Friday, October 23, 2015

Back to the Organ

Wednesday was Back to the Future day. In case you missed it, October 21st 2015 was the day that Doc Brown and Marty McFly, the heroes of the 1980s franchise "Back to the Future" movies, having travelled 30 years into the future, arrived to straighten out and inevitably cause more trouble by messing with the space-time continuum. People have been having fun seeing whether the movie accurately predicted what life would be like thirty years into the future. Cubs fans took heart that they were supposed to have won a World Series, even though with the expanded post season it would have been impossible to win it all by the 21st of October (the World Series won't have even started by then). And "Jaws 19" is, alas, not playing in theaters.

[by the way, reality hurts, doesn't it? The Cubs spent the time during Doc and Marty's adventure getting bounced out of the playoffs in 4 games. Next year....again.]

But I would like to take a trip in the other direction, back to 1985, because October 20 of that year just happens to be an anniversary of mine, so if Doc and Marty could just hold the DeLorean for a minute or two I may just hop in...

There is a gangly teenager sitting at the organ console in a little white church with a steeple in a rural suburb. He can barely reach the pedals, and you can see the concern on his face. His mother is seated halfway back on the same side as the organ, giving signals: up for make it louder, down for make it softer. For some reason there is concern he will play the organ too loudly. His mother has offered this sage advice for hymn playing: "Slow down and make your breaks." Apparently these people need to be able to breathe between the phrases of a hymn.

The young lad (that's what they called us back then, if I recall) labors away. After the service he seems disappointed by his efforts. Apparently there were some extra notes in the mix. So a pastor sits down to write a letter:

October 22, 1985

Dear Andy:

I thought you did an excellent job on Sunday and I'm writing to say so. Many people commented on your playing and it was all good.

I know that you probably heard an mistakes you may have made and you're feeling badly about them. Believe me, you're the only one who heard them.

You're doing a fine job and I appreciate all the work you're doing.

Thank you,
Pastor Seawright

The gig goes on for three more weeks. The regular organist is out having a baby, and there have been some complications (all resolved to the good long ago; that baby just turned 30!). After the month-long debut, the session, the governing body of the local church, writes a letter

November, 1985

The Session of our Church wishes to thank you for playing the organ for worship services these past weeks.

We enjoyed your special music choices and you played so well. We are very proud of you.

you have a wonderful gift, Andy, and we appreciate you sharing your gift with your Church Family!

Love and Blessings,
Mrs. Carol Pittis
in behalf of Session.

Many people are very encouraging of this young lad. Not everyone; this movie has to have a bad guy in it. One of the members thinks that because this is just a teenager he shouldn't be paid the regular amount budgeted for a substitute organist. The boy's mother and several others respond that he is doing the same job as an adult, playing for the entire service and choir rehearsal, so why shouldn't he be paid in full? It's a familiar issue if you are an organist.

Nonetheless, the month goes sailing by, into the vortex of time, full of anxiety and suspense, and also providing the opportunity to learn to have quite a bit of music ready on deadline, and how to handle this strange instrument known as the organ. It's not a pipe organ, and it is fairly small, but there are still a number of buttons, draw knobs, and pedals to handle.

That young man took all of that encouragement and parleyed it into more substitute positions over the next two years; then the organist of the church mentioned to a friend whose church was looking for an organist that there was a young man who could play pretty well. That led to a regular church position at the age of 16, and a few since. I'm on my fourth church now, having spent roughly a decade at both of the last two.

I thank all the people who helped me get my start, including my piano teacher, Ann Meck, who gave me a few organ lessons, and the organist of the Northfield Presbyterian Church, Debbie Langford, who showed me what the numbers on the tabs meant. And, of course, mom, who made sure I didn't rush ahead of the congregation or burst their eardrums. Even though I was a teenage boy, I must have eaten just enough vegetables that I can now reach the pedals. If you are in the neighborhood, you can see me using them next Friday evening at 7.
"Scary Organ Recital"
Friday, October 30 at 7 pm
Faith United Methodist Church
1719 North Prospect, Champaign Illinois, 61821

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