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After half a century, David Warfield leaves legacy of musical devotion

More than 50 years as a church organist and choir director have left David Warfield with a legacy of tuneful service and a crimp in his hands.

“I’ve already had a knuckle replaced and bases of thumbs rebuilt,” the 68-year-old musician said in an interview at his Norwich home upon the announcement of his retirement from the music ministry.

With music as a self-described “side job” that buttressed a career in the shipbuilding and homeland security industries, Warfield has been pulling out the stops on church organs since the late 1960s. It’s a journey that took him from the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois, to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Groton — with many places of worship in between. Other local churches include Calvary Church Episcopal in Stonington Borough, Ledyard Congregational Church and Central Baptist Church in Norwich.

Through it all, he’s learned from musical masters, clergy and congregants how to draw people in through melody.

“Church can be pretty boring,” he said, acknowledging advice from one mentor not to make it worse. That’s where elements like voice solos, harmonies and even purposeful pauses from the organ come in.

“It’s not uncommon for me to let the congregation sing a capella and just hear that human voice fill the room,” he said. “The first time it happens, they’re just kind of shocked. But as time goes on, you hear the voice of the congregation get stronger.”

Warfield played his final service as St. Andrew’s dedicated minister of music on Easter

Sunday. The timing was particularly meaningful for him because it was the first time the congregation had been allowed to sing aloud since pandemic restrictions were implemented over a year ago.

Even though the option of in-person attendance resumed at the church several weeks prior, it was not until the sacred holiday that congregants were free to lift their voices in song.

“The congregation sang their hearts out and it was a joy to hear that,” he said.

The restrictions in place at the end of his musical career marked a profound shift from the services, recitals and concerts played in front of New England audiences for half a century.

Among his most resounding memories were the performances of Handel’s “Messiah” that he oversaw while serving as musical director of the Granite State Choral Society for almost a decade. The Christmas concert boasted 126 voices and a 27-piece orchestra.

Karen Warfield, his wife of 20 years, remembered the crowds and the crescendo fondly.

“Those were the days,” she said.

Warfield, no stranger to the church, grew up as the son of a Methodist minister. It was the church organist at one of his father’s congregations in New Hampshire who first introduced him to the instrument when he was in second grade.

“My parents used to say I was almost born in a choir loft. Obviously, it’s been a big part of my life, for my life,” he said.

Warfield moved to Norwich in the mid-1960s. While in tenth grade at Norwich Free Academy, the young man began taking weekly lessons from cathedral organist Godfrey Tomanek. Classically trained in Czechoslovakia, Tomanek was serving as the organist at Norwich’s St. Patrick Cathedral at the time.

Warfield described the teacher, with his thick Czechaccent, as a daunting figure.

“He was a very fine organist,” he said. “He was also a really rough teacher. He demanded a lot from all his students. But he was really a mentor.”

Warfield went on to graduate from NFA in 1970 before enlisting in the Navy that

December. He served for six years as a nuclear plant operator on a submarine before moving on to work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire. A temporary assignment at Naval Submarine Base New London became permanent right around the time he met Karen.

He took his next job with the Transportation Security Administration at Bradley International Airport, retiring in 2005 as administrative officer.

Leaving the church better

Warfield’s church legacy is scattered throughout New Hampshire and Connecticut. In addition to music, he said he considers educational opportunities and improvement projects to be critical components of the gifts he left behind.

His focus on enrichment included leading or facilitating workshops, bringing in renowned musicians, directing musicals and even introducing handbells to a novice choir. He has held memberships with the American Guild of Organists and the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, among other groups.

One of his largest improvement projects came at the end of his decade-long tenure at Central Baptist Church in downtown Norwich with the decommissioning of its 83-year-old pipe organ. The effort made room for a four-keyboard digital organ that was unveiled in 2007.

“I always tried to leave a church better musically,” he said.

Warfield described the impact of the new instrument by recounting a touching interaction with a close friend from Norwich whose wife was in the advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Warfield invited the couple for a private performance in the church since the ailing woman was not comfortable attending the full, crowded concert meant to introduce the organ to the masses.

When asked by the organist what song she would like to hear, her husband requested Ave Maria for his “good, Catholic girl.”

“I started to play the Ave Maria, and she started to sing,” Warfield said.

Karen Warfield recalled that the sound of the woman’s voice, which had been largely silenced by the disease, was so soft they could barely hear it. It brought them all to tears.

“The music was able to cut right through,” David Warfield said.

Former St. Andrew pastor, the Rev. Jason Santalucia, worked with Warfield for about a year and a half before leaving to become pastor at a church in Brookfield.

“It was always really wonderful working with him,” Santalucia said. “I’ve worked with easily 10 or 12 music directors in my career. Many of them have been wonderful; David’s definitely one of the best.”

The pastor of 17 years said he was impressed that Warfield approached each service not as work, but as worship. That attribute was evident in the fact that Warfield would step away from the organ bench at the beginning of every homily in order to join Karen in the pews so he could listen to the pastor just like the rest of the congregation.

“I don’t think any other music director I’ve worked with has done that,” Santalucia said.

In Warfield’s own words, he is not a recitalist. He is someone who leads worship.

“Some organists use the organ in the church as their performance platform. I don’t. I’m there to help people, to try to enable them with a closer walk with the creator,” he said.

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