A serendipitous stroll on campus led Zach Light-Wells to Perkins’ M.S.M. program. In retrospect, he landed exactly where he needed to be.
In 2016, Light-Wells had recently moved to Dallas to serve as associate director of music at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church. At the time, he was just beginning to consider furthering his education. On a whim, he came to the SMU campus and walked around. In front of the Kirby Building, he met Dr. Bill Bryan, then associate dean of student life at Perkins, and struck up a conversation. He told Bryan he was considering pursuing an M.S.M.
“Bill took me straight downstairs to meet Dr. Hawn and Chris Anderson,” he said, referring to two members of the M.S.M. program faculty. “The three of us ended up getting coffee together, and that was it. I applied right after that.”
Perkins immediately made sense. His wife, Jesse Light-Wells, had just completed her degree at Austin Seminary, so he knew he wanted a theological education, but he also to continue his education in music.
“To find a program where you could do both was great,” Light-Wells said. “When you think about it, only a few other schools in this country can offer both a seminary and a school of music.”
Light-Wells completed his M.S.M. in 2019 with an emphasis in Choral Conducting from Perkins School of Theology and the Division of Music of Meadows School of the Arts. Today, he’s Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church (FPC) of Dallas. Working with the pastoral staff, he plans each week’s worship services, directs the choir, and sometimes pitches in on vocals or on one of the many instruments he plays: the guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin, upright bass, among others.
Light-Wells says his Perkins education has helped him travel confidently in two worlds. In his current position, he’s involved in traditional worship services as well as a new worshipping community at FPC called Wood Street Worship.
“There’s this binary thinking in the church music world of mainline denominations,” he said. “You’re either a ‘band person,’ which means there’s often no place for you as a full-time music director. Or you are a ‘traditional person’ – you direct the choir and you don’t have the experience to lead a band. Because of my experience, I’m able to do both of those things well. It’s exciting because I believe that is the way forward for a lot of mainline churches. The M.S.M. program allows students to have one foot in both worlds and to excel in both.”
Zach-Wells still gets back to campus often. His wife Jessie is an ordained Presbyterian PC (USA) minister and director of UKirk, the PC (USA) campus ministry at SMU. They have both led worship at UKirk and at Perkins chapel, with Zach providing the music and Jessie preaching and leading liturgy.
Working with both contemporary and traditional music allows Light-Wells to explore his varied musical interests. He grew up in South Carolina and often blends the sounds of his Appalachian mountain roots with traditional hymns, familiar melodies, and modern folk music.
“I tend to select music that incorporates a wide variety of sounds and backgrounds,” he said. “In the Presbyterian church, we have a fantastic hymnal that came out relatively recently that holds a wide variety of music together. Also, Presbyterians historically are from Scotland and inherited a lot of Scotch/Irish and Welsh melodies, which tend to be accessible and singable, and which ended up being a part of the American Presbyterian vernacular.”
Light-Wells often recalls his M.S.M. coursework, drawing on a concept taught by Chris Anderson, Associate Professor of Sacred Music, and C. Michael Hawn, now University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music. The “God and Neighbor Axis” encourages worship and music directors to select pieces that reflect the command to “love god with all your heart but also love your neighbors.”
“If you’re planning music that is solely focused on honoring God, then you’re not necessarily considering ways to honor, love, and connect with your neighbors in the music-making,” he said. “It’s thinking vertically and horizontally about worship.”
Light-Wells particularly appreciates the respect and support of his professors, including Anderson; Marcell Steuernagel, now Director of the M.S.M. program; and Dr. Pamela Elrod Huffman, Associate Professor of Music, Director of Choral Activities at Meadows. He’s still in touch with all three and has collaborated with them on various projects since graduation.
“When I enrolled, I didn’t expect to be so close with my M.S.M. professors,” he said. “It was a huge gift to me, and it still is. They treated me like a colleague.”
He also cherishes the relationships he developed while at Perkins with his cohort of M.S.M. students.
“My cohort had three Presbyterians PC (USA) including myself, a Baptist, Catholic, and a student in a charismatic nondenominational church, plus Marcell and Chris had Lutheran backgrounds,” he said. “Being able to be in that space with people from such a variety of different backgrounds was fantastic. We learned from each other.”