I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but Jacksonville has one heck of a lot of pipe organs. For cities of our size we’re almost over-organ-ed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It beats having an excess of toxic dumps or fast food restaurants.
I’ve played nearly every pipe organ in town and I’m certainly no expert. When you encounter a new organ you don’t so much learn how to play, you get to know it. No two are alike. In fact, organ builders want it that way.
Jacksonville is bookended (organistically speaking) by the two monster organs at MacMurray and Illinois College. I’ve tried to get Lincoln Land to balance things out and maintain their status by building a huge pipe organ in the middle of the Jacksonville Square but the present sound system would be too much competition. According to the Pipe Organ Date Base (yes Virginia, there is such a thing) the MacMurray organ was installed in 1956 yet the college records show photographs of workmen unloading the beast in 1952. Perhaps it took four years to get the thing used to Annie Merner. Illinois College boasts the futuristic Hart Sesquicentennial Organ dedicated in 1979. I’ve played both of these behemoths and deem them both worthy additions to the town’s music scene. I prefer the Mac organ in the winter and the IC instrument once it warms up. You have to take your shoes off to play the pedals at IC and my toes get cold.
You have to get special permission to play either instrument. I stretched the truth a bit when I first played the MacMurray organ, and I simply didn’t ask anyone to organ-ize a bit on the Hart instrument. One of my former students had permission one cold evening and I sort of pushed him off the bench. The MacMurray debacle took more conniving. A young bride had asked me to play for her wedding at Mac, the school’s organist insisted that I first audition for him, I told him that I didn’t need to since I once sat at the console of the organ of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. He grudgingly allowed these credentials to substitute for the wedding audition. I failed to tell him that at the time I was five years old and my dad lifted me up onto the seat for a few seconds.
And of course many Jacksonville churches have wonderful instruments, each with their own personalities. The one that amuses me most is at First Presbyterian. Like many organ consoles, the Presb’s keyboard has been planted in a sort of pit, and when the church’s fine but someone diminutive organist, Christine Smith, sits to play for a service you can see only the top of her boyish head bobbing back and forth between the notes. I keep wanting to pull out my cork shooter and win a kewpie doll.
Sadly, pipe organs are fading away. Many new churches and concert halls are skipping the pipe organ altogether, and many find the cost of upkeep too high. ‘Tis a pity. I remember my first organ. . . a pump organ at Perry Presbyterian. You pumped with your feet and prayed to God that the song only had a few verses. But there’s hope for the future. Enter: Tyler J. Maul, a freshman at JHS. If you’ve not seen Tyler perform then do it quickly, for in a few years it will cost you a great deal to buy a ticket to watch this young man’s virtuosic skills. He plays by note, he plays by ear, he owns about a dozen keyboards, and most recently he’s set himself the goal of playing every pipe organ in Jacksonville. Better lock yours up if you don’t want it Tyler-ized. Tyler recently accompanied me to White Hall to play a piano gig. The kid always amazes the audience and I’m often left to pack up the gear while his adoring fans are surrounding him. But I could see all through our concert that Ty’s mind was not on what we were playing, but instead he was eyeing the dark and imposing form of the church’s Gothic pipe organ. He couldn’t wait for the crowd to go down for refreshments so he could get his hands on the beast. Which he did. Hearing the opening strain of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor, the church’s organist went scrambling into the organ loft to find this high school freshman thundering away. This particular piece was written to shake the plaster off old German church ceilings and Tyler so far knows only one organ technique: Hell Bent for Leather. It was a warming sight on that cold evening to see the old master standing beside the young prodigy. . . and somewhere in the distance Bach was smiling.
So when you get your new driver’s license, make sure you mark “Yes” in the organ donor box. If we’re lucky they’ll mistake this for something else.