Zebulon Highben

Zebulon M. Highben

A conductor, composer, and scholar of sacred music, Dr. Zebulon Highben serves as both associate professor of the practice of church music at Duke Divinity School and director of Chapel Music at Duke University Chapel. He conducts the Duke Chapel Choir and oversees the Chapel’s extensive music program, which connects students, community members, staff singers, instrumentalists, and professional colleagues in myriad worship services and sacred concerts.

He joins us to talk about the richness of a vocational life as a musician, teacher, and ordained Deacon. Dr. Highben gives us insights like why you shouldn’t scold your acolytes for missing hymnals, how music can preach, when the rehearsal can be more satisfying than the concert, and how to find flow in church music.

You can learn more about Dr. Highben on his website: http://www.zebulonhighben.com/

Below, you can find a photo of leadership taken during the time the School of Religion was opened (now Divinity School). The first entering class was mentioned during this episode.

School opening
Opening of School of Religion, William Preston Few with speakers at the opening of the School of Religion (later Divinity School). Left to right: Bishop E. D. Mouzon, Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, and Dean E. D. Soper, November 9, 1926

This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the summer of 2020.

Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.

Divcast Series 1 Episode Zebulon Highben Transcript


Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast. The podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community. I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as the 2006 M.Div. grad and current senior director of admissions recruitment and student finance. This episode, we'll continue our series called essential questions with divinity faculty. Today, we are honored to have a guest who is as impressive as his name. Dr. Zebulon Highben is currently serving as the Associate Professor of the Practice of Church Music at Duke Divinity School, and is also the Director of Chapel Music at Duke University Chapel, ordained as a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Dr. Highben is a scholar, conductor and composer. Please enjoy this conversation with Dr. Zebulon Highben. Dr. Highben, I want to thank you for taking out time to have this conversation. You occupy an interesting role where you're overseeing music at Duke Chapel, which is so important for many people in the divinity school, and you're also in 2020 new to the faculty at Duke Divinity School. So welcome to Duke Divinity and thank you for joining me today.


Rev. Dr. Zebulon Highben: Thank you. It's really a pleasure to be here.


TM: Well, I want to start with a question to learn a little bit more about your background and recognizing that we all need people to support and encourage us along the way. Who would you say is the most important person or maybe some of the most important people who have helped you get to where you are today?


ZH: That is always a hard list for me because like a lot of us, I'm the product of lots of teachers and mentors and loved ones. And I never had an easy time sort of narrowing down that list. But I would say that, apart from my family, people like my parents and my wife and my daughter, there are two classes of two groups of people that have been really important and helping to shape me vocationally. And one is the pastors who mentored me, especially in my youth and in college. And then some of my music teachers and music professors, I was torn as a high school student, college student between a desire to be a musician and be a music teacher and go to seminary to be a pastor.


And I visited some seminaries when I was in college with the pastor of my home congregation and had a lot of encouragement from my campus minister in that direction. And on the other side with my music professors who were really formative for me in showing me how to teach and how important good music education was and how that was an art form, teaching music was an art form just as much as performing it. So Jim Gallagher and Hilary Apfelstadt at Ohio State University and Reverend Lange Collins and Jesse David Hill, who are two of my campus pastors.


And then when I got to seminary, intending to study both in the MDF curriculum and in the Master of Sacred Music curriculum at Luther Seminary and St. Olaf College in Minnesota, that's one of the things really clicked for me, the idea that you could be a professional, vocational, full time church musician, a person who was a professional musician and conductor and teacher and performer, but also someone who bent all of those gifts to the service of the church. And so, Anton Armstrong and John Ferguson, who were on the faculty at St. Olaf and Paul Westermeyer, who was the director of the program and professor of church music at Luther Seminary. They were three people who were really particularly influential for me in kind of shaping my sense of call as both a musician and a church leader and worship leader.


TM: That's wonderful. And you mentioned pastors as being an important part of your life. I know today you're ordained as a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ELCA, where were those ELCA pastors?


ZH: Yes. The both of those folks were ELCA pastors. I am lifelong Lutheran. And if you had asked me at the age of 18 or 20, if I would have expected to spend as much time in other traditions as I have... I kind of thought I was going to be in the ELCA my whole life in terms of the parishes I would serve and the places I would hold membership, but I've spent the last, at last the last 11 years in other contexts, Presbyterian and Methodist, and here at Duke where the div school has a strong Methodist history and affiliation, but the Duke Chapel is intentionally ecumenical. And that has been a great source of learning and richness in my own growth as a musician and worship leader, but a whole different path I think that I would have expected.


