In Harmony with Fred Mbesi“People say all the time that young people are the future of the Army, but I feel like they're the NOW of the Army.”
After picking up his first cornet at the age of six, Fred Mbesi knew music was truly a gift from God. Over the years, Mbesi has been a member of a variety of bands and choirs, received his Bachelor of Music degree from Asbury University, where he studied under Dr. Jeff Barrington and Dr. Adam Sovkoplas. He is now the assistant divisional music director for The Salvation Army in the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Division, where he previously served as a regional music director for three years. He is a member of the Pendel Brass and Singers and the New York Staff Band and serves as the Bandmaster of the Chester Salvation Army Band. Mbesi believes one of the best ways to connect with people and share the message of God is through music.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 27 years old. I was born in Royal Oak, MI and spent my formative years there before going away to college at Asbury University. I spent the best three years of my life so far there, and then I moved to Delaware a month after graduation to start a new life working at DHQ for the music department. And that’s where I am today.
How did you meet the Army?
I’m a fourth-generation salvationist. My parents were members of the Army back in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they were born. A few years before I was born, they moved to the states and found their second home in Michigan.
What is your role in the Army?
So these days, I serve as the assistant division music director (ADMD) of the Penn Del or Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware division in the USA Eastern territories. As the ADMD, I work to encourage, support and develop music growth in the division. This takes many different forms: I offer music instruction either in person or virtually, we offer training, give opportunities for local leaders and support our divisional music programs. Ultimately, we want to be a reliable resource for the corps.
Did you always know you wanted to work with music?
Yes, I did. My parents weren’t a huge fan of the idea so originally I tried other things such as business and journalism, but I always found myself going back to music. One of my professors and mentors at Asbury University, Nathan Miller, just pushed me to follow where God was calling me in my life, and that led me to change my major from journalism to music. Now, it was not an easy transition since I switched halfway through the year and had to basically play catch-up, but I was doing what I loved. So despite all of the hardships that I faced, I was confident that I was doing what God wanted me to do.
And I believe music is a gift from God, I believe everything we do with that gift is for praising him and enhancing the Sunday worship service. I feel like we’re called as believers to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving in our hearts and make a joyful noise with music and song. And that’s pretty much why I do what I do.
What is your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
My favorite part of the job is making connections and forming lasting relationships with people. As the body of Christ, I think we’re stronger together than we are separate and especially after this past year with all the social distancing and separation and all that. I feel like we need each other now more than ever.
My least favorite part I guess is filling out paperwork. I just really dislike administrative tasks that comes with the job, but that’s so minor compared to everything else I do. I love being out in the field teaching, bonding with people, and sitting behind the desk is not my favorite thing to do but it is what it is.
What is your favorite in-person activity that you’ve been missing this past year due to the Pandemic?
Immediately I would say leading groups in person. Singing and creating music is a big thing in my life and we haven’t been able to sing at all just because of the pandemic.
This past fall, we had to put together our big festival event but virtually and it was not easy. People had to submit their videos, some people lost interest and it just wasn’t the same thing as it would have been if we were able to gather in person. It’s a good feeling to get together in front of a big congregation and just worship the Lord through music and arts and all those other things, but it just wasn’t the same this year.
What are some of your hobbies?
I am a composer, so writing music has probably been a big one over the past decade and a half. It’s such an interesting craft. You never stop learning and there’s always room for growth and improvement. There is such a huge community with composers especially in The Salvation Army. There has been a Salvation Army composers’ forum usually held at Asbury University, but it’s changed locations over the years. More established composers like Bill Himes Jim Kerr and Steve Bulla will come alongside younger composers and see what their ideas are and give them some suggestions. It’s such a community-building experience. It has really helped me develop my craft, and I love it.
I also love disc golf! Disc golfing is basically just like regular golf, only it uses specialized frisbees. You have your driver frisbee, mid-range and putter, and you have cylindrical balls that you try to toss a disc into. The disc golfing community at large even outside of the Army is so encouraging and uplifting. They’re always trying to help you out. It’s really cool. I’ve gotten into it recently, and it’s the best of both worlds: you can do it with a group of people and you can do it socially distanced. So it’s great.
When did you remember first falling in love with music? And how many instruments can you play?
