Southern Ohio parish’s teenage organist continues to impress congregation, community

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jul 9, 2024

Ethan Morris became organist for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chillicothe when he was 16 years old. Now 17, he will continue serving in that role until he graduates from high school in 2025. He plans to study organ performance in college. Photo: Chillicothe Bands/Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Ethan Morris learned to play piano when he was 9 years old. He discovered the organ a year later and immediately fell in love with the instrument.

Morris is also quite good at playing the organ – so good that he became the organist for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chillicothe, Ohio, in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, at 16 years old. Now 17, Morris plans to continue performing every Sunday worship service until he graduates from Chillicothe High School next year.

“I fell in love with the organ because it’s a powerful and very versatile and expressive instrument,” Morris told Episcopal News Service. “The organ can make you sound like you are playing a whole orchestra at your fingertips.”

Todd Boler, St. Paul’s cantor during Sunday worship services, told ENS that he was “astounded” by Morris’ talent when he auditioned for the organist position. He now serves as Morris’ mentor and has been teaching him how to perform as an accompanist in any church setting. The goal is to help prepare him for upcoming college auditions and to become marketable as a professional musician, especially during a time when the number of professional church organists is declining while the most selective music schools cap admission to one or two organ performance majors per academic year.

“I’m trying to teach him to be a well-rounded church musician so that he can be able to play not only for us, an Episcopal church, but also for a Roman Catholic church, or for a Lutheran church,” Boler said. “Now he can follow me as I’m singing if I’m picking up the tempo or slowing it down, which is an important skill when following a choir or a recitative.”

In music, a recitative is when a singer follows an ordinary speech rhythm. They usually sing many of the words on the same note. Recitatives are commonly sung in sacred music, including oratorios, such as George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

The Rev. Rowena Macgregor, associate rector of St. Paul’s, told ENS that she considers fostering Morris’ growth as a musician a form of ministry for the church.

“He’s really become a gift to the greater church,” she said. “Really, there’s so much hidden talent right here in the Chillicothe community.”

Morris’ repertoire goes beyond classical church music. He has also impressed the St. Paul’s congregation with performances ranging from jazz to music from the Romantic era. In December 2023, he played a recital at St. Paul’s and performed works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude, César Franck and others from memory. He also showed off his improvisation skills.

“Ethan left people speechless, and not just at his recital,” Boler said. “When worship ends every week, I have yet to see anyone leave the church until he is finished with his postlude, and they always applaud. Our congregation looks forward to the last part of the service every week, and we’re all proud of him.”

Boler said Morris may play another recital in the fall, but no date has been set.  

Morris said he plans to audition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and other schools during his senior year of high school. His goal is to earn a Bachelor of Music in organ performance.

“We understand that St. Paul’s only has a year left with Ethan before he leaves us for college next year, but it’s been an honor and a privilege for us as a congregation to be able to help him succeed in his musical endeavors,” Boler said.

Morris said he appreciates the support St. Paul’s has given him.

“Being a part of St. Paul’s has been a very positive experience,” Morris said. “I definitely think it’s helped me improve as an organist.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


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