Upcoming Performances

September 22
3:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

October 18
12:30 pm Central

"Friday Pipes" recitalist, Third Baptist Church, St. Louis, Missouri

December 1
3:00 pm Eastern

Messiah organist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

December 3
8:00 pm Eastern

Haydn Creation organist, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

December 13
12:15 pm Eastern

Music at Midday, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2020
3:00 pm Eastern

Inaugural recitalist, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C..

March 6, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

April 5, 2020
2:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Ga.

April 18, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Concerto organist, Milligan College

May 12, 2020
12:35 pm Central

Tuesday Series recitalist, Church of St. Louis, King of France, Minneapolis, Minn.

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.



Today, I said goodbye to one of the smarter congregations I have had the privilege to serve as organist. For two years, the people of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Boone, NC, have sung heartily for me, laughed uproariously with me, and served their community with single-minded determination. May they ever prosper, and may my successor Marc Longlois enjoy success after success as their new organist. I thank the Rev. Cynthia "Cyndi" Banks for her quiet leadership and commitment to both good liturgy and to people. She is the embodiment of the fact that it is possible to serve God with dignity and meet people where they are at the same time.

Several years ago, I posted a list of the congregations I had served. Since then, I have added two more; this one, and the First Presbyterian Church of Statesville, NC, where I served as Interim Organist for two years.

I guess two years is the magic number for my service in churches. But under the hood is the fact that I have to come to terms with my inability to provide the continuity I would like to. With my traveling and other craziness that comes with being a professor and professional musician, I have to admit defeat. My hat is off to my colleagues worldwide, who juggle teaching and performing and church-ing. I don't know how they do it (assistant organists, perhaps?). Well, I have learned my lesson. But I have enjoyed the support of many congregations who understand, and I depart with their blessing and good wishes.

Since St. Luke's is within walking distance of my house, I'll certainly see them again. They are worth seeing.


Taking a Longview of things

My latest recording, an all-British program, is about to come out on the Centaur label. Here are some thoughts that didn’t fit in the allocated space in the liner notes:

Say “Longview” to most any organist, and their eyes will glaze over in a semi-trance of ecstasy. Any organ nerd who has read this far now knows where this recording was made, assuming they didn’t infer it from the title of the post.

Churches are interesting to different people for different reasons. Architects, pastors, Christians, and organists take their own pleasure out of exploring these monuments constructed to the Almighty. And if there is a fine pipe organ to be found within, then the organist is in an even deeper nirvana. The First Baptist Church of Longview, Texas, is an example. The drive up to the building is awesome enough, with its towering roofline and all-brick construction in what some might call “Modern Gothic” (not Gothic Revival). Upon entrance into the narthex and into the center aisle, one is greeted by the airiest, most resplendent space of light, lightness, and weightiness in all the right places. It is an astounding space for worship, fellowship, and unplugged sound. The architecture never gets old. I have stepped into that space countless times, and it takes my breath away every time, even after something so mundane as a bathroom break. And it’s all accomplished with brick and stained glass. Perhaps the one thing the room could have benefitted even more from would be exposed pipework.

Chances are that organists might not know about the room if not for Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1174 housed within it. A G. Donald Harrison signature, unaltered, it is its own monument to Harrison, to American organ building, and to that magnificent heyday that church music enjoyed a generation ago. The space and its resident instrument are perfect. The sense of history an organist feels in a space like that is perhaps completely foreign to any other observer. We organists understand that churches cannot live on organ and acoustics alone. But we continue to owe it to ourselves and our students to understand the accomplishment reflected in this organ and its sisters nationwide. To that end, the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, headquartered in nearby Kilgore, Texas, celebrates each year this and other landmark instruments, the products of the perfect storm of America’s leading organ building firm Aeolian-Skinner, that firm’s president and tonal director G. Donald Harrison, and regional representative and extraordinary designer and voicer Roy Perry. To the casual worshipper, the First Baptist Church of Longview represents a quiet miracle in many lives. But to organists, it represents one of the most heralded miracles in our history.

For more tidbits on this organ and my friendship with it, search "Longview" on this website. And see the liner notes when the recording comes out.


Nerding out

Organists worldwide are resting easy this week, having just completed their grueling Christmas service playing duties. I myself played four Eucharist celebrations in two churches in 20 hours’ time. While it recovers, my tired, feeble mind has noticed that many things I talk about fit under the umbrella of nerdspeak:

1. I am reminded of a previous post about what some people might think if they overheard a bunch of organists in conversation.

2. I nerdily (and smugly?) explained to my girlfriend that her tabletop Christmas tree will have to be taken down and packed up on January 5, no earlier, no later, and that the liturgical police will be watching. She saluted appropriately and went about her business.

3. I nerdily noticed this Christmas that Mathias wrote eighth-note ties rather than quarter notes in A Babe Is Born. I nerdily assert that he did this to show the compound meter, rather than allow the near-constant hemiolas to take over the counting. (How’s THAT for some nerdspeak!)

