In a casual conversation he's friendly and low key, but put Jamie Meaders in front of his student choirs or one-on-one with a young singer or aspiring conductor, and his passion shines through in every note.
"He can make a choral rehearsal a time of enlightened discovery, not only for the revelation inherent in the music, but also for each individual's personal fulfillment through it," says Nell Adams, associate professor of music, who taught Meaders when he was a student at MC and now works with him as a colleague. "Jamie makes you want to sing."
While his rapport with his students and colleagues is obvious, what many don't know is that the unique bond Dr. Meaders has forged with those around him has its roots in a painful tragedy — an event that colors every relationship he forms and has forever honed Jamie Meaders' Christian faith.
Jamie Meaders sang his first solo — a prompted-by-his-mother performance of "What Child Is This?" — in Hickory Baptist Church in tiny Hickory, Mississippi, at the age of six. He confesses to being "scared to death" at the time, but over the next few years, it became obvious that Meaders' vocal talent and his passion for music were both larger than his stage fright. By the time he was in tenth grade, Meaders knew he wanted to be a musician.
Meaders received a bachelor's degree in music from Mississippi College in 1987 and a master's degree in music from MC in 1991. He and his young family then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Meaders completed his doctorate in musical arts at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Meaders served as a full-time minister of music at churches in Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee, before returning to MC in 1998, where he served as head of the graduate conducting area, voice teacher, and director of two of the MC choral ensembles. When his friend and mentor Dr. Richard Joiner left MC in 2002, Meaders succeeded him as chair of the music department and director of choral activities.
"I knew when I was student here at MC, if ever given the opportunity, I wanted to teach in this music department," Meaders says.
Today Meaders does much more than teach. As the department chair, his administrative duties include everything from the bottom line necessity of developing the budget to the high note of publicizing performances by the MC choirs. The MC Singers, the university's premier choral group, performs some 25 concerts a year under Meaders' direction, and Fridays usually find Meaders meeting with high school music teachers and their students to promote the excellent opportunities available at MC.
"My administrative duties are all about building a program here for my colleagues and our students that allows them to fulfill their callings," Meaders says. "And from a personal perspective, fulfilling those duties allows me to do what I love, which is teach."
On a typical day, Meaders teaches four to six voice lessons and a class in conducting, and runs at least one choral rehearsal. But for Meaders, "teaching" means more than just leading a class or a rehearsal. "Teaching" means creating an environment in which students of diverse backgrounds find common ground, and in which every student knows that someone cares not only about his or her musical success, but also about that student as an individual.
"It's hard to put into words how faith and music are being molded daily in the lives of Dr. Meaders' students. Singing notes and rhythms is just that, but 'making music' is to translate the message to the performer and listener. There wouldn't be such a devotion to the significance of the text and music without belief behind that which is sung. As musicians, we have the opportunity to challenge and yet embrace faith through music."
"As a teacher, Jamie communicates more than music theory or vocal technique," says pianist Carol Joy Sparkman, who accompanied Meaders when he was a student and now regards him as an admired colleague and friend. "Students are able to relate to Jamie as a person, and find identity in the community that he has created in the department."
Meaders' caring approach to his students can be traced back to a tragedy that occurred when he was just 19 years old, an event he describes as "the most pivotal experience of my life."
Meaders and his wife and brother-in-law were driving through their small hometown of Hickory, Mississippi, when a 10-year-old boy riding on a motorized scooter ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of the truck.
The boy was Steven Meaders, Jamie Meaders' nephew.
The son of an older brother Jamie idolized, Steven had grown up next door to Jamie. Jamie had gladly served as Steven's babysitter, taken his young nephew to Boy Scout meetings, and shared his own love of baseball with Steven.
"He was like my little brother," Jamie Meaders says, the memories still bringing tears.
I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing
Dr. Jamie Meaders has led the MC Singers on three international performing tours, visiting England, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, and will lead them on a fourth tour to South Africa in May of 2011. A great deal of the music the Singers perform originated in Europe; the opportunity to perform these pieces in their birthplace has proved an unforgettable experience.
Meaders' favorite tour highlights include performing at an evening Whitsuntide service in St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where J. S. Bach was organist and choirmaster in the mid 18th century; walking the former battlefields of Germany where his father served in World War II; and traveling with the choir on a bus through Austria belting out the lyrics from – what else? – The Sound of Music.
