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Mr. Michael E. Kemp

Obituary for Mr. Michael E. Kemp

July 10, 2021
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania


Michael Edward Kemp, 1946-2021
Michael Edward Kemp, beloved conductor, author, teacher, composer, husband, father, brother, grandfather, and friend, died peacefully at home from complications of ALS on the morning of Saturday, July 10th, 2021. He was 75 and lived fully to the end. Michael was preceded in death by his parents John and Helen. He is survived by his wife Janet Easlea, children Todd, Brad, and Erin, grandchildren Oliver, Elliott, Joseph, and Sidney, siblings Julie, John, Peggy, and Kathy, and his former wife Janice. He was an accomplished conductor, having led church choirs, community choruses, and community orchestras in the greater Philadelphia area since 1992, and before that in Nashville, Tennessee, Arlington, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. An in-demand choral teacher and clinician, he lectured and conducted in over 400 workshops and festivals in 43 states and five Canadian provinces. He wrote five books for choral conductors, and composed several anthems for church choirs. His life was one of constant learning, of a never-ending quest for self-improvement, and of sharing with as many people as possible the depth of the beauty and power of making music with others.

Michael's story began in Bucks County, PA on February 28th, 1946. His parents, John S.C.and Helen Hubbert Kemp, were faculty members at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. When Michael was three years old, the family relocated to Oklahoma City, where John and Helen served in the Music Ministry at First Presbyterian Church, and where Michael was raised as "Mike" with his brother John and three sisters: Julie, Peggy, and Kathy. Music was not just a vocation in the Kemp home, but a way of life. Singing was constant (especially at the dinner table), and all of the children studied string instruments. Michael and his siblings would continue to make music together regularly for the rest of his life, an experience which fulfilled him and of which he was as thankful as he was proud. Michael loved to recount stories of growing up in Oklahoma, especially regarding his employment at Garland Nursery, which he credited with instilling in him the value of discipline and the appreciation of doing a job beautifully.

In 1962 and 1963, Michael and his siblings accompanied their parents on a sabbatical year in Holland, during which they regularly performed as a singing family group called The Kemp Carolers. In addition to performing, Michael studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague while simultaneously completing his Junior year of high school via correspondence.

Michael directed his first church choir at the Presbyterian Church of Toms River while attending Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. After graduating in 1968 with a degree in vocal performance, he enlisted in the United States Army. He served for two years in Europe, spending most of that time singing in the 7th Army Chorus after a chance meeting with a college acquaintance in Heidelberg led to an audition for the ensemble.

Upon his return to the States, Michael continued his study of voice, viola, and conducting at Oklahoma University, where he earned his Master of Music degree in 1972. It was also there that he met his wife Janice, who would be his partner in work and in marriage for the next 35 years, and with whom he would have three children: Todd, Brad, and Erin.

Michael's love of learning never ceased, and he regularly sought private study with renowned choral authorities including Paul Salamunovich, Philip Brunelle, and Alice Parker, as well as extensive summer study with Robert Shaw.

Michael served as Minister of Music at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, TX from 1972 to 1984, building just the first of many choral programs to come into a large, vibrant, and vital part of the church community. It was at "First Pres" that Michael's gift for choir recruiting first became apparent, especially among the youth of the church. Under his direction, singing in the church choir became "the thing to do," and during the 12 years of Michael's tenure, countless life-long friendships were cultivated through music. An unparalleled recruiter, Michael's ability to get anyone to join a choir became something of lore. A hallmark of a Michael Kemp youth choir would always be that at least half of the people involved didn't want to be there on the first day, but having given into the director's relentless gift of persuasion, agreed to come twice and then stayed for years.

