Keyboard Christmas: Annual concert a 'gift' from church

by Sonja J. Keith

Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Conway will soon present its annual gift to the community — a Keyboard Christmas.

Wrenetta Austin, an organist and chairman of the event steering committee, said the church has been presenting the program since 2006, missing only 2013. She has performed in every event.

This year’s Keyboard Christmas is scheduled 3 and 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, in the church sanctuary.

The concert was the idea of the Rev. David Hatfield, former pastor of the church. “He said, ‘We need to put all of our pianists together.’”

The first year, there were 12 performers. This year, there will be 20 and five grand pianos, with five to 10 musicians playing at various times.

There are eight women and six men, plus six children, among this year’s performers. Five of the children are from the Calvin and Monica Palmer family. All are members of Woodland Heights.

This is the second year that men have participated in the concert. They range in age from 21 to about 80. The oldest woman playing is 87. “We have a wide range of ages.”

According to Wrenetta, there are more talented musicians in the church who could also perform.

Organizers begin planning for the concert in January. Wrenetta said selecting music and matching pianists is like putting a puzzle together.

With the music and players identified, selections are assigned and individual practices begin in June. Beginning in October, the entire ensemble begins practicing three days a week until the concert.

“We’ve had as many as 1,500 in two performances,” Wrenetta said. “We average between 500 and 600 per performance. The community has been wonderful as far as being supportive.”

The event is free and open to all ages. It lasts about 80 minutes. Wrenetta said children who are studying piano or music particularly enjoy the concert. She has been told that for some young people, the concert helps keep them interested in music and taking lessons.

For the musicians, the performance represents an opportunity to do something they enjoy — play. “It’s a lot of fun for us,” she said, explaining there is a special camaraderie among participants. “We develop great and deep friendships. We’re really rubbing shoulders for a lot of hours.”

Wrenetta said the event also is a chance to do something that many pianists rarely have a chance to do — play in an ensemble setting.

Conway Corporation records the programming to present on the local cable system during the Christmas season.

Some individuals travel from out-of-town to attend.

“We feel it is our gift to our community and our church to begin the Christmas season,” Wrenetta said. “We’ve had people say their Christmas celebration starts on that day. It’s such a pleasure to give a gift of music.”