GROTON — It’s a shame that Edith Tompkins can’t play the piano right now.
Not because she physically can’t play it, at age 89 she still can. It’s not because she’s unprepared to perform, as she has multiple pieces of sheet music at the ready on the piano. She actually just doesn’t want to play because the piano is out of tune. Most people, especially the reporter in her home bothering her on a cold Thursday afternoon, can’t tell the piano isn’t ready for prime-time from the sublime three keys Tompkins plays. But she knows about the right sounds and the right pitch for a performance. She should, she’s been doing it long enough.
She did it for the 45th year in a row on Dec. 15 and 16, directing the Groton Community Christmas Concert at the Union Congregational Church. Tompkins, who’s lived at her cozy home on Old Ayer Road for 50 years, spends every winter season rehearsing choral songs with children and adults for the annual holiday concert held in high regard by the community. Experience is a nonfactor, as Tompkins takes in and works with singers on a volunteer basis. Locality is irrelevant as well, as the choir members come from Acton, Dunstable, Littleton, Somerville, Nashua, N.H., and even China this year. It’s not a job or a paid gig to stardom, Tompkins sees it fitting in with the Christmas season.
“I enjoy presenting this gift with a wonderful group of people who just want to do this,” she said. “This is what we can give to the community and we’re all on the same page on that.”
Tompkins said she likes every element of directing the choir, especially the moments when the audience gets involved in the show. She recalled a moment that happened at a recent concert when, during a soloist’s performance of “O Holy Night,” a verse was set-up to have the audience join in.
“They were shaking the chandeliers,” Tompkins said. “To look out at the audience and see how moved they were, some were dabbing their eyes. It was an emotional moment that I never expected “
Music has always found a way into Tompkins life. Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, she took piano lessons as a 5-year-old and had a choir director in high school who inspired her. After earning her degree in public school music education from West Chester State Teachers’ College, now known as West Chester University, she was a choir director and organist in New Jersey.
Church has also been a constant for Tompkins. She said her first job in a choir was in a Lutheran church, then she worked for a Unitarian church and then a Congregational church before moving to Groton to teach at the now-closed Country Day School of the Holy Union.
But then came mid-October of 1974, when Tompkins was the choir director at a local Unitarian church. Tompkins said she had started a choir consisting of teenagers sponsored by the Groton Center for the Arts. Tompkins said she got a call from the director of the center asking if her choir could sing some songs for a Christmas concert. A week later, Tompkins found a sign advertising the concert at the local drug store without telling her.
“So then I had a choice,” she recalled. “I could call the director of the center and say, ‘What are you thinking? No, we can’t do a Christmas concert,’ or I could go back to my choirs at the church and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to have a concert, I want you to invite all of your friends to come sing with us.’ “
And so she rolled with the concert, putting together the first concert in just two months. How?
“I had the experience of being guided through the whole thing by the holy spirit,” she said. “It was like I was coming from someplace else. My ego was not involved.”
Her ego is still out of the picture to this day, as her focus goes to bringing the singers together as one cohesive choir. Tompkins said she’s always amazed at the quality of singers who join the choir and applauds the more-experienced singers who help pull the rest of the choir along through rehearsals.
“I’m very much a stickler with kids’ voices being light and high,” she said. “They also have to learn to sing in an ensemble. You have to hear the person singing next to you.”
While the choir can have some newcomers every year, Tompkins notes the number of returning singers to her team. Her cast of choral players include a woman who started with Tompkins in high school and is now in her 60s, some people who’ve been singing since they were in third grade and even families participate in the choir.
“They tell me now that Christmas can start when they do this choir,” Tompkins said. “It’s a spiritual concert, we hope that people of all faiths will have something that touches their hearts.”
Tompkins herself has had her heart touched by the generosity of the choir itself. When her husband, Bert, passed away on Dec. 3, 2016, she couldn’t have his funeral right away as the concert was coming up and she knew her husband wouldn’t have wanted her to cancel the show. So the show went on and afterwards, she asked the choir members to come to Bert’s memorial service. At the service, Tompkins wanted to sing “How Can I Keep From Singing” in honor of her late husband.
“35 people came up and stood in the front of the church and sang that song,” she said. “He loved to sing, so it was a very appropriate song.”
Tompkins doesn’t direct the church choir full-time anymore, but she does sing every now and then.
“I like to,” she said, “and they need all the singers they can get.”