The Sound of Music
Falls Church organist Julie Huang Tucker is a force of nature.
Name: Julie Huang Tucker
Lives in: Douglas Park, with her husband, Scott Tucker
Résumé: Organist/choirmaster at The Falls Church Episcopal (the church, built in 1734, for which Falls Church is named) and director of the Cantus Docere and Cantus Liberi Youth Choirs. Huang Tucker has performed at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington National Cathedral and National Presbyterian Church. She held a Chamber Conducting Fellowship at Yale University in 2014 and was a 2015 honoree for Leadership Arlington’s “40 Under 40.”
Musical Roots: Music has always been a part of me. At age 3, I would still be singing the theme song to my aunt’s soap opera after she turned off the TV. I started piano lessons soon thereafter, then violin.
Major Decision: I went through a burnout phase in high school and quit music. At Cornell, I explored other interests (literature, linguistics, international relations, psychology, environmental studies), but took a music class every semester. When the time came to declare a major, music was the only option for which I had sufficient prerequisites! So I accepted that music was not yet through with me.
Benchmarks: I played NCAA Division 1 field hockey in college and sustained a head wound during a scrimmage that required seven staples. While sidelined, I found myself attending an organ recital. For the first time in my life, I heard a great organist playing great repertoire on a great instrument. I approached the performer, Dr. Tim Olsen, who became my first organ professor. I went on to get my master’s in Organ Performance and spent time as a visiting artist in Europe. While there, I also began an apprenticeship in organ building and maintenance.
Superpower: I was an All-American in wrestling, a sport I took up during grad school at the University of Oklahoma. Once, after a particularly intense practice, I rushed to the chapel to practice the organ and yanked hard on the door handle. The door was locked and the handle came flying off in my hand as I went tumbling backwards. The campus police never suspected it was the petite, little Asian woman who did it.
Diving In: After graduation, I moved to South Africa as music coordinator for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust and worked with the Pollsmoor Prison choirs. These convicted felons sang without holding back. To hear their raw souls through their voices was awe-inspiring. I also taught students in the townships. Many had never seen the ocean even though they lived close by. I once hosted eight of them for Thanksgiving and took them to the beach. I thought they would just play in the sand since they didn’t own bathing suits, but they surged into the surf with all their clothes on—never mind the crashing waves or the 60-degree water! These same students later performed with Bishop Desmond Tutu at our benefit concert.
Healing Process: I moved back home to the D.C. area in 2011 after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died two years later, during Lent. Letting myself grieve and live with the painful emotions was not easy in a society that emphasizes perpetual happiness, but Lent, with its stark simplicity and haunting music—especially the exquisite Requiem settings—allowed me to descend into deep contemplation. I programmed my master’s recital with themes of mortality, pairing organ pieces with text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. After this dark pilgrimage it felt natural to awaken to the light of Easter.
Try, Try Again: One year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my phone fell into the organ, beneath the wind chest on which the pipes sit. After weeks of trying to fish it out with wire hangers and duct tape, I gave up. I was re-inspired to give it one last try after Midnight Mass—this time by going underneath the organ—and finally retrieved it. It was a Christmas miracle!
Musical Duo: My husband, Scott, is also a professional musician. He’s the artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. I often sing in his symphonic chorus at the Kennedy Center, or accompany it on organ. Similarly, he sings in my chamber choir at The Falls Church Episcopal, or plays the trumpet. Despite our overbooked rehearsal and performance schedules, we have fun and are grateful to share this cornerstone of our lives together.
Rock and Roll: I’m an avid rock climber and mountain biker, which don’t always pair well with my vocation. One year, I fell 20 feet while bouldering and fractured my right ankle. I had to play the organ pedalboard with one foot for the Christmas Eve service.
Wings for Wheels: One Easter, my car wasn’t working and I ended up having to bike to rehearsal with 30 Handel Messiah scores. My backpack was so full that I couldn’t zip it up, and the music was fluttering in the wind. It definitely was not my swiftest ride ever. But—Hallelujah—I made it. n
Arlington-based freelance writer Rick Schadelbauer plays guitar and sings in the North Illinois Street Band. The band has one standing gig: the annual North Illinois Street block party.