Most musicians practise hours every day from the time they are children. Their desire is to make beautiful music and if possible, pay their bills. All musicians (except one) own their instrument. They make reeds for it and know what embouchure it needs to make lovely sounds. Pianists know how much weight they need to use on the keys to produce beauty and string players just how much pressure to apply when tuning. Alas! The one musician that doesn’t own their instrument (unless of course they win the lottery and buy their own church), is the organist! This is what I carry in my purse, a set of keys. And armed with a list of church entry codes, I can gain access to the kingdom, in this case, a sanctuary to practise.
Yes, my organ shoes do travel! Being a musician for hire and a substitute organist for most of my life, I NEVER know what awaits me when I enter the building. The first obstacle is to figure out how to turn the instrument on. Believe me when I say, this is not usually obvious. Sometimes breaker switches need to be reset. Other times, it is a combination of switches and mystical chants that bring it to life.
I played my very first church service when I was probably about 12 or 13 years old. It was my debut and I was excited and eager to have an opportunity to play music that I had spend hours practising. This pipe organ was old and in need of repair but it chose THIS very service, packed to the rafters to offer up its swan song.
I started the intro of the opening hymn and a rumble grew to a piercing wail that could only have had its origins from the depths of Hades and choir of banshees echoed through the church. Then all of the 8 foot and 4 foot pipes stopped working and only the 16 foot and Mixtures offered their voice. What does that mean in laypersons’ terms? It would be the equivalent of Paul Robeson and Tiny Tim singing a duet for 1 hour.
At 15 years of age, I played my first wedding. It was held in a little country church with a pump organ. The pedals kept sticking and the soloist had to crouch down in her finery and manually heave and push those pedals during the processional. Also the bride had insisted on having the Wedding March as the recessional. How was I to know that this organ didn’t have enough keys to play the tune?
During high school years, I played an organ whose manufacturer’s claim to fame was building farm equipment…enough said on that. Another instrument I played kept making rude sounds from the bellows like it had eaten something that disagreed with it and all that was missing was the accompanying smell.
I learned later from my Mt. A professor that when I graduated, they had to repair the University organ. I wore the poor thing out. I loved that chapel organ and kept it company for 9 hours a day learning repertoire from French Classical, German Baroque, French Romantic and the English school. I used technique that would serve me well if ever I had the good fortune to play a tracker instrument (considered by many to be the Bentley of organs).
While pursing graduate studies, it was still assumed by teachers and fellow students alike that we would someday play instruments worthy of the masterpieces that we were learning.
Surely you ask, “You have played in well over 100 churches. There must be some good instruments!” My friends, I can count on 1 hand the instruments that made be blush with joy and giggle like a school girl. Now I view it as a challenge to coax music out of these sick instruments. Churches don’t have the money or interest to invest thousands, and often hundreds of thousands of dollars into their up keep, especially when in danger of closing. A good pipe organ can easily set a congregation back one million dollars.
This past Sunday, the organ I was playing died twice in the middle of the service. So much for the hours spent on my Offertory and Postlude I thought as I made my way down to the piano thumbing through the hymn book for tunes to improvise on.
I think the hardest thing for church organists is that they have the ability and desire to make beautiful music but the opportunities just don’t present themselves very often. A dear friend of mine recently asked me if I thought I would someday make music with an instrument that I loved. I guess it depends on how long my organ shoes still want to travel. I am an optimist and of course, I keep looking out my window for flying pigs!