What the Music you Hate Tells me About You

“I don’t like organ music”.

Now obviously, as a professional organist, when I hear this it rubs me the wrong way, but maybe not for the reasons you might first imagine. When someone says this, I wonder – “How much do you actually know about organ music, organs, or organists?” And then I think: “You don’t know much about any of them.” Perhaps these organ haters have heard a certain kind of organ – old, with bad electronic sounds, and hopelessly outdated. Perhaps they’ve heard a certain kind of player – someone who learned enough to be able to play simple hymns in their small church, but has not spent years studying and becoming virtuosic at this instrument. Or perhaps they think that only one kind of music can be played on the organ. The people who say this have a caricature of the organ and organ music in their heads, and against that, they’ve judge an entire profession, along with the diversity of centuries of music and organ craftsmanship from around the world.

Most people do this with all kinds of music. “I hate opera.” “I hate rap music.” “I hate country music.” Really? Tell me how much time you’ve spent really listening to that music. Can you name some artists who aren’t only famous because of pop culture? Have you spent time exploring the breath and depth of that genre? If you hate Italian operas (Pavarotti, silly plot lines, lots of very high notes, entire songs based on two sentences, etc), you might not hate the opera composed by living jazz legend Terence Blanchard, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, about a black boy growing up in Louisiana, that recently premiered at the Met in NYC.

I had to drag my husband to Bela Fleck’s Bluegrass Happening this past summer at Meijer Gardens, he said bluegrass was boring. The show included acts like Sam Bush and the Jerry Douglas Band (who sound nothing like Fleck), and Bela himself told us that night – when people tell me they don’t like bluegrass, I tell them to keep listening. Even a niche genre like bluegrass is full of so much diversity. Turns out my husband did NOT think that concert was boring.

I will be the first to say that I’m guilty of this. I hated the music of Max Reger. Until I decided that since I was in Germany to study Buxtehude (who is also a composer of German organ music, but they couldn’t sound much different), I should also get to know the music and organs of Max Reger. I won’t be playing Reger all the time now, but I understand what’s special about it, and some of it is pretty cool. I hated country music, until I heard Willie Nelson’s Teatro album.

There are classically trained organists, really nerdy about the pipe organ, who hate Hammond B3 organs, maybe because someone expected them to play an old Hammond for a church service, and they had no idea how to get good sounds out of it. Or they wanted it to be a big pipe organ and it wasn’t. Or because you can’t really play a Bach fugue well on a Hammond. But if you ever heard Tony Monaco (who taught jazz organ at Hope College), or know Jimmy Smith, or were there when Dr. Lonnie Smith played for a full house at the Great Performers Series, well, they aren’t playing Bach, but it sounds pretty great.

Now, back to the pipe organ. I had a conversation with someone yesterday who remembered the organ from her childhood church, and it wasn’t fondly. She never met someone who was a professional organist, and she wondered if organ music had evolved from what she remembered in the 80’s. I had to tell her that even in the 80’s there was some pretty wonderful organ music going on, that didn’t sound like How Great Thou Art. There are organists born in this century writing organ music that sounds like rock music, or pop music. There are organists arranging Disney tunes to perform in concerts (Rob Hleblinsky in Grand Haven), there are young organ builders building new instruments with incredible artistry in the woodwork of the cases, state of the art technology under the hood, and using sounds you’ve never heard before.

So go ahead, tell me what kind of music you hate. But first, remember it’s a kind of Rorschach test, and what you’re really telling me is what you don’t know.