This is the story of my 27-year (and counting) relationship with the pipe organ.
I need to share my journey with you in hopes that, by the end of reading this, you will see why I feel so strongly about the sacred musical art of the pipe organ and how to help it survive and thrive into the future.
At age 13, I met a teacher who gave me the keys to a special kingdom. That kingdom was music, and its king was the pipe organ. The organ spoke to my soul with its spiritually uplifting music and its amazing ability to go from prayerful to powerful…and, for a 13-year-old boy, just plain loud!
After school, I would walk straight to the church and log hours and hours on the bench. Eventually, hundreds of hours turned into thousands. By age 18, I had logged about 5,000 hours! I still have my clothbound practice journal from that time of my life. If 10,000 hours is what it takes to become an expert (a theory touted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers), by 18, I was halfway to becoming a master of the art of playing the organ. My early dedication led to winning first place in several prominent music competitions, and acceptance into the prestigious Eastman School of Music for organ performance with a substantial talent-based scholarship.
I was off to a strong early start to my career as an organist—maybe a bit too early.
Like most long-term relationships, my relationship with the pipe organ has been complicated. After two years at Eastman, I developed severe tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in my left arm and wrist. I wasn’t a natural by any means. I was working for it. In addition, I had an anatomical weakness on my left side from a torticollis and double-jointed shoulder that I was born with. These factors left me prone to repetitive stress injury.
There was nothing I could do. My career as a professional organist was over, and I was devastated. But, even though I tried, I could not quit the organ. It had already become a part of my soul.
I continued to play at a diminished capacity while I studied music history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My senior thesis was on the organ and J.S. Bach. In the Summer between my junior and senior years, I built a harpsichord, and, in my mid-senior year, I began working for an organ builder. I had managed to successfully shift my love of playing the organ to building the organ.
After college, I did a five-year apprenticeship at a well-established pipe organ company. By my mid-twenties, I had started my own company. By thirty, I had built my first complete instrument. It’s located in Bethesda Church in Saratoga Springs, New York, nearby to where I still live. Tongue-in-cheek, I refer to this as my ‘doctorate’ because it cost $20,000 more to build than I had contracted to build it for! And on top of losing money, I worked for more than a year-and-a-half on it for free! Needless to say, it was a big lesson to learn, and I learned it the hard way—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Unfortunately, by the time I had arrived as a fully ‘tempered’ organ builder, my industry was in a severe state of decline.
Churches were closing, new organs were too expensive to build, and even maintenance costs for many of my customers was becoming difficult (still is). By 2012, I was deflated and disheartened. I felt like a triage nurse when working on these older organs.
I also have to tell you that, throughout my entire career, I wanted nothing to do with electronic/digital pipe organs that used speakers. To me, they sounded unmusical and not at all like the magic of real pipes. They got the job done in a utilitarian way, but from my point-of-view and background as a serious student of the organ, imitation pipe organs were not able to convey the true expressive power of the acoustic pipe organ, and they were weakening the art and legacy of the pipe organ.
In other words…there was nothing I could do for half the churches that had already gone to the “Dark Side” as we pipe organ industry insiders un-affectionately called anything to do with electronic/digital speaker-based sound production.
To sustain its rightful place as a meaningful tool for Christian worship, and as a vital form of sacred art, something had to change. The digital pipe organ was lacking in quality and the acoustic pipe organ was missing affordability. There are exceptions, but, by and large, that was the current state of affairs.
Regardless of how disheartened I felt, I couldn’t quite quit the pipe organ.
The pipe organ was my calling—that much was clear. But something needed to happen. Something needed to change. I had to seek a solution.
So, several years ago, a groundswell began to occur amongst passionate hobbyists who had been using a software program called Hauptwerk (it means ‘Great Division’ [name of the middle organ keyboard] in German). This program allowed them to engage with recorded (pipe-by-pipe sampled) pipe organs, via a computer and a good pair of headphones. I could feel their enthusiasm in online discussion groups. Supposedly it was so good that it could, through high definition recording techniques, accurately capture the nuances and essence of real masterpiece pipe organs from different eras and countries of origin. Rather than composite, or generic organ sound, these ‘virtual’ models offered complete instruments with the artistic integrity of the original builder intact. It was inspiring an organ renaissance; a whole new way to engage with the pipe organ. This was the virtual pipe organ movement. But could this be a viable solution for churches? Could it be implemented in a ‘live-sound’ way? I was skeptical, and I had a lot of preconceived notions, but I kept an open-mind and thought it would be worth exploring for myself.
When I started working with Haupwerk, I immediately recognized how revolutionary it was. It sounded amazing!
Engaging with these virtual masterpieces from around the world, side-by-side, was enlightening, even for this seasoned pipe organ man. It filled in gaps in my knowledge that I didn’t even realize I had! The ability to hear and play these masterpieces spoke to my soul, amplified my intrinsic musicianship, and made me remember just how powerful a musical experience the organ can be if it is able to be experienced at a high level. This software was the great equalizer. The pipe organ in its best forms could now be had by all. It was egalitarian!
This is how I fell back in love with the organ! And, this is when the idea of META ORGANWORKS was born.
Hauptwerk, in and of itself, did not make for a viable performance instrument.
It was missing everything else required (console, audio system, etc.) to make this a practical instrument for a performing artist. I passionately set out to surround this Hauptwerk software engine with all the right hardware elements and the right mindset (voicing & custom installation based on acoustic pipe organ building principles). I wanted an instrument that was self-evident in musicality and quality—an instrument that could become a universally accepted archetype for the future of the pipe organ. For this reason, I looked to the Steinway company and what they have achieved for the Grand Piano as my model moving forward.
Two years later, and over $230,000 spent on research and development, my team and I have developed the ideal expression of the pipe organ of the future, using the tools of our age.
I truly believe that the curation and dissemination of the pipe organ via a Meta Organ will help to save this great instrument for future generations to experience and enjoy. It’s a game changer! Great pipe organs can now be had and heard by all via this virtual technology. This will encourage people to give attention to the tradition of the pipe organ and its sacred music, because they are now able to hear and engage with these beautiful and important high definition sampled organs that actually exist all around the world!
Discover the beauty and majesty of the pipe organ again. It truly is the king of instruments, and its home is the church. It’s the right vehicle for the expression of the people of God. Music is so powerful. What amazes me is that it engages only one of the senses (hearing), and yet, out of all the various art forms, it is the most beloved and moving.
It’s no wonder that that 13-year-old boy I was in 1991 is now, 27 years later, still in cahoots with the pipe organ!
Please join me in the mission to both preserve and revolutionize the Art of the Pipe Organ!