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Organ music runs in the family

Jason Horsley, 15, his sister, Michelle Horsley, 17, and their father, Ray Horsley, 55, rehearse a duet on the organ at Grace Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg Thursday. The teens are professional church organists.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Jason Horsley, 15, his sister, Michelle Horsley, 17, and their father, Ray Horsley, 55, rehearse a duet on the organ at Grace Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg Thursday. The teens are professional church organists.

Her size-7 feet worked the pedalboard as her delicate hands manipulated the stops and keys of the pipe organ into a crescendo that resounded beyond Grace Lutheran Church's impressive backdrop of stained glass windows.

The organist was 17-year-old Michelle Horsley. Her brother, Jason, 15, with whom she often plays duets, listened with a studied air. The teenagers, who began playing the pipe organ as soon as they could reach the pedals, recently were hired by Grace Lutheran. Their father, Ray Horsley, a longtime organist himself, thinks they might be the youngest professional church organists in St. Petersburg.

Horsley, who has been his children's only teacher, plays the organ a few miles away at Hope Lutheran Church. He, Michelle and Jason had a song-and-dance routine they took on the road, performing under the name, Two Bees and a Honey.

"We have a lot of fun together,'' said Michelle, a dual-enrolled student at St. Petersburg College. The family tradition of organ music dates back to her grandfather, who was a church organist in Chicago, she said.

"We just genuinely love the instrument,'' she said.

The young musicians were hired to play at Grace Lutheran just before Christmas. The church's longtime minister of music had left, and substitutes had been filling in for Sunday services. A church member heard the teenagers play in a concert at the Palladium in October, and the two were soon hired.

"We were thrilled,'' said Michelle, who will leave in the fall to study organ at Stetson University in DeLand. She received a full scholarship.

"They are out of this world,'' Grace's pastor, the Rev. Kevin Loughran, said of his church's organists.

"And they are as delightful as young people as their music is extraordinary. They have a contract to play with us into the summer. We fully intend to keep Jason on'' (after his sister leaves for college), the pastor said.

Asked how they decide how to divide the music they play for Sunday services, Jason, a master of one-liners, quipped, "We fight to the death.''

He said the past months have been hectic. Now that Lent, with its extra midweek services, and Easter are over, "We can just kick back and relax,'' he said.

In fact, he and his sister still practice two hours a day. Jason says he's a normal teenager and "a slave to my Xbox.'' Michelle, a member of St. Petersburg College's Madrigalians, enjoys writing. She wants to become a college professor and continue to play for churches. Her brother, who attends Northeast High School's Todd Center, which has an emphasis on math and science, wants to blend his love for science with music.

Their father, vice president for a software company, acknowledges that it's not easy to make a living as an organist.

"I think it is just a wonderful thing to go into as a supplemental income. I don't care if you're a lawyer, an architect or whatever career you have chosen, you can always supplement your work with $15,000 to $20,000 a year,'' he said. "It's very agreeable work. It's creative.''

There is a shortage of good organists, which can frustrate churches, he said. At the same time, many congregations are switching from traditional organ-led services to contemporary worship accompanied by other instruments.

For the Horsleys, who do not watch television, music is an integral part of family life. Celeste Horsley is credited with keeping her husband and children's lives on an even keel.

"My job is to make sure they have dinner, have a meal before they head out and make sure they have their homework done,'' said the registered nurse who works part time and homeschooled her children until high school.

Sundays are a mad scramble. Horsley rushes from his 10 a.m. service at Hope Lutheran to Grace Lutheran, where he joins Michelle and Jason to play the last hymn and postlude.

As much as they enjoy their work, they find that playing the organ can be physically taxing, Michelle said.

"It uses every appendage on your body,'' she said.

That was illustrated recently when she played her challenging audition piece — Widor's Sixth Symphony — for Stetson University. That day, she forgot to wear socks with her special black leather-bottom organ shoes. The shoes cut into her foot and she lost her place.

"A lot of the pieces that Jason and I work on require a lot of endurance,'' she said. "It helps that we love what we're doing.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

>>IF YOU GO

Pipe Organ Spectacular Concert

Outstanding young organists, Clearwater American Guild of Organists, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Episcopal Church of the Ascension, 701 Orange Ave., Clearwater. Call (727) 447-3469. Free.

Organ music runs in the family 03/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 8:23am]
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