June 14, 2008

Prelude to a Future: What Possesses a Teen to Become an Organist?

Before the young J.S. Bach became a legendary composer and organist, he once walked 200 miles to hear a concert by a famous older musician, Dietrich Buxtehude. Three centuries later, Buxtehude doesn't demand that level of commitment. But he still gives David Anderson's legs a workout.

David, 18, is running through one of his favorite pieces -- Buxtehude's Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne -- on the organ at Sardis Presbyterian Church. At first, his size 15 feet have all the action, dashing off flourishes on the pedals. Soon his hands join in. The church resounds with the music's vigor and jubilation.

Plenty of teenagers play in school orchestras or bands. Others study the piano or guitar. But a young person who appreciates organ music is " really rare," David says with a laugh. Yet David -- who shares a concert tonight with two college organ students -- wants to make this his career.

This Buxtehude piece helped convince him. He thinks back to when he learned it -- two summers ago, before he started the 11th grade at Charlotte Catholic High. The sheer excitement of playing it, he says, took hold of him.

"I liked the piece so much that I would play it over and over again," David recalls. He added a new challenge: "trying to get the people who are listening to get excited at the same time."

Making others feel the way he does about the music he plays, he adds, is now "my goal as an artist."

When David was a child, he would climb up to the family's piano and bang on it -- "just smash my hands down on the keys," he says. His parents rescued themselves from the racket by starting him on piano lessons. He already sang in the children's choir at Sardis Presbyterian. That's how the church's music director, Kenneth DeBoer, got to know the youngster. When David was in the seventh grade, DeBoer offered him a few months of organ lessons for free.

David admits that his interest in the organ at that point wasn't entirely musical. Like any red-blooded, gadget-loving youngster, he was fascinated by the buttons and knobs that surrounded the keyboards.

The first lesson opened a whole new world. Whereas the piano has a pedal that lets notes keep sounding after the player releases the keys, the organ doesn't. DeBoer introduced his new pupil to a trick organists use to keep the music smooth: sliding the thumb from one key to the adjoining one with no break in the sound.

"We did that about 20 minutes," David recalls. "I was like, 'Wow. If I did that on the piano, my teacher would hit me.' ... I went home, and I just wanted to come back and play some more."

He discovered the purpose of those buttons and knobs. They govern the sounds -- from a murmur to a roar -- that the organ creates.

"You have so much control over the sound," he says. "If you don't like it, you can punch a knob, and it goes away. And you can pull something else on. That still is part of why I like the organ. But it has expanded since then."

DeBoer has a strategy he uses with his students. He lets them play in church on Sunday morning -- not the whole service, but maybe a prelude or postlude. That, he says, gives them a taste of playing in front of people.

When David was still working on beginner's pieces, DeBoer starting putting him into Sunday services. "He enjoys playing," DeBoer says. "It doesn't seem to bother him being on display. He has a very cool head."

David's view: "After the first couple of times, you don't really get nervous any more."

Engineering or music?

Like countless other children, David grew up playing soccer. But he gave that up after discovering tennis. The independence of being on the court appealed to him.

"If you mess up, it's your fault," he says. "And if you win, it's because of you. Also, it's a really mental game ... You have to be tough mentally to get through tennis. That has helped me with school -- and with music."

One of David's last experiences with soccer came at the end of the eighth grade. In a game during gym class, a fellow player's misguided kick broke his leg. That summer, David had to wrangle his cast into the organ console and practice with hands alone. That was more than he could do with tennis. When fall arrived and he finally returned to the court, his strength was gone. He had to rebuild his game.

"It was a lot of fun learning to play again," David says, "even if it was painful."

Luckily for him, the break in his leg wasn't on the growth plate, where the bone lengthens as a child matures. During that summer, he grew three inches -- to a height of 6 foot 2. Today, he's 6 foot 8.

"His knees can easily get caught under the keyboards," DeBoer says with a chuckle. From David's perspective, one of the blessings about the new organ at Sardis Presbyterian -- installed this spring -- is that the bench has a crank that raises it high enough to suit his legs. Before that, he improvised.

"He walked around for a number of years with 2-by-4s," DeBoer recalls.

