2017 Sept 17: Learning the Organ

September 17, 2017 10:30

Toccata in C    J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Adagio  J.S. Bach

Fugue J.S. Bach

Teenage years are frequently a time of rebellion, and I was no exception. My mother was a Brahms, Tchaikowski nut, and she played that music on our stereo throughout my childhood. When I was 14 mom found a music teacher who would come to the house (being a single working mother, this was a logistical necessity). He was a professor of music at the local CSU and made an exception about home lessons for me. He started me on the Bach Two Part Inventions (written specifically for students) and I was hooked. So my teenage peers were coming home with Grateful Dead LPs, while I played Bach fugues on the piano for hours. 

My music teacher was also a very capable organist, so one lesson he brought some Bach organ scores. Now, organs have keyboards for your hands, plus a giant keyboard you play with your feet. So he sat me on the piano bench to his left, and played the hands part while I played the feet part on the low end. I was so enchanted I kept losing my place, and I remember him scolding me. But I didn’t care!

Later he took me to the church where he was organist and played for me for a while. I was transfixed – I'm learning to do this!

Owning an organ was out of the question, so I needed to find a church at which to practice – within bicycle range as I was about 15 at the time. I found a church nearby that had, of all things, a large reed organ with a pedalboard, powered by an electric blower. It was a poor instrument when new, and great age had not improved it. But it was a place to start.

By 16 my skills were coming along, and it was time to find a pipe organ on which to practice as they respond very differently than electronics (or reeds!). For example, the big pedal pipes take longer to speak, so to have things sound simultaneously your feet have to play a little ahead of your hands. Armed with the Yellow Pages and a Thomas Atlas I made a list of churches in order of increasing distance from me. I’d call, get the music director’s info, call him/her and explain: "I’m studying organ with a professor of music at the local CSU, and I’m looking for an organ on which to practice...." click. I just couldn't get a hearing.

About then a church organ position opened up near me — they only had a Hammond electronic organ (a step up from the reed organ, but still mediocre at best for classical literature – for openers it had a non-standard small pedalboard so I was constantly going off the end). Meanwhile, now I was 16 so I could drive, so my radius of churches expanded considerably. Still, "no", "no", "no"...

Armed with a car and my organist paycheck I would spend it at Byron Hoyt in Hollywood — THE sheet music store in Los Angeles (long gone). Now, if you’re coming up Highland Ave towards the 101, there’s a place where you have to make a hard right turn or you’ll drive into the Hollywood United Methodist Church. And I made that right turn many times – until one time something said "go straight into their parking lot" and the traffic parted. Look, the door to the sanctuary is open. Look, there’s someone inside working on the organ (the organist/music director as it turned out). I introduced myself, we spoke for a few minutes, he invited me to try the organ – an enormous instrument with 4 keyboards (we have 2) – to me bigger than God Herself, accustomed as I was to tiny and hideous reed and Hammond organs. Then he said "I have to go give a piano lesson. Play as long as you like. When you're done, close the door after you and come see me across the courtyard." I wept as I played a real instrument for the first time.

He introduced me to the church administrator so I could come play as often and as long as I wanted (provided the sanctuary wasn't in use). I can play for you today because of that great kindness.