Young organ players bring new blood to aging field
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Ben Garst was quite young when the organ first piqued his interest.
The 15-year-old grew up with the powerful notes of the instrument accompanying the Catholic liturgies that he and his family would attend each weekend. The musically inclined youngster recalled paying particular attention whenever the organist would slide onto the bench.
“I would always listen to the organ and try (to figure out) out which pipes were playing at which time,” he said.
Today the teen has a better handle on that particular mystery. He’s one of a handful of area organists-in-training, who, on one or more afternoons each week, are themselves the ones manipulating the pipes through a complex choreography of hands and feet.
Ben, Kurt Muller, 17, and Enrico Tabernero, 18, each study under Charlotte Mariasy in the choir loft of St. Rose Catholic Church in Perrysburg. Their youth stands out within an aging field of organists that, in some cities, has raised concerns about the limited availability of musicians who can provide the sort of traditional liturgical music that many congregations hold dear.
The American Guild of Organists indicates that 70 percent of its members are in their late 50s or older, based on a survey released in 2015. Just 11 percent of respondents to that survey are in their mid-30s or younger — a demographic contrast that the survey report acknowledges leaves “strikingly few” younger members to make up for those who will likely retire in the next two decades.
If that national outlook sounds bleak to churchgoers with a preference for pipes, Toledoans can take comfort that, locally, the number of organists aren’t ringing alarm bells.
The Toledo chapter of the American Guild of Organists is still seeing applicants for its annual scholarships, which offset the cost of lessons and which come as one way that education chair Denise Mathias said the group encourages and supports young people who want to pursue the instrument.
Mathias, who is also the music director and organist at Monroe Street United Methodist Church, said she’s seen interest growing locally, comparing 2017, with its five scholarship recipients, to some years when the chapter hadn’t seen any applicants.
And Mariasy too is still busy in her choir loft on Wednesday afternoons, guiding her teenage students through their organ repertoire.
“It’s alive and thriving,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to do a little searching for your students and maybe extend a personal invitation.”
Mariasy is the director of music and liturgy at St. Rose. She connected with her current crop of students through the parish, which isn’t unusual. While she and others said there are secular outlets for organists, the instrument tends to be closely associated with worship environments.
“There’s such a big connection to playing music for the church,” Mariasy said. “There’s more repertoire for that, with the organ, than not. There are great organ pieces that were composed just to play on big organs, but a lot of them had their premieres in churches.
“And obviously that’s where you’re going to find most of your organs.”
While mastery of some instruments might demand an early start, the organ is pretty welcoming to late learners. Mariasy herself learned as an adult.
Her students typically begin in high school, sometimes eighth grade. Often older students are a better bet, she said, if only because their feet will be sure to reach the pedals.
A background in piano is helpful, as Ben, Kurt and Grant Wohl, 24, a former student of Mariasy, have found, but a student organist is quick to learn that an organ is a very different instrument. Its keyboards, stops, and pedals make for a full-body experience on the bench.
“The organ has so many other dimensions to it than playing a piano,” Mariasy said. “It’s totally different. There’s several keyboards to play, there’s all kinds of stops to pull, depending on what kind of sound you want. . Then there’s a whole added dimension of playing the pedals with your feet.”
So it’s not an easy instrument to pick up. But practice can make for an impressive result.
“You can have a really full, rich, reedy sound or a really loud, punching trumpet sound. It all depends on what stops you choose and exactly what sort of combinations you make,” Ben said. “It’s definitely something . where you can really get that variety.”
Enrico Tabernero, who, unlike Ben and others, didn’t grow up in a parish with a pipe organ, described a memorable introduction to the instrument at St. Rose.
“When I first heard it, I was surprised at how it filled the space,” he said. “Given the opportunity (to learn how to play), I knew I had to take it.”
Enrico has been taking lessons with Mariasy for less than a year. He’s a senior at Perrysburg High School, and he brings eight years of saxophone experience to his lessons.
Ben and Kurt Muller were also musicians before attempting the organ. Ben, a freshmen at Perrysburg High School, is a pianist and bassist. Kurt, a senior at Ohio Virtual Academy, had been playing piano for more than a dozen years before he began lessons about two years ago.
Kurt said he’s grown to the love the sound of the instrument, which can fill the church in a way a piano could never manage.
“You can play (a piano) in church,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be called the king instrument.”
While each of the students expressed interest in continuing to pursue the instrument through college, whether through private lessons or professors, none are at this point envisioning full-time careers as organists. They have plenty of other interests to explore.
That’s how Grant Wohl felt too, when he was contemplating a major at the University of Toledo.
He had been playing the organ since he was 12, even performing the occasional piece at a weekend service at St. Rose, his parish, but opted to instead head toward a career in software development.
His lessons have paid off, regardless. He’s filled in as a substitute organist at area churches over the years, filling worship spaces with the same sort of liturgical music he learned as a teen at St. Rose.