Just inside the front door of Harry Morrison’s house is his piano. Copies of “Opera News” fan out across the top. And then Morrison speaks, his baritone resonance leaving no doubt this man is a musician.
“It’s a great pleasure, you know?” said Morrison, who taught voice at MU for 30 years and now, in his 17th year of official retirement, is barely changing the tempo of a life committed to community music.
“That’s what I tell my students — if they have a good lesson, I have a good lesson,” said Morrison, who is 80 and still maintains a teaching load. “To see someone be able to achieve their technique and to make a richer, more easy sound and be expressive with it — it’s a real delight to see that happen.
“And it’s not really hard work when you do that that way,” he continued. “I don’t dread going to work to teach singing.”
Morrison’s students seem to feel the same way. Michael Straw, a former student of Morrison’s who now teaches private lessons and is the director of traditional music at Broadway Christian Church, said one of the perks of returning to Missouri was the chance to pursue his doctoral degree with Morrison.
“I ended up coming here for several reasons,” Straw said, “and one of them was because I had known of the good teaching of Harry Morrison.”
Straw, whose wife, Melissa, was also a student of Morrison’s, said not only was Morrison a respected teacher but he has been a confidant to them both, and their connection to him surpasses teacher and student.
“The wonderful thing that Harry gets to do just because of his profession is that he gets to have a one-on-one personal relationship with students,” Straw said. “I wish that everyone could be taught one-on-one. It’s the most wonderful teaching in the world.”
It’s a kind of teaching that’s instructive to teachers as well. “I wish that all future teachers, and I really mean this for public school teachers, could have studied with Harry because he knows how to adjust the voice very simply, very easily and very correctly,” Straw said.
Morrison says there aren’t any great tricks that he uses to teach voice, just a healthy approach that allows the voice to work rather than trying to make it work; not pushing the voice to sing big, but allowing an ease in the singing.
“Every lesson, every student we go through that same sort of an idea to try to find the ease in the voice and find the placement where the resonance is free and the tone will flow and it will be great and resonant and full and rich,” Morrison said, his voice expanding on the words and giving them richness and depth.
Alex Innecco, who directs music for and is the artistic director of the Columbia Chorale, recently directed Morrison as he performed the baritone solo in Fauré’s ‘Requiem’. It was the first time Innecco had conducted Morrison, though he had been aware of Morrison through MU’s School of Music since moving to Columbia in 1991.
“He was just unbelievably energetic, as he still is,” Innecco said. “It’s incredible, I mean, I hope I get to 80 being that energetic and optimistic. He’s really a fantastic person.”
Innecco recalled being in the choir at MU in the early 1990s — Morrison was an adjunct professor at the time — when Morrison sang Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ in Jesse Hall. Morrison was laid-back and well-humored, yet professional and respectful, and Innecco said this balance was an inspiration. Morrison still brings that to his work, including the Fauré.
“It was really fantastic because he still has the music all there, and his voice is really beautiful,” Innecco said. “He really brought a lot of artistry into what I needed, and I chose him exactly because of that.”
Morrison puts the pleasure of the music first, Innecco said. “He shows up and even though he could, there’s absolutely no attitude.”
Though his legacy may be as a teacher, it isn’t Morrison’s only long-running position. He sang the national anthem at MU home basketball games for more than 20 years and has lost count of the productions he has been involved in — somewhere between 150 and 200. And Morrison has led the choir at First Presbyterian Church for 37 years.
Michael Bancroft, the church’s organist who has worked with Morrison since 1981, recently spearheaded an effort for the church to get a piece of music commissioned in honor of Morrison’s service to the church. The piece, composed by Robert Benson, was kept secret from Morrison — church staff went so far as to not mail him that week’s newsletter because it had information about the commission — and was performed for him a week after his birthday in October.
Morrison called it “a lovely honor.”
“He would tell you that he really has enjoyed doing this,” Bancroft said of Morrison’s time with the choir. “It’s been a much different thing than what he would be doing at the university, but he has thoroughly enjoyed this outlet. ... And so, he’s just stayed with it.”
Morrison continues to teach and sing in Columbia.
“He’s a very young 80-year-old — in looks, in attitude, in charm,” Straw said. He has his own theory about why his mentor and friend continues to work.
“I think as we age, we realize that if sit down and stop, our bodies start to deteriorate as well as our minds,” Straw said. “One of the reasons Harry does it is he basically enjoys the interaction with young minds and that’s why he loves teaching young people. ... It’s the fountain of youth to keep teaching young people.”
“It can become rather burdensome just to surround oneself with sedentary people who are waiting for the end to come and looking at things in that way,” Straw continued. “Harry does continue to have the benefit of being older as he views and sees things but also to still have these young, energetic, active young people coming in, and he’s able to have a personal relationship with them.”
When asked what keeps him going, Morrison replied simply that if he didn’t keep teaching and singing he wouldn’t know what else to do.
“I am afraid if I quit I would become a slug like Howard Hughes,” Morrison said in his full, distinctive voice. “Never go out of the house, and eat pizza and beer. Let your fingernails grow. No, if I didn’t have something — some purpose — to get up and get going, I probably wouldn’t do it. Part of that is the fact that I enjoy doing those things.”