Friday, 21 April 2023

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 Perhaps these organ haters have heard a certain kind of organ - old, with bad electronic sounds, and hopelessly outdated.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.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Music can be a Glorious Vocation, but...

Part of my life as a professional musician involves leaving my home, family, and regular jobs and traveling to different locations around the country to play concerts. Classical organ concerts don’t involve tour buses, groupies, or wild after-parties (except with mostly folks over 60 and then the gatherings are decidedly tame events!) But I do play on concert series at churches and colleges and get paid to do so, usually enough to cover my costs and have something left over, but no one’s getting rich playing organ concerts.

This weekend, I’m playing a concert in the area where I grew up, central Pennsylvania. A beautiful new organ was installed recently in a big Presbyterian church in downtown Harrisburg, built by the Canadian organ building company Letourneau (since 1979, hand crafting organs in Quebec). Yes, there are still companies who build pipe organs. This grand instrument sits in the back balcony of a historic building, stately while it looks out over the sanctuary, and fills the space with a plethora of colorful sounds, from delicate flutes to festive trumpets, as well as special features likes chimes and bells. Unlike a concert pianist, who might need about 10 minutes to adjust to a new instrument before a performance, organists need many hours to prepare a program on an unfamiliar organ. I’d estimate this weekend I’ll spend about 14 hours setting up my pieces and rehearsing them before the concert.

My parents, who are also musicians, still live in central PA, and have been inviting their friends, relatives, and colleagues from their decades spent as musicians in this area, to my concert. Many of them remember me from my youth, or are happy to support my parents. One was surprised the other day while driving around town, to notice my name on a billboard, advertising the church’s organ concert series, and he texted my mom a picture. I must admit, this was a first for me! Frankly, I’ve never seen organists on a billboard before. You’d better believe I put that picture up on my Instagram account - i_luv_schnitgers, (an organist allusion). I avoid politics altogether, keep pictures of our kids to a minimum, occasionally feature nature shots, and mostly post notable organs, including this weekend’s instrument.
Closer to home, I attended a rehearsal the other night that was pretty inspiring, but maybe not for the reasons you might assume. As the organ prof at Calvin University, I was invited to play with the Calvin Community Symphony on a piece that involves an organ as part of the ensemble. While a few folks in the room, like me, were there as guests, paid for our time and special expertise, most of the 60ish (?) other folks sitting in this rehearsal on a Tuesday night were there purely because they love music, and want to make music together, and create a beautiful experience for others.

Professional musicians can be a cynical bunch at times, wondering what’s in it for us. What’s the fee, how much exposure, who else will be there? Partly, you can’t blame us. Spending decades of your life, and going into debt for degrees to master a vocation, without any assurances that you’ll be able to earn barely a living wage (never mind luxuries like health insurance or job security) can find even a cheerful person like myself, who usually loves music and what I do, texting grumpily to a friend about the frustrations and disappointments of it all on a bad day.  But that room on Tuesday night was full of musicians working hard to make something beautiful together, just for the joy of it. That experience wiped the grump right off my face, at least for a few weeks.

Music can be a glorious vocation. We who are skilled and trained, have the time and ability, and have found a way to make it work for us practically, are lucky to have such an outlet in our lives, and such a way to connect and share with others through it. It is a gift not always appreciated, and usually not compensated for properly in our modern society. That goes for all of the arts, and some other vocations as well (journalism, for instance), but that all might be the topic for an entirely different essay! For today, I’ll just say, I’m feeling grateful and lucky to be doing what I do.

Rhonda Sider Edgington is a professional organist, organ professor, and church musician who writes about music and life, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in letters to friends, and sometimes in the Holland Sentinel.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Music can be Comfort and Adventure

A musician friend told me once that most people’s favorite music is whatever they were listening to when they were 18 years old. At the time, I doubted this, but given the popularity of reunion tours from bands long-since history, or the phenomenon of the tribute band (Holland’s own Park Theater has at least one tribute band a week on their schedule!) - it’s clear my friend was onto something. The songs and genres we know best are like comfort food- the meatloaf Mom always makes, that restaurant we must eat at when we’re visiting a place we used to live, that food that we know is awful for us, but just brings us back…

There’s nothing wrong with comfort food, or comfort music, though some people find that comfortable spot and never leave it, and that can have consequences. A physician told an older relative of mine that he “needs to start eating like an adult”, by which he meant more vegetables and healthy foods, less junk. Or what about the person who “knows what he/she likes”, and refuses to try anything new? Understandable if you’re 8, but not such an attractive look at 48.

