Shelley Little has been playing piano for longer than 40 years and has been leading music ministries for a long time, too.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is her favorite hymn, partially for its spiritual meaning but mostly because of the memories Little has of her grandmother singing it to her as a lullaby when she was growing up in Mooresville.
The title of the hymn could just as well be used to describe Little’s ascent to her current position as director of music ministries at Cornelius’ 190-year old Mount Zion United Methodist Church. During the past four years, she faithfully assisted the former music director as an accompanying pianist at Sunday services and weekly choral rehearsals.
When Marci Mittelstadt retired last year and moved to her native Tennessee, the church’s staff parish committee took little time in hiring Little as her permanent replacement. She assumed her new position Jan. 1.
“We’re all here for the same reason and you can tell that in this church,” said Little. “We’re all here to worship the Lord and it’s a great feeling. Sometimes I come in feeling mediocre and leave feeling like I’m on Cloud Nine because it’s an uplifting congregation.”
Little oversees all aspects of Mount Zion’s music program. She directs the adult Chancel Choir, which sings at the 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Sunday services, and various youth choir and accompanies them both on the piano.
Mount Zion also has thriving hand bell choirs, directed by Carrie Warren, and is the home church to a strong community youth choir named Testify.
Administratively, Little helps coordinate special events with church leaders. She programs summer youth camps, and arranges for visits to assisted living centers.
Delores Edwards, Mount Zion’s historian, can be considered an authority on the church’s music directors. She’s been a singer in the choir for every one of her 40 years as a church member and says she is now serving under her 10th director.
“Shelley is a magician,” said Edwards. “She’s delightful. She’s such a talented lady. She plays and she sings beautifully. We’re just lucky to have someone like her.”
Little also approves music and arranges for musicians for weddings and funerals. Ironically, it was a funeral for a friend, at which she accompanied on piano, that first brought Little to Mount Zion four years ago.
Shortly after, Mittelstadt invited Little to accompany the church choir on piano every other week. That continued for a little more than a year before Little began playing at choir rehearsals under Mittelstadt’s direction.
Mittelstadt was much beloved by her singers and built a legacy for recruiting musicians outside the church for string quartets and orchestras to perform at church services. Little says Mittelstadt first asked her about replacing her last August.
“I probably would have paid attention more had I known I would be taking this position,” said Little, who was music director at Mooresville’s Fair View Methodist Church 1998-2003. “I had no intention of taking this position, ever. I love accompanying. I’m a lot more comfortable behind the piano keys.”
When the staff parish committee was charged with replacing Mittelstadt, selecting her replacement was a no-brainer.
“Having Shelley coming to this position was such a natural transition,” said committee member and choir member Mary Goodson. “It made losing Marci, who had been here for almost 10 years, easy. You had a choir director that people liked and the people were used to her routines. …
“Shelley was the best fit possible. When we knew she was interested in taking the position, our search had stopped. There was no need to continue. Shelley knew the choir, she had subbed here. She knew what she was jumping into. We were delighted and thrilled to have her here.”
Little is embedded in the Cornelius community. She teaches piano lessons on the side, is a pianist at the popular Magnify concerts, and helps her husband, David, with the family business, Little Wood Flooring, which is practically a next door neighbor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church.
Delighted that the choir members have responded positively to her, Little is excited they are open to singing different styles of music at Sunday services such as classical and gospel. Maybe next year, Little says, she will try to produce a church musical performed by its adult members.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see Shelley Little at work, visit Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, 19600 Zion Ave., Cornelius. www.mtzionumc.net.
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