4. The Gleason nerd in me is desperate to be able to talk to Clyde Holloway once again, this time to tell him about this student of mine who has nailed the technique and the memorization regimen this semester without complaint and without error. My jaw dropped regularly in lessons this semester.

5. I nerd out regularly on Facebook, posting about organs that I call “handsome things.” A few of my friends say that they don’t understand those posts but that they love them and love commenting and reading comments.

6. Want to read some nerdspeak about the two handsome things I played this Christmas? Of course you do:

a. The organ at St. Luke’s Episcopal in Boone, NC, is a thirteen-stop Kney from 1995. The Great is 84Naz2Mix. The expressive Swell is 842Trc8. The Pedal is 1688. This handsome thing is in a perfectly stunning acoustical space. The floor is hardwood, and the pews are not upholstered. High, airy ceiling with wood trusses. Windows on all four walls, offering mountain views. The setting could not be more perfect for Holy Eucharist, especially with snow on the ground. But sometimes the organist nerd in me longs for an 8-foot Principal, a full Swell, and a bit more 16-foot tone. But that’s okay.

b. The 2014 Lively-Fulcher at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal in Blowing Rock, NC, is the biggest two-manual organ Lively-Fulcher has put into such a small space. The room seats only about 150. The choir is only about 20 strong, but they make quite a seasoned, trained sound to overcome the acoustics. The room, though long and uncarpeted, is too low to have any resonance. The sound one hears is beautiful, even if it isn’t consistent throughout the space. The organ is a sumptuous treat to play. The Swell is 1688888844,Nas,2,Trc,M,16888. The Great borrows and duplexes a few things from that but adds its own 16888442M. The Pedal is nearly fully borrowed and duplexed but adds its own nice rumbly 16’ flue. And nerds, just look at all those 8-foots on the Swell!

7. Nerds, how many of us can sit down at an organ we haven’t played in a while but we still know where everything is on it? At St. Mary’s in Blowing Rock, I have to remember that toe stud Generals 7 and 8 have been mislabeled as 8 and 7, which has not been corrected because there would be wood glue removal involved. I also have to re-learn each time where the toe reversible for Great to Pedal is in comparison to Sequencer Next. Those are dangerously close together but on different rows on the bolster. Even now, sitting in an auto mechanic’s waiting room while writing this, I still can’t remember which is which. How’s THAT for some nerd-speak!


Thoughts on organ pedagogy

Here are some scattered excerpts from my in-house textbook for my organ lit class:


Many organ teachers don’t bother with a method. They skip over the how-to-play stage with students and go right into music, where they depend on the real-world issues of the music to help the student develop technique. I have always felt that is a lazy and irresponsible way to teach a student. I still think that, but given that I have only four years to “transform” a student from freshman into organist, I am often put in the position of doing things the same way. I used to take lots of time to get a student’s technique just so, and then let them dive into music. Nowadays, I pile on the repertoire like other teachers do, using the usual formula of two pieces per lesson credit hour. It is what it is. A good solution I have come up with, though, is to teach freshmen twice per week for the first semester or two.

As Clyde Holloway said to me many times, "Good teaching renders the teacher gradually dispensable." Just as I was trained, I’m training my students what to do with any given piece in an established style, how to fend for themselves more and more as time goes by. Any student still needing the teacher to attend to every detail of, say, the senior recital is either not paying attention or has been taught to depend on the teacher too much. I am trying to make them conversant in many styles, so that they can go and do likewise, going into all the world to play well and correctly.


So what makes a teacher great? I suppose if you could answer that, then you could answer what makes the world go ’round. Academia likes to think it can identify and reward good teachers, but it really can’t. We have our tenure and promotion systems, and we have teaching awards. But ultimately, there is no accreditation agency that stamps a teacher as good, great, or otherwise. There are only the students to demonstrate success and tell their stories. If that is so, then Russell Saunders, Robert Glasgow, Alexander McCurdy, and David Craighead must have been legendarily wonderful teachers in their day. And that must mean that modern hotshots like Ken Cowan, David Higgs, and Christopher Young are nearly legendary today.

I’d call my teacher Clyde Holloway legendary because he took me step by step toward a near-flawless technique and a fully flawless practice ethic. And he did it without cutting corners or making assumptions. I’d call my other teacher Max Smith equally legendary because he was always there for his students. I have my teaching job because Max Smith advocated for me. I know how to do that job because of Clyde Holloway’s pedagogy. Therefore, based on my own experiences, I consider the two greatest qualities in a teacher: 1) being there for the students, and 2) teaching by example and not just by lecture.


I have met a lot of teachers and have heard them play, but I have no idea how effective they are as teachers. Only their students know that, and the market can only infer teacher effectiveness based on student success or where the teacher teaches, neither of which is a completely accurate measurement.