I started to pick up a cornet out for the first time when I was like 5 or 6 years old—which seems like many moons ago at the Royal Corp. The Royal Corp has been blessed to have such an involved music program. They have levels for beginners, intermediate students and adults sections. I remember I was at the corps one Sunday and the band was playing this really cool march called “Cairo Red Shield.” I was blown away by it, and I remember the lead trombone player at the time talked to me about music, and he could tell that I really liked it because I was probably staring at them with such amazement. I just remember being blown away and being hooked ever since.
Now, I will say, even though I was hooked on the music at that point, it didn’t mean that I always liked to practice because you know that impressionable kid. I liked doing things typical kids like doing like playing outside, but I didn’t understand that the importance of practicing and honing that craft at the time, but I do now. But I can play basically every brass instrument because they have the same core functions. I’m not perfect, but I get the hang of it.
The Army faces a lot of challenges every day. What are some challenges that you think the Army is facing in today’s world and will face in the future?
I think in certain areas the Army is currently suffering from a failure to listen, not in all areas mind you, but there might be some cause and effect there as to why people are leaving especially in the younger generations. Maybe they don’t feel heard or valued or feel like they make a difference, and I’m sure that there’s no intentional exclusion, but I know these things just happen sometimes.
People say all the time that young people are the future of the Army. I feel like they’re the now of the Army. I feel like we don’t want to lose them. We don’t want to run the risk of losing them just by not being sensitive to those needs.
How do you think that the organization could fix that?
I think definitely just being more intentional with young people because I’ve had a lot of friends leave the Army for whatever reason and it’s kind of been disheartening. Being intentional when speaking to people—and this just doesn’t go for young people, it’s for all people—to not just count them as or wanting them to just be a part of your programs and that be the end of it. Just really investing in people’s lives since we are the body of Christ and if one part is hurting, we’re all hurting. Just staying intentional with people.
And this might just be in my area, sometimes when we welcome people into the Army, we immediately give them a job to do, and that’s it. We don’t continue to disciple them and encourage them. I think that could help as well. Just growing together with other people, which are some of the things that I’ve benefited from at the Royal Accord. There has always been this idea of cross-generational growth: we help each other out, we grow with each other, we disciple one another and I think the world needs more of that.
Another challenge I’ve been seeing, it’s not really exclusive to The Salvation Army, but I think it’s been a growing problem: the negative use of social media. I feel like the world has been so accustomed to using social media to publicly crucify one who might share a different opinion than we. In today’s society, we can’t agree to disagree anymore. We always say, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.” And I see it online all the time, these groups of people who are Christians, or they claim to be, but they’re bashing others for their beliefs, and in the long run, it’s doing more harm than good.
What projects are you currently working on?
Our music and arts groups just finished recording our virtual Spring Festival. Now, we’ve been able to meet in person lately so that’s been a huge blessing but we’re still doing a virtual concert just because it’s probably not a wise idea to put it on in front of people at the moment. In the Eastern territory, we have a talent showcase event called Star Search every year, and we are putting together an award ceremony for that.
I also just started a video series called “ Fred’s Declassified Covid Survival Guide” just as a resource for corps to give them tips on how they can safely run music and arts programs during the pandemic because there is a way. I’ve also been writing a few new pieces that the Pendel Brass might be using in the future. I’m also writing a book, which is hard, but it’s based on my three years at Asbury but with a twist. I just feel like I have been given the gift of writing and I want to use that gift in as many ways as I can.
Who inspires you?
I will say the one person that comes to mind is my grandpa Frederick Maxwell Wood. Aside from being my namesake, he served as the bandmaster at Royal Oaks little for many years, and I feel like he was the quintessential bandmaster and the quintessential Christian musician. He taught music through so many different avenues like at the corps and the Eastern Michigan Music Camp Central Music Institute. He was a school teacher and was able to impact so many people over the years. He always pointed to Jesus through everything he did.
The sad part is, I wasn’t able to really get to know him before he was promoted to glory, but I always heard stories and tales of how proud he was of me. He would always see my posts of me conducting or my music being played around the world and he just would smile and he just loved that I was doing what God wanted me to do and I’m looking forward to the day where I can reunite with him in glory.
Anything else that you feel like our readers should know?
Just to remember that we are the body of Christ and we need to act like it more. Whether it’s in person or virtually through social media—we are one body and we need to show grace to one another because we’re all humans. We are not perfect, we have sin, but most importantly we need to extend grace. Sometimes I feel like that has been lacking in recent years for a multitude of reasons, we need to truly be united and unify as the body of Christ.
To learn more about Fred find him on social media under “Fred Mbesi.”