She may be petite in stature, but the sounds she produces from the magnificent pipe organ at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Findlay, Ohio, are mighty powerful.
Melissa Flowers, ’14, has found her niche as the associate director of liturgy and music at the 10,000-member parish. That’s not surprising, though, since she worked part time as a member of the music ministry team there during all four of her undergraduate years at Heidelberg.
And to think, during her college search, she wasn’t confident she was “music major material.” During her high school visit to Heidelberg, however, she was struck by the way the music professors invested in her even before her decision to enroll. “I just couldn’t turn that down,” she said.
Although she had been a practicing church musician for many years, playing organ in her home parish in McClure, Ohio, and neighboring parishes as a teenager, Flowers came to the decision that she would make it her career just a short time into her first semester at Heidelberg.
“When I came to Heidelberg, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with music I’d been playing for so long,” she said. “I just knew that I loved it. I ended up sticking with my music major and staying with the plan the whole way through.”
Because Flowers had her foot in the door and had a friendship with the gifted Felix Goebel-Komala, who had been the director of music and liturgy at St. Michael’s for 21 years, her transition was smooth.
“Felix took me under his wing and really mentored me,” Flowers said. “He taught me to play with other ensembles and singers.”
For the service learning requirement as an Honors Program student at Heidelberg, Flowers completed an internship at Tiffin’s Trinity United Church of Christ, home of a large pipe organ. While there, she worked with the hand bell choir, which proved to be a valuable experience when she created a new hand bell choir at St. Michael’s.
At St. Michael’s, a number of part-time people have comprised the music ministry team; some retirements and other circumstances presented the opportunity for the church to hire a full-time associate director. Flowers was uniquely qualified to step in permanently, having already worked at the church for four years. She was hired four days before her Heidelberg graduation in May 2014.
“God had a plan for me,” she said. “I had applied for other positions, but deep down, this was the one I wanted, and here I am.”
Flowers’ Heidelberg professor and mentor, Joan McConnell, believes her student’s disciplined approach to her work and willingness to take instruction have contributed to her early career success.
“Even as an undergraduate, Melissa displayed excellent time management as she juggled her work in the music school. She managed her academics, practice time, rehearsals, accompanying voice students, teaching private piano and participating in extra-curricular activities with discipline and a strict attention to doing things efficiently and extremely well,” McConnell said. “Her patience and diligence always paid great dividends of progress.”
“I am very proud of Melissa and I know she will continue to make the most of any opportunity that she is offered.”
After two and a half years, Flowers had learned the rhythm and pace of the church year when she and the staff at St. Michael’s were confronted with a tragic loss. Goebel-Komala – her mentor and supervisor – was diagnosed with cancer and died about a month later, in November 2016.
Flowers’ mindset had to change following Goebel-Komala’s passing. In the past four months, she has had to step up and assume leadership responsibilities for the church’s music ministry. She hasn’t missed a beat.
In Goebel-Komala’s mold, she has mastered the art of multi-tasking. “He was one of the most creative musicians I’ve ever known,” Flowers said. “I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What would Felix have played?’”
One particularly valuable skill she learned from him was the art of improvisation, which she incorporates routinely into the texts she plays. Her goal is humble and would make her mentor proud: “He really brought the words of the texts to life. I want to create an awareness … bring the music to life by figuring out how I want words and phrases to be interpreted.”
“When Felix got sick, I knew I needed to stay here to carry on what he started and keep everything moving forward,” Flowers said. “When he passed, nothing stopped. He duplicated his skill set by training me and the part-time people. That was one of the legacies he left, and it’s huge.” The entire music ministry team came together to plan his funeral, which Flowers called “a beautiful, emotional experience.”
Today, Flowers relies on her Heidelberg foundation, her strong work ethic and organizational skills as she continues to master the different aspects of church music and liturgy.
Currently, she leads the two-octave bell choir, which she calls “my baby.” She also directs several larger ensembles, including a 33-member children’s choir, comprised of third- through eighth-graders who attend St. Michael’s School. The children’s choir is the featured ensemble at one Mass each month, also singing at confirmation and first communion Masses.
Flowers also conducts the church orchestra, which performs for large Masses on holy days such as Christmas and Easter, and several smaller ensembles. She also must be available for funeral Masses and weddings as needed. Because the parish is so large, she divides her time between two churches – one newer and more contemporary and the 150-year-old downtown church.
Flowers’ weeks are packed with musical accompaniment for two school Masses weekly, three Masses each weekend and various weekday Masses. Thankfully, she’s so familiar with the musical hymns that there isn’t much practice time required. The stunning organ – a combination of digital settings and pipes – does require some advance planning, however.
In addition to her ensemble rehearsals, she also gives weekly private lessons to seven students, schedules part-time musicians and group performances and leads the church’s Liturgy Committee.
At times, she said feels like a chameleon, constantly switching from one aspect of music and liturgy and back again. Initially, it was intimidating, leading rehearsal, singing and playing at the same time. But now,
she handles it with grace, confidence and ease. “Doing it every day, it gets a lot easier,” she said.
As a music performance major, Flowers admittedly didn’t have a great deal of experience teaching, which comprises a lot of her current responsibilities. That was a bit scary at first, too, but she’s settled in nicely, forming strong bonds with the eager, young musicians studying under her guidance.
“When I first started working with the kids, it was not so fun, but I figured it out,” Flowers said. She drew on what she learned from Dr. Margarita Denenburg’s piano pedagogy class as well as insights from ’Berg friends who are teachers.
“Seeing a child succeed is really rewarding,” she said. “And I really love teaching piano one-on-one. We just have fun with it.”
Flowers has had to call on her own creativity to keep the youngest performers engaged during large Masses. The Christmas Eve Mass, for example, is longer than usual and presents some unique challenges. This past year, she put her imagination to work in an effort to keep the young performers entertained and attentive, flashing signs she made that reminded them to smile or “Sing loud for your momma” or that “You look pretty today.”
Just as her own confidence as a performer grew throughout her time at Heidelberg, she has witnessed that same growth in the young singers she directs. “At first, they were very shy,” she said. “Now, they all want to sing solos. They’re very talented.”
As a 5-year-old, Flowers remembers nagging her mom for a year to give her piano lessons. She started playing at age 6. She nagged even longer to begin organ lessons, but had to wait until her feet could reach the pedals. That was in sixth grade. She had an inkling about her passion and talent early on. “I’ve just been fascinated by it for so long,” she said.
And now, the parishioners and school children at St. Michael’s the Archangel are blessed to share her gifts.
When I came to Heidelberg, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with music. I just knew that I loved it. I ended up sticking with my music major and staying with the plan the whole way through.