An interview with Thomas “Tom” Keesecker, is like a mini-concert punctuated by little stories.
Keesecker, music director at American Lutheran Church in downtown Billings, will kick off an Advent concert series Friday at American Lutheran, leading a hymn sing.
He also is a composer who has had a dozen of his church choral anthems published just in the four years he’s lived in Billings, and many more before then. Occasionally Keesecker will Google his name to see where his songs have been sung.
For instance, he discovered a New York church choir sang his arrangement of “Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land” eight times while on tour in Denmark. Church choirs in Canada and Pennsylvania performed “Around You, O Lord Jesus.”
Where the ideas for his songs come from is more of a mystery.
“Sometimes it feels like this stuff just falls out of the air,” he said, sitting in his church office.
The melody for “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” just kept running through his mind. He jumps up from his chair and sits down at a nearby electric piano to plunk out the melody.
“I’m always working on something,” he said, back at his desk, picking up a stack of papers, songs he’s working on. “Sometimes an idea will just strike me.”
He wrote one of his most popular anthems, “Washed Anew,” after reading the book “Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology” by Lutheran scholar Gordon Lathrop.
“As I travel around the country, everyone will say ‘I love this one,’ ” Keesecker said, speaking of thesong.
At times he is inspired by people he knows. He sings a few bars of “Rest in Heaven,” a capella, a song he was inspired to write when the husband of Chris Garcia, one of his choir members from his former church, died of cancer.
“I stood in Target trying to buy a card,” he said. “Instead I wrote ‘Rest in Heaven.’ I wrote it for him and for her. She was very grateful.”
Sitting in his office, Keesecker thumbs through some of his published pieces. He grabs “Children, Let’s Wait for the Baby,” an up-tempo piece and a best-seller for the Choristers Guild, which released it.
He looks it up online at the Choristers Guild Web site and clicks his computer mouse. A professional choir bursts into song, so potential music buyers can hear the words and the melody. Keesecker follows the sheet music, turning the pages as the song progresses.
Another piece, “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills,” was inspired by Psalm 121. Keesecker wrote it in memory of two American Lutheran members, Dr. John Oakley, a Billings physician, who died on Easter 2006 in a plane crash, and choir member Ron Blessum who died that same year of a heart attack.
“It was my way of dealing with it,” Keesecker said.
Music has been a part of Keesecker’s life for as long as he can remember. He started playing piano at 6, and by the time he was a teen, “I was making stuff up all the time.”
When asked if he loves music, he said that’s probably not the right word. It’s more organic, like breathing, something that’s just a part of who he is.
Keesecker attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston for two years, where he got more into modern classical music. Then he attended Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in composition in 1980.
Keseecker and wife, Tricia, have three sons. The music director previously worked for 15 years at St. Margaret Catholic Church in Bel Air, Md., a parish of 5,000 families.
In 2005, he saw an ad for a music director at a Lutheran church in Billings and on a whim, he applied. He arrived that August and has been here since.
“It was exciting to come out,” he said. “I love my wife for going along with the craziness of moving here.”
Keesecker directs American Lutheran’s adult choir, two children’s choirs and a hand-bell ensemble. He also works with the soloists, the instrumentalists and plans worship for the weekend services, and directs a contemporary music service.
Church music is all Keesecker has ever done. As for his song writing, he’s had a pretty good track record, having published about 45 anthems.
“Just about all I’ve written has been published,” he said.
With more churches moving from choirs to worship bands, the church music industry is changing, Keesecker said. Where a piece of choral music might once have sold 10,000 copies, now it may sell 3,000 to 4,000 copies.
That doesn’t keep him from writing, though. When Keesecker comes up with an idea, he submits it to an acquisitions editor. His music has been published by Augsburg Fortress, Concordia, GIA and MorningStar.
He also was co-winner of the Hymn Society millennium hymn tune contest in 2000. Other honors have been bestowed, as well.
Still, you get the feeling that if Keesecker never sold another song, he’d keep composing them. It would be as hard to stop writing as it would be to stop breathing.
Contact Susan Olp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1281.