By Jeff Keeling
It’s a hot August afternoon outside Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Johnson City, but inside the church’s spacious, high-ceilinged sanctuary, the air is fine. In fact, the air is more than fine – it’s downright ethereal.
That’s because, sitting in their turns at a small bench just behind the pulpit, Matthew Brickey and Jane LaPella are pulling knobs, depressing pedals and working a multilevel keyboard on Munsey’s 61-year-old pipe organ. Their playing causes air to be forced, at various pressures and intensities, through the countless pipes, flutes, trumpets and other media that give the pipe organ one of its common labels, Munsey’s Minister of Music and Congregational Life, Doug Grove-DeJarnett says: “the king of instruments.”
Because it is essentially a wind instrument and produces such a wide range of sounds, a pipe organ is perhaps the key element of the Wesleyan worship tradition that informs United Methodist church music even today, Grove-DeJarnett says. Organs tend to emulate sounds that entire orchestras can make, he says, with mixtures including flutes, strings, reed instruments, and trumpet sounds, among others.
“It has a wide variety of different sounds, different colors of sounds both loud and soft, and different kind of textures that can be used for a variety of things,” Grove-DeJarnett says. “Because it is air moving through the pipe, the makeup of the pipe changes the kind of sound.”
Just so, a multitude of sounds are produced as choirs and the congregation worship at Munsey. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, “believed that congregational singing is vitally important to United Methodist churches,” Grove-DeJarnett says.
“It was a wonderful job, and it’s a big job,” says LaPella, who filled the important seat at the organ from 1964-2014 and still plays rehearsals and funerals as the church’s organist emeritus. “I think it’s the best organ in Johnson City. It’s large, and the room is wonderful for it. It has 37 ranks of pipes and an infinite number of possibilities for color.”
Munsey’s organ was built by the Wicks Company of Highland, Ill., and configured specifically for the space of a new sanctuary constructed at the same time. In the mid ‘80s and again in 2005-2006, nationally known local company R.A. Colby renovated and then rebuilt the organ, replacing all but a few ranks of pipes, “revoiced” the sound, and redid the console where the organist sits.
As Anna Marie Shanks, LaPella and now Brickey have lovingly coaxed every kind of sound and tone imaginable from the magnificent instrument, it has also undergone the transformation from analog to digital. The newer console has a solid state digital “brain” that creates added capabilities, including the ability to save registrations from previously played works.
“It still takes a lot of talent,” Grove-DeJarnett hastens to add. And talent he’s enjoyed during his 31 years at Munsey, first with LaPella and now with Brickey. LaPella, who came to Johnson City in 1962 when her husband, Robert, came to East Tennessee State University to teach voice and opera, stepped back into an emeritus role after 50 years.
Grove-DeJarnett said Munsey’s leadership didn’t want to rush the search for LaPella’s replacement. Milligan College professor Dr. David Runner filled in as interim and everyone figured he’d stay on for a year or so. Then Grove-DeJarnett learned Brickey, with whom he’d become familiar during the last half of Brickey’s undergraduate education at ETSU, might be leaving the area.
“A colleague told me, if you’re looking for a new organist, you ought to move the start of your search up so you don’t lose him to someone else,” Grove-DeJarnett says.
“I had met Matt when he was a student at ETSU because he was the accompanist on the organ for the ETSU choirs and had started taking organ lessons during his last two years there. I had kind of gotten to know him and was impressed very quickly with his natural ability. Only studying for a year or two he was kind of a natural and had an innate sense about how to play.”
Munsey’s search committee heard Brickey sub at the church one Sunday and members were impressed. Out of 40 candidates, he was among three who were interviewed. Brickey, who teaches in the Greeneville city schools, also works with Munsey’s children’s choirs.
Grove-DeJarnett says Brickey’s proven himself to be mature beyond his 25 years, with a great work ethic and desire to learn new music.
“The youth love him – he’s a winsome, creative person with a whole lot of talent. I think he’s just at the beginning. I think he’s one of those people are gonna hear about some day.”
For his part, Brickey simply loves the opportunity to participate in bringing people into worship. He’s grateful for the foundation laid by LaPella and for the chance to learn from her and others, and he’s excited about the prospect of continually discovering more about the manifold complexities of the king of instruments.
“I think it’s great that Jane was able to play this organ for 50 years,” Brickey says. “I’d like to be around for 51.”
While elements of the pipe organ may see further advances during the next five decades, there’s also a certain permanence to the instrument’s most signature quality, Grove-DeJarnett says.
“It’s still the same way it’s been for centuries. There’s a bellows that blows in there, and there’s no way to duplicate that. You can generate a sound digitally that may sound like a pipe organ sound, but the thing you cannot duplicate is the actual feel of the air blowing through the pipe.”
Some people even say it can sound angelic.