The first time Charles Snider interviewed for the position of organist and choirmaster at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, he decided he didn't want the job. The organ was of poor quality and he was working at a church with a better instrument.
When the position opened up again a year later and St. Mark's called him for a second interview, church officials said they had made buying a new organ a priority. They couldn't have offered a better enticement.
"That was sort of an important thing that pulled me here," he said.
Twenty-five years later, Snider remains at St. Mark's with an organ built to his specifications and an appreciative congregation that recently celebrated his silver anniversary.
"He's a wonderful musician. He's served the church for 25 years and seen it through thick and thin," said Marsha Webster, a choir member and Snider's music associate.
"From a choir member perspective, I've learned a tremendous amount from him."
Snider has served nearly as long as accompanist and assistant director to the 150 choral students at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, where his talents are equally appreciated.
"He's an integral part of the program," said Brandon Catt, Glenbard East's director of choirs. "I could not do what I do here and we could not have the program we have without him."
While accompanying the students on domestic and European tours, Snider has helped them find opportunities to sing in places such as Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral and St. Albans Cathedral in England. He himself has sang, traveled and recorded with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
At St. Mark's, he has compiled a library of more than 1,000 musical pieces, with many reflecting his love of English choral tradition. He has tried his hand at composing and had two pieces accepted for publication. He occasionally preaches a sermon with the blessing of the church's rector.
The organ custom-built under his direction by J.W. Walker & Sons Organ Company of England has drawn accomplished organists to play it.
"It's been good," Snider said reflecting on his time at St. Mark's and Glenbard East High School. "They're both different and fulfilling in different ways."
Music over medicine
A native of Macon, Ga., Snider initially wasn't planning a career in music. Not that he didn't love it. He had sung in church choirs since he was young, started piano lessons in first grade and became captivated by the organ in high school.
But when he set out for college in Rome, Ga., he planned to major in pre-med and become a wealthy doctor. Then he'd buy a pipe organ for his home. He soon realized his choice of a major was making him miserable.
"My day revolved around 2 p.m. in the music building when I went there for choir," he said. "I thought either I'm going to be wealthy or I'm going to be happy. I thought I'll be happy."
Snider went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in organ performance from the University of Montevallo in Alabama. One summer, he and a friend traveled to England for a course run by the Royal School of Church Music. That summer helped seal his fate.
"You cannot beat the stuff written by (British composers)," he said. "Some of the best choral music you can hear recorded is done by English choirs."
Snider came to the Chicago area to do postgraduate work at Northwestern University in Evanston and worked at a couple churches in the Chicago area before coming to St. Mark's. Although he doesn't care for what he calls the "ridiculous snow," the Georgia native has made his home here and now lives in Glendale Heights.
"It's a wonderful part of the country to be in: the cultural aspects; life in the city and the way the suburbs are so connected to it," he said.
Snider had been working in Glen Ellyn about a year when he was asked to consider serving as choir accompanist at Glenbard East High School in Lombard. He wasn't sure he would like it and told the choral director they should try the arrangement for one semester before making any firm commitments.
Ross Heise, the retired director of choirs at Glenbard East, hired Snider and worked with him for more than 20 years. Snider handled all the choirs' linguistic work, insisting on accurate pronunciations, and established good rapport with the students, he said.
"He's got an amazing, incredible sense of humor," Heise said. "He is able to tell a story that will put you on the floor laughing."
Heise gave his choral students ear-training quizzes, difficult tests that required them to recognize parts of music such as intervals, chords and scales. Catt has continued the practice and said the quiz is lightened by the extra credit questions Snider provides on topics ranging from pop culture to current events.
"They look forward to that test because of the extra credit questions," Catt said. "He's someone who cares a lot about our kids."
Catt said Snider sometimes works individually with students and has high expectations for them.
"When he gives that affirmation, they know they've reached that point," he said.
Snider notes with satisfaction that he's heard some of the school's 150 choral students singing William Byrd in the hallway.
"I've managed to introduce a lot of English choral music to the kids," he said. "They recognize the quality of it."
Some of the high school students come to sing at St. Mark's, and a few have joined the church. Snider's knowledge of English choral tradition gained the students some unique opportunities on one European tour.
On a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral, he asked one of the vergers who help care for the cathedral if the students could sing. He was granted permission when he said they would sing something by Charles Stanford.
"Saying Charles Stanford to an English person is like saying John Philip Sousa to a band director in the United States," he said.
The students also sang "Os justi" by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, a piece that puzzled them during practice because it contained eight empty beats. Snider watched the students' faces as they discovered that the piece had no empty spaces when they sang it in St. Paul's Cathedral.
"Some of them were crying," he said. "There was no silence because the acoustics in that building are amazing. It takes 12 full seconds for the sound to go away."
Snider's connections in the world of choral music have helped the students at other times as well. Catt recalled taking orchestra students to New York City in March only to have the clinic they planned to attend canceled because of a snowstorm.
He called Snider, who in turn who called his friend who was choirmaster and organist at St. John the Divine. The choirmaster trudged through the snow to open the cathedral and give the students a tour.
"He has connections all over the place," Catt said.
At St. Mark's, Snider draws from a variety of musical styles, but he doesn't apologize that many of this favorites are old.
"It's timeless stuff. It's well-written. It's well-done and it still speaks to people," he said. "People have told me it means a lot to them."