Region to celebrate woman's gift of Gospel music

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

Nov. 10, 2017 at 3:36 p.m.
Updated Nov. 11, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Joyce Snell plays piano for the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church congregation men's choir during services held at First Presbyterian Church in Victoria. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing than this," Snell said about playing the piano and making music.

Joyce Snell plays piano for the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church congregation men's choir during services held at First Presbyterian Church in Victoria. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing than this," Snell said about playing the piano and making music.   Nicolas Galindo for The Victoria Advocate

Every time Joyce Snell sits down to a piano, she feels tinges of nervousness piping through her body. Her hands start to sweat, and she can feel the fear rising up in her voice.

She has performed in African-American churches for 40 years and has played piano since she was 7 years old, but the nerves are physical signs that her innate musical abilities were God-given.

"Before I start playing I say a prayer and give all the glory to God. I tell him my song is for him," said Snell, 63, of Ganado. "I take a deep breath and start playing, and then all the nerves and fear go away. I get over it."

Throughout the Crossroads from Bay City to Corpus Christi, Snell is a well-known pianist and organist. With historical African-American churches dwindling in the area in both in size and financial stability, Snell is often called upon to fill in as worship leader, especially in churches that no longer have any musicians to lead worship.

Some weeks, she performs in four different churches in four different cities.

"I am always compensated handsomely, but I would never put a price on playing and will never put a price on it, it's that near and dear to my heart. I believe the reason so many of our churches are without a worship leader is because they're asking for too much money. Sometimes, churches can't afford to pay me anything, and that's OK," she said.

Snell knows more than 1,000 songs across every possible genre and has played for about as many churches.

Among the African-American church community in South Texas, she is a beloved treasure.

"I can't think of anyone more deserving of praise," said Mt. Nebo member and volunteer Jesse Mathis, who is spearheading a community-led effort to celebrate Snell's 40 years of church performance in December at the University of Houston-Victoria. "Everyone loves her, and it's because she gives her entire heart."

Snell is one of the most reliable church members any church in South Texas has ever known. She attends when there's a hurricane, when it's 15 degrees outside and when she's ill. She never misses a service, Mathis said.

"That's why everyone loves her. She serves everyone with her music and gives so much of herself without asking for anything in return," Mathis said.

Snell considers her musical abilities are more than simply a way to play music. She sees her fingers and voice as a vessel to share the Gospel, to serve the church and thank God for everything he has ever blessed her with, including the ability to learn music.

"I can't explain it; I've just always known how to play," she said, mentioning she was self-taught and was performing in churches before she turned 8 years old. "It's still a mystery to me, but that's why I believe it was a gift from God. And that's why I always give him the glory."

Snell grew up in Matagorda County as one of 11 siblings in small predominantly African-American neighborhood in Cedar Lane that at that time had exactly one white resident, the postmaster, she said. Her father and mother, John and Tina Roberson, were pious and God-fearing, attending church services frequently throughout the week, walking to the local Baptist church Sunday mornings to attend both Sunday school and church services. At night, she always heard her father pray, which he did on his knees rather than sitting or standing upright.

"They really struggled to take care of us at times, and I think I really appreciated how they struggled and how much they believed in God," she said.

Instilled in her from a young age was a respect for church and a love of church music, which is shared by every sibling and both parents, each of whom sings or plays an instrument.

"It runs deep in our family," she said. "But I am kind of a shy person. I am not boastful about playing in any way, and I hope each time I play, the sincerity of the music is felt by those who listen and that it lifts their spirits."

Music was important enough for Snell's father when she was growing up that he spent an entire week's paycheck of $50 to purchase a piano for the children to learn on, she said. They didn't have a lot of money, but there was always music in the home.

"I still remember my father giving me and my sister a check of $4 or $5 to walk over to the couple we bought the piano from. We did that every week until the piano was paid off," she said. "He would sometimes tell us to 'cut out the racket' on the piano, but he wanted us to play and thought it was important."

When Hurricane Harvey moved through South Texas a few weeks ago, Snell said the only things she wanted to save in her home were her upright piano, keyboards and a few family photos.

"I didn't care what happened to anything else," she giggled.

For all her many years serving the African-American churches in the region, Mathis said an entire community of church members in cities north and south, east and west, hope to give back to Snell.

Dec. 9, Mathis and others from nearby churches, are organizing an appreciation and recognition for Snell and her husband, the Rev. Harvey Snell, asking those who come to bring a token of praise, a poem, a song, a gift or love offering to bless Snell for all the years she has blessed the Crossroads with her music and service.

"We all wanted to do something for her, and with Christmas coming up, we want her and her husband to have the best season possible," Mathis said, mentioning Snell has been having to cut back on some of her service abilities in recent months following her husband's stroke about a year ago. "There are so many people who know her and want to give back. We just hope we can show her the love she has shown us."

Snell said all these years of playing music have been a blessing in her life, and she will play until she physically cannot anymore. And each time she reads Psalm 33.3, "Sing to the Lord a new song. Play skillfully and shout for joy," she is reminded why her gift is so important.

"It reminds me that God is my strength, and music is my joy," she said. "It reminds me to keep a melody in my heart."


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