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The Organist
Written March 19, 2003


I felt like an impostor.

There I was on the organ bench.  I was playing the centennial recital for the hundred-year-old Lyon & Healey pipe organ at the First United Methodist Church of Richwood, Ohio — just as though I were a professional musician.

But I am not a professional musician.  I am most definitely an amateur.

The story goes back a hundred years, to the groundbreaking for the church's present building on October 6, 1902.  It was dedicated on March 4, 1904.

Now, in 2003, the church was in the midst of its centennial celebration.  GeorgeAnn Charles was planning a special day of music, and she invited me to play for the morning church service on Sunday, March 2, followed by a one-hour concert that afternoon.

My story goes back fifty years.  The Thomas family moved to Richwood in 1952 and joined the church.  I took piano lessons, and in 1959, at the age of twelve, I learned to play the organ.  Thereafter I filled in for the regular organists from time to time.

One of those regulars was Gladys Winter (1902-85).  She spent 57 years on the organ bench:  1921-36 at the Presbyterian Church and 1936-78 at First United Methodist.

On the right, Patt Houk (1932-2008) served as her successor for many years.  I played the piano for duets with each of them on several occasions.

This picture shows me practicing on October 27, 1963.

Later, as a student at Oberlin College, I got to play on some of the practice organs there.

I also played for special occasions.  Here I am with Pat Ransome (later Pat Kyle Beatley) at Terry and Joyce Christy's wedding on March 20, 1966.

Even after I moved to Pennsylvania in 1974, for the next couple of decades I was invited to play the organ for church whenever I returned to Richwood to visit my parents.  But I had not played it for several years, since my late father became unable to attend services.

My organ music library consists mostly of a periodical called The Organ Portfolio.  In February of 2003, I went through each old issue and made a list of 58 selections that were not excessively difficult.  They were from two to five minutes each in length.  Then I chose the 21 pieces that I liked the best and arranged them in order:  three for the morning service, the others for the afternoon recital.

But an uninterrupted hour of instrumental music might prove tiresome to some listeners, as well as to the fellow operating the keys and pedals.  So I planned to speak after each piece, telling the story of the instrument.  Jon Davis researched the church's archives and passed some historical facts along to me.

The original cost of the organ was $1,450 installed.  It's completely mechanical, a "tracker action" organ that works by hand-made wooden linkages and levers.

In the early years, boys were recruited to pump the bellows.   After a few decades, an electric blower was installed.

Another addition was made during my time:  a 25-note electronic chime.

There are 396 pipes.  (That sounds like a lot until you compare it to, say, the organ in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, which has nearly 12,000.)

The 396 pipes are grouped into seven ranks or "stops," and during my recital I planned to demonstrate each one:

Great Division

Swell Division

Pedal Division

Open Diapason 8'

Stopped Diapason 8'

Bourdon 16'

Dulciana 8'

Viola 8'


Octave 4'

Flute d'Amour 4'


But although I could rehearse the music on my piano in Pennsylvania, practice on the organ itself would have to wait until I got to Ohio two days before the concert.  I worried about how much my skills had eroded.

When I reached the organ bench Friday afternoon, I was gratified to find that I could play the pedals about as well as I ever could.  In other words, adequately.  But there's a lot more to playing the organ than merely hitting the notes.

"Registration" includes which stops to use, which keyboard to play on, when to play an octave lower than written, and so on.  Years before, I had noted the registration on my music, using symbols like XOX  XXOO XOO to indicate which stops and couplers should be turned on initially.  Other notations indicated changes during the course of a piece.  For various reasons, however, many of these registrations had to be modified.  I marked up all 21 pieces and started to practice them.

That's a lot of music.  Normally I can remember the twists and turns of the registrations that I have planned, but with 21 pieces, it was disconcerting to turn the page, read my notations, and momentarily be at a loss as to where I was going next.

I practiced three hours on Friday.  I came back Saturday morning, and again Saturday afternoon, and again Saturday evening.  As daylight began to fade, I tired.  I realized that I wasn't going to get any better, and I didn't want to look at any more XXOO combinations that day.  I would do the best I could on Sunday. 

