Terry Sisk is glad to be home.
One of the leading church organists in the Washington area, the Leesburg native recently returned to his home town to take a job as organist and choir director at Leesburg Presbyterian Church. For the past 22 years, Sisk, 64, has been organist and associate director of music at Vienna Presbyterian Church. With nearly 2,500 members, the Vienna church is the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Washington area.
But the appeal of living at a slower pace, and in close proximity to his elderly mother, proved irresistible for Sisk. He quickly accepted the offer to return to the 300-
member Leesburg church, where he served as organist in the mid-1980s.
“To come to a place where you already have connections, both family and professionally, is really wonderful,” Sisk said.
Born and raised in Leesburg, Sisk first felt an overwhelming desire to play music when he was 7. “I started playing piano in second grade because I was jealous of a classmate, Ruby Smith, who could play piano, and I couldn’t,” he said. “There was nobody musical in my family. And I didn’t ask for, but I demanded a piano for my eighth birthday. My parents drove us to Frederick, Maryland, and we bought a used upright piano.”
Sisk took piano lessons from Irene Dent, an Englishwoman with a large piano studio in her house on King Street. He eventually obtained a used organ, which he kept in his bedroom. While he was a student at Loudoun County High School, he began playing at the Episcopal, Lutheran and Baptist churches in Leesburg when they needed a substitute organist.
Sisk was in college when he started taking organ lessons “big time.” He later went to Würzberg, Germany, where he continued his organ studies under Günter Jena, a German choir leader and director of church music.
One appeal of the Leesburg church for Sisk is that it has a tracker-action organ — meaning that the instrument’s keys and pedals are linked mechanically rather than electrically to its pipes. “It’s the only tracker-action organ in town,” he said. “The thing I liked about that is that, in my training in Germany, every organ I played was a tracker-action instrument.”
All pipe organs were tracker-action organs until the late 19th century, when electric actions were introduced, Sisk said. “Tracker action organs had to have a bellows, so playing organs until the late 19th century was a group effort,” he said. “You had to have somebody work the bellows to put wind into the pipes.” The organ Sisk will be playing was installed about 1970 and uses an electric blower.
The organ at Leesburg Presbyterian Church is much smaller than the one Sisk is used to playing. He said that the organ at the Vienna church has 42 stops — organ components that produce a variety of sounds by controlling the flow of air to certain pipes.
The organ at the Leesburg church is small, with just 11 stops. But it is well suited to the small sanctuary, Sisk said. “I think the organ is perfectly balanced to the size of the room.”
Deborah Dodson Parsons, pastor of Leesburg Presbyterian Church, said that Sisk could have accepted a position with a church in any city in the country. “We’re just really pleased that he decided to come here,” she said.
“I’m especially grateful that Terry is not only a superb musician and organist, but he is also a man with a deep faith and a love for the church,” she said, adding that he will bring “a splendid combination of gifts” to the congregation.
Last month, two days before Christmas, Sisk conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and an onstage chorus in a sing-along performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“People come from all over and bring their scores, and you have 2,200 people, in addition to the 175-voice choir onstage,” he said, calling it “a great honor” to be asked to conduct the performance. But the opportunity came at a busy time of the year, he said, with two church services at the Vienna church the day before the Kennedy Center performance and five Christmas Eve services the day after.
On Sunday, he will climb up to the balcony at Leesburg Presbyterian Church, where he will play the 11-stop tracker organ and lead a small choir for two worship services in a centuries-old sanctuary that barely holds 200 people.
“It feels wonderful,” he said.