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An abiding love of music has led Thomas Dawkins to perform in productions from Boston Baroque concerts to trailers for video games and live concerts produced by film score composer Hans Zimmer. This summer, he brought that passion for music to Tufts as he joined the University Chaplaincy as new music director and organist in Goddard Chapel.  

Previously music director at the Congregational Church of Harvard, Massachusetts, Dawkins is an accomplished pianist and baritone. As a piano soloist he has appeared with several area orchestras, including the New England Philharmonic, the Brandeis Symphony Orchestra, and the Longy School Preparatory Orchestra. As a singer, he has lent his voice to recordings from Handel’s Messiah to Mozart’s Requiem and Mass in c Minor, and performed widely with groups that include Chorus pro Musica, the Boston Repertory Orchestra, and the Masterworks Chorale. He has performed on NPR’s program Says You! as well as with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society. 

University Chaplain Gregory McGonigle said that musical breadth makes Dawkins a welcome addition to the chaplaincy, not only for his knowledge of sacred music but also for his enthusiasm for community programming that brings people together around music. “He is both a great musician and a great composer of concerts,” he said. “We’re also excited by how he is reaching out and engaging across the Tufts community, and especially with students.”

Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts and now living in Waltham, Dawkins graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University, where he became the first winner of the Ira Gershwin Prize for excellence in musical performance. Tufts Now recently caught up with Dawkins to learn more about how he envisions making new and joyful music at Tufts.

Tufts Now: The University Chaplaincy hosts one of the popular musical events of the year at the university, the Halloween Midnight Organ Recital. That was your first big Tufts event—I understand enthusiasm ran high. 

Thomas Dawkins: We had an audience of about 400, and we had to turn people away. We had a tremendous time. I started off with the “Funeral March of a Marionette,” also known as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s one thing to have a crowded room—it’s another thing after one note to have the room fall silent. You can’t always expect that at a professional concert anymore.

The students also appreciated, I think, that for the first time we had a student perform. I had been approached by Zhang Zeyu, a graduate student in economics, and I was impressed. So we played a piano duet of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, which went very well. And at the end, he would have gotten a curtain call—but he’d bowed with me and had already left the building.

Do you have new ideas for the popular holiday concert program on December 5?

The big guest as always is the Tufts Concert Choir, and there will be classic carols and more secular carols, like “Jingle Bells,” that are part of the traditional sing-along at the end of the program. I also have one undergrad, three grad students, and a staff member who will perform—three on keyboard, one each on flute and trumpet. The trumpeter is a Fletcher student who is very good; he’s the reason I decided to sing “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from Handel’s Messiah. None of these performers are music students, but they love music and they’d like to play in public. So I encourage everyone to come; we will definitely showcase Tufts talent.  

How did you get started on a musical path?

I started music at about age five, because my mother thought I should try piano lessons. As it turned out, I had a natural talent for it, and I progressed quite quickly. Because of my musical interest, I went to a small private high school—Waring School in Beverly. All the students had to sing in the choir, which also included most of the faculty and some of the administrative staff. In the bass section, I remember sitting with the headmaster here and my French teacher there, and the woman who answered the phones, singing in the alto section. When we had concerts, it was really the whole school singing. It was just amazing.

When I was a senior I was challenged by the music director to play the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, and my piano teacher, who was also the choir director, said, ‘We can do this.’ I played the piano solo and she and I recruited the whole school to sing and had about twenty people playing in the orchestra. It was just terrific.

How do you keep the love of music alive in what you do?

My goal has always been to avoid burning out. I see too many people who at some point in their education seem to no longer love what they’re doing. I did not want to be one of those people. I love music too much. My greatest fear as a teacher is that I will be the reason that someone decides to quit.

That’s why one of the things I’m trying to do here at Tufts is to reach out and encourage others to find joy in it, too. I want to get across the message that if you are interested and talented and have the drive, then next year you also could be performing in the Halloween concert or the holiday concert. I’ve already had sufficient demand from people who would like to have some performance outlet to have a showcase concert during the spring semester. I like making music with people as much as they want to make music with me. My response to anyone who says that they’d like to play with me is ‘OK, can we set up a time?’

Amid all the varied productions you’ve performed with, what would you say are the highlights? 

Two are performing Haydn’s Creation and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion onstage in Symphony Hall with Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society. These are big pieces—the St. Matthew Passion has a double choir. Being part of such a big production is something that’s hard to describe. I think it’s about realizing it’s a privilege to just sing.   

The University Chaplaincy Annual Holiday Concert at Goddard Chapel on the Medford/ Somerville campus will be held Wednesday, December 5, from 4:30–6 p.m. A festive reception will be provided. More details are available on Facebook.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at [email protected].