First Lutheran’s new minister of music feels right at home

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 9, 2002

His studies may have taken him all around the world, but Mark Merrill is right at home in Albert Lea.

The new minister of music, worship and fine arts at Albert Lea’s First Lutheran Church will be installed today at both the 8:15 and 10:45 a.m. worship services. The handbell choir will play, and the adult choir will also sing. There will be a reception in Bethany Hall from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

Merrill is originally from Fort Dodge, Iowa. At a young age, he was impressed with the power of the organ. &uot;I just love hearing the sound of it,&uot; he said.

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He started playing drums, then tuba, baritone, and French horn. But the &uot;king of instruments,&uot; the organ, which could sound like any instrument, soon won him over.

Merrill earned his bachelor’s degree in music with an emphasis on church music and organ performance from Drake University in Des Moines.

A few days after graduating from college, Merrill headed to London, where he studied for three months at the Royal School of Church Music. Forty students from around the world are accepted into the school each year. They apply, send audition tapes and references in order to be accepted, Merrill said.

&uot;We lived in Addington Palace, which has pipe organs all over the place,&uot; he said of the students.

From there, he went on to earn his cathedral certificate, which involved internships and working under directors for three-week intervals. He did internships at Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.

Then Merrill left for Spain, where he studied at the Conservatory of Music in Barcelona with Montserrant Torrent, an expert in Baroque performance techniques.

While in Spain, he served as a music director at an Anglican church and was also assistant organist at a cathedral. &uot;I got to know the subway system very well,&uot; he said.

Also while studying in Spain, Merrill did a study in performance in Italy at Accademia di Musica Italiana per organo Pistola.

Then Merrill came back to the United States, and went back to school again. He earned his master of arts degree in teaching. He is certified in K-12 as well as adult in both music and foreign language.

Merrill taught at Des Moines Area Community College for four years, and most recently at Grandview College in Des Moines, where he served as chair of the foreign language department and also as an associate professor of music until a year ago.

It was then that Merrill had to have eye surgery. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to read music, but he now enlarges it and memorizes it, he said.

The idea of living in Albert Lea was appealing to him because it’s a community where it’s easy to get around, and the crime rate is significantly lower than it is in Des Moines. The location is also good because it’s central to his sister in the Twin Cities area and his mother in Fort Dodge, he said.

After auditioning in Albert Lea in August, Merrill was driving home to Des Moines on Interstate 35 when he saw a rainbow over Albert Lea Lake. He took that as a sign he was meant to come here. After accepting the position, he commuted for a few weeks before moving to the community.

The church has been through a great deal of change in the last few years, and Merrill said he welcomes the challenge that comes with the position. &uot;I tend to be a creative person,&uot; he said. &uot;I like to step into something where I can make my own mechanism.&uot;

At First Lutheran, Merrill directs the handbell, adult and children’s choirs and plays the organ. He is also in charge of scheduling, and hopes to add a new contemporary ensemble. He is also accepting private piano, organ and harpsichord students.

The move feels right, he said. &uot;The community has so much going for it. It’s culturally aware, and I’m impressed with the generosity and sense of well-being here,&uot; he said.