Party Music with Cheri Sykes 93G

By Michelle Valigursky

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“As a musician, you must be super versatile to succeed as an independent,” says Cheri Sykes 93G. With a master’s degree in sacred music from Emory, Sykes not only leads music at a church – she’s also Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor’s on-call pianist, the driving force behind Wild Honey and the Locusts jazz group, and is helping write a Popular Styles Exam Syllabus for the Minnesota Music Teachers’ Association (MMTA).

So how did a classically-trained organist develop such eclectic skills? “As a church musician, my story is a little unusual because I listened to the Beatles and jazz growing up, but then I fell in love with the organ,” Sykes recalls of her calling to sacred music. “Now, in hymn interpretation, I find a correlation to improvisation in jazz.”

Sykes is the director of music for Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in East Bethel, Minnesota, where she is organist as well as leader of a rock band. She is also keyboardist/arranger/leader of her band Wild Honey, “where my creativity gets most full-rein. I’m very grateful for my Emory education,” she notes. “Through it, I’ve been enabled to live an amazing life in music. During my master's education, I found inspiration for the eclectic path I have chosen.”

Cheri Sykes

From Classical to Rock to Jazz

“Some may fear the organ is going by the wayside. But the organ will never die. It’s just too grand and powerful,” Sykes says. However, she points out that today’s sacred music is also informed by many other musical genres, like American rock and pop, African, gospel, Latin, and Celtic. “The key for today’s church musicians is to understand the roots of each style.”

She notes, “Contemporary, non-classical styles are all about rhythm. No matter the genre, musicians must look at a song's cultural genesis and its rhythmic groove, building the hymn/song’s interpretation from there.”

Sykes also teaches popular styles, along with classical, in her private studio. The Popular Styles Exam Syllabus she is helping write for the MMTA is the only one of its kind nationally. “We want to enable traditional teachers to also teach popular styles, thereby better equipping students with broad, real-life practical skills.”

As the “major domo” for her six-piece jazz combo Wild Honey and the Locusts, influences of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and various jazz genres can be discerned in her arrangements of hymns and spirituals. “My best advice: keep listening, blend the best of your favorite styles, and never stop creating new music.”

Editor's Note: In addition to her other roles, her Sykes Keyboard Studio offers instruction in piano and guitar. She is also an in-demand entertainer for weddings and other celebrations.  For more information, please visit here.

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Michelle Valigursky