There was still 30 minutes until showtime, but cars had already filled the parking lot and surrounding streets behind Ada’s First United Methodist Church. Inside, the audience started to find their seats.
This was the scene before the 2015 Fall Concert, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” featuring the University Singers and the ONU Chamber Singers last Sunday night. Dr. Ben Ayling, Conductor of the University Singers and Director of the ONU Chamber Singers, walked to the stage for his final holiday concert.
After 36 years of teaching music, including the last five years at Ohio Northern, Ayling will be retiring following this school year. Ayling reflected on his last holiday concert, which he said was one of his best.
“It was a little bitter-sweet, but a whole lot more sweet than bitter,” Ayling remarked.
The concert began with both sacred and secular pieces by the University Singers, which is comprised of 45 Ohio Northern students. Dr. Henning Schroder rounded out the secular portion with multiple entertaining clarinet performances during the Singers’ rendition of “Eat Your Vegetables!”
After intermission, the ONU Chamber Singers sang “A Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas,” directed by Ayling. In the final section of the concert, labeled “Christmastide,” the University Singers performed “Noel,” a traditional Christmas piece; however, the music ensemble did so with an African flavor.
Aided by Dr. Benjamin Ayettey, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar from the University of Ghana, the Singers performed “Noel” with African drum sets, vocal renditions and dance moves. Dr. Sarah Waters brought Ayettey to ONU for the 2015-16 school year to help teach African music and dance to Ohio Northern students, and she joined in on the performance as well.
Ayling believes that having Ayettey on board added a new twist to this year’s concert.
“As soon as [Ayettey] arrived, we talked about him coming in. He came in and gave us the movements that we did, and then he also coached the drummers,” Ayling said.
“The movement was an added thing, which is [Ayettey’s] forte. We were delighted to have that as a part of our concert. To be able to have an African piece to set this off, was something that I really looked forward to, and I thought that it added to the diversity and flavor of the concert.”
The University Singers rounded out the concert with songs like “Sing We Now of Christmas” and “Silent Night,” sending the audience home with Christmas on their minds.
What impressed Ayling the most about this year’s choir was the members’ solid performance, despite being a young group.
“I have a great bunch of students, and it’s a really young choir; about one-third of the choir are new to the choral program,” Ayling said. “But they are the sweetest group of young people I’ve ever worked with. They’re very malleable and very hard-working.”
Ayling has been teaching music since the age of 14, when he conducted the Lake High School marching band as the drum major. He has taught at many institutions over his career, including Sylvania Northview High School, Bowling Green State University, Kent State University, Case Western Reserve University, and Ohio Northern University.
In reflecting on his five years at ONU, Ayling remarked on how much he got done while he was in Ada. He has taken the choir on two international tours, one to New Zealand and one to the United Kingdom. Ensemble members will leave for another trip on May 9, when they will travel around the U.S. on a 26-state tour.
“We’ve been pretty productive, and I feel that the choral program here has just really blossomed, and it’s grown; the singing ability of the students has grown tremendously,” Ayling said.
During his retirement, Ayling plans to travel with his wife. Both are 61 years old, and she has been retired for six years.
“She’s been very patiently waiting for me,” Ayling said. “She’s never once intimated that I should hurry up and join her. But at the same time, I think it’s time we do some things together, like seeing the world, while our health is good.”
Ayling is also thinking about getting back into music, after taking a year off of conducting.
“I’m going to take a year off from conducting to travel with my wife, [so we can] have some time together,” Ayling said. “Then I’ll see, after about a year of that, how much involvement I want to have in starting up a community chorus or something like that.”
It’s safe to say that music will always be a part of Benjamin Ayling, even in retirement. And for those who have seen and heard him work, that is just fine.