The history of organ pedagogy is usually told anecdotally, rather than scholarly. (Someone ought to write a book.) I offer quotes and tell my stories about Max Smith and Clyde Holloway. They in turn told me stories about their teachers Mildred Andrews, Carl Weinrich, Robert Baker, and Catharine Crozier. And my students are already telling stories about me. Many people I talk to at AGO conventions mention a teacher or a mentor, and we all either have a good laugh at the story, or we all pause in honor or in memory of our great teachers.

The most colorful stories I have heard tend to be from students of Russell Saunders and David Craighead. I also hear reverent, worshipful stories of Alexander McCurdy, Arthur Poister, Robert Anderson, Robert Glasgow, and Mildred Andrews. Nowadays, Christopher Young, Marilyn Keiser, Janette Fishell, David Higgs, and Marilyn Mason are the subjects of fond narratives. It’s easy to talk about a teacher from whom you have learned. Indeed we are defined by those with whom we studied. Thank goodness for that – otherwise, we wouldn’t know much about our pedigrees in this business.

But all one usually hears are anecdotes, which are usually about something funny or dirty the teacher said, rather than about his/her teaching. One evening, following a long period of cackling hysterically with a friend over Saunders and Holloway stories, I planted my tongue in my cheek and asked, "Did Saunders ever teach, or did he just say dirty things all the time?" For the first time all night, my friend actually began to stutter and hem and haw. He was looking for a way to describe Saunders' teaching. All of us might have the same trouble categorizing our teachers, after all the pithy or off-color sayings are laid out on the table.


Caution: Studying with someone – anyone – does not guarantee success. I have heard miserable performances by people who studied with one of the greats, and I have seen people continue to capitalize on the fact that they studied with a great teacher 30, 40, 50 years ago. But when I hear them play, I shudder on behalf of that poor, dead teacher. That’s just how it is sometimes.


Never say ‘pedagogy’ or ‘pedagogue’ to anyone unless they’re a teacher. Non-teachers will hear the word ‘pedophile,’ and chaos ensues. It has happened to me.



No more pencils, no more books

... No more producer’s dirty looks.

The crew and I have just recorded the final sessions of the complete Widor project. We could not be more pleased (and I could not be more relieved).

Our final works were Symphonies IV and VII and the Bach’s Memento, recorded May 21-24 on the former Kennedy Center Aeolian-Skinner, Op. 1472, now lovingly housed in Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte. Adam Ward and Andrew Pester were our most agreeable hosts, thereby completing our perfect batting average for gracious hosts and venues for the series. Apparently, the way to discover the best of organists serving organists is to record Widor Symphonies on Aeolian-Skinners. Thank you, Adam and Andrew, for everything. Andrew was also a willing note-holder while I bashed (is that the right word?) a few notes into tune and back into speech. And Adam served as page turner a couple times. In addition, choir members Anne and Nancy were willing page turners for the project. They were fascinated by how this kind of thing works, and I suppose one would be – it’s not every day you get to watch organ recordings being made.

The building is of traditional Georgian architecture, with a wide-open nave opening into equally wide-open transepts. The organ is necessarily powerful in the chancel but nicely homogenized out in the room. There is plenty of foundation, and the mixtures are just right in the room, even if they are necessarily a bit boisterous at the bench. And there are reeds upon reeds to choose from.

This organ’s current incarnation is as a mighty service playing instrument. But as it was throughout our recording adventures, my mind was always churning over historical matters. How did this organ sound in the Kennedy Center? How did that diapason carry in that room? (Probably not very well.) When might they have used this or that stop in orchestral literature? And how did Phil Parkey manage to get this stop straightened out during the rebuild to Providence?

Our batting average was also perfected in matching this rep to this organ. The organ purred and roared appropriately. The Harmonic Flute on the Solo (formerly on the Great) sang like a bird in all the right places. The Vox Humana on its own tremulant served well in the only movement Widor calls for what he called a nanny goat stop. The party horns, a Fanfare Trumpet and a State Trumpet, did not find a place in the rep this time (in contrast to a couple cameos at St. Mark’s in Shreveport for the Sixth Symphony and for the Gothique in Independence, Mo.)

Our biggest challenge this time was traffic noise out on Providence Road, and we were limited in the times of day we could record. We had to take and re-take and re-take. We even resorted to using the playback sequencer for some things, and the boys sent me to rest while they played back the sequencer during relatively quieter times of the day. Producer Keith Weber, aviation nut that he is, used the term “noise abatement” throughout the project. We recorded loud movements during rush hour and quiet movements just before and after lunch hours. We roll with the punches.

Engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith have been tireless in their pursuit of all things excellent, and it has been a pleasure to work with them. I have no further recording projects in mind, but all it takes is an idea, some cash, and a phone call to Keith Weber, and we’re on. Meanwhile, it’s on to edit and master all these Widor recordings, and they’ll be out on Centaur when the time comes.

Now, I get to go back to memorizing and performing. Excuse me, please.


Too good to be true?

It may be too good to be true, but if my luck holds just once more, then this complete Widor recording series will probably go down as the lowest-maintenance project ever tackled.