The next morning, 143 people came to the 10:30 AM worship service.  At the door, they were greeted by the current regular organists, Phyllis Rees and Carol Young, who handed them a program with this picture on the cover.

During the service, the Ensemble and the Children's Choir sang, the Bell Choir performed, and Megan Smith sang a solo.

So did Marcie Weber Mackey, who came down from Toledo for the occasion.  Forty years before, I played the piano while she directed the Junior Choir.  This morning, I played the piano while she sang "My Tribute."


Here, the Bell Choir is lined up along the choir loft.  On the podium are the Ensemble (white robes) and the Children's Choir (green robes), singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."  Pastor Joe Rhea is at the far right, listening from the front pew.

After the morning service, we gathered in the church basement for lunch, featuring chicken sandwiches.  For as long as I can remember, these sandwiches have been part of community meals in Richwood (like tuna casseroles in Lake Wobegon), but I've never encountered them anywhere else.  They're sort of like Southern barbecue sandwiches but without the spicy sauce:  just shredded chicken on a bun.  (Click here for the recipe.)

At lunch, GeorgeAnn (right) presented Marcie (center) and me with souvenirs of the hundred-year-old church building.  When a wing of Sunday school rooms was added in 1961, some stained glass windows were removed from the northwest wall and put into storage.  Now they've been made into these prisms.  The one I received measures 6" by 5" and now hangs in my kitchen window.

At 1:00 that afternoon, 73 people returned to the sanctuary for the organ recital.

The program went smoothly enough.  I like to take full advantage of the organ's resources, which other organists are sometimes hesitant to do.  I like to play energetically and dramatically.  And so I did, through arrangements of Debussy and Bach and "Lead On, O King Eternal."  I also enjoyed the interludes of public speaking between the speeches.  These days, I don't get that many opportunities either to play or to lecture.

But I was aware of my musical shortcomings.  I sometimes had to resort to "faking it."  If I played one phrase incorrectly, sometimes I'd deliberately make the same mistake in the next phrase so it would at least seem that I had meant to do it that way.

(I remember once playing with a cat that had climbed a very small tree.  Sparring with me from the lowest branch, the cat lost its footing.  To save face, it leapt from the branch to the ground and immediately began sniffing the grass, pretending that it had decided to investigate the lawn.  "No, I didn't fall out of the tree.  I jumped!")

When I listened later that day to a tape of my performance, I heard myself missing notes in almost every measure.  My tempos were unstable; I rushed through the easy parts but slowed down for difficult chords or registration changes.  It wasn't a matter of being out of practice; I played as well as I ever have, but I'm only an amateur.  After half an hour of hearing my recorded clumsiness, I had to clear my head by switching to a public radio station and listening to some actual classical musicians.

On my tape, I also noticed that changes in registration had less effect on the final sound than I thought at the time I was making them.  Maybe it was because while changing the stops, I was sitting only a few feet away from the pipes.  Maybe it was because I was so conscious of the changes that I was making.  For whatever reason, when I'm not playing the organ, it sounds more homogenized.  (I've also noticed this when I listen to someone else play it.)  There's less difference between a string stop and a flute stop and a diapason; while still distinguishable, they're just minor variations of the basic "organ" sound.  And increases and decreases in volume are less extreme, to the point of sometimes being scarcely detectable.  During my demonstration of the different stops, some listeners may have thought to themselves, "all those different pipes sound about the same to me."

But no one said that.  Everyone seemed pleased with the hour-long program.

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I concluded with an arrangement of "How Great Thou Art."


There was enthusiastic applause at the end — a standing ovation, in fact — and many came up afterwards to thank me in person.

I was left with a warm feeling of reconnecting with old friends.  And, though I knew my music could have been better, they sincerely seemed to enjoy it.

Some reminisced about the Thomas family, for example the way my father, in his later years, always answered the question "How are you doing, Vernon?"  He'd reply, "Fine and dandy!"

That's one great thing about being a member of a small community.  It's not necessary to become a masterful orator before you're allowed to give a speech.  It's not necessary to be a first-rate musician before you're allowed to perform.

At the First United Methodist Church that Sunday, farmers and students and housewives and children brought their varied talents together to make a joyful noise, and all who heard it rejoiced.



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