Sunday Food For Thought–The Church Organ

This is a post from a previous family blog that I used to have. Actually, I still have the blog, but I haven’t posted to it in well over a year. Anyway, I brought this post over here because I thought that it would be a good post for Sunday.

Psalm 100
1Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
2Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
3Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
5For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

 
When I was 8 years old my dad assigned me to start taking piano lessons. He had two reasons for doing this: (1) Dad liked piano music, (2) Dad reasoned that the Church would always be in need of someone to play the piano. Oh wait. There were actually three reasons: (3) I was the oldest of four children and I looked like I was supposed to play the piano. So there you have it.

You’re probably saying by now, “I thought this post was about the Church organ.”  Patience, grasshopper.

My first piano was a baby grand. Dad didn’t mind being in debt, so he started me out with the biggest piano that would fit into our living room and still leave room for the couch. This was the only piano my family ever bought and we drug it around the country with us for ten years through our many moves. It ended up in Saudi Arabia when my parents moved there in 1977. After my dad died, Mom sold it to someone who lived on camp. I wonder if that piano is still around?

Sometimes we had to put the piano in storage, like when we lived with my grandparents for a while. However, my “piano” lessons never stopped (ten years worth of piano lessons). It would have been a sacrilege. Enter, the organ.

This is referred to as a tabletop chord organ.  The right hand plays the melody on the keys and the left hand pushes the buttons which make a typical three note “chord” as accompaniment.  It was the only musical instrument my grandparents ever owned.  I can still hear my grandfather playing “On Top of Old Smokey”; it was his favorite song.
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Anyway, this two octave wonder kept me going with my music.  When I needed keys beyond the ones that were available, I would pretend to play them while sort of humming the notes I was supposed to be playing.
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Anytime my family went to the church, I always had to lug my music books along with me so that I could practice on a real piano.  There I’d sit after church, twanging away on the only piano available to me at the time. Somehow in the madness of my family life, it seemed perfectly normal to me to have to do things that way.
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This is a pretty good likeness of the piano that was in the little backwoods church that my family attended in South Carolina.
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When I was 11, life got really interesting in our little South Carolina church.  Enter organ #2.  One day our Branch President (the Mormon name for the leader of a very small Mormon congregation–non-Mormons would call him a preacher), Wilbur Redmond, announced that our church would be getting an organ.  We were soooo excited!  There were several of us girls that played the piano and now we were going to have an honest-to-goodness organ to play for our church meetings.  None of us had ever played an organ, other than me of course with the afore mentioned table top organ at my Granny’s house, which meant I was light years ahead of everyone else.  The organ was gifted to our church in the will of a woman who was not a member of our church, but apparently wished us well, never-the-less.
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The big day finally arrived when the organ was delivered, appropriately, in the back of a pick-up truck.  Some of the men muscled it up to its appointed spot on the stand as we piano-playing girls waited with nervous anticipation.  Then came the unveiling……..
                                     