It was also in Arlington that Michael's life mission of music advocacy began. Michael believed deeply that the experience of making music with other people could be a transformative force for good in the world, and that non-professional musicians of every age and background needed opportunities to make music of the highest caliber in order for the power of music to remain vital in society. While serving at First Presbyterian Church, Michael founded the Arlington Civic Chorus (Now the Arlington Master Chorale) in 1973, an all-volunteer, auditioned chorus that drew singers and audiences alike from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

Michael would continue serving church, school, and community ensembles for the rest of his life, founding and/or growing multiple choir programs in Nashville, TN, at Westminster Presbyterian Church and Montgomery Bell Academy, and in the greater Philadelphia area at Abington Presbyterian Church, Germantown Academy, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Berwyn, PA, and through the Academy Chorale & Orchestra. He regularly led choirs on domestic and international tours, including trips to Canada, Jamaica, Austria, and Poland.

As part of his duties as Minister of Music at Abington Presbyterian Church beginning in 1992, Michael became the conductor of the Abington Symphony Orchestra, fulfilling a dream and opening a new chapter in his musical and professional life. For the next 27 years, he dedicated himself even more fully to conducting, as he refined his technique and studied orchestral literature constantly. As an orchestral conductor, he led the Abington Symphony Orchestra, the Academy Chorale & Orchestra, the Academy Chamber Society (now the Montgomery County Chorale and Orchestra), and associated chamber ensembles in hundreds of concerts. He conducted his final concert in May 2019 after it became clear to him that the increasing effects of ALS would preclude his ability to commit to another season.

Michael was also an in-demand choral clinician, well-known for his work teaching other choir directors at workshops and festivals throughout the United States, Canada, and Jamaica for four decades. In his later years he was increasingly interested in passing on his lifetime of accumulated knowledge to younger conductors, especially those who would be working with amatuer singers. To that end, he authored five books intended to address the needs of the next generation of servants of community music, including his magnum opus The Choral Challenge. Michael was also a gifted arranger and composer, and in his "spare" time composed numerous choral anthems, including "We Believe in the Coming of Emmanuel," a beautifully reflective setting of "O Come Emmanuel" and "Ani Maamin" that held deep personal significance as he completed work on it the weeks before his death.

Throughout Michael's long conducting career, he maintained his love for the viola and for playing chamber music with friends and family. He regularly arrived at monthly gatherings of the extended family with music stands and string quartet scores in tow, and he continued to play duets with Janet even as ALS took from him the ability of his right hand to hold a bow ("I'll just play pizzicato, like a mandolin…") and then of his left hand to play the fingerboard of the viola and violin ("I've switched now to playing a keyboard with one finger, but we can still enjoy making music together…").

Michael's perfectionism and patience found a wonderfully surprising outlet as an amatuer luthier. Under the tutelage of Harold Golden, he restored a viola and three violins, including a long un-playable family instrument that he returned to its former glory. His proudest achievement, however, was "Rebecca," the remarkable viola he built from scratch over the course of 400 careful and quiet hours.

Michael overflowed with imagination and was relentlessly driven, but not in a self-serving or career-oriented way: his goals (which were written down daily, taped to bathroom mirrors, carried in wallets, and referred to regularly) were not so much long-range plans for professional achievement as they were concrete ideas about how to improve the current day's experience. His focus was always on how to make a rehearsal more effective for the ensemble, how to make a garden more beautiful, and how to make a game more fun for everyone by getting better at it.

Michael's favorite week of every year was spent relaxing, reading Louis L'Amour novels, and playing volleyball with his family on the beach at the Gulf of Mexico, but even then he woke up early to work on refining his tennis technique before that morning's pre-breakfast match. Michael loved playing sports and was a terrific athlete, treating tennis and ping-pong with the same respect and commitment he gave to playing the viola or preparing to conduct an orchestra. He made a habit of scheduling time to watch part of a pro's instructional video or clips from classic matches before heading out to play tennis as a way of inspiring himself to focus on a specific stroke or skill while having fun playing the game. He was a nearly unbeatable ping-pong player, and an equally good ping-pong instructor to his children and their friends, though the fierce competitor in him may have just been crossing his fingers that someone would finally get good enough to give him a run for his money. Trash-talk around the ping-pong table was practically a family credo, and a good zinger was worth almost more than a perfectly executed slam or "chop."