I grew up listening to classical music as a child (raised by classical musicians), and once I got to middle school, found Top 40 radio station hits. By high school, I was searching the dial for more interesting fare, and Classic rock stations had a whole new set of sounds. Once I started college as a freshman music major, I had to listen to all kinds of new sonorities for my music classes. George Crumb, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Tuvan Throat Singing - as I was listening, I was learning.

When I arrived at Indiana University for my master’s in music, the options for hearing live music exploded. In addition to a world- class jazz program, visiting artists from all genres, amazing symphonies and chamber music, Bloomington, Indiana hosted a world music festival every summer, when artists played music from many genres and countries. Each time I heard a new sound, discovered a new instrument, my mind and my ears expanded. And it’s a bit like traveling – pulled out of your comfort zone, you discover there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there that you didn’t even know existed!

One summer a few years ago, we wandered down to Kollen Park for the Holland Symphony’s summer pops concert, featuring mariachi music. I didn’t know much about mariachi music before moving to West Michigan, but what a colorful and fascinating genre (with classy outfits to boot!) I’ve enjoyed the chances to learn more about this rich genre, surrounded by such a vibrant Latino community. One year at the Calvin Worship Symposium, I even attended a Mariachi Vespers service, where we sung hymns accompanied by guitars, trumpets, percussion, and a Guitarron!

That August in Kollen Park, we were astounded to find the park filled, with more varieties of folks than we usually saw at the Symphony. The concert, a unique collaboration designed to connect the Holland Symphony and their players with music of another culture and reach out to the community, turned into a new project. The Symphony has been connecting with other ethnic groups of Holland, finding musicians and groups with whom they can perform next season, arranging their music so everyone can play together.

It’s no secret in the classical music world that our audiences are getting older, funding is getting scarcer, attention is waning, and the struggle for survival of arts organizations is real. Some of us, stepped in this tradition, could say – but we love Mozart, and what’s wrong with Beethoven? This music is a rich treasure, but it can become the comfort food of our world. What about the thrill of finding new music, reaching new peoples? I’m excited that the Holland Symphony is exploring in this way, and hope Holland and the classical world will support this adventure. Maybe you’ll want to wander down to Kollen Park come August to discover something new.

I still love to throw on those U2 CDs (or cassette tapes...) I bought at age 16, when I need a dose of comfort food, but I love even more discovering new music, composers, and styles. Here’s my challenge to you – try something new this week. Inch out of your comfort zone. Online listening makes it easy, but live music is ALWAYS more fun. There’s a whole world of sounds out there waiting for you!

Friday, 21 April 2023

Music is the Secret Sauce

Musicians are always busy during the holidays. As a church musician, there are all sorts of special services around Christmas, full of music. And for a performing musician, there are extra concert gigs as well. And then personally, I enjoy making music in many ways at the holidays. We like to take our kids caroling with our church, to visit nursing homes and members who can’t get out anymore. Sometimes we’ll get together with friends or family to sing and play favorite Christmas carols and songs. And of course, there’s always just singing along with whatever favorite songs might be playing on the radio in the car, or at home during December. Even though certain overplayed tunes can drive me crazy, we all have those songs that immediately make it feel like the holidays for us – whether that’s something sacred, or a goofy fun song – music that can bring back memories of times past, remind us of beloved people, or just conjure up a special feeling.

Music can take all of us to a special place. Could you imagine the holidays without music? Maybe that doesn’t sound like a strange idea at first, but – Christmas Eve services without singing carols? Holiday shopping without the soundtrack of popular tunes? Wrapping presents, or making cookies, or whatever your holiday traditions might be – we all have music that we associate with these times. Kwanzaa songs, Hanukkah songs, Winter Solstice songs – whatever and however we celebrate, music makes all these times richer.

It’s not just holidays. I play for many funerals and weddings as part of my job – and of course, music is always a part of these important times in people’s lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s a large, formal wedding in a huge cathedral, or a small, casual party on the beach, or in someone’s backyard. I’ll bet you haven’t been to a wedding without any music. Or a funeral either. I have friends who are music therapists, or who make music for hospice patients. Music can be an incredible way to help us through times of strong emotion, or when words fail.

