Pembroke Hill community creates song to honor choir director Joel Diffendaffer’s memory

Olivia Sabates, a recent graduate of Pembroke Hill, co-wrote and performed a song to commemorate Joel Diffendaffer, the school’s choir director who died suddenly last year. Photo credit Andrew Mouzin.

Joel Diffendaffer was a role model and major influence in the music department at Pembroke Hill School. So when he died suddenly last year as a result of heart problems, members of the Pembroke Hill community wrote and performed a song to honor his memory.

“Make a DIFFerence” — named for the late choir director’s nickname “Diff” — was co-written and performed by recent Pembroke Hill recent Olivia Sabates, middle and upper school accompanist Jeremy Watson and the Pembroke Hill Madrigals choir.

“I always thought it would a good tribute to him to make a song, but that idea never came out of my head until the new accompanist, J Wat, came in,” Sabates said, calling the project a collected effort on the song’s lyrics and music. “I always thought about creating something in his honor, but I never would have been able to do it without J Wat. He is really talented, he has all of these creative juices. It took both of us to make this song come alive.”

Last year was Watson’s first year at the school; he was previously music director at Music Theater Heritage. Watson said Brant Challacombe, who stepped up to fill Diffendaffer’s position, encouraged him and Sabates to connect and work on the song. After learning more about Diffendaffer’s impact on the Pembroke Hill community, Watson said he realized how important the project was going to be for the school while students and staff were in grief.

Jeremy Watson, Pembroke Hill staff member who co-wrote the tribute song, accompanied on piano. Photo credit Andrew Mouzin

Diffendaffer’s death had another meaning for Sabates, a Mission Hills native, because he passed away on her birthday, Aug. 4, 2018, just before she started her senior year. She saw Diffendaffer as a role model and a “huge influence” at school.

“I kinda think about it as his rebirth is the same day as my birth,” she said. “I always thought him and I really got along. He was my mentor, my adviser for school, my choir director, musical director, so I saw him all the time. So I thought it really ironic that happened at the same time. I was upset at first, then I thought it’s more than a coincidence.”

Sabates and Watson practiced frequently over the course of three weeks to get it ready before they performed it with the choir at the school’s fall concert.

“The premise behind it was about supporting one another, following in the footsteps of this man that was so kind and genuine,” Sabates said. “It’s a really, really beautiful song, and it has a lot of range, a lot of different highs and lows and it brings in the choir. It’s a really special song.”

After graduating from Pembroke, Sabates continued her studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Before leaving town, she and Watson completed recording the song.

However, it’s still a work in progress, as they plan to fuse the choir vocals into the recording and collaborate with local musicians to flesh out the rest of the song, Watson added.

Sabates said she thinks the song brought the Pembroke community together when they first performed it. She added that the music and lyrics are “beautifully crafted” to spread positive messages.

“It touches so many people, even the freshmen who didn’t know him that well, they were still impacted by this song,” she said. “It’s about helping one another, being a genuine person.”