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Jackie Hope: The pipes are calling

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Dickinson,North Dakota 58602
Jackie Hope: The pipes are calling
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

By Jackie Hope / Our Town Columnist

Close your eyes and think about Christmas music. Stop thinking about “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Think about the other stuff — the Sunday school programs, the carols and “O Holy Night.” What do you hear behind, underneath and supporting those angelic voices? If you’re lucky, you hear an organ. A big honker organ.


Organs have a long association with Christmas music. Remember the story of “Silent Night,” the urban — or alpine — legend of mice chewing holes in the organ bellows at Franz Gruber’s church? The organ was not functional for their Christmas Eve service, so Franz composed “Silent Night” to perform on a guitar. Don’t know about your Christmas Eve church service, but our congregation sings that one so loudly, a guitar would never be heard. Well, except for the third verse, which we don’t remember from one Eve to the next.

Press Photo by Jackie Hope An organ sits silent at United Congregational Church of Christ in Dickinson.

Organs are wind instruments, with a bellows pushing air through pipes, like panpipes or those Andean flute thingies, only big. Really big. Organ pipes are measured in feet, from 1 foot to 64, and some big boys have 128-footers. The bellows used to be hand-cranked, a job relegated to naughty choirboys or the church custodian. The bellows are now electric, and naughty choirboys have to sit on the time-out bench, instead, to atone for their sins.

OK, let’s do the math: Each organ key and pedal has at least one corresponding pipe. There are usually 61 keys per keyboard, two or more keyboards, and 32 pedals. We’re talking about a Sequoia National Park of organ pipes here. And just to confuse us, some electric organs masquerade as pipe organs with non-functioning pipes, strictly for bling.

By way of full disclosure, I began studying the organ when I was 8 years old, and finished my apprenticeship with a master organist 14 years later. Most of my Christmas Eves have been spent sitting on an organ bench. And a carillon bench. A carillon is a whole bundle of bells, played from a keyboard and broadcast throughout the neighborhood from a steeple bell tower.

Organists seem to be an endangered species, as fewer and fewer organ degrees are being conferred. But we are survivors! We even have a guild, the American Guild of Organists, which is sorta like a union, only medieval. We have cool rules, like, “Thou shalt not sit upon the bench of another Guild member, nor play upon that member’s instrument, without first asking permission.” This works for me because I am inordinately possessive of my instrument and would not let anyone play it, even if he or she said, “Please.”

Think you’d like to try to play one of these babies? Let’s take one for a test drive. You have my permission.

For reasons understood better by architects than musicians, organs tend to be stuffed into lofts or pits. Since the pipes — or speakers if the organ is electronic — don’t have to be anywhere near the keys, organists are mostly heard but not seen.

Be sure to bring a flashlight, because organs, like mushrooms, are often kept in the dark. And their “on” switches are diabolically hidden in corners of their consoles, or even on the undersides of consoles. Some have a “push-and-hold” button, in order to wake up the bellows – or the choirboys if the organ is really old school. When the floor starts to vibrate, you know you have a full head of steam.

In front of you are a gazillion buttons and levers and pistons, all waiting to be pulled or pushed. You’ve heard the expression, “Pull out all the stops,” haven’t you? Here is your chance, literally, to pull some stops. Don’t pull, push or prod all of them at once. It will not be a pleasant sound. Really. Think about your first day in beginning band, when everyone was honking and tootling all at once.

Pick a key, any key, and press it. Not easy, is it? Because you are pressing against wind power, whether naturally or mechanically created. Stories abound about 17th century European organs which were so powerful, it took strong men to play them. See, this is why the organist never shakes your hand after church like the pastor does — organists have vice-like grips from fighting with organ keys.

Sometimes it takes a while for the pipes to sound after a key is pressed, so it is not uncommon for an organist’s hands to be playing notes he or she does not yet hear. Plus, in large churches, there is a little time lapse before the sounds reach the congregation because hey, everybody sits way in back, so people are singing notes the organist has already played and moved past. Advice to novice organists: just count like crazy and hope for the best.

Are you brave enough to sit on the organ bench? It is suspended over a boatload of pedals, like a bridge over a log jam of troubled waters. Most organs seem to be designed for musicians who are 6-feet tall, with hands that have the wingspans of albatrosses. If your feet are on the pedals, then your, uh, your … let’s just say you are on the edge of your seat. The music holder is way above your head because there is a wall of keyboards and organ stops between you and it. Know what’s the pits? When someone waxes the organ bench, and you reach for middle C and suddenly find yourself sitting on the G-flat pedal. Not that this has ever happened to any organists I know.

Ready to play “Silent Night?” Here is what you need to know: you will be playing on two keyboards, often both at the same time. And sometimes you will be required to play both with one hand, with your thumb hanging off the upper keyboard like a piece of ham hanging off a sandwich. Both of your feet will be busy playing pedals, even two at once. It is technically possible to play four pedals at the same time by arching over some of the pedals, unless you have really flat feet. While playing, you will be pulling and pushing stops to add or subtract sounds and you will also control two or three expression pedals that look like accelerator pedals, and which increase or decrease the overall volume.

This Christmas Eve, drop by a church and listen to the organ. And, by the way, you are always welcome at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Close your eyes and let the sounds and echoes surround you.

The organ has been called “The King of Instruments,” and Christmas is all about the King, isn’t it? You might even tell the musicians, “Thank you,” for bringing the sounds of Christmas to life. And while you are at it, say a little prayer that no one has waxed the organ bench.