Monday, May 14, 2012

Confessions of a Professional Bench Warmer, Part 2

So this organ thing for me. How did it all start?

Again, it's another gift from my Dad, who had music talent embedded genetically. He had piano lessons as a child, and our family history loves the tale of he and his brother placing thumb tacks on all the hammers of his mother's spinet, to change the sound to something more 'rinky tink' than the classic mellow tones. His mother blanched over that stunt, and, as we've heard tell, the piano was never quite the same, either.

Dad also sang. He had a fine tenor voice and during his late-teen years in the Navy was part of its Chorale. Later, he held an anchor position in our church choir, and that opened the door for my own odyssey.

Dad also had a life-long interest in theater organs, those massive collections of pipes and bellows, augmented with literal bells and whistles, that provided soundtracks for the silents back in the early days of movie-going. Not that he was old enough to remember those days, but he did enjoy the singalongs, kept in time by the bouncy rhythms of a jolly theater organ, a perk that remained part of the matinee experience well into the 1940s.

He eventually decided he wanted to rekindle the keyboard skills that had long ago gone stale (he would occasionally play my uncle's piano, sans thumb tacks, at parties, but it was always the same tune, "The Wandering Donkey," or something like that).

Marrying the two interests, he bought a second-hand spinet organ for the home.

Yes, gee Dad, it was a Wurlitzer.

I don't even quite remember where he got it (I was only 11). But I do know I took to it like the proverbial duck to the proverbial water.

The model we had featured a cassette player built-in, and using tapes and some cardboard note-indicators for the keys, it was possible to work through a few lessons to get the budding organist making music ASAP.

All three of us kids played with the thing, but like tumblers in a combination lock that align properly and click open, the concepts and techniques just gelled for me instantly. It was like being exposed to a second language that I somehow already knew how to read.

Dad came home from work that evening and heard music from the basement where the organ was kept.

"Is that the cassette player?" he asked Mom, citing the demo recordings that came with the model.

"No," she said. "It's Dan."

I still remember the piece, too: "The Carnival of Venice." Comprising about 10 different notes and a whopping three chords. But I had mastered it with seemingly no effort at all.

I don't remember how long it took me to chew through the freebie lessons that came with the cassette player on that Wurlitzer spinet, but I do know that before long, my parents were seeking formal lessons for me.

Dad asked the choir director at church if he knew anyone who taught. As luck would have it, this director taught organ himself, and I had found a tutor.

I studied privately for about 10 years or so, and my teacher was excellent. He was also, at that time, the very definition of the starving artist, as he had just recently graduated with a degree in music and was having a tough time surviving on the salary that the church was paying him as a choir director. I remember well those lessons where he would come to our house in the late afternoon and, at the insistence of Mom, be asked to stay for dinner as well.

He believed that a good organist also has a full understanding of singing, especially if he/she expects to make a living working for a church. So a spot was opened for me in the church choir, singing tenor next to my father.

Those years with him were not only educational (I learned about harmonies and countermelodies, about breath control and phrasing, about blend and voicing, and also about liturgy and planning), they were also the source of some of the warmest memories I have about my dad. Standing next to him and belting out Christmas carols thrilled me to no end, and when I think back on him now, I would give anything to stand beside him once more, with a yellowed copy of The Saint Gregory Hymnal opened in front of us, wending our way through the rich tones of Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."

I accompanied Mass back then. During school liturgies, kids who took piano at school were often shoved over (by necessity) to the organ for Mass purposes. Although I was an outsider who didn't take lessons through the school, I was tossed into the mix.

It was one-song-per-accompanist back then, and we'd swap around the bench frantically to avoid large gaps between songs.

But over time, the interests of the other pianists-cum-organists started to wane, and I was playing all the tunes for school Mass myself. As I improved, I was given the responsibility for a Sunday Mass (9:00 a.m.) by myself, and I stayed in that spot throughout my high school years.

And the education continued. I was now responsible for picking songs and hymns, and I gained a deep understanding of appropriateness. I once thought it would be fun to end a Mass on March 17 with a rousing rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Early that afternoon, I received a call from my teacher who had, in turn, gotten quite an irate call from the rectory about the unauthorized selection. I didn't need a second warning to ensure that liturgical music is exactly that... liturgical!

I am somewhat unique as an organist. Most of my colleagues do begin by studying the piano and, after mastering the fingering and technique, migrate over to the organ and translate the skills. I began with the organ and have had to "back-fill" my way to piano, an instrument that, despite its similarity, is vastly different. I never seem to have quite mastered what to do with my feet!

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and although I think the genes for music were implanted by my father, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that they were definitely fed, watered, mulched, weeded, and protected by my mother. It was she who managed to find the wiggle room in an often-tight household budget to pay for my lessons, music, and other supplies over the years. It was she who arranged for transportation, once the lessons shifted from our home to my teacher's. 

So thank you, Dad, for the musical chops. And thank you, Mom, for setting and maintaining the environment for them to thrive.

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