Although raised in the area, Morison and her husband had moved to North Carolina when East Tennessee Children’s Choir (ETCC) was started in 1987 by the late Dr. Carl King, a former professor of music at East Tennessee State University.
"We didn’t know it existed until we moved back here and our kids were old enough to get involved," Morison said. "We were thrilled to find this group. We grew up in this area and knew it was a great place to live, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it was so culturally rich."
Dr. King founded ETCC to enhance the music experience and education of "exceptional" children in the region, and he worked toward that goal for several years before Beth McCoy became the choir’s first artistic director. For more than a decade, McCoy directed ETCC which is for students in grades four through eight. She also founded the Highlands Youth Ensemble (HYE) for high schoolers and the Choristers, which includes children as young as those in the first grade through third grade. McCoy brought all the choral groups under the larger choral enterprise that is today called MECCA.
Morison’s first experience with MECCA was when her daughter joined the group in 2004. Morison, an adjunct piano teacher at King College, became the group’s piano accompanist. She eventually took over the role of artistic director in 2008 when McCoy retired. (McCoy is currently MECCA’s Music Director Emerita.) Since then, Morison has added even more opportunities for young singers: Da Capo, an ensemble of advanced seventh- and eighth-grade musicians; and Bella Voce, a choral group for high school ladies.
She also started a group called MECCA Men, which is just for boys and young men.
"Boys really need to be encouraged to sing," she said. "Once their voices change, they seem to be thrilled to sing all the time - but not when they’re younger and they sound like a boy whose voice hasn’t changed. That is an absolutely special tone that no one can replicate. The sound of a boy soprano is really angelic and amazing. Once the boys are in choir and realize that, they want to do it, but sometimes it takes extra encouragement."
In fact, the MECCA Men were recently featured along with other local choral groups in the Male Call Festival at Millikin College.
Morison’s passion can be heard when she describes the kinds of experiences the young choir members are exposed to, especially when some are selected to sing solos with large orchestras. During the upcoming holiday concerts, the choirs will sing with the Symphony of the Mountains, but a girl and boy soloist were also chosen.
"When you think about that, for a sixth- or seventh-grader to sing a solo with an orchestra at that age?" she said. "Kids don’t get that kind of opportunity many places in our country. Of course, those kids will put it on their college applications and resumes one day."
Morison said she plans events and music throughout the year like a regular school teacher, but she’s open to changes or additions to her schedule. For instance, last year she was asked to put together something for Niswonger Children’s Hospital’s Christmas tree lighting in Johnson City. She didn’t require the MECCA kids to participate because the event was on a school night, but nearly 40 children volunteered.
"The special events that mean the most to us are not always the things that get a lot of public notice," she said. "That was such a neat event. Not everything we do is flashy; it’s an important part of our mission that we serve the community."
Choir members in MECCA practice once a week with participants coming from various counties across northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. Morison said of the approximately 40 students in the high school group alone, 12 different school systems are represented.
There are also a number of homeschooled students. Students hear about MECCA by word-of-mouth, from newspaper ads for upcoming auditions, or even from music teachers who recommend the group.
For the holiday concert schedule or more information about MECCA, visit its website at http://www.meccacademy.org/.