In 2014, Michael married Janet Easlea, who was his perfect match in every way. Janet proved to be the ping-pong and tennis foil Michael had always needed, and came into the family with a built-in cheering section, providing his children with the long-awaited spectacle of their father finally losing games with regularity. (Janet also proved to be a far better oboist than Michael was a violist, but who's counting?) When they decided to marry, Michael told his children that he and Janet had each drawn up a list of the things in life that were the most important to them, including activities, philosophies, and artistic goals. They were pleasantly surprised, he said, that their lists ended up being nearly identical to each other's. This chemistry was certainly on display during their too-short but magical friendship and marriage, as they made music together, played games, watched movies, and went biking and camping -- and combined their interests by making music while camping -- over the course of seven-and-a-half years. Janet cared for Michael with unending love and compassion throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when family visits became impossible. For the first time in their relationship there were no concerts, no rehearsals, no time spent with siblings and children, and none of the rigorous physical activity they both cherished together, and Janet committed fully to helping Michael live with dignity, depth, and humor through the progressive disease that continued to make day-to-day life more and more difficult. Michael's family will be forever grateful to her for taking such sweet and constant care of our father and brother.

Michael was infectiously funny and always quick with a hilarious turn-of-phrase, pun, or gentle burn. His eyes, which were always so expressive, would twinkle especially brightly when joking around or telling a story. No one could tell a story like Michael, whose command of language and drama (not to mention gestures and sound effects) was so natural that people would move forward in their seats while he talked. He could set up a punchline like no one else, and could make a story even funnier the third time you heard it. Michael's mother would tell him as a child that she knew when he was lying because his "eyes turned green." Her description was surely of the same look his family, friends, and singers knew from being entertained into tear-streaked laughter by stories of army adventures or other hilarious mishaps. The sheer number of truly unbelievable coincidences relayed in Michael's stories was baffling, but they all checked out as true upon further research. Michael was a person upon whom fate smiled, as if to say, "you're seriously never going to believe this one." It's no wonder that he lived his life with such confidence. As his children often marvelled, "Everything works out, except for maybe twice."

Those eyes of his communicated everything. His most effective tool as a conductor, they would flit on the podium between so many different moods and emotions, expressing twinkling joy, bemused wonderment, profound confidence, smoldering intensity, or heartbreaking sorrow as the music demanded. His eyes were also his entry point into other people's hearts, inspiring them to feel safe, included, and valued. He became an instant friend to strangers, was kind as a default, and was forever dedicated to including everyone in whatever activity was at hand, be it a choir, chore, or a game of volleyball on the beach or keep-away in the pool. (He was so good at getting people to play together that the pool where his family swam in the summers in Nashville once tried to hire him as an activities coordinator.)

Michael's charisma was infectious, and so many people who met him were inspired by his example to apply discipline to fun in the service of music and art. He inspired non-professional musicians from all over to embrace the experience of making music as a pillar of their lives, and through that to build communities and strengthen the bonds between us all. Michael believed that being a musician was a universal state of being human, not just a vocation for the naturally talented. He believed that teaching people to sing together could be a catalyst for a more beautiful and equitable society, and those people whom he taught believed in his vision.

Following Michael's ALS diagnosis and retirement from conducting, he lived fully in spite of his debilitating disease, putting his famed discipline and his lust for life to the test. He wrote memoirs of his life, often poignant and often comedic, continued to make music with Janet, corresponded with old friends, and participated weekly in video calls with both his children and his siblings even when he had great difficulty in speaking. Being Michael, he also ruminated daily on self-improvement strategies, read vociferously (especially biographies), researched and wrote histories of his favorite hymns, authored two more books, and composed two last anthems before finishing his final list.

Michael will be remembered as a true advocate for the power of the arts, and as the most patient man his children ever knew.

Plans for a memorial service for Michael will be forthcoming. Donations for those who would like to honor his memory may be made to the ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter (, The Michael Kemp Fund for New Music of the Montgomery County Chorale and Orchestra (, and Abington Presbyterian Church (

Private services for Denise are entrusted under the care of Craft-Givnish of Abington, Inc. 215-659-2000.

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