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We gawked.  It was an old pump organ and looked pretty much like the one pictured above.  An antique, said to be about 100 years old.  In my mind’s eye I could see and hear that demented old woman who willed us the organ cackling away:  “If the Mormons want to sing, let ’em work for it!”
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The rules for playing the organ were pretty simple–sit down, put your feet on the peddles and start pumping like crazy.  The harder you pumped, the louder the organ.  The girls who knew how to play the piano were each assigned a specific Sunday in the month to play the organ for the congregation to sing.  It was nerve-wracking trying to pump hard enough to keep the sound going while playing the hymns at the right tempo.  On summer days we would really work up a sweat.  This may have been my first experience playing the organ in church, but it was not to be my last.
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When I was 12 my family moved to Lewis, Delaware, again having to leave our piano in storage.  By this time, the necessity of playing the piano was in my blood and I was actually a little disappointed that I wouldn’t have access to what had become “my piano.”  Not to worry; it didn’t take Dad long to solve the problem.  Enter organ #3.  I came home from school one day to find an organ that looked something like this sitting in the living room.
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Just kidding.  It really looked a lot like this:
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Dad announced that he had found an organ teacher and that I would start taking organ lessons the following week.  It’s a good thing that Dad had such great decision making abilities.  Probably saved me from a life of idle depravity.  Anyway, I got three whole months of organ lessons before my family moved across the bay to…Cape May, New Jersey.  We took the organ with us.
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There were no Mormon churches in Cape May, so we had to drive about an hour and a half to somewhere else in New Jersey (can’t remember where) to attend church on Sundays.  Our first Sunday at “church” was interesting on many levels.  First of all, we met in a funeral home.  Although I had spent most of my life traveling from state to state, living here and there like a Gypsy, meeting for church in a funeral home was a new experience for me.
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Our first Sunday at Church, the congregation sang acapella.  There was no one to play for us.  As far as I could see, there wasn’t even a piano or an organ to play.  Whew!  I could feel freedom coming my way.  Enter organ #4.
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After the church meeting, Dad herded the family up to the front to the meet the Branch President.  He began his introduction with, “This is my daughter Teresa Laurel and she plays the organ.”  My eyes bulged at his words.  Dad continued, “I noticed that you didn’t have anyone to play that organ back there and I would like to offer my daughter’s services for next Sunday.”  I whipped my head around towards the back of the funeral home chapel like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.  Sure enough, there was the organ, sitting in a back corner of the chapel.  I felt my life ebbing away…far, far away…lots of ebbing.  Dad and the Branch President (aka Mormon preacher of a very, very small congregation) agreed that I would start playing the organ the following Sunday.  The ebbing continued throughout the coming week, right on into the next Sunday.
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With incredibly sweaty, shaky hands I played the prelude music for the meeting.  I did okay, Dad was beaming.  When it came time for the first congregational hymn things got a little interesting.  Like I said, the organ was at the back of the funeral home chapel.  This meant that my back was to the congregation (not a bad thing), BUT my back was also to the chorister (not a good thing), who was standing at the front of the chapel.  I had to try and look over my shoulder at the chorister to know when to start playing and then turn around really quickly to look back at my music.  Pretty much I was on my own.  I was an entity unto myself.  I set the timing of the hymns and the chorister and congregation had to keep pace with me, ’cause heck, I couldn’t see anything except my music and the wall in front of me.
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I gained confidence that first Sunday as I made it through the first two hymns.  There was a rest hymn scheduled partway through the services and I made my way back to the organ feeling fairly certain that everything would be okay.  I got myself situated on the organ bench and positioned my hands on the keyboards; then taking a silent breath I hit the first notes of the intro.  A horrific high pitched squeal came from the organ.  It made me jump and I looked around nervously.  “I must have hit the wrong keys,” I thought.  I rechecked my hands, made sure that they were on the right keys and hit the first notes again.  The same horrible sound came from the organ.
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“I’m sorry,”  I called up to the chorister.  “I don’t know what’s wrong.  Just a minute,” I pleaded.
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Nervously I glanced at the music and back down at the organ.  Then I saw it.  All of the slides had been pulled out to their maximum.  To my left, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a little boy running around at the back of the chapel.  I wanted to disembowel his parents at that moment.
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Using my best guess, I quickly pushed the slides back into what I hoped was a more reasonable arrangement.  Despite my 10 organ lessons, I had never learned much about slides or stops…actually nothing about slides and stops.  I noticed that the ‘clarinet’, ‘trumpet’, and ‘violin’ buttons were turned to the on position so I turned those off.  (are they called stops?) Again I turned around and called up to the chorister, “I think I have it now.”  The sound that came out this time was not quite right, but I kept on playing as if it was perfectly melodious.
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I’ve only played the organ for Church once in a great while since those days in New Jersey.  While each time has been a struggle, nothing has ever compared to playing the organ in a corner at the back of a funeral home chapel…in New Jersey.  Oh yeah, except for playing that pump organ in South Carolina.
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Comments

  1. says

    You made me laugh so hard with the story of the pianos and organs.I howled about the pump organ! What a great sense of humor you have and everyone around is fortunate that they know you. Thank you for making me smile.

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