For many of us, music is a balm to the soul. We tear up at stirring renditions of Taps, marvel at the gift of an incredible orchestra, or listen in wonder as a soloist captures the audience within the first few notes of a concerto. Pianists and music enthusiasts, however, can agree on one thing — causing emotions within the hearts of an audience doesn’t happen overnight.
For Joey Morgan Harrington, a New River Valley pianist and composer, a lifetime of painstaking practice and dedication has brought him to a well-worth-it career doing what he loves. He is the organist for the Presbyterian Church of Radford, as well as a pianist and composer who delights in his work and aspires to connect generations through his music.
“I started taking piano lessons in first grade and then dabbled in drums,” he recalls. “I transitioned to the guitar in middle school.” He circled back to piano in high school, and apparently, that choice was the perfect instrument for his musical journey.
From elementary school, Harrington delved into music and began to collect it, downloading music onto some early streaming services like LimeWire and Napster. Harrington fondly remembers that he thinks he crashed the family computer while doing so. His curiosity would benefit him later on down the road, however, and that crashed computer was one step of his journey to where he is now.
Laying a foundation early in his life was key in the success of his present career. The life of performing, however, comes with its own share of challenges. The performance he’s most proud of took place recently at the Street and Davis Performance Hall in the Moss Arts Center. “It was the culmination of all the new music I had composed over the last six months, and because of the performance, I realized a few pivotal things about my musical journey,” he says. Harrington recognized that by blurring the boundaries of genre and category, composing and performing has a more freeing element to it.
His audience is first in his mind as he plays, and Harrington pays close attention to keeping everyone completely immersed in his performance. For example, he went beyond his fingers gliding on the keyboard and brought people into the experience with lighting and staging carefully thought through and planned in advance.
When asked what his favorite style of music is, Harrington replies that he doesn’t have one. Part of his vision as a pianist and composer is to blur boundaries between typical categories, and he listens to various types of music for different reasons.
Weddings brings their own set of challenging aspects. Again, Harrington keeps the people he’s serving in mind, trying to familiarize himself with the layout of the wedding venue ahead of time in order for the performance to go smoothly. He reviews technical details so that the married couple has one less thing to worry about. “The less questions I have to ask when I arrive, the more it puts everyone at ease,” Harrington states.
If he’s playing for the reception, he keeps in mind that here the focus is not on him as a performer, which is completely different from an event where he and his piano are in the spotlight. Harrington incorporates the vision of the married couple and creates an inviting atmosphere for guests in order for the reception to go smoothly.
Weddings may be formidable, but Harrington says the most difficult part of his career is managing the business side. All is not just what people see on the stage by far. He is his own accountant, social media manager and booking agent. “Each artist has their own unique path. There’s not a blueprint to follow,” he explains.
On the other hand, one thing Harrington, 31, loves about his livelihood is the genealogical aspect of it. “I see music as a language which can be passed down in a variety of ways – from a student-teacher relationship, an apprenticeship, any opportunity where music is shared from musician to musician. I really love the connection between generations.”
In addition to piano, Harrington still plays the guitar and dabbles with drums. In his free time, the pianist enjoys board games, his two cats, and paddling on the New River.
His advice for the aspiring pianist? “Seek out other pianists and musicians. We’re all on this musical adventure, and building community is a great way to make your love of piano a lifelong pursuit.”
Harrington’s mission as a pianist and composer is intertwined greatly with service. Whether that’s making sure things go smoothly at a wedding or reception or immersing the audience in his performances in any way he can, Harrington has found an effective way to balance the spotlight and the audience.
“I try to breathe my own life into music that is familiar to different audiences,” Harrington shares. His goals vividly intertwine focus on the audience and a respect for the music that he has the honor of playing. And to him, his career is merely a continuation of a passion for what he loves.
Text by Caitlyn Koser
Caitlyn Koser is a New River Valley homeschool student and freelance writer who has been taking piano lessons for three years. She much prefers composing with words instead of musical notes and hopes to one day make a career as an author.