I’ve heard stories of people who sat with dying friends or relatives and sang favorite songs as a way of being together, when it was hard to know what to say. I visited a colleague in a nursing home one Christmas, who because of a stroke, could no longer talk, but along with us, and from memory he could sing all the words for four verses (and the harmony parts) on Joy to the World. Music lives in a different place in our bodies than words, or rational thought.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the WWI soldiers, on Christmas Eve, who climbed out of their opposing trenches, celebrated a little, and sang Silent Night together. That powerful memory must have come back to the men who survived, every year when they sang that song again. Some people have strong memories of the song played at their wedding, or their graduation, their prom, maybe a song a favorite relative sang with them, or a best-friend song that two people love to sing together.

Communities of faith sometimes have beloved songs, that the leaders know will always be sung extra heartily. And what about singing at sporting events? Europeans are the best at this, swaying and singing their soccer chants at important moments of the game. Communal singing brings us together in a way that few other things do. There are inspiring stories from many times and places, showing how gathering together to sing helped people find strength and fight common foes – Latvians in the former USSR, South Africans under Apartheid, East Germans under Communism.

Can you imagine how we’d feel different about a group of people with whom we disagree, or with whom we think we have nothing in common, if we all sat around and made music together for awhile? Maybe that sounds a little too hippie for our jaded 21st century sensibilities. But I think there’s some pretty cutting edge science about what happens when we get together with a group of people and start doing the same thing – singing the same songs, the same words, melodies and rhythms. Researchers say it does something to our bodies, starts to change our brain chemistry.

Before their next board meeting, I’d like to prescribe a half hour of singing together for the Ottawa County Commissioners. I’d be willing to play the piano and lead the songs.

Rhonda Sider Edgington is a church musician, organ teacher, and concert organist who performers around West Michigan and the US, and also enjoys writing, about music and life.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Pipe Organs have a rich history that is Music to our Ears

One of the most unique concerts I played 2022 took place at the Lake Leelenau RV Park in northern Michigan. The owner of this park, a kindly widower in his 80’s, is a lover of pipe organs and organ music, as well as being very handy with electronics and general building. So it happened that when he found out about a couple churches in the area selling their pipe organs, he was able to acquire them, and with his son built a large addition to his modest home, for his own pipe organ.

This instrument is quite successful in this space, impeccably maintained by the organ lover himself, and played in the summer in a series of house concerts for guests of his RV Park, as well as visitors from the surrounding areas. Though unusual, this venue provided one of the most enthusiastic audiences of any concert I’ve played in recent memory. While classical music audiences don’t tend to attract folks who aren’t already lovers of said genre (and organ music concerts even more so!), this concert was attended by both organ lovers, and people who had no idea what I was doing. Many questions were asked afterwards, and I believe we made some new fans for organ music.

The proprietor of the Lake Leelenau RV Park is not a historical abnormality. In years past, many folks had pipe organs in their homes. In the 19th century, before recorded music was available, the upper crust often had their own pipe organs built in their large homes (families with names like Kodak, Carnegie, Kellogg, etc) and they hired organists to serenade them at mealtimes, or during parties. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos, or Sam Walton with a pipe organ in their home? I guess times have changed and pipe organs just aren’t as sexy as they used to be. Alas...

About 8 years ago, there was a home for sale in Grand Rapids with a pipe organ inside. I knew the house and owner, because he’d hosted organ events there at his home, and I’d been invited to play. Like the widower in Lake Leelenau, this man did not play the organ. He was simply a lover of organ music. The console (that’s where one plays – a large desk-sized piece of furniture) occupied one room, as well as chairs to sit and listen, and another large room was filled with pipes and the blowers – machines which provide the air that flows through the pipes. As I heard, the house was eventually bought by another organ-lover, who moved from the West Coast to Grand Rapids, to live in his dream home – with his very own pipe organ.

If this intrigues you, I recommend the fascinating picture book, Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous by Smith/ Levasseur, published by the Organ Historical Society. Buy it from them and support organists, instead of Mr. Bezos, with your book buying dollars!

