For some, retirement is a time to golf, travel, or simply watch the grass grow.
But for 40-year professional musician Phil Spencer, often a guest organist at Grace, retirement from two decades of professorship at Joliet Junior College (JJC) was a new challenge to take on.
An award-winning educator and composer, conductor of choral music in the U.S. and Europe, church musician, and concert organist and harpsichordist, Phil (named JJC Professor Emeritus of Music in 2021) had no intention of coasting in retirement.
Instead, he jumped in with a dual commitment to continue making music while also giving back to the local community. Fueled by his passion for music and a heart for humanitarianism, the idea for NaperVoice, a philanthropic choir comprised of both professional and amateur singers, was born.
“I wanted this to be more than just a musical gig,” said Phil, who has built three choirs from the ground up throughout his accomplished career. “It needed to be for a greater purpose.” To that end, Phil makes sure that those who audition for NaperVoice are not only musically talented, but philanthropically motivated as well.
Delighting audiences with two themed concerts per year, NaperVoice features a broad variety of selections across centuries of composers, from Purcell to Parton (Dolly, that is). Genres encompass classical, gospel, musical theater, vocal jazz, and more.
The choir has also performed Phil’s original compositions, including “Missa Brevis: Songs of the Enslaved.” On June 4 of this year, the Chancel Choir sang Phil’s anthem “That Would Be the Day” at our 10:30 service.
At least half of NaperVoice’s concert selections include instrumentation from a percussion specialist and District 204 music educator, Shelley May Hutchison. Along with Phil and Shelley, NaperVoice leadership includes Pam Spencer, vice president and Phil’s wife. The choir also offers internships to high school and college music students.
Thus far, the new choir of 35 paid and auditioned volunteer singers (five of whom are Grace vocalists) has delighted audiences with two nearly sold-out concerts in our acoustically engineered Grace Church sanctuary. A third is in the works for November 19, 4:00 p.m. at Grace.
There is truly something for everyone, especially those beyond the concert venue.
NaperVoice’s inaugural concert, Gather in Gratitude in November 2022, benefited Feed My Starving Children. In April 2023, Singing Our Superpowers raised funds for Kids Above All. This year’s November concert is likely to support a local food pantry.
Audience members are encouraged to suggest beneficiaries, and charitable funding is provided by concert proceeds, grants and other resources, such as a recent first place $5,000 prize from Old National Bank’s “Choose Your Charity” contest.
While professional singers in the group are paid, Phil receives no compensation. “Leading this group is my personal donation,” said the conductor and artistic director who hopes to increase charitable gifts each year to various local organizations.
“It feels great to be able to give back to my own community,” said Phil, who’s also feeling good about the three-minute commute from his house to Grace Church, compared to his previous 45-minute drive to Joliet.
If establishing a new choir weren’t retirement venture enough, Phil can also be found twice a week at Edward Hospital.
But wait, it’s not what you think.
For the listening pleasure of visitors, patients and staff, Phil improvises a repertoire of over 100 tunes in various styles on the hospital’s grand piano. One staff member in particular, a cardiologist, lends his impressive singing voice to Phil’s playing.
“I tailor what I play to whoever is in the lobby at the time. It’s nice to offer a welcoming, stress-reducing presence,” he said.
Come September, when the languid days of summer wane, eight weeks of rehearsals for the November NaperVoice concert will begin. Following that, Phil will turn his attention to the 2024 spring concert and many more in the future.
“I hope the choir will outlive me and become a real fixture in the community,” said Phil.
Tickets for the November 19 NaperVoice concert, 4:00pm at Grace, can be purchased soon at napervoice.org or at the door.