MILLIGAN COLLEGE — Pipe organs are complex instruments to learn, and not many musicians pursue mastery of this unique sound. But Milligan College’s David Runner has been instructing students for 40 years on this technical instrument that provides an experience similar to “conducting an orchestra or a band.”
“I’ve taught quite a few over the years,” Runner said. “The last organ major I had I think was in 1984. And he is still playing the organ, directing choir up in Maryland.”
Runner joined the Milligan faculty in 1972. He serves as professor of music, teaching organ, piano, voice and music theory. He was recently presented with the Fide et Amore award, Milligan’s highest acknowledgement of service.
Whenever Milligan holds a function where a pipe organ would be suitable, Runner is the organist who fills the chapel with those distinct organ melodies.
The Milligan pipe organ is housed in Seeger Memorial Chapel. This 46-rank pipe organ was installed in 1967, when the chapel was built. It was made by the Schantz Organ Co. from Ohio and cost around $60,000 at the time it was built.
There are relatively few organists, Runner said. The American Guild of Organists, of which Runner belongs, has a chapter in this region with about 50 members, though Runner estimated there are between 300 and 400 organists from Morristown to Emory, Va. — the rough area the chapter encompasses.
“I guess it is sort of an exclusive group,” he said. “Usually, people who start taking organ have played piano for a year at least. It takes a person about a year to learn how to play hands and feet together on the organ because you don’t do that on a piano. It’s a complicated process but it can be done, and there are people who do it.”
Milligan’s pipe organ console has three keyboards. Most organ consoles have at least two keyboards and some have four. Runner said the three keyboards make the instrument easier to play because each keyboard can make a different sound, so it sounds more like an orchestra.
Pedal boards of the organ usually are used for bass but can provide a melody played in conjunction with the hands.
Stop knobs located on panels on either side of the organ console give different colors of sound, Runner said. The stop knobs can provide myriad sounds, including trumpets, flutes or varying notes.
“So it’s more like conducting an orchestra or a band,” Runner said.
The range of sound is not as extensive on an organ compared to a piano, but the pitches go higher and lower on an organ.
At Milligan, all the organ pipes are concealed behind a blue screen at the back of the sanctuary stage. The console, where the organist sits, is just off to one side of the stage.
In Johnson City, there are five or six nice pipe organs, Runner said. He has played all of them. He hires himself out on weekends as a substitute organist for churches that need someone to play.
“I consider myself to be a good player, not a world class player, because I don’t have the practice time that those people do,” he said. “But it takes two or three years to get where you can play most anything on the organ. It’s sort of like a sport. You know, you start slowly and different people progress at different rates of speed.”
Runner was born in southern California. He attended undergraduate school at Boise State University in Idaho. From there he went to Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. He eventually got a doctor of musical arts in organ.
Runner was taking piano lessons at age 7. By 11 he began learning to play organ. He loved it and continued.
He said not enough people study the organ today.
“There are always churches crying for organists,” he said. “The problem is you can’t really make a living playing organ at most of the churches, especially in this area, because your organists are looking for full-time employment and that’s just not available.
“Most students who take the organ either take it from curiosity or they are piano majors who are required to have one semester of organ before they graduate.”
Runner has one or two organ students each semester.
Despite the limited prospects for employment, Runner thinks the art of playing organ is healthy because there are always willing students and plenty of opportunities to study organ. In fact, besides Milligan, locally the University of Tennessee, Appalachian State University, Emory and Henry College, Radford University and Warren Wilson College all have programs to study organ.
“I think it’s still alive and in no danger of dying right now,” he said.
Runner said for him, the pipe organ is really a toy.
“I think it’s fun,” he said. “I play the organ and I’m just using a big toy. And luckily I’ve been able to make a living doing it.”