TM: Yeah, well, as someone who grew up in the Lutheran Church and has been in a variety of ecumenical contexts, have there been any moments when you've experienced the presence of God or moments where you've fully felt God at work?


ZH: Many. I'm thinking of ones particularly that relate to worship experiences and musical experiences because those are directly tied to what I teach and what I do, one of them is actually when I visited the seminary that I wound up attending, I was there on September 12th, 2001. Yeah, I had set off on my tour of seminaries with the pastor of my home church on, I think the ninth or 10th of September. And we were visiting a couple of different places and taking a road trip. And we ended in Minnesota because he had his daughter and her family lived there. And we left Chicago on the morning of September 11th.


And we're traveling all that day, listening to the news about everything that was happening in New York and Pennsylvania. And the next day we were at Luther Seminary joining that community for worship, and they threw everything they had planned out the window as you would and did a whole different worship order that was printed in the bulletin. And the combination of corporate grief, national corporate grief that everyone was experiencing together and that sense of shock.


And then being in this community, this academic community, but also a spiritual community that was coming together to do what they did every day at that time, which was worship, but changing the nature of their worship in the moment to respond to what had happened was really powerful and formative. And a lot of ways, there are some parallels to this extended disruption that we've all been living through because of the COVID 19 pandemic, how does the church react? How do we react in worship to our shared experience of strife and suffering and difficulty?


TM: Thanks for sharing that. And can I assume it's safe to say that you encountered God in music?


ZH: Yeah. I find my faith is maybe most deeply shaped by music and especially song you know. I discovered at a pretty young age that hymn texts and hymn tunes would stick in my head and I would be able to sing not just the first stanza, but sometimes all of the stances of hymns for memory without really working at it much. I got yelled at once in worship by the senior pastor, because I was an acolyte and I was sitting where the acolyte set in my home parish and I was doing the whole liturgy and all the hymns and I wasn't using the hymnal. And she was a wonderful, wonderful pastor but she came down from the chancel and leaned over to me and whispered, "Zeb, is your hymnal missing?" I said, "No, pastor. It's not."

And she said, "Then use it." And she walks back up to... I think she thought that I wasn't paying attention or following along. Well, when my parents later asked me, "Well, what did Pastor Elaine say to you?" And I told them, and they said, "Well, did you tell her that's because you know the liturgy by heart, you don't need the book?" And I said, "No." So the next week they made me, as we went into church, we stopped.

I had to explain to Pastor Elaine that, "It wasn't that I wasn't paying attention, it's that I had the liturgy memorized and the hymns learned." And that then she apologized to me and then from that point forward, she became one of the people encouraging me to think about seminary, but the combination of those texts, those texts that we repeat in many worship traditions, again and again, the Lord's prayer and the creed, but also texts that are repeated when they are sung, the Gloria and the Curiae and the Agnus Dei or the lamb of God and hymn texts that congregations sing again and again, in worship, those are deeply formative to a large number of people.

And I think sometimes people aren't always even aware that their faith is being formed by the things they sing often just as deeply as it might be by scripture passages or preaching.


TM: Yeah, thanks for that insight. And as I was preparing for our conversation today, I spent some time on your website, zebulonhighben.com and you're a composer. And I found some new releases that you've done, “In Dreams” or “Lord Jesus, You Shall be my Song”. And I was listening to them. And it was creating an atmosphere of worship in my office as I was listening to that and hearing it. So I guess I would encourage people to go check out your website, and hear some of the things that you've composed or conducted. Your scholarship is around the area of musical-


ZH: Well, I think I would say that there's two avenues I think for my scholarly work, the first, as you said, is the composing piece, which is not traditional scholarship in the sense of researching a topic and writing a book. But I compose a lot of music, mostly choral music and liturgical music, sometimes hymn tunes but most of the music I write is specifically for church use. I do write pieces for college choirs or community choirs. Every once in a while, I'll write a piece on a quote unquote secular text, but for the most part I'm focused on sacred texts, on poetry, on scriptural passages, on passages from theologians and setting them to music in some fashion in a way that intends to help acquire, or maybe a soloist, whatever forces I'm writing for do one of the things that I think church music does so well, which is really proclaim the gospel.


