Stephen Newby is a composer, conductor, gospel/jazz vocalist, pianist, director of the Office of University Ministries and the Center for Worship at Seattle Pacific University, as well as an associate executive pastor at Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland.
“There’s something very powerful around the notion of singing together,” he said over the summer. “And, of course, we’re adorned with the same garb. And we’re eating the same food. We’re drinking the same drinks. We have a one-mindedness.”
Perhaps the only surprise is that Newby isn’t talking about singing in church.
He’s talking about singing at CenturyLink Field, where he dons a rave-green jersey and conducts the national anthem before Sounders FC matches.
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And Newby was choosing his words intentionally. He does indeed believe there are similar benefits from voices raised in communal worship and voices raised in shared support of a soccer club.
“It’s very connected,” he said. “And I think the organization, I’m pretty sure they researched me, and I think they were probably able to make that subtle connection. There is strength and one-mindedness and unity when you can get people singing on the same page together.”
The organization certainly didn’t approach Newby because of his love for the game. His son, Silas, plays for FC Alliance premier soccer club. And his wife, Stephanie, played in high school and college. But Newby was not a fan.
His exposure to the Sounders changed that.
“Sometimes I have to be careful because when I get really emotionally involved, then I lose my voice for three or four days,” he said. “There was one game I was so emotionally involved in it that a week later I really couldn’t sing well for the Sounders because I had lost my voice screaming when we had won the game. But the great congregation – the great audience – was able to carry on without me.”
Newby has done his best to make it easy on them.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a notoriously difficult song to sing. So, soon after the Sounders approached Newby, he went to work trying to make it a little more manageable for 36,000 untrained voices.
“I felt like the arrangement would be critical,” he said. “ I wanted to make sure it was user-friendly with regard to the key. And instead of it being in 4/4 time, I felt like if we put it in 3/4, it felt more like a slight dance, and there were natural pauses in the text that non-singers would just kind of resonate with. So, I thought strategically about pauses, about key, about accompaniment, things like French horns and drums and strings and timpani, moving to a cadence at the end of the piece.”
For the most part, the 53-piece Sound Wave band is a separate part of the Sounders’ game-day experience – under director Keith Rousu.
The band was the idea of minority owner Drew Carey. And, despite some skepticism about having the only marching band in Major League Soccer, the Sounders have come to appreciate what it offers before and during games.
“At first, you’re like saying, ‘Does this really fit a pro team?’ ” coach Sigi Schmid said. “But I think it has worked, and it’s worked very, very well. And the reason it’s worked very well is they have been in tune to the game. They’ve been very responsive to the match. They’re there before the March to the Match, before the game – they’re an integral part of that. That’s really become a tradition for our fans, for our city. Them playing before the game while the team is warming up, that’s something that’s great, rather than always having piped-in music. It’s fantastic.”
And while Sound Wave seems to have established itself as a permanent part of the organization, Newby himself may not be.
Even though he has become one of the most recognizable non-player faces at home games, he wonders if the time is approaching when he should hold on to the memories while handing off the baton.
“I’m interested in trying to be a team player,” Newby said. “(Some people recognize me and) say, ‘Hey, aren’t you ’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I do get to do that. Isn’t it great we get to do this together?’ But I don’t know how long this will last, because I don’t want to be selfish. Maybe someone else should have the opportunity to do this at some point.
“But I do appreciate the opportunity to serve and to be in front of those people and to lead them in singing, because I’m a musician.”