I’m just back from recording the next installment of the complete Widor organ works, this time on Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1309 in The Auditorium, Community of Christ International Headquarters in Independence, Missouri.

To bring my readers up to date on how that went, I could just cut and paste from previous posts about first-class hospitality, 24/7 access, epic instruments that have not been heard on commercial recordings, new friends, landmark music on landmark organs, and rep perfectly matched to instrument. In other words, this felt like another triumph for the organs and hopefully for Widor. No horror stories of broken air conditioners or funerals or noisy children running in the hallways. No emergencies. No tuning issues. And only two loose reed tongues, one of which afforded me an interesting trip into the upper parts of the room. We recorded seventeen movements in about as many hours spread luxuriously across three days. This was the easiest work we had done so far, albeit with two of the most colossal Symphonies Widor wrote. The most difficult part was playing all the notes.

My recording projects marinate me in breathtaking rooms with iconic architecture and equally iconic organs in them: St. Philip Presbyterian, Houston (Fritts); St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport (Aeolian-Skinner); First Presbyterian, Houston (Aeolian-Skinner); First Presbyterian, Wilmington, N.C. (E. M. Skinner); Providence Methodist, Charlotte (Aeolian-Skinner). But the two rooms that stop my heart every time I enter them are the Community of Christ Auditorium (Aeolian-Skinner) and First Baptist, Longview, Texas (Aeolian-Skinner). Even something as mundane as a bathroom break is always followed by a stunned hush when I re-enter a space like that and take it all in again. Surely I’m not the only one who basks so readily and gratefully in these spaces; I know I’m not crazy. But if you are of the age (like me), where you missed the heyday of places like The Auditorium, then you crane your proverbial neck to get a glimpse of the history that must have taken place there. Imagine all those broadcasts, all those recitals, all those services. Imagine being there when Catharine Crozier played the inaugural recital in 1959 to a crowd of about 7000 in a room that seats 5800. Imagine filling rooms like that again for organ recitals. And if you are like me, then you can imagine me walking all over the building late at night and poking my head into the other wonderful spaces such as the cafeteria and auditorium downstairs and walking up and down the endless stacks of lobby ramps that take the place of staircases, and in discovering how the organ looks different and stunning from any door one enters (see photos below). Well, I could go on and on. Let’s do dinner sometime, and I’ll keep going.

Our rep this time was Symphonies VIII and IX (gothique) and the later Trois Nouvelles Pièces. The Eighth is enormous, the most epic organ music composed up to that point: seven movements, 68 pages, about an hour. Then the gothique represents a brand new capturing of Widor’s imagination, reducing the sheer size of the music to hover around chant melodies, embracing a neo-Baroque style, in four movements at about 35 minutes. Then the three later pieces are beautiful, questioning miniatures – what was Widor trying to say with them, after all he had composed up to that point?

I executed my usual registrational supplements, adding the Swell 8' Geigen to the celeste, and choosing freely between the Cromorne and the Krummhorn here and there. I forsook some of Widor’s coupling instructions in the second movement of the Eighth. And I certainly hope he will forgive me for developing a clearer registration in the Variations movement; I’m sure it sounds splendid in St-Sulpice the way he asks, but I needed more clarity than that here at home! We also re-inserted the extra movement, a Prelude to the Variations, that Widor had removed in later revisions. Admittedly, it doesn’t add much unless you really know what you’re listening for: it is a “melody chorale” based on the Variations theme – completely different meter and tempo but a rather startling segue into the Variations proper. It needs to be there, and history allows us to reinstate it.

Surely the “Scherzo” from the Eighth is the nastiest, most unforgiving thing Widor ever wrote. It nearly did me in. We started the recording session with that one, just to get it out of the way. My producer Keith Weber appreciates the lists I provide him with movements in descending order of difficulty. And he really appreciates some of the colorful words I use to describe those movements, especially the harder ones.

The Symphonie gothique fast became one of my favorite pieces. I just might have to keep that one at the ready from now on for recitals. The Prelude is a grand arch, aching for repose and never quite getting it. The second movement, the ravishing andante sostenuto, sounds completely different when played within the context of its sister movements, rather than excerpted in recital as a slow filler piece (guilty). Oh, but just wait until you hear it – I registered it in ‘surround sound,’ using flutes from the front and antiphonal organs. It swirls all around the room. The third movement, a rather boisterous fugue, is lots of fun; I’m loving it more and more. Then the epic Finale demonstrates the organ best. There are many colors to choose from and lots of wonderful places in this movement to show them off. The grand climax, with the Puer natus chant in pedal octaves, adds the en chamade from the back of the room. Breathtaking. I got to climb up there just before recording sessions to help Chris Emerson from Quimby tighten a loose tongue. Yeah, I took a photo:

Keith Weber, Ryan Edwards, and Shannon Smith were their usual professional selves at work and their usual fun-loving friends otherwise. We all feel that we have hit on something truly beautiful and special with this series, and we all allow our hearts to skip a beat at those times when we hear what this music says on these organs. My friend Patrick Pope, Director of Music at the Church of the Holy Comforter, Charlotte, made the trip during his sabbatical to turn pages and punch an inordinate number of pistons. I hope he had fun. Cara Casey at Community of Christ is the angel of the day. Thanks to her loving attention to all details and patient understanding of what we needed, we emerged victorious and not one bit under duress. Then there is my friend Jan Kraybill, whose support exudes so beautifully from her affirming presence among us. We enjoyed lunch with her on our very last day in town, and I got to play for her the final part of the gothique while she sat in her favorite seat in the Auditorium and wept. She remembers the heyday years and yearns for them to return. I do, too, and we should all be ready to help when that day approaches.

