Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/20/16. John Wykoff teaches a music composition class at Lee University’s Curtsinger School of Music on Thursday, October 20, 2016.

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No Pressure: Lee professor composing music for Presidential Inauguration in January


To watch performances of the Missouri State Chorale, directed by Cameron LaBarr, go to

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John Wykoff musical bio:

* Ph.D. in music composition from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

* Master’s in music composition from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York.

* Bachelor’s degree in music and philosophy from Covenant College.

* Taught music theory and musicianship in the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.

* A Chancellor’s Fellow at CUNY’s Graduate Center, where he studied composition with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici.




The call came in just a couple of weeks ago.

A good friend of Lee University music professor John Wykoff had a favor to ask: Could you compose arrangements for two choral pieces to be performed live in Washington, D.C, at the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20? And could you get them done by the end of October?

Oh sure, no pressure at all. Tick, tick, tick.

"Usually we give somebody a year or more to write a piece, but we gave him about a month," laughs favor asker Cameron LaBarr, director of choral studies at Missouri State University and a former assistant professor of choral music at Lee who worked with Wykoff. The Missouri State chorale will be singing Wykoff's pieces at the inauguration.

LaBarr called Wykoff because "I've worked with John on a number of pieces in different styles and appreciate his compositional skills and how he treats text and melody."

But Wykoff, who has a Ph.D. in music composition and earned his bachelor's degree from Covenant College, immediately increased his own workload. Instead of arranging two pieces, he asked, why not let him arrange one and write a totally new piece for the other?

Again, sure, no pressure at all. Tick, tick, tick.

While the deadline technically is the end of October, the unofficial deadline "is ASAP," Wykoff says. "They've got to have time to rehearse it, and it has to be vetted."

Wykoff, who has been at Lee University for six years, is developing an arrangement of the Appalachian folk song "Beautiful Morning." His own piece doesn't have a title yet, but its text is coming from Michael Dennis Browne, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet in Minnesota. Since he's waiting on Browne's text, "the original one I haven't really worked on yet," says Wykoff, 35, who was born in Chattanooga but grew up in Las Vegas.

The 50-member Missouri State Chorale will be performing both pieces — each about four minutes long — in Washington. One performance takes place during the inauguration ceremony itself while the other site "is up in the air right now," LaBarr says. The chorale also will perform a free concert on Jan. 21 at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington.

In 2013, the Lee University Festival Choir performed at the presidential inauguration and was directed by Bill Green, who is dean of the School of Music at Lee.

The invitation for the Missouri State Chorale came from Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri and chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, LaBarr says.

Although the performances will be broadcast to an audience that could number in the millions, Wykoff insists he's not nervous. Composing the music just means "sitting in my office," he says. "They're going to be the ones on camera."

In general, he says, writing a new piece for the inauguration is not too different from writing a new piece for anything.

"It's got to be universal, but not sentimental, accessible but not pandering," he explains. "People think of the artist as prophet, but I think of the artist as servant, trying to figure out what's needed."

To that end, he's taking into consideration that "this has been a crazy election," he says.

"My hope is that the music can give a sense of hope and win a lot of people over who are filled with expectations," he says. "I want it to be glad and hopeful."

Contact Shawn Ryan at or 423-757-6327.