Organ lessons (a little late)

So, I kept meaning to post about organ lessons while I was there. But other interesting stuff kept coming up and the organ lessons got routine and before I knew it, I was back in America. So here’s what happened:

(Again, photos posted at

For those of you who don’t know, I play the pipe organ in addition to piano and guitar. I’m actually minoring in Organ Performance at my home university. Since not taking lessons for a semester would put me behind and I’d have to take summer lessons in order to graduate on time, I wanted to take organ lessons while abroad.

Finding a teacher was a nightmare.

A few months before I left, I e-mailed the IES organization’s headquarters in Chicago telling them of my intentions. They responded saying I’d have to find my own instructor once I was on-site… then in direct contradiction to this, the very next day they e-mailed me saying they’d found a teacher for me. I e-mailed him pre-departure and got things set up.

The only fly in the spaghetti, however, was that I couldn’t practice in his church, due to various other students and various goings-on in that particular community. So I’d have to find a practice instrument on my own.

So I went to the Gethsemane Kirche, a large, brick, Protestant church a few blocks from my house. Unfortunately, the organist there was very adamant that I couldn’t practice there, since it was such a large church community and the church was always very busy with concerts and events. He thought it strange that an organist would offer lessons but not allow his students to practice in his church, and asked who my teacher was. I told him, and he said he’d ask his colleagues about him.

The next day the Gethsemane organist got back to me and said (shock!) that my “teacher” had a very poor reputation among organists. Apparently he had never studied organ in school, just took lessons, and while he had a very nice web page, he wasn’t a particularly good teacher. This news was extremely disappointing to me, and I called my teacher the night before we were supposed to have our first lesson and told him I could no longer do the lessons with him because I hadn’t found a practice instrument.

Back to square one.

I asked the Gethsemane organist if he or anyone he knew was taking students. He recommended me to another organist, and I contacted him, and he recommended me to another organist, etc. After making contact with four or five different organists, I was ready to give up.

One day in October one of the mentors at the IES Berlin center asked me how organ lessons were going. I told her what had happened. Shocked, she said she’d try to find me a teacher. One of her friends had gotten married at a church near Prenzlauer Berg the previous year, and the organist who played at the wedding, she said, was very good. She contacted him for me, and I showed up to a church service one day, and less than a week later I had my first lesson.

My teacher was Joachim Thomas, organist at St. Josef’s Catholic church in Pankow. My first lesson he said to me something along the lines of, “Oh, you’ve played lots of literature? I don’t really like playing literature because I have to practice it so much. That’s why I like improvising. You don’t need to practice.” I was shocked! Coming from a university environment where I was expected to cut my teeth on the classics of Bach, Sweelinck and Buxtehude, it was quite different to learn under a teacher who didn’t place much value on them. That, and I had never improvised before on organ! I could barely improvise on piano. “Don’t worry,” he said. “With me, everyone has talent.”

I’d describe the organ at St. Josef’s as beautiful simplicity. Most Americans who don’t regularly attend church with a pipe organ are very easily impressed whenever they see the rows upon rows of different-length aluminum pipes, but I did an organ tour through north Germany and Holland last January so I’m a little jaded. It was very bare bones (i.e. not ornate), especially for a Catholic church, but it had a beautiful sound and the church had excellent acoustics. One weird thing though was that the sound came delayed. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the church or the mechanics of the organ, but each note sounded a good half-second after I hit the key, making it very difficult at first for me to maintain a steady tempo. Nonetheless, I loved the organ. It had enough variety of stops to keep things interesting without being overwhelming.

Lessons were certainly an interesting experience. During my first lesson he asked me to play something I’d played before, so I played one of Bach’s 8 Little Preludes and Fugues, just the prelude actually, which I hadn’t touched in over a year. He was not satisfied with my performance and demanded I re-learn it, and a few weeks later had me start on the fugue as well. That was the only piece of sheet music (besides a simple hymn arrangement he gave me) I played in the 8 weeks of lessons I had with him. The rest was improvising.

It was extremely difficult for me to follow along when he tried to teach me things. I was used to reading notes off of a page, but Joachim would play something (a short pattern usually), then have me repeat it by sight and sound. It was so frustrating. My brain didn’t work that way! It was also a challenge for me to play an improvised piece with confidence – I was always so uncertain. In the end, I think I improved a lot though!

My weekly routine with organ lessons would go something like this: Weekdays after school I’d call Frau Schwarzer, a woman who worked at the church and lived right next to it, to see if the church was available. Sometimes it was being cleaned, or a choir was practicing, etc. If it was free, I’d come over and get the church key from her, practice for an hour or so, then lock the church and return it. The church wasn’t heated during the week, so I got in the habit of leaving my winter coat and even sometimes gloves on while practicing. Sundays after services, while the church was still warm, Joachim and I would have our lesson. Lessons lasted about an hour, though he was rather generous with the time. Normally I had half-hour lessons at school, but improvising took up a lot of time so I’m grateful for the amount of time we had. I never practice for a solid hour straight at school, either, but there was always so much to learn and it was such a pain getting to the church I wanted to make the most of my time.

Joachim was extremely nice and friendly, too. On cold days he’d make us a pot of tea to take up to the organ loft with us, and when I interrupted his choir practice to borrow the key to the church, he’d greet me warmly and introduce me to his choir students. One weekend he was playing at a different church and didn’t want to travel all the way to Pankow, so he invited me to practice and have a lesson at his house! He introduced me to his family and invited me to eat lunch with them afterwards. Wow!


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