State College musician to debut song for his late son

Ned Wetherald, director of music ministry at State College Presbyterian Church, has been with the church for more than 20 years.
Ned Wetherald, director of music ministry at State College Presbyterian Church, has been with the church for more than 20 years. Photo provided

We all cope with death in various ways, with many expressing themselves through art and creativity. One such way people may tell their story is by writing, producing and performing music.

On Nov. 1, Ned Wetherald, director of music ministry at State College Presbyterian Church, will tell his story with his debut of new music during a service for All Saints’ Day at the church.

Wetherald wrote the music in response to the death of his son, Noah, in September 2013. Titled “Cloud of Witnesses,” the nine movement work features a choir, string quartet, piano and hand bells.

“Cloud of Witnesses” began as an idea from a grief support group at church called “Life After Loss,” which suggests using one’s creativity to work through the grief. Losing Noah to cancer was and is devastating for Wetherald.

“As an organist I often work on improvisations, and I had to play a recital a few months after my son’s death,” he said. “So I decided to play in improvisation based on a scripture passage. It really helped me express my strong emotions and was well received by the audience.”

For Wetherald, the process of creating this work has been emotionally healing, but it has also given him something to occupy his mind and his time.

“One of my frustrations with my son’s illness and death was that there was nothing I could do,” he said. “In my mind, doing something will make things better and there was nothing I could do. Writing the words and music for ‘Cloud of Witnesses’ gave me something to do.”

Wetherald has been with the State College Presbyterian Church for 21 years. His duties include directing all the choirs and playing the organ. In addition to keyboard instruments, Wetherald plays the French horn, and is involved in music every day — as is his wife, also a musician and music teacher at Bucktail Area High School in Renovo.

The music in “Cloud of Witnesses” is varied, ranging in musical styles from classical to folk. Included in the program are two scriptural texts, Psalm 130 — “Out of the Depths” and “I Want to Be There Lord” —and one original text, “Eternal Ocean.” Also featured are two arrangements, “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster and “When My Morning Comes Around” by Iris Dement.

The music will be performed by a special choir made up mostly of members of the church and accompanied by a string quartet made up of Penn State students and pianist Hope Coder, a longtime church member. The program will also feature one solo piece, “When My Morning Comes Around,” which will be sung by Joel Blunk, associate pastor of State College Presbyterian Church.

All Saints’ Day commemorates saints and martyrs and offers a time to remember loved ones who have passed away. It is the day Christians give thanks for all the good people God has placed in their lives, especially those who are already with God in heaven. “Cloud of Witnesses” was written in memory of Wetherald’s son, but the themes and ideas expressed in the music are universal.

“Everyone has lost family or friends, and many of us have recent losses,” Wetherald said. “This service, which will include more than just this music, will be a chance for us to give thanks for our loved ones’ lives and to honor their memory and the part of them that is still with us.”

For those who have recently lost family members and close friends, this service has an important function in comforting and giving a healthy way to honor the memories of their loved ones.

“The choir seems to be enjoying it, so I hope the music is well received,” Wetherald said. “I still get goose bumps or tears as we work through the music.”

Creating the piece has helped Wetherald work through great grief, and he has tucked little clues in the music that remind him of his son and other loved ones.

“Most listeners won’t hear them, but will hear the message of hope, rest, peace and comfort that has been provided by the church and through the music of the Requiem Mass,” he said. “My hope with all the music I write or perform is that the listener will find a bit of the beauty and perfection that we will see when we are in God’s presence.”