BY T MICHELE WALKER – Some things just run in the family. It’s not unusual to find the children of physicians choosing to study medicine. Or you have your political dynasties like the Adams, the Kennedys or the Bush family. For the Woodard family, the family business is music.
“Yes, music definitely runs in my family,” agreed Christoffer Woodard, Minister of Music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Boca Grande. “The original musicians in my family were my great-grandparents. I got to know my great-grandmother, but I never got to know my great-grandfather, who died long before I was born. My great-grandmother lived to be 103, I believe.”
Starting off as a concert pianist, Christoffer’s great-grandmother switched her career midway through her life and became a professional opera singer. “Through that, she met my great-grandfather who was an Italian opera conductor who had moved to Chicago. He eventually became the music director and conductor of the Chicago Civic Opera which later became known as Chicago Lyric Opera.”
Christoffer’s great-grandfather was also an organist who won the Prix de Rome on the organ.
“This was in the 1920s and 1930s and it’s fascinating to learn because I thought I was the first to play the organ. That’s kind of fun to see, that it runs in the family. Music sort of skipped a generation. Although my grandparents are very musical, they weren’t professional musicians. Then my mother studied opera for a long time and her brother, my uncle, is a professional violinist with a string quartet.”
Born north of Boca Grande in St. Petersburg, Christoffer grew up in both St. Pete and New York City.
“I spent a lot of my formative years in New York City. My mother was studying opera there and I grew up traveling back and forth between visiting family in St. Pete and staying with them for periods of time, and living in New York City.”
When it was time to begin college, Christoffer found himself in Florida and attended school in St. Pete. “I started at a little tiny St. Petersburg college and was there for too long, perhaps,” he said with a laugh. “I have always been a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades kind of person, in that I want to know everything. I went through being both a piano and voice major and eventually, I did transfer to University of South Florida and finished up my bachelor’s degree at USF in general music, actually music studies. My goal is to go back and get my master’s.”
As a typical college music student, Christoffer earned extra money by working as a section leader at a small church in St. Pete called St. Bartholomew’s. “That was just sort of a college job, something to buy that extra pack of ramen, but I discovered and thought to myself, ‘Oh, I love this!’ I loved the Episcopal theology and I love the aesthetic of the liturgy. I love the organ of the choir.”
Buoyed by his love for church music, his next move was finding a mentor. “I was so fortunate to have the support and real mentorship of the choir director at St. Bartholomew’s, Mary Reeve. It was my start. I would hop on the bench and play one hymn at St. Bartholomew’s and then play one voluntary, things like that. Eventually, I got a position as interim organist choirmaster at St. Matthew’s in St. Petersburg, which is just right down by the water, a very small parish but lovely.”
That interim position became permanent and Christoffer was at St. Matthew’s for about two years. With a desire to grow, Christoffer was offered a music director position at St. John’s in Clearwater, where he served for a few years. “Again, I was always looking to grow and so I just saw this job opening at Boca Grande listed on the Deanery website,” Christoffer said. “The position was open and I applied. It was all very exciting. You know, having just gotten out of college not too long ago. It’s very exciting to be here.”
That was a year and a half ago, but time is a funny thing during a pandemic. “In some ways, I feel like I‘ve been here about three months, because I was here for a few months and then the pandemic hit. I believe my first Sunday was in October, so I believe I’ve been here about a year and a half.”
Now living in Gulfport, Florida, a quaint, bohemian neighborhood located in St. Petersburg, Christoffer doesn’t mind the two-hour drive to work. “It’s a funny thing about the commute. I was just so excited to get this job and Boca Grande is such a beautiful community, that I didn’t even think about it. And most of the time it doesn’t bother me, partially because I’m very fastidious about having podcasts loaded up or audiobooks. A lot of people expect me to listen to music, but I always joke that when musicians listen to music while driving, it’s dangerous because we start analyzing.”
While working at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church has been a joy, it’s had several false starts due to COVID-19.
“Once I started in this position, it was several weeks of getting my feet in the water and then on Palm Sunday, everything shut down, which was so unfortunate and difficult for everyone involved.”
Christoffer is excited to move forward with the choir and he raves about the quality they have shown thus far.
“We have a lovely choir here, even though we obviously couldn’t have a choir for the past several months. As the island is now starting to get vaccinated, we had a few weeks of hurried choir events before the season is now ending. I’m looking forward to growing the program here, now that society seems to be on the up again. Up until now, we’ve just been trying to survive.”
Anyone familiar with the life of a professional musician, much less a church choir director, knows the full immersion and countless hours of rehearsal and study necessary to accomplish the work. For the musician, it’s a joy, but leaves little time for a personal life. However, Christoffer manages to set aside time for a few hobbies. “My girlfriend and I have a lovely garden area that was just barren when we moved in, and we’ve been slowly creating a real garden with what I’m hoping will be a butterfly garden.”
Christoffer said he has always been a huge believer in the interdependence of the arts, so he is either reading about them or participating in them in one way or the other.
“My grandparents weren’t musicians, my grandfather is a college English professor and he just loved literature. I picked up on that so I love poetry and I love novels. He helped to instill a love of literature which I think is useful, because when you spend a lot of time interpreting text, as a choral director, the ability to interpret literature is a requirement. You need to be able to teach text and understand how to paint the text.”
Christoffer is optimistic and looking forward to the coming year. He is brimming with plans for the church music season along with exciting concerts for the community. “I’m hoping that the next year will be a real kind of reassertion of music as an important part of the identity of this church. We just got a new instrument, an organ, so that is our focus for the next year. It’s a versatile instrument, so as society starts to open up again, I have lots of ideas.”
One of Christoffer’s ideas is sure to be popular with the Boca Grande community. “We could do silent movies here with the organ accompaniment, because you can get a fabulous theater organ effect from some of the sounds on the instrument. What a wonderful thing to have organists improvise a whole story to a silent film. I think that would be a wonderful event for the island.”
In addition to a silent movie concert performance, Christoffer is planning a recital series with different instrumental combinations, like an organ and brass and of course, a choir concert.
“I’m also looking forward to growing the choir once we restart the music program. I am looking forward to adding a more advanced repertoire, both for the congregation and the choir.”
When one studies the history of pandemics, one finds that after the scare has ended, people tend to embrace the church. Church attendance rises post-pandemic in record-breaking numbers. Christoffer believes that may be true in 2021.
“You know that people have wanted to engage in whatever ways they could through this time. We’ve been putting out virtual services and things like that for a long time, and they appreciate it here in Boca Grande. I think it might be a bit of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ kind of a thing. People have missed it and are excited to engage. I certainly hope this year will be a growth year for the parish.”
With Christoffer’s dedicated work as a church musician, organist, composer, and choirmaster, one can imagine his great-grandfather looking on with pride as he follows in the family business.