Notes from on the Road: a professional musician who likes to write, about music

One of the ways I spend (some of) my days is by traveling to play concerts in other towns. For me, it’s a chance to visit a new place, interact with musician colleagues, hone my performing skills, make some money and a name for myself professionally, and get to know a new pipe organ. That’s right, I’m an organist.

You may not realize that every pipe organ is different, often drastically so, and thus part of the fun of being a professional organist is playing different instruments. In fact, many organists like myself have bucket lists of instruments we want to someday see and play. Of course, many large pipe organs are also in magnificent spaces, like cathedrals, concert halls, or centuries-old churches, and it can be lots of fun to explore these spaces as well.

When we arrive at a new organ, we need many hours of practicing to prepare a program to perform. It’s not like a pianist, who can sit down at a piano, run her fingers over the keys to see how heavy or light the action is, check if all the notes are working correctly, and a few minutes later, be ready to perform. We need to understand each particular organ’s sounds and combinations of sounds, and then we need to re-orchestrate our pieces to fit on this instrument – both sonically, and logistically. While this sounds like a lot of work, and it is, it’s also a huge part of the creative challenge that makes this “job” interesting for most of us. It’s endless problem solving, and trying to figure out how to create something new each place, even with the same pieces.

While each musician has to make choices about gigs based on many factors, including how much money is necessary, what’s worth the time and hassle of the traveling, and how interesting this particular venue might be, organists also factor in the instrument. I’ve traveled pretty far for not much money, to play some amazing instruments that taught me so much. The opportunity to play on a well-respected series, or at a prestigious venue can be exciting as well. I’m also interested in unique experiences when I travel, or the chance to see old friends.

There are many styles of organs, and the particular music one plays the most, or likes the best, often factors into the style of organ that one favors. Organs are sometimes styled after European models. Every century and country had a distinctive style of organ building, and the pieces composed for those organs are dramatically different, and sound best on an instrument that has a similar “accent”.

These are some of the reasons that when people ask me to name the best organ I’ve ever played, or my favorite, I can’t come up with a good answer. Too many instruments that are too drastically different to compare! I’d be happy to show you pictures, or tell you stories of my travels, and my website, Instagram account, and Facebook account sometimes can tell and show you more. though I’m not the most prolific of posters.

Just in the past six months, I flew to Dallas to play with my organ-trumpet duo at a conference of the International Women in Brass, I was in Michigan City to play a noon-time concert on a rare early 19th century American organ, I drove up to Leeelanau to play an organ concert at an RV Park, and I took the ferry from Ludington to Manitowc to perform a concert with works written by a friend of mine, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Each of those was an adventure in different ways, and each included quite varying music. Audiences ranged from pretty good to pretty pathetic, as did the concert fees!

I play quite a lot of music throughout West Michigan as well, and maybe if both of us stick around long enough, you’ll hear some stories about that too. Not too many musicians like to write, I’ve noticed. I think it takes many skills that are too similar to music-making (sitting by yourself, channeling your feelings and thoughts into something tangible that you can share with others, but never knowing if or how they will respond) and neither offer much in the way of money in return either. But let’s give it a try. I’ll take a bit of time off of practicing, and hope that you’ll read and learn something about the strange and obscure world of the professional organist.