Pipe Organs & Organists: Hipper than you thought?

[Holland Sentinel Title: Organ Playing not just for the Elderly]

People often assume that only older people like and play the organ. In my 20’s, people regularly acted astonished that someone “so young” was an organist. They don’t seem to say that as much to me anymore (hmm, what might that mean?) But it is still a common assumption that of course, young people wouldn’t be interested in the organ. I find just the opposite the case. Young people (from toddlers and kindergarteners, to middle and high- schoolers) are fascinated by the organ. Think of it as a gigantic synthesizer, with a multitude of sounds you can control with your hands and feet, almost endless sound combination possibilities, and while playing, you can shake the rafters, give sub-woofers a run for their money, or play so softly it can be almost inaudible. There are soft and gentle flue sounds, loud and brassy trumpets, pitches so high, your grandpa might not be able to hear them, and ones so low, you can feel them in your stomach. There are even on some organs special effects like bells and chimes, or sounds coming from all different parts of the church, hall, or auditorium! How does this sound boring? It’s not, and young people are naturally curious and interested in getting their hands on these amazing sound makers. I taught at two programs this summer that were designed to introduce or further young people’s engagement with the organ.

In Holland, a local businessman who doesn’t play, but is enamored of the organ, has created, funded, and run a program that offers piano students the chance to have lessons with a variety of local professional organists, and multiple opportunities to play big organs in their area, with a short concert at the end of the three-week session to show off for their families. The Summer Organ Encounter now has programs in Grand Rapids and Holland, and has taught over 45 students since it began in 2013. All expenses, from lesson costs to organ music, are covered for students accepted to this program. https://www.soegr.org/

The American Guild of Organists, a national organization with chapters all over, including ones here in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, and Southern MI (from South Haven to Kalamazoo), has created a program called Pipe Organ Encounters. These are like summer camp (or boot camp?), where interested organists, or pianists who’d like to be organists, stay on a college campus for a week, have daily lessons, daily practice sessions, and opportunities to play many organs, as well as hear concerts by professional organists, and organ-related field trips, such as to organ building shops, or to hear theater organs. There is a program for students under 18, as well as a program for those over 18, and both are exciting and rewarding experiences for both students (being around so many others who also play and love the organ, learning and hearing so much in a compressed time) and teachers, who often leave with renewed energy for the “future of the profession”. https://www.agohq.org/education/poe/

The main goal of these programs is to develop an appreciation and love of this instrument, which is sometimes underestimated, overlooked, or simply misunderstood. Though if we create lifelong organists while we’re at it, even better.

Now, if you still think organ playing is only good for church, or classical music, not only should you google the recent article in The Guardian about the concert Organic Doom (combining pipe organ music with doom metal), you should definitely check out the TikTok accounts of American @westpiper or British @annalapwoodorgan.

And here’s a final story to ice the cake. I tripped in May and twisted my ankle. After a week, when it was still hugely swollen, I had X-rays done, and found out I had a hairline fracture. I needed to wear a boot on my ankle for the next two weeks, to help it heal. However, I could take it off once sitting on the organ bench, to practice, since playing doesn’t put weight on the foot. This was good news, since I had practicing and concerts coming up. And after two weeks, with it looking much better, the exercises my doctor gave me to strengthen it sounded just like organ playing! In fact, the doctor told me that playing the organ was probably the best rehab I could have done for it, and he should prescribe that to all his patients. So, if you’ve got ankle issues, drop me a line, and let me hook you up with some organ lessons.