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Playing through the pandemic: musician's passion for pipe organ

By Darius White

Photos by Jordan Cobbs

Seigenthaler News Service

Abingdon, Va. – Schéry Collins has attended St. Thomas Episcopal Church for nearly five decades. Her seat, the best in the house, is at the organ, the silver pipes of the instrument standing behind her like guarding sentinels. From her vantage point at the three-tiered keyboard of the church’s 41-year-old pipe organ, she’s provided the soundtrack for weddings, funerals and thousands of sermons.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and everything changed.

“It happened quickly,” she recollected.

Around this time last year St. Thomas, like many churches, closed its doors to its parishioners.

But Collins played on from her familiar spot.

“It was the four of us,” she said, naming herself, her husband David, Rector Boyd Evans and his wife, Kathy. For a period, these four ran the service, a livestream broadcast from the priest’s iPhone.

“It was quite a while before anybody was invited back in,” she said.

Collins played the hymns as she normally would, but when she looked out upon the pews they were all vacant. That made her sad. A church without people just wasn’t the same.

“I really miss the people out here. I can play and enjoy it myself,” she said, “but it’s always wonderful to have the response from the people.”

Moving to the Abingdon area in the early 1970s, Collins starting teaching at Virginia Highlands Community College alongside her husband, David. “I taught mathematics for 43 years and my husband taught economics. I loved every minute of teaching,” she said, offering a wide smile. “But we had a passion and that is music.”

Collins credited her parents for instilling a love of music. “It’s the greatest gift, I think my parents ever gave me,” she said. Collins’ father taught her how to play the piano starting at the age of five. With her parents being professors at East Tennessee State University, Collins also had access to study at the university’s music department. Along with piano, Collins learned how to play the flute in her formative years and during her college years begin playing the organ.

The organist’s interest in her instrument of choice came from her late father, who was an organist for a Methodist Church for over 50 years. “I watched him and admired him,” she said.

Collins appreciates how the organ allows her to showcase her style of playing. It’s a unique form of self-expression because of the physicality required.

“You have to express yourself in a different way with the organ,” she said. “When you play the organ, you have to use your hands but you also have to use your feet.”

Collins has served at St. Thomas Episcopal Church for almost 50 years. “I auditioned for this organist job here at St. Thomas, I guess around 1973 and I’ve been here ever since,” she said. The church had an electric organ when she first started. In 1980 a pipe organ was installed, with enhancements made in 1998.

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Collins plays with newfound optimism and in the company of a few masked worshippers during Sunday services. “It’s starting to be exciting now. People are starting to come back,” she said.

Collins, who also serves as the church’s choir director, can’t wait for the choir to again sing during services. That is expected in September.

“Well, I miss the choir because we joined together, we were one,” she noted.

“When I see the choir come in, they come in two by two just very reverently, bow and enter the choir stalls. It’s just emotional for me.”

Collins optimistically pictures the day that the church body gathers without masks.

“I’m going to let all the stops out. That will be a glorious day for sure. I’m just looking forward to seeing all my church family and hugging everybody.”

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