You know, music can preach just as much as preaching can preach. And the way in which you set a piece to music, the way in which you take a text and put it with melody and rhythm and harmony helps influence people's perception of that. So that kind of task as a composer is something that I'm really interested in. And then the other side of my scholarship is the more traditional writing articles for church musicians and worship leaders and journal entries and talking about particular pieces of music or giving workshops and clinics on how to do this work of church music well and better and more effectively. So there's two different streams, one creative, the work of the composer and the other, a little more practical teaching oriented focus.


TM: Well, and building off of that, you're joining the faculty at divinity. So you're going to, I think teaching occasional classes and have divinity students, which will be people who are thinking about ministry, a broad set of way church, but also outside of traditional church and a number of different ways. So what are you hoping the students that come through your classroom obtain for you or what are you hoping to teach?


ZH: Well, one of the things that I really enjoyed about the curriculum when I was in seminary was that we had a degree program for church musicians at Luther Seminary, but we also had a church music component in the M.Div. curriculum. So in one of the core courses that the church music students took, we were learning alongside our M.Div. colleagues. So future pastors and future musicians, church musicians, were learning together about music and its role in worship. And the first course that I'm teaching at the div school this semester, a course that was already on the books, already in the course bulletin, is a course that does exactly that. It's called the role and function of music in corporate worship. And it's really geared toward a deeper understanding of what music does in our worship rituals? How does it function? Who is it for? Who owns it?


Is there a difference between music that is performed for the congregation, like a choir anthem or an organ voluntary, or maybe a praise band, a piece and music that the congregation's responsible for owning like a hymn or Taize refrain, or a simple Gospel refrain they might sing together. And how do those things interact? How do you plan music for worship? How do pastors and musicians work together? Respecting each other's roles and collaborating where necessary, but also realizing that each has some knowledge that the other doesn't have and the two work in tandem to make worship a more rewarding and rich experience for the congregation.


So, that course I'm teaching now. Down the road I hope maybe we can add some courses in hymnody. There've been many different genres of and types of hymns and songs across the globe. And they all add something to the overall song of the church, the overall music of the church. And I know there's some interest in some, maybe some coursework specifically around music ministry in small and rural congregations. So yeah, I think there's a wide variety of topics that could be taught here at Duke Div to students who are going to be pastors, regardless of the amount of musical background they might bring to the table.


TM: That's great. Thanks for sharing that. When I look at your bio, I'm seeing a lot of Midwest. I'm seeing Ohio and Minnesota and Michigan, and I'm curious how you ended up at Duke. So what's the story of coming to the South and coming to Duke University?


ZH: Sure. Well, coming to the South was inadvertent. I suppose. When I finished my doctoral degree at Michigan State University in conducting. By that point, I'd always had one foot in the church world and one foot in choral music education worlds. But by that point, by the time of wrapping up my doctoral studies, I knew pretty definitively that I was most interested in serving in a Christian affiliated institution. So I taught at a Presbyterian College in Ohio, Muskingum University, for about seven years as a member of their music faculty. But I was always sort of on the lookout for academic jobs in church music. There aren't terribly many of those, but they do exist. Some at undergraduate level, some at seminaries or divinity schools. And I always felt that that was what I would be most suited for. The right blend of academic study and biblical study with musical study.

And when the position posted for Director of Chapel Music at Duke Chapel, it included all of the musical things that are appealing to me. The very last bullet point in the job description said that they would also expect the successful candidate to teach either in the department of music or in the divinity school. And it seemed like the perfect position, music making, worship leading, concerts and collaborating with professional colleagues and volunteer musicians and students, and all of that good stuff that I loved from my previous teaching positions, coupled with the possibility of teaching at Duke Div and teaching church music courses, and helping beef up that part of the divinity school curriculum, which I'm passionate about. So, the fact that it was in the South and the fact that it meant a change in regions for my family was secondary to the work itself. And of course the reputation of Duke and Duke Chapel and Duke Div was very alluring as well.


TM: Excellent ones. I'm glad all of that came together. Into one position that you could occupy.


ZH: Me too. Me too.


TM: So, building off of what you said are some of your passions. Can you describe a time when you felt alive as a teacher, a scholar and artist?


ZH: Yeah. I have often said to my students when we're preparing music for performance, so I'm thinking back to getting ready for our concert a little more Southern worship service. I find rehearsals to be much more enjoyable than the concerts themselves, because those moments in rehearsal where you're trying to explain a concept or an idea, or you're working on a particularly tricky passage and a piece of music, and finally, it just gels, the students get it. There's this moment where the community comes together and realizes...the community of the choir…"Oh, that's what he meant. That's what we were trying to achieve. We got it." And you don't have to stop and say, "That was it. You did it correctly." Because everyone feels and everyone senses it. There is a presence, there is a sense of spirit, or we would say at the chapel or in other religious circles, the Holy Spirit in that moment shows you, "This is what we're after."


