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Musician's love of organ not just a pipe dream

December 04, 1998

Rick MorrisonBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




SHARPSBURG - Pipe organs have been a big part of Rick Morrison's life since his college days.

It was as a student at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., that Morrison, a Sharpsburg native, began learning to play the organ.

It's also when he started working summers at M.P. Moller Inc. pipe organ company, where he later mastered the technical skills he uses in his own company, Eastern Organ Pipes.

For 21 years, until the business demanded too much of his time, he was the regular organist at Trinity Episcopal Church in Shepherdstown.

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While he enjoyed putting together a program of carols for the annual Christmas Eve church service, it took a lot of work and left him drained for the holiday, he said.

It was nice to be asked to do a program like that earlier in the holiday season, said Morrison, who will perform many of his favorite Christmas carols Saturday afternoon at Christ Reformed Church in Sharpsburg.

Among the seasonal selections will be "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Joy to the World," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Away in a Manger" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," he said.

This is the first year that Morrison will be the organist for the annual caroling event, sponsored by the Sharpsburg Heritage Festival.

Christ Reformed Christ and Keedysville's Mt. Vernon Reformed are co-sponsors.

The event, open to the public, will start at 3 p.m.

For many, it will be a prelude to the annual illumination of nearby Antietam National Battlefield, which begins at 5 p.m.

Although he's no longer the regular organist at a church, Morrison plays at churches in Maryland and West Virginia.

He plays once a month at Christ Reformed Church in Sharpsburg, which doesn't have a regular organist, he said.

Morrison's love for the instrument was cultivated in his youth by the organ at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Shepherdstown, where he sang in the choir.

"I just was fascinated by the sound of it," said Morrison, who took piano lessons in his youth.

He didn't start out majoring in music at Shepherd College, but when the opportunity to study the instrument presented itself, he decided to take it, he said.

In those days, the school used the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church for lessons, Morrison said.

It also worked out an arrangement so students could practice there, he said.

But Morrison practiced mostly at St. Peter's, where he has been a member all of his life.

Playing the organ is different from playing the piano, said Morrison, who said he got used to the handwork before adding pedal.

One of the most challenging things about the organ is reading three staffs of music at the same time, he said.

It required a lot of practice and perseverance to master that, Morrison said.

"It's like learning to ride a bicycle. I think, all of a sudden, it just clicks," he said.

It took longer to learn how to "voice" organ pipes through an apprenticeship-type system at Moller, where he was offered a permanent job while between jobs after college, Morrison said.

Voicing involves not only tuning the pipes but also making fine adjustments to get the tonal quality even from one pipe to the next, he said.

"Perseverance counts. You develop an ear for it," said Morrison, who said it took about five years to master the skill.

In 1992, after it was clear Moller was closing for good, he was one of four former employees who took money from their own bank accounts and bought the equipment to start a new company manufacturing and repairing organ pipes.

"We thought, 'We have the skills. What do we have to lose?,'" said Morrison, who credits landlord Vincent Groh with giving them a break on rent for part of the old Moller building.

"Otherwise, I don't think we could have started," he said.

The company - one of about four of its size in the country - has grown to 14 employees including the owners, who are still hands-on, Morrison said.

The company has gained a reputation for handling old pipes, dating to the early and middle 1800s, with the respect they deserve, he said.

It's also able to make very large pipes, as long as 32 feet, Morrison said.

The pipe organ market is alive and well in the United States, he said.

While pipe organs are expensive because of the extent of hand work they entail, they have a long lifespan, and can go decades without any mechanical adjustments, he said.

And, of course, there's the sound, Morrison said.

"The sound of wind through pipes is still not comparable to the electronic substitutes. Fortunately, there are a lot of people who feel that way and are willing to raise the money for the real thing," he said.

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