Making his musical mark at the Chapel

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By Ned Steele

“It was like a match made in heaven,” Conner Stigner says, without a trace of irony, about his job.
It’s a fitting choice of words. Stigner is music director at Siesta Key Chapel, the beautiful Presbyterian church that calls itself “God’s Treehouse.”
Once a business major and government employee, Indiana born-and-raised Stigner shifted his career into music after the pandemic. Now he’s shifting the way music sounds in a church, introducing such styles as Dixieland and jazz to not only the chapel’s spring concert series but even into traditional liturgy.
Consider the approach he first innovated in 2022 to the upcoming Christian holiday of Pentecost. There’ll be all the traditional hymns – but accompanied by a nine-piece jazz band complete with drums, trumpet and saxophone. “

Conner Stigner, in “God’s Treehouse.” (photo by Ned Steele)

A Glenn Miller-Benny Goodman style,” Stigner said with a smile of anticipation. “Very Gene Krupa 1930s.”
And early Sunday mornings, it’s Chapel on the Beach – to the accompaniment of guitars.
Then there’s the church’s spring music concert series, open to the public. They’ve so far had a Dixieland concert and a “contemporary” original Broadway musical-style production about Jesus composed by local artist Timothy Liam Smith. Coming up: a brass band on the beach, and a jazz concert. (There will also be a more traditional organ concert, on the chapel’s magnificent organ.)
It’s all part of Stigner’s view of how to present music.
“We’re broadening the scope of musical events – it’s not just string quartets – and we’re bringing in local residents and a wider range of styles,” he said.
The musicians Stigner has brought in include singers from Sarasota Opera, Florida Studio Theatre, Westcoast Black Theatre, and Florida State University. “We are very fortunate to have an abundance of arts groups here in Sarasota,” he said.
The new musical styles reflect Stigner’s personal favorite genres, but overriding the specifics is his belief that church music can be fun and enjoyable. As a student in high school and college in Indiana, he played piano in the orchestras accompanying musical theater productions. By his senior year, he was directing the performances. Still a student, he also gravitated to local community theater companies.
Realities of life led to his decision at Indiana University to go for a degree in business rather than music. “I loved musical theater, that’s what interests me. But I thought it would be practical long-term to pursue a degree in business,” Stigner said.
This led to his first career, in county government working for the board of elections in his home state. When COVID-19 happened he decided, like so many Americans, to reassess priorities. His love of music came to the forefront and he decided to switch careers. When a friend working at Florida Studio Theatre encouraged him to shift geographically as well, he landed a job with an educational role at Sarasota Opera.
After about a year there, the opportunity for the “match made in heaven” at Siesta Key Chapel came along, and Stigner jumped at it. He arrived in 2021, as the church and its program were building back from the pandemic. He started the Sunday morning beach service that same year.
“It’s been very fruitful as a pathway to involvement” in the church, he said. The new ideas and styles have been unfolding ever since.
Stigner is grateful for the church leadership’s support of his approach. “I am absolutely thrilled with the range of music that we’ve had,” he said. “I could never have gotten away with a Dixieland band at some of the churches I’ve worked at.”
The chapel has historically held its concert series on Sunday afternoons. This year, it is experimenting with other days and times. The remaining concerts are on April 20, May 19 and June 30 (a show to be held on the beach, featuring patriotic favorites).
Chapel on the Beach is on Sunday mornings, and described by the church as a “casual, contemporary, feet-in the-sand service.” It takes place on Siesta Key Beach at the intersection of Avenida Messina and Beach Road, near Beach Access 2.
For more information on the church’s concert series, visit siestakeychapel.org/music.

On June 30, The First Brass performs a patriotic set on the beach. (submitted photo)
Ned Steele
Author: Ned Steele

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