It's a moment, very much akin to what we hope for. I think in worship often, and those moments, the moments of realization of the community coming together and achieving a particular musical goal. Those are something that almost every musician and certainly every church musician, I think strives for, even if we don't always put that language around it.


And the same kind of thing, of course, can happen in a classroom, not just a rehearsal room. When you're trying to explain a concept of, why is this historical, liturgical structure for worship so common across different traditions? Why do so many churches sing hymns, sing songs in their worship? What does that mean to communities? How does it form communities in faith and in love toward one another? Exploring that topic together is really rich and rewarding. And the moments when we come to a collective understanding of something subconsciously, spiritually together are really powerful.


TM: Yeah. Here a lot of people also talk about the idea of flow and just kind of being in the flow.


ZH: Yeah, yeah


TM: That's got to be infinitely harder when you add people to that.


ZH: Yeah. Yeah. And there's a flow. When a community, I'm thinking of a choir now, but when a choir adapts to a particular rhythm or pattern of rehearsing together, they know what to expect. Rehearsals start like this, and they proceed through these kinds of steps and they end like this. You might change the music that you're working on, and you might change some of the individual people in the group from time to time. But if there's a rather a consistent pattern and leadership to it, if there's a flow to it, then the experience becomes, I think, a little more meaningful because you're balancing novelty and expectation.


ZH: I think the same thing about worship, worship flow is not just about how any one particular service works. It's also about what the community's expectations of worship's structure are and how you're honoring both their lived experience of worship over time. And how in that one particular service you're creating novelty and speaking to the themes of the day or the particular moment.


TM: Yeah. That's good. Well, as you've been on this vocational journey, have there been moments along the way of struggle or challenge, or do you recall any particular moments when you just wanted to quit?


ZH: I think it would be the odd musician or pastor who would say no to that question right there. I mean, there are always moments when you feel disheartened. And, one of the most recent is certainly this pandemic. I mean, what do you say to communities that exist for the purposes of singing and worshiping together? Choirs that exist to sing together, whether that be church choirs or community groups or school groups and congregations who do many things to work toward God's kingdom, but the first reason a congregation exists in gathers together, when you're out there church planning, what are you doing? You're gathering people together for worship. And we can't do that right now, at least not in the ways that we're used to. So, I feel, and I don't think I'm speaking just for myself when I say this, these last few months for worship leaders and maybe especially for church musicians have been really difficult and really challenging.


And, what I have come back to what I keep reminding myself in moments like the darker ones where you think what's the use of this? Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. I think about the fact that on one level, what we are about in church music is about pastoral care. We are called to care for and shepherd just as much as our clergy colleagues, the people in our parishes, and the families, the faith families that we're called to serve. And the nature of that care is changing right now, or is different right now because it means, sending a lot of emails and making phone calls and pre-recording worship services and editing audio files. So you can have virtual choir videos and things like that. The tasks are different, but the goal of caring for this community and helping them worship and helping them be connected to God, those goals are the same.


Though, I will greatly rejoice when we can actually come together in a building again and sing again and pray again. I'm starting to forget that people have bodies below their shoulders because everyone only exists in little zoom boxes you know. So I will be very ready when we can be back in our sacred spaces again, together embodied as the body of Christ. For now though, we do what we can and try to encourage one another.


TM: Yeah, thanks for speaking to the present moment. And you're highlighting a longing that I have too to be back in a worshiping community. And hopefully this moment will teach us to appreciate how remarkable that is to be in that shared space, singing it together, worshiping together.


ZH: Yeah. And you know, that's what strikes me is, there are many other tragedies that humanity has lived through I suppose that different groups of people have lived through that maybe individuals in our parishes have lived through, but this particular issue, which prevents us from... I mean, where would we normally have found solace if we were suffering a personal loss, or if a community was mourning the death of a beloved member or something? We would find solace in coming together in worship. And right now that's one thing many of us cannot do because of the dangers of the virus which, is just... I mean, there's lots of historians and scholars have pointed out there have been other times when this kind of thing has been a concern, global pandemic or plague, but certainly not in anybody's recent memory. And that's what makes it so hard for folks.