One more of these, and we'll call it a series. Last up to bat this coming May is the former Kennedy Center Aeolian-Skinner, now lovingly housed in Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, where we have already been promised gracious hospitality by Adam Ward and Andrew Pester.


Another one out of the ballpark

Two more “in the can!”

Producer Keith Weber, engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith, and I have just recorded the next installment of the complete Widor organ works, this time Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine, Op. 86, recorded this week on E. M. Skinner Op. 713 (1928) at First Presbyterian, Wilmington, N.C. The following three webpages will give you a nice introduction to the organ:

OHS database


A. Thompson-Allen site

In 2005 I was traveling through Wilmington with a couple students, one of whom had arranged for us to spend some time on the Skinner. As I recall, the organ was sublime, rich, full, rewarding, and in pristinely restored condition. Fast forward now to 2016, when inspired by the memory of that one encounter, I approached John Tabler, Director of Music at the church, about including this organ in the series. And here we are now. The crew and I have been enriched by this intimate encounter with a treasure of an organ located inside a most graciously appointed neo-Gothic building inhabited by some of the most hospitable staff we have encountered yet. Chalk that up to Southern hospitality if you like, but we also feel that the church and her staff are well aware of the treasure that resides inside those two chambers. We were welcomed with open arms by all we encountered but especially by John Tabler, who has expressed his thanks to us for thinking of this organ to present to the wider listening audience, with its first-ever commercially released recording. In return, I’m planning to play a recital there in May, and I’m sure I’ll include some movements from this project.

That’s the good news. But now imagine my surprise to recall in photographic evidence, only two weeks before arriving to record, that this organ has ZERO general pistons and only ONE coupler reversible [Great to Pedal (toe)]. There are four divisionals per division, save the Swell, which has five. Pedal divisionals may be activated by corresponding manual divisionals, but NO piston other than the reversible just mentioned operates ANY couplers. The coupler rail is set mercifully low and easily accessible, just above the Swell. But ZERO general pistons! With an organ from 1928, I should have known as much. [But hey, its sister instrument at St. Paul’s in Winston-Salem has TWO whole Generals.] And so all my careful piston planning in the scores had to be thrown out, less than two weeks before recording. I re-thought all stop changes, and then we had to find console assistants for the sessions, which we did, thanks to quick work by John Tabler and others. We enjoyed the gracious console assistance of Angela Daughtry and Gregory Gore, for which we are eternally grateful. Angela ended up with the hardest movements, simply by luck of the draw, and she, a non-organist, rose to the occasion admirably. She now knows intimately what “Great 4” is and how to insert her hand among mine to punch Choir pistons with the third finger of the left hand vs. getting Swell pistons with the thumb of the right. She also knows where the Choir to Pedal tab is and how tricky it is to avoid my hands when reaching for it. God bless her and her house. We have emerged victorious.

In the absence of Generals, one is constantly planning ahead. “Build the Great here, so that it will be ready in ten measures. Coupler here. Super coupler there. Catch Swell 2 here before going to the Choir.” And so forth, bit by bit, building here, reducing there. My scores are littered with incremental stop-change markings. But I would say that this process gets one more intimately involved in the “management” of the organ, as opposed to the somewhat cold, detached, lightning-quick changes we’re used to with Generals. Doing things the way that was considered state of the art in 1928 was eye opening and a much appreciated lesson this week. Although I wouldn’t complain if a future re-build added a few Generals, I will always hail this organ as imminently usable for all music, one way or another. 

This organ is in excellent shape, tuning, voicing, and everything else. Everything on the console works, and every stop is just right. It’s just beautiful. When one spends this much time on a true E. M. Skinner, one discovers at every turn just how much of his console and chest designs, layout, and other elements remained in force through the remainder of Aeolian-Skinner’s existence. Skinner deserved his accolades, and although voicing and specifications changed over the years, there remained a lot of his influence on organ design in the company.

