Written by Owen Cooper
U. S. Coast Guard Headquarters Chorus director, Don Johnson, brings the “Sound of Music” into the workaday. For 45 years, Don has been devoted to the U. S. Coast Guard, as a military member, civilian and now as a volunteer. For much of his career he supported law enforcement and operations systems as an information technology specialist. Along the way, he generously shared his musical gifts through the Coast Guard Headquarters Chorus, which he has directed for over 25 years.
Johnson began his performing career at age nine when he sang the harmony parts in a local children’s choir.
“I was very active in singing groups in high school, singing in the school barbershop quartet and the madrigal singers,” recalled Johnson. “As a senior, I was selected to be the student director of the male chorus – my first directing experience. My Grandma loved to sing. She was still taking voice lessons into her 60s. She always wanted to know what I was doing musically, and always encouraged me. My dad did classic show/pop tunes and religious music. He did a lot of solos over the years at church and other organizations. One of the fun things I got to do as a teenager was to act as his accompanist on guitar or piano. I directed my church choir in Alexandria for 17 years.”
Johnson’s band of singers delivers the musical difference to all kinds of all occasions. He directs two performing groups, the larger Headquarters Chorus and the Foghorns barber shop ensemble. These two groups are Semper Paratus. They’re “Always Ready” to perform the National Anthem or a patriotic song for occasions ranging from opening a Washington Wizards game to dedicating a memorial to Francis Scott Key in the Baltimore harbor, a flag change of command, or military retirements. Each winter and spring, the Chorus and Foghorns put on a joint concert with the Coast Guard Headquarters Band.
This doesn’t happen by itself. It takes someone of Don’s spirit and character to make an effective all-volunteer group. Michelle Birchfield, chorus coordinator for many years offers this tribute, “Thank you, Don, for all that you do: direct, select music, keep people informed – and logistics, play parts, sing parts, muscle around equipment, play the ukulele. . . And much, much more! We all know this could not happen if it were not for your efforts. Vocal music at Coast Guard Headquarters is your baby and you have nurtured it well for decades.”
Anyone, military, civilian or contractor, is welcome to join. Reading music is not a requirement. Chorus rehearsals are lighthearted and fun. But there is work to be done. There are concerts to prepare for, ceremonial songs to polish, and new members to bring along. Johnson is a skilled conductor and a patient teacher. His talents shine as the group learns a concert piece such as a holiday medley or a Broadway favorite. He hears and knows exactly where every part needs help, so he will work with that section, giving just the right input. Like all good conductors, he knows every part and signals every beat of a complex rhythm.
Member Owen Cooper loves preparing for a performance.
“We forget all difference of rank or status, and just have fun,” said Cooper. “With each rehearsal we get a little better. Confidence builds. In time Don is satisfied that we have achieved performance level. And then, there’s the excitement of performance day! Lo and behold, we pull it off! The payoff comes as we return to our seats knowing that this event, which is mighty important for someone, is different, better, more special because we lifted it with our songs.”
One of the chorus members, Lane McClelland, knows that nothing can replace this very special group.
“I joined because I wanted the chorus to sing at my retirement from active duty,” said McClelland. “I should have done it sooner. It was everything I expected and more! My retirement ceremony was very much enhanced by the chorus’s participation. After retiring, I re-joined the chorus when I returned as a civilian to headquarters. Rehearsals are a weekly peaceful respite from the workday. Performances are a major boost to my spirits. Don Johnson is the reason. He keeps us on track calmly and with good humor, and creates a lovely sound from our separate voices. Glory to God for putting Don among us!”
Coast Guard Headquarters is a better place because of the quiet dedication of this one person, who shares his abilities and his love of music with one and all!