TM: Yeah. And I'm also finding though that people are resilient and creative and I'd like to thank you because I've noticed for some of the worshiping opportunities we've had as a divinity community, you and I think you've even pulled in members of your family to either prerecord something or to lead worship through a zoom box.


ZH: Yeah. Oh, well, yeah. Thank you. Everybody is being as creative as they can be. And I said to someone recently, because worship and music folks, people who teach liturgics or who teach church music, we very often think about the right way or a right way to do things. What is best for the people gathered? What is best for the assembly? What is best functionally liturgically in the flow and structure of worship?

And this is the kind of period where it feels like there just aren't any right answers, right. Everyone just be as creative as you can to provide and care for your communities to keep them praying and keep their spirits up and keep them singing. Even if they're singing by themselves to their computer monitor and trust and hope and pray that we will come through this on the other side. Yeah. You're absolutely right. We just have to keep being creative and we keep our spirits up and try to keep moving forward.


TM: That's really well said. Well, Zeb, I'd love to bring this conversation to a close by doing something different and doing a lightning round where I just throw out something for you to consider. And I'm looking for very short answers.


ZH: Got it.


TM: I'd like to start with, do you consider yourself an early bird or night owl?


ZH: Oh, I am probably more of a night owl.


TM: What's a book you've read recently?


ZH: A book I've read recently is a book by Bill Bryson called a Walk in the Woods about his attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail.


TM: Yeah. Yeah. I've heard of this. That's kind of been on my list. Worth checking out?


ZH: Yeah. Yeah.


TM: Do you prefer dogs or cats?


ZH: I am not a huge pet person, but we will be a dog family very shortly.


TM: Oh, wow. So part of the pandemic is getting a new dog, huh?


ZH: That's right. Yes. I promised.


TM: What's a movie you've seen recently?


ZH: Movie I've seen recently. Well, we've been watching a lot of animated movies because of the quarantine. I have seven year old daughter. And the one I remember most is Onward. I think it's a Pixar movie about wizards and unicorns and things like that. And I remember it because we watched it twice now in the last couple of months,


TM: What's a simple pleasure that you love?


ZH: I really have enjoyed, especially the last several months watching British panel shows they're game shows, but they have comedians as the contestants and the games aren't all that important. It's just watching these clever, funny folks riff on the various topics that come up through the game itself, there's hundreds and hundreds of them on YouTube. And I've just found them pretty delightful.


TM: I've never heard of this before. You say you find this on YouTube. Like what some of the ones you words you search for?

ZH: There's one called QI that I really enjoy. The current host is a woman named Sandi Toksvig. And before that it was hosted by Stephen Fry who's an actor and voice artist as well. And it's a general knowledge quiz, but again, the panelists are comedians and it's informative, but it also just can be really funny I find. Good way to let my mind idle at the end of the day.


TM: Nice. What's some music you've heard recently?


ZH: Music that I've heard recently. It's hard to think beyond the music that I hear for professional reasons. One piece that's been stuck in my head is a setting of, “He's Got the Whole World in his Hands”, which is actually in this particular case called “God's Got the Whole World in his Hands” arranged by Mark Miller for Marble Collegiate Church. And we just published it in our music from Duke Chapel choral series. And I've listened to that recording several times. And I just find that spiritual and Mark's setting of it just going again and again through my mind.


TM: That's great. Okay. Last one. Duke Basketball, Ohio State Football, or you don't care about either?


ZH: Well, I know what my answers should be but, I'll give you the honest one, which would be Ohio State Football. Although my wife is a huge basketball fan. Her strength of fandom in basketball more than makes up for my reflexive allegiance to my alma mater and my home state's football tradition, I think.


TM: Gotcha. Well, Dr. Highben, I really appreciate you taking time out to do this and for your insights and for also speaking to the moment that we're in. And I'm really glad you're a part of the divinity community.


ZH: Thanks so much, Todd. It's a pleasure to be here. And thanks for inviting me to be a part of this interview.


TM: Thanks for spending time listening to the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our feed available anywhere you find podcasts. You can send us your feedback and questions by emailing, divcast@div.duke.edu. Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Special thanks to Evelyn Archer-Taminger and Leah Reed both M.Div.2021. for working on the foundation of this podcast and providing research help. Our music is from Christian DaPonte, M.Div. 2021. We will always end with a div did you know, which is a fact or interesting aspect about the Duke Divinity School community that you may or may not know. Did you know that the first class Duke Divinity enrolled was back in 1926 and it consisted of 23 students, 20 men and three women. I hope you will join us again for the Divcast.