The real victory was in matching rep to organ. Once again, we have hit one out of the ballpark, and the finished product (which should be released in 2019 or so) should be thrilling to listeners. The entire project evolved, and we have chosen to record on Aeolian-Skinners (and this E.M. Skinner) that have not been “messed with” very much and yet have inexplicably not been recorded on very much. While some would record all this French music in France or at least on unabashedly French-aesthetic organs, we have chosen to use some of America’s own landmark instruments for this project, and we continue to be glad we did. The instruments are “speaking French” well, and the music on these organs is certainly speaking to our very souls in the playbacks. We have enjoyed the grandeur and the power of Symphonies VI and romane on the monumental Aeolian-Skinner in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport. We have enjoyed the solid yet elegant readings of Symphonies I and V as rendered on the Aeolian-Skinner at First Presbyterian in Houston. And now we have thrilled to a most profound 8-foot fullness in Wilmington for Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine.

Want more about this organ? I thought so: Every stop on this organ has a job, and no stop is redundant or useless. If you look at the spec, you’ll see that the organ has everything you’d ever want. Even if you feel like you are starving for mutations and mixtures, somewhere is a stop that will give you all the color you need, whether by itself or in clever combination with another. The Pedal Trombone was a 2003 addition, narrated here (see if you can read that paragraph without choking up just a little). And the Diapasons are to DIE for: an 8-foot on the Swell, and I and II on the Great. Swell and Choir have full 73-note chests on ALL stops [whereas twenty years later, Aeolian-Skinner was extending only 8- and 4-foot stops]. There was a weird winding issue in the Choir, where it sounded like that division was speaking from behind a box fan turned up to high speed. At the console, it was troubling, but through the microphones, it was “charming,” as producer Keith puts it. When Thompson-Allen visits soon, they will address that. Then there was that squeak in the Swell box, but Keith said, rightly so, "The squeak doesn't have the fullness of the pipes, and so we don't hear it in the microphones!" Sage observation, and a relief at the console. Finally, we’ve all heard beautiful organs and beautiful rooms, but this particular marriage was made in heaven. This organ just seems to like being in this particular room, and the whole experience continued to inspire us all, all week long.

In our time, this organ has had three major, faithful stewards under its spell: Charles Woodward (whom we can thank for the first restoration in the 1970s), Douglas Leightenheimer, and now John Tabler. Faithful stewards indeed; may they ever prosper, and may this organ serve its listeners for many more Skinner-length lifetimes.


Children will listen

My students do as I say, most of the time. But they nearly always do as I DO. And that may be a scary thing.

I am pleased with my students for being protective of our console at the university. They forbid people to place book bags, reed cups, instruments, coats, folders, etc., on the console or on the bench. They have learned such from me, because I, too, forbid such things. It’s only respectful of our instrument, no matter how much like a table or shelf it may look to a non-organist. Although no one is likely to damage anything by placing their coat on a console, we must continue toward an ideal of complete respect of all musical instruments, no matter how otherwise utilitarian an instrument may look. While I am proud of my students for their pro-action, I don’t have control over them becoming an old codger like their teacher! Here’s an interesting story of their putting this into practice one day:

A few years ago, we were all in Kilgore, Tex., for the annual East Texas Pipe Organ Festival. We gathered around the console at First Presbyterian after church on Sunday, to meet and greet for a bit before going off to lunch. During our visiting, the recitalist for that evening appeared, pushed his/her way through the crowd without a word, placed his/her coffee thermos on top of a stop jamb, and prepared to go to work. My students were mildly annoyed by the unfriendliness of said artist, but they were utterly HORRIFIED by that coffee thermos being placed on top of such an historic console and all it represents. After their horror subsided, which took about four seconds, they promptly shifted over to anger and hatred that someone would do such a thing to something so valuable to all who were gathered that day and that week.

Oh, but they didn't stop there. Later that evening, they left that person’s recital at intermission and came to where I was practicing for mine. They’d rather listen to me practice than listen to that person perform flawlessly from memory. And this is only a guess, but I suppose they were also no longer interested in auditioning for that person for grad school.

From a single, non-musical encounter, my students lost all respect for this person as a performer. No matter your opinion on how that happened, it does happen, and we teachers are often the model for how it happens. So teachers, be careful out there. “Children” will listen.


In Search of New Models, Part VIII: Advertising

A quick look at older issues of The American Organist magazine will show that we used to live in a simpler time. The magazine wasn’t the ad farm it is today. Although we’re told we have fewer organ students enrolled in higher degrees and fewer places to earn those degrees, somehow we are up to our armpits in organists taking out ads in the journals.

I always created my ads without professional assistance. I would trawl through my photo archives and pick out something that grabs attention in some way. Then I came up with a clever tag line and designed the ad. That’s it! My ads get people’s attention but only for a moment. A new ad, a new tagline, something clever. And just when I felt I was beating my head against the wall of obsolescence, I would hear someone say, “You have the best and most refreshing ads in the magazine. I enjoy looking for them.” That is encouraging of them to say that, but it dawned on me that I had become known as Joby Bell, maker of clever ads, rather than Joby Bell, organist. And so the time came several months ago to discontinue regular advertising in the magazine.