You may think that since you don’t play the organ, or attend church (or attend a church with an organ), or classical music concerts that you would never have an opportunity to hear organ music. How wrong you might be! How about Windmill Island, and Dutch Village? While the instruments there are technically barrel organs, the pipes inside are exactly like the pipes inside the organs I play in concerts. There isn’t a keyboard – they are played more like a music box - but these organs also have bellows. What about the Public Museum in Grand Rapids? In their auditorium, they have a theater organ – an instrument played during silent movies, and previously for all kinds of entertainment. In addition to pipes, theater organs contain a whole battery of percussion instruments, bells and whistles (literally), and extras like fire alarms and birds chirping. The Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon also has a vintage theater pipe organ, though it’s not played as often as the instrument in GR (which was for a time in a pizza parlor!) And here’s one more – ever been to a White Caps game? While they obviously don’t have a PIPE organ at those games, my son and I were delighted to discover last summer than an organist sits at her instrument in the top of the stands, watching the game, and playing songs and snippets in reaction to the plays in real time. Maybe organs are sexier than we all originally thought!

Friday, 21 April 2023

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.


Friday, 21 April 2023

Notes from at Home : a professional musician who likes to write, about music

Living on 12th street near Kollen Park, we often hear music from the bandstand, as we eat outside on summer evenings. We’ve half-heard American Legion Band concerts for years as background music, but a combination of summer-induced laziness, and preconceived musician assumptions meant I’d never actually attended a concert in the over ten years we’ve lived in Holland.

But in early August, our adolescents jumped up from dinner one night and declared they wanted to go check out what that great music was. I was surprised when they returned and our son exclaimed that we had to go the following week to hear that concert. All my assumptions about an American Legion outdoor summer concert – schmaltzy 1950’s favorites chosen for Boomers, boring marches – didn’t seem to fit with this new piece of info (my 15 year old loves it?), so the following week, I needed to go and see for myself.

We packed our bikes with lawn chairs and rode down 12th street a bit late, but in time to get a fine seat near the back of the crowd. There aren’t any bad spots in Kollen Park on a beautiful summer’s evening, watching the sun set, gazing out at the lake, and feeling the fresh breezes.

I should have put it together – Scott Vanden Berg (a fine musician) directs the American Legion Band, and my assumptions were about to be thoroughly upended. Kollen Park was packed with audience members listening attentively. There were families, single folks, dog lovers with their pets, couples, and groups of friends. And the programming was diverse and interesting. There was even a Coldplay medley (shamelessly pandering to 40-somethings like myself!) At the concert’s end, when they closed with my dreaded musical genre, the Washington Post March, it turns out that one can even play and direct a march in a musically interesting manner.

Next summer, we’ll all be checking the Kollen Park schedule, and attending with picnic blanket and snacks. I’m definitely inviting friends. We might even get one of those signs to post in our front yard, letting all our neighbors know where you can hear fabulous summer music on a beautiful night right in Holland.

Speaking of outdoor concerts, even though we’ve been oblivious to the American Legion concerts, since moving to West Michigan, we’ve hardly missed a summer of attending a couple concerts per year at the outdoor pavilion of Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. While I’m a classical musician, I do enjoy all kinds of music.

A highlight this past summer for us was Bela Fleck. If you don’t know Bela Fleck, he’s only one of the most famous banjo players in the world. And if you think that since you don’t like bluegrass, you don’t need to know Bela Fleck, he’s also an amazing musician who has won Grammy’s in multiple genres, from classical to jazz to folk.

I heard a podcast interview with Bela Fleck, where he mentioned how people sometimes say to him that they don’t like bluegrass music, but he figures that since bluegrass is so diverse, they’d probably find something they liked if they investigated further. I believe the same could be said of most (all?) musical genres, but that’s a topic for another time!

My husband and I attended this concert, and we were both blown away. Partly because Bela Fleck can play the banjo like nobody’s business. But another factor that excited me just about as much, is when I can tell the person on stage is having an amazing time, loving what they do, and excited to share that with us in the audience. You don’t have to drive up to GR to see that kind of music making (the Felt Mansion has a wonderful outdoor summer series, for instance) though if you haven’t ever attended a Meijer Gardens concert, you should especially check out the Tuesday evening local acts, which are free with admission to the gardens. Again, you can bring a blanket and a picnic, and enjoy amazing Michigan summer evenings along with the music.

One thing we’ve all learned with the pandemic is how important AND fragile things like live music, and music venues are. Local music-lovers’ paradise Seven Steps Up in Silver Lake will be closing soon, a tragedy for all who love live music in intimate spaces. So don’t spend another weekend on the sofa, scrolling through Netflix or social media – get out there and support musicians and music venues!