In the split second before the collision, Jamie recognized Steven and screamed out his name. He was the first person to reach his nephew, kneeling by Steven in the street, then following the ambulance to the hospital, all the while praying for a miracle that did not happen. His beloved nephew was gone.
"My faith changed that day to an adult faith," Meaders says. "I had been naïve. Because I was a Christian, I felt that what I asked for would happen, that I was somehow favored, that bad things didn't happen to good people."
In the years following Steven's death, Meaders gradually realized that the loss of his beloved nephew had altered not only his faith, but also his perception of other people.
"Adult faith can be liberating in a way. You begin to see people differently," Meaders says. "I realized that Christians are no more or less important than any other person. That belief heavily impacts the way I do my work here with my students. My choir has been described as unique and as having a very distinctive sound. I think that comes from finding commonality in a group of people who are diverse in every way.
"Steven was just the sweetest kid, made in the image of God. All you had to do was look at him and you'd know that was the truth," Meaders says. "When I began teaching, I realized I was seeing glimpses of Steven in my students. That makes me very aware and conscious of the need to treat my students tenderly."
Staying in Tune
Dr. Jamie Meaders describes one of his biggest challenges as striking a balance between work and family. Meaders credits his wife, Lesa, an administrator at Baptist Adult Day Health Services, with making that possible.
"Lesa has always taken up the slack when it comes to managing the household and making sure our children were at the right place at the right time," says Meaders.
The Meaders have three children: Andrew, a graduate of the University of Mississippi who teaches algebra at Canton High School; Leah, a Spanish major at Mississippi College; and Brantley, a sophomore at Clinton High School.
"A father could not be prouder of his children than I am. Each is uniquely gifted, and I love them beyond words,” says Meaders.
An avid outdoorsman, Dr. Meaders enjoys training and spending time with his hunting Labradors (including the latest, Bailee), designing landscapes, tossing the baseball with his youngest son, and sitting in the deer stand on a crisp Mississippi morning.
Jay Carr has experienced Meaders' compassion first hand. Carr enrolled in MC in 2004 as a gifted music student, but an addiction to drugs and alcohol derailed his education and his career plans.
"Jamie was probably very frustrated with me," Carr says. "I was throwing away opportunities and turning my back on everything positive. That's what addicts do. Jamie was invested in me and fought to keep me going, but I wasn't in a frame of mind to see it."
In 2006, Carr left MC and checked into rehab as an in-patient. He followed his time there with a year spent working and staying clean. Meaders kept in touch during that year, encouraging Carr in his struggle to reclaim his life. When Carr returned to MC in 2007, Meaders welcomed him back. But his encouragement for Carr didn't stop there.
"Before I went to rehab, I had been training as a singer, but I had smoked and drank and not taken care of my voice. I thought that dream was over," Carr says. "When I came back, I told Jamie, 'It's too late for that. I think I should just forget singing and focus on conducting.' Jamie's reply was, 'That's nonsense. You can conduct anytime in your life. Now is the time for you to pursue a performance career.' Jamie never let me get away with saying, 'I've blown all my chances. I can't do this.' It sounds cliché, but Jamie Meaders believed in me when I didn't believe in myself."
With Meaders' encouragement, Carr graduated from MC in 2010. He is now a graduate student at the Brooklyn Conservatory in New York, studying for a performance career in opera.
"If Dr. Meaders had not encouraged me, I absolutely would not be here today," Carr says. "That's what stands out not only about Dr. Meaders, but the entire music department faculty. They never turned away from me when I had problems, and when I came back, they never made me feel ashamed or as though they were looking down on me. They were nothing but supportive. I give a lot of praise and gratitude to that faculty. I might not make it in a performance career, but because of them, I'm here trying."
Meaders shines as a teacher, but his leadership skills aren't limited to his students.
"Jamie approaches his role as chairman of the music department not as our 'boss,' but as someone who is there to help us succeed, " Nell Adams says. "Jamie is one of those rare people who make your life better because you know him. Any group Jamie Meaders leads is better for his contribution."
When asked what he would like for his legacy at Mississippi College to be, Meaders' focus falls on the colleagues and students he serves.
"The music department here is made up of people devoted to their craft, to MC, and to our students. As far as having been the department chair, I hope that I can leave a legacy of having afforded the faculty the opportunity to live out their calling in this place," Meaders says. "For our students, I would hope that they would leave Mississippi College with their faith enlarged and their minds opened. I hope I've helped show them that true Christian faith is more inclusive than exclusive."