I certainly won’t presume to instruct anyone in the art of staying visible or even staying alive in this profession. My own journey has been one of some luck, more than some perseverance, and a metric ton of money spent on advertising. My continuum in this business began as a prizewinner in the AGO national competition in 2000. From there, I advertised as a performer, and then my alma mater came calling with an interim professorial position, which turned permanent after two years. I’ve been there ever since. Now I’m involved in a multi-disc recording series that will come with its own marketing – marketing that I don’t have to manage. There are a handful of people in the profession who still remember me as one of those finalists in 2000. Most everyone else just thinks I’ve always been around. It gets interesting from there, because the people who think I have always been around also assume that I went to one of the usual suspects of great schools and studied with one of the usual suspects of great teachers. (I did indeed study with one of the great teachers, but he wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” that come to most minds.)

People also know me as a supremely well-organized individual. My work on the committee for the national competition set a new standard, and people noticed. But I became known as Joby Bell the organized, rather than Joby Bell the organist. That required me to take a step back, once again, from regular committee service in the national organization.

I see two models at odds with each other in career self management: 1) the buzzing bees pursuing a certain model of being sensational to be noticed; 2) someone saying, “Just be excellent, and only the people interested in excellence will come your way,” or, “Just work hard, and it will come to you.” The first group has a self-taught work ethic and is probably comprised of the young, the cute, the driven, and often the male. The second group is waiting for a desired thing to happen, a habit for which I have no fondness. At first, I was told to be in the second group. Later on, I was told to be in the first group. Once I had been around both blocks, I fell back into the second group but with a difference. Now I am no longer waiting for something to happen. Now I do what I do just because I like doing it and teaching others how to do it. My corner of the world is still small, but it’s mine and I made it good. The difference lies in discontinuing the investment in what others think about it. I’ll never be invited to perform here or there, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a management roster, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a faculty of usual suspects. But the work ethic that was instilled in me is still high, ironclad and very useful, and I shall continue to practice and play my very best and let anyone who has ears come and hear. 

My teacher Clyde Holloway could sit and wait for business to come to him. It was a different time in the 1960s when he landed just right in the profession with his supreme performing, his national competition win, and his devilishly handsome looks. When he was older, he told me that in his early days it would anger him to no end when he discovered that people invited him to play because he was cute and not because he played well. He did play very well indeed, but he wanted people to take him seriously for his playing and stop cruising him. But when he related this story to me, he added that at his present age (then in his 60s), he’d now take any attention he could get! Good looks cannot be ignored in this profession and are in fact fairly necessary toward success. The young will inherit the earth.

I have chosen to claim a newer model by ignoring the buzzing bee game, pursuing my passions and being excellent in my way. I use my creativity to offer my students something they can't get from anyone else, and then I advertise that. This is about being “seductive” – making people want to hear more of my something different rather than the same things they see all the time. Sure, I just might achieve fame. But at what point should I consider myself famous? The fame can’t be its own goal; only excellence is a worthwhile goal.


Widor in Houston

The next recording is “in the can.” (Young folks don’t know what a can is. Nowadays, a recording is just on a hard drive somewhere.) Anyway, this summer so far has included four days on Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A (1949) at First Presbyterian in Houston to record Widor Symphonies 1 and 5. This will be one of six CD installments presenting all ten Widor Symphonies, plus his handful of other works for organ solo.

This multi-CD project has evolved, as explained here. In my efforts to match repertoire to organ, I knew that the Widor 5th needed to be recorded at FPC Houston. When I first moved to Houston for grad school in 1990, I heard then-incumbent Harold McManus play the entire 5th on a recital at the church. Every year or so, Harold would present a Sunday evening recital, and the church media team would set up a HUGE screen for everyone to see what was going on at that horribly hidden console. It was during recitals such as these that I was introduced to the Roger-Ducasse Pastorale (which I have performed ever since), the Bach canonical variations on Vom Himmel hoch (which I have not), and the REST of the Widor 5th beyond the Toccata.

Imagine my thrill and humility to be able to succeed Harold as organist of the church in 1997, where I continued the large-screen recital tradition and tried to play as beautifully and as sincerely as he did. The recitals were far easier to play than to assume Harold’s heart in service playing. When the time comes, I will dedicate this recording to his memory. It’s the best I can do, and it’s the least I can do.

Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A is the second Aeolian-Skinner built for this church. Op. 912, ca. 1933, is in the chapel, in quite its original condition after a handsome Schoenstein rebuild in 1993. That organ was moved from the original downtown campus to the present campus in 1948. When Aeolian-Skinner had a second project on the same site, the opus number was kept the same and added a letter. Hence Opp. 912 and 912A are on the same campus but separated in age by 16 years.

