TCU Magazine: Organist Elisa Bickers Knows Her Instrument


The Opus 22 pipe organ at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, has an imposing Georgian facade constructed of Tennessee tulip poplar, painted white and embellished with gilded sunflowers, cottonwood leaves and sheaves of wheat.

When Elisa Williams Bickers ’04 (MM ’06), principal organist and associate director of music ministry, sits down to play the organ for the 4,900-member congregation, her fingers trigger keys and her feet push pedals connected to long rods. The rods, called trackers, open the pallets and allow wind to be pumped into 3,600 hand-poured metal pipes weighing 17 tons.

Elisa Bickers, principal organist and associate director of music ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas sits near the church’s organ. Photo by Shane Keyser

This mechanical action is the same technology used in 18th-century Dutch organs, which were designed to uplift congregational singing with a rich and sustained palette of timbres ranging from light and melodic to deeply meditative.

Seasonal weather and the forces of gravity periodically will compel Bickers to tune a pipe or oil the blowers. When the summer air is thick with humidity, a door that seems to be etched into the side of the pipe organ tends to stick. On this day, Bickers calls on a maintenance worker to give it a stronger nudge than she can muster, and then we step inside the instrument.

“I’m at one with making music when I also know how the music is being made. It’s just the way my mind works,” Bickers said.

Used to perform sacred, classical and popular music, the pipe organ predates Christianity. The instrument’s popularity has ranged from the Toccata and Fugue in D minor days of 18th-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach to the silent-film era. But in an electronic world, there has been a decline in the number of new instruments and in students to play them.

Most of what produces the Opus 22’s mighty sound is hidden from view. The wooden encasement contains a thicket of pipes arranged in ranks of size and tone. The pipes are on many levels, requiring a ladder to reach all of them.

Bickers embraced not just learning how to play the organ, but also understanding its inner workings, said H. Joseph Butler, professor of music and university organist at TCU. As his student, Butler recalled, she “was pretty fearless and not afraid to plunge in.”

“I actually worked at [organ builders] Ross King Co. in Fort Worth while I was going to TCU, and it was the smartest thing I ever did,” Bickers said. “Most organists don’t have a clue, really, what happens inside their instrument.

“If you’re playing the clarinet and something goes wrong, you can hold it in your hand and take it apart and look inside and say, ‘Oh, I see what needs to be replaced.’ But with organs, you are usually so far removed from the inner workings.”

She began playing piano when she was 8. At 12, she took up the organ and clarinet. In high school, she added oboe and English horn, and in college, the harpsichord.

But initially Bickers planned on a career in science.

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