘oh that’s a pretty piece,’” he said. “The reason great art is great is that it speaks to all people, and penetrates to the core of who we are.”
The Suzuki method
Thompson said most of his time is spent teaching and learning from his students. After retiring, Thompson reinvented himself as a musician, undergoing the Suzuki method of instruction from the ground up.
Imported to the United States in the 1960s, the Suzuki method was invented by Japanese violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki.
“The idea behind it is if children can learn language just from hearing it and imitating it early in life, learning music could work the same way,” Thompson said.
The program is structured so that parents become coaches at home, and every week Thompson brings his students together for a group lesson. Instead of being one on one with the instructor all the time, the group lesson lets kids see other kids with their same interest. It provides positive peer pressure to stick with the instrument, especially for younger students who look up to older ones.
But what really struck a chord with Thompson was the Suzuki philosophy.
“Suzuki believed in the intrinsic value of the individual. He is known for saying ‘teach to the whole child,’” Thompson said. “As a teacher I have to learn to talk in a way they will listen and listen in a way they will want to talk. Each student is different, and each student is worth that effort. It’s the way God sees us. If there was only one human that ever lived, Jesus still would have gone to the cross for that person, that relationship. How could you pass that up?”