The building is a traditional Georgian exterior, and the room is a Calvinistic-white marble space with a divided chancel and the longest nave aisle in town. (Brides faint on their way down.) It really is one of the more stunning spaces for traditional worship I have ever seen. And it still looks good despite the FIVE camera perches retro-fitted into the space. The sound system is unobtrusively installed, and there are no projector screens. (Keeping fingers crossed there.) The organ is a side installation with no pipes showing, and the console is across the chancel from that, high above the choir stalls. [Rumor has it that the pastor who built the building was determined that the organist was no longer going to be able to escape during sermons.] Op. 912A is a handsome 3-manual, 72-rank beauty with full principal choruses on all divisions, including an 8’ Diapason on each manual, plus Diapasons I and II on the Great. Two Great mixtures. Great reeds are enclosed in the Choir. Fully independent Pedal principal stops all the way through a mixture, and a huge Bombarde at 16, 8, and 4 that Harold McManus affectionately nicknamed “Fafner.” Schoenstein performed a comprehensive rebuild of this organ in 1993, retaining everything imaginable, including the winded console – the combination system has the most delicious pneumatic ker-chunk to it with the punch of every piston. Schoenstein also added a Choir mixture, a Tuba in the Choir, and a Great Harmonic Flute. They moved the Swell 16’ Fagotto to the Pedal and replaced it in the Swell with a 16’ Contre Trompette that is worth its weight in gold. They also added two Walker 32s, which rumble the choir stalls, which helps recruit more choir members to sit near them.(!) Read more about the organs here.



So on June 12, 2017, after a very early morning flight followed by a delicious Texas breakfast near Hobby Airport, I arrived at the church to begin registering. It is not difficult to register Widor; there are large swaths of stops, and the dynamic terracing of French organ music makes things easy.


But only on French organs.


On anything else, you have to “orchestrate” things a bit more. These days, I normally have the voicing of an Orgelbewegung Casavant in my ears, and to arrive back at my old stomping ground and to hear the richness of this organ was a culture shock. Nevertheless, the music at hand demands a much thicker richness than I remember this organ delivering. True to form of American Classic, no single stop is commanding, but lots of them in combination brings forth a sonic thrill not heard just anywhere else. And so the registration quickly got “interesting,” and I found myself supplementing Widor’s requirements more than I ever thought I would on this organ:

-- Widor’s voix cèleste was huge and commanding, and the swell box was thick and could keep it under wraps as desired. How to simulate that on an American Classic organ? Add the Swell Diapason 8!

-- During my service playing days on this organ, I used the Pedal Principals only in large combinations, but with Widor, they are on most of the time. It was utterly shocking to compare my use/disuse of those stops in church vs. in Widor. But his music works with them, and we needed the gravitasse.

-- Widor is sometimes vague about manual couplers. And so I was vague right back. Every now and then, I set up a three-manual texture, where each manual had its own character, but the buildup was nevertheless present and audible.

-- What should I prepare as “tutti?” There are super- and sub-couplers on the organ. I never touched the supers. But I used the sub-couplers religiously. As did Widor. And his music is perfect for it. The Toccata, with the resulting 32-foot manual stops is rather glorious. And the fullness of the Pedal division keeps it from being so top-heavy as it can be all over this country. Fafner does his job well.

-- As things evolved during recording week, we removed many of the flutes from fuller textures, much as we would on a Fritts. This gave the 5th Symphony a certain clarity that will make it sound like an entirely different organ from the 1st Symphony.


I quick-patched a whistling air leak in a concussion bellows. It was mild during the recording of the 1st Symphony, but by the time we started to record the 5th, it had become stentorian. Consequently, one may be able to hear that whistle during the 1st but not during the 5th. Thank goodness it got bad between Symphonies, rather than between movements. And thank goodness we recorded a full Symphony at a time. I’m looking forward to hearing engineer Ryan Edwards’ surgical removal of that whistle as needed in the 1st.

The most interesting part of this particular project was in managing the air conditioning. This building was built in 1948, and the air conditioner for it is rumored to be Houston’s oldest system still in operation. Which means it is loud. Very loud. Ear-splittingly loud through an engineer’s microphones. But it was going to be 90 degrees all week, with Houston’s usual 90% humidity. What to do? We knew that we HAD to have the air completely off for sessions (and that quiet is indeed heavenly), but the organ was going to drift in tuning after about 40 minutes. My producer and engineer, Keith Weber and Ryan Edwards visited the church a week before and made some notes about what happens when. Their solution was brilliant – leave the air on all night, and then cycle it on and back off every hour throughout the day. So it was turned off on all odd-numbered hours and then came back on during all even-numbered hours. The real stroke of brilliance there was that the air-on hours gave us an hour to prepare for the next air-off hour, which dramatically cut down on in-session coaching and patching. It also gave us time to rest body and mind. We just might do things that way in the future now, air or not. We got all twelve movements from these two Symphonies recorded in only 12 hours, spread across three days with plenty of rest.

Thanks are due the physical plant guys from the church, who programmed the air conditioner without a hitch. Thanks are certainly due Rhonda Furr, FPC organist, for her gracious hospitality. And to the office staff, for getting us going in the first place. It was good to be back and to hear this organ play music I had never played on it, beyond the Toccata.

I'll address the $28,000 question now: the Toccata is played at 100 bpm, just like Widor marked it and recorded it. We all should.