Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

An Interview With Sylvia Rose Cobb (May 1992)

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by Joy McMillon
May, 1992

“I knew when I took that first violin lesson in the fifth grade that I was hooked. Music was going to be my life,” said the soft-spoken woman. “I used to drive my family crazy, dragging home a different instrument from school every two or three weeks. But I wanted to learn how to play all of them.” And indeed she did.

Today Sylvia Rose Cobb has blended a lifelong passion for music and a vibrant faith into an active career of writing religious music. Her work includes a 50-piece collection of gospel songs, of which she has written about 170, nine cassettes of a cappella choral music, a handbook for choral directors, and a musical based on the life of Martin Luther King.

Her life, however, has not been one grand symphony. The daughter of a minister and youngest of 12 children, she was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1954. When she was 10, her mother died, and older siblings took over hear rearing.

Their large family struggled all her life on the edge of poverty. Often the children couldn’t participate in school activities because of the expenses involved. “Our father couldn’t give us all the things that some others had, but we didn’t suffer, and it didn’t seem to bother us,” said Sylvia. “He gave us what really mattered – a spiritual home and an introduction to faith.” From him she later realized came her commitment to excellence. “My father wasn’t always impressed with any small efforts by us kids. He felt we should give everything our best.”

Family members were close, Sylvia said, and their home swarmed with life, punctuated by the presence of friends and traveling ministers. “People always wanted to come home with us after church on Sunday afternoons. My older brothers and sisters and I would laugh because they could have had a much better dinner at their house, but they wanted to come to ours,” said the 38-year-old Detroit native.

She credited this early emphasis on relationships rather than upon things with instilling a distinctive set of values and priorities in her. “I guess I am like Paul. I have learned to be content with what I have. We didn’t have a lot, but we entertained each other and our love was strong. So the things that many others aspire to just don’t tempt me very much.” Regular visits are a hallmark even tday among the close family with 11 of the 12 children living in the Detroit area.

When Sylvia was 15, her father remarried and moved to Valdosta, Georgia. She went to live with a brother who was a minister in Toledo, Ohio. In high school she added marching band to her many student activities. “By this time, I was in love with God and the church, and I was stuck on the saxophone.”

Always a strong student, she was offered a full scholarship to a local college, but when a student-directed chorus from Southwestern Christian College sang at her congregation, her life direction changed abruptly. A spellbound Sylvia was so impressed she forfeited her schoalrship to attend the Terrell, Texas college.

At Southwestern Sylvia became devoted to her music, and her personal struggle with finding the best place for her musical talents began. She laughingly recalled marching into the office of the head of the music department and naively asserting, “I’m here to be your student director.” Despite her exceptional ability – including learning all the parts for the musical groups – she was not given the opportunity to direct. Hurt and confused by the rejection, a persistent Sylvia would not give up, however. Administrators appointed her the first woman student director of the college chorus her sophomore year.

As student director, her music writing career began in earnest, where she was inspired by talented voices and “a need to express my own love and adoration for God.” An urgent need also existed to create fresh material for the popular chorus, whose repertoire often was duplicated by other singing groups.

Sylvia Rose CobbIf the years at Southwestern were fulfilling musically, they were also difficult financially as she struggled to stay in school and meet her expenses. An outstanding academic record earned her a Ford Foundation scholarship to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1977.

She gave enjoyable performances, got along well with everyone and was a good student. later, she brought a choral gorup here, and it was obvious they responded well to her and she knew her business,” said Dr. Earle Moore, the now-retired chairman of Harding’s music department.

Upon graduation, Sylvia returned to teach in Southwestern’s music faculty and direct the chorus for three years. Afterwards, she moved to Detroit where she has taught, directed singing groups, and served as a music consultant for the past 15 years. It was at the Inkster, Michigan Church of Christ where she met and married her husband, Lanza, in 1980. He works at General Motors and is active in several singing groups, some of which she has directed. “I asked God for a cook and a tenor, and he gave me both,” she said.

Through the years, Sylvia said, her directing talents occasionally have placed her in awkward situations, so she decided to concentrate on writing. “I have learned it takes too much out of you when you are fighting these small battles. So I have chosen to write and rechannel my energies into something positive.”

Rough times began again when she stopped working in order to devote herself to writing a small hymnal for the church. “I told my husband this is what I wanted to do, and I would make the personal sacrifices necessary if I could be allowed to stop working and just write. I knew it would not be a money-making project. That doesn’t matter. I felt if nobody ever sings a song I write or ever knows I exist, that’s okay. I will be happy.”

But Sylvia’s talents are becoming known. Although she has enver had the time or money to advertise it, Songs of Faith, a collection of 50 gospel songs, was published first in 1985 and is now in its eighth printing. Congregations in Texas, Illinois and Michigan use it, inclding her home congregation, Oakland Church of Christ, in Southfield, Michigan.

“Sylvia is a deeply spiritual person, and a very faithful Christian who does so much of what she does at great personal sacrifice,” said Oakland minister and friend Vernon Boyd.

Where does she get her ideas? Sometimes a Bible verse, a thought from a sermong or a Negro spiritual, an idea from her husband, or her own emotions inspire her as she sits down at the piano to compose. A song may take her as little as 15 minutes to write, or it may take many days.

The dialogue for her largest work, Long Live the Dream, was drafted in two days, but the lyrics and music took almost a year to complete. It is a musical she wrote and directed in 1989 based on the civil rights movement and its leaders. At first Sylvia said she felt “over my head” directing a 25-actor production backed by $40,000 in corporate and private sponsorship. But after 3,800 people saw the show in Toledo and Detroit, and it was enthusiastically received by local media reviewers, she dreamed of launching the production in in off-Broadway show. Unfortunately, she hasn’t located the necessary capital to make her dream a reality.

She plans to return to full-time writing in June when she officially “retires” as the interim principal for Luckett Christian Academy in Taylor, Michigan. Through the years she has spent much of her time and effort serving on the board of directors and teaching at Luckett where she has great rapport with children.

“They gravitate to her,” said Boyd. “She is someone to whom troubled children can tell their problems, and she will give them good advice and encourage them.”

Sylvia has a strong vision for the vital role music plays within the public worship experience. “In the church, traditionally, we have put our focus almost exclusively on teaching and preaching, and that’s important, but we haven’t understood how much music can strengthen and support that. Music is actually preaching and teaching in song. Building up the role of music would result in more people touched with the gospel and more inspirational worship experiences.”

Song leaders need to take their responsibility for leading worship seriously, she contended. “They need to be committed to doing more than flipping through the book and getting five songs five minutes before worship starts,” said Sylvia. “They need to approach their task with prayer, study and fasting. When they are casual about their music, it isn’t going to inspire the rest of the congregation.”

Edifying the church through music varies with the congregation and the occasion, she said. “We ought to sing songs that correlate with the sermon’s dominant idea or that relate to what is going on in the life of the church.”

In addition to writing, Sylvia has taught Bible classes at Oakland and frequently speaks at women’s programs and lectureships around the nation.

For Sylvia Rose Cobb, music is a gift from God to be treasured and used. The job of using that gift has enriched and strengthened her through periods of discouragement and financial difficulties. “I have grown so much through the study and the writing of gospel songs. I believe deeply in prayer. So much of what I write is open, public prayer to God. It’s my way of communicating with him and praising him.”

Her unshakable commitment to the ministry of music makes it clear she intends to continue as an energetic, prolific force in contemporary church music.Wineskins Magazine

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