When David was in the 10th grade, his father, Frank, overheard him being interviewed for a music scholarship. David said that two potential careers might appeal to him: engineering and music. The elder Anderson took that as a cue. He prodded the boy to go to a summertime engineering camp at N.C. State University and an organ workshop at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey.

The engineering camp didn't do much for him. The only memorable experience David mentions: playing Frisbee during a thunderstorm. ("I guess that wasn't a very good idea," he admits.) It was a different story with the music camp.

David spent hours experimenting with the sounds he could create on the instruments at the college. The experience awakened him to "the creative side of being an organist," he says. The climax was a tour of big New York City churches, where he heard and played instruments whose colors outdid anything he had encountered in Charlotte.

"I thought I knew what an organ was," he recalls. "I didn't. ... I can't even describe it. I didn't know an organ could sound like that."

Tennis, basketball, schoolwork

Back in Charlotte, David learned that Buxtehude piece, which brought him even closer to the organ. He had a few other things on his schedule as well. He still took piano lessons. He played on Charlotte Catholic's varsity tennis team. He took tennis lessons from a pro on the side. He played basketball in a church league. And, oh yes, he went to school in the daytime. In his junior year, he had four advanced-placement classes. English, he says, was a killer.

"I would come home some nights around 8 o'clock, and then get about two hours of homework in, and then have to go for (organ) practice," he says. "And I still hadn't eaten yet.

"It got a little out of hand," he adds with a laugh. He sometimes shortchanged his homework. It was a matter of priorities.

"As music became more important, I realized that ... schoolwork wasn't as important as for someone else," he says. Nevertheless, he graduated 10th in his class.

This fall, David will enter St. Olaf College, a Minnesota school renowned for its music -- especially its choirs, which are so well-known that last December's Christmas concert was simulcast in movie theaters around the country. David will major in organ. He has already sent a video of his senior recital to his teacher-to-be.

"He wants to figure out," David says, "what to do with my long legs."


Other organists who play on the American Guild of Organists' summer series recall how they came to the king of instruments. The AGO concerts are 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 31. Admission is free.

Matthew Noonan, music director at Ascension Lutheran Church, played the guitar in rock bands in high school. During his senior year, a music teacher put on a recording of an organ playing a J.S. Bach fugue. "I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard," Noonan says. He had never even had a piano lesson, but he resolved to play that piece. "I was used to electric guitars with distortion," he says. The organ had "such a clear, strong sound." He starting taking lessons, and there was no looking back. "It's still the greatest job in the world to be able to play for a living," Noonan says. His concert is next Sunday at Ascension Lutheran, 1225 E. Morehead St.

Christopher Brayne, music director at Christ Episcopal Church, started singing in a cathedral choir in his native England as an 8-year-old. He heard the pipe organ constantly, of course. "I was fascinated by the power and the sound," he recalls. "I got hooked on it at an early age." He wanted to play the organ, but his teachers said no: He had to study the piano first. "I was shocked," he says, but he complied. He finally made it onto the organ console when he was 13. Brayne plays July 6 at Christ Episcopal, 1412 Providence Road.

Kenneth DeBoer, music director at Sardis Presbyterian Church, never touched the organ until college. "I have to thank my father for opening the door to the pipe organ," he recalls. DeBoer was majoring in piano when he learned that his father wished he'd branch out into the organ. "I respected my father, and I thought, 'Well, let me give the organ a try.'" The instrument's wealth of tone colors, along with the fascination of its gadgetry, won him over. He and his wife, Sharon DeBoer, share the July 20 concert at Sardis Presbyterian, 6100 Sardis Road.

Henry Lebedinsky, music director at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, was majoring in harpsichord in college when he passed the school chapel one day. "I looked in and saw this monster pipe organ," he recalls. "Mass was just letting out. I said, 'Hey, do you have an organist?'" He had never even had a lesson on the organ, but he started then. "I love the sounds of the pipe organ and the music that's written for it," he says. And, along with the harpsichord, it lets him play even more of the Baroque and early Classical music he loves -- especially J.S. Bach. He plays for the AGO series Aug. 10 at St. Alban's, 301 Caldwell Lane, Davidson.


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