The South Carolina Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program connects master traditional artists and eager apprentices throughout the state to ensure that South Carolina’s traditions are transmitted to future generations. In this series, Doug Peach, folklife and traditional arts program coordinator, catches up with former apprentices to see how and where they are applying skills learned through the program.
Byron Dixon is focused at the piano. His eyes are locked on the sheet music in front of him, while his ears are fixed to the voices around the room. Under his direction, the Church Choir at Second Calvary Baptist Church in Columbia rehearses the hymn, “You Can’t Beat God’s Giving.” Their praises echo through the church’s halls.
Byron Dixon leads the choir at Second Calvary Baptist Church
As the choir sings a few stanzas, the melody finds its familiar place. Dixon locks into a strong and playful accompaniment. One by one the choir members close their eyes and heads begin to sway.
“I didn’t play [“You Can’t Beat God’s Giving”] out of the book, I gave it that traditional flavor,” explained Dixon after the rehearsal. While Dixon has been a pianist the better part of his life, the “traditional flavor” he refers to was learned through his participation in the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in 2012. Dixon completed a year-long program with master artist Dr. Ronald High — a former professor of music at Benedict College — that focused on style, musical theory, and the performance aesthetics of traditional African American gospel music for piano.
Although Dixon was already a minister of music at Second Calvary before his work with Dr. High, the Apprenticeship Program allowed Dixon to expand the breadth of his musical abilities inside the church. Dixon elaborates: “the apprenticeship [taught me] how to take the classical and fuse it together with the traditional, even with my [own] playing style . . . before I took the apprenticeship there were certain chords that I would put into traditional hymns [that] did not belong there.” This fluency in diverse musical styles allowed Second Calvary Baptist Church to combine their Voices of Praise and Sanctuary Choirs into a single Church Choir. Now, on any given Sunday, the congregation is brought closer to the Lord with hymns, anthems, traditional gospel and contemporary gospel, all in a single service.
Dixon stressed that the ability to incorporate these various genres into one choir expanded the ways in which God could be worshipped at Second Calvary Baptist Church. Dixon says, “every purpose of the church is to worship freely, but there are different ways of worship. Everybody don’t worship through just one style of music.”
When not at Second Calvary Baptist Church, Dixon can be found at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, where he works in the music department and as a special education teacher. Dixon also teaches the gospel choir at Eau Claire High School and uses the tools he gained through the Apprenticeship Program with his high school students. “I take a lot of the techniques that Dr. High taught me in the apprenticeship and put it into my young people who are singing now, [who are] not getting the proper musical training that they need at the high school level.”
Whether it is in the service of the Lord or his local community, Byron Dixon uses the skills he developed through the Apprenticeship Program as tools for education, spiritual communion, and continued musical growth.