In my childhood, I was heavily influenced by a wide variety of music. My mother, a teenager in the war years, loved the dance bands of the time, especially Glenn Miller. She was also a fan of Bing Crosby. My father loved classical music and the radio was always on.
When I learnt to play the piano it was a joy. At the age of 14, under the careful guidance and direction of the curate, Revd. Bryan Barrodale, I was encouraged to play the little keyboard organ in St. Mary’s along with Christine Taylor. We took it in turns to play one hymn a week and would both giggle if the other made a mistake. The congregation were extremely tolerant and encouraging. They didn’t seem to mind if we messed up, which of course we did. Maybe some of them were a bit deaf.
Fred Walliker taught me how to read psalms and for many years I was very happy playing the organ in St. Mary’s Church, sharing with Sylvia Craddock who still plays there regularly. Christine’s family commitments took her away from the parish but I remained.
Much later, in life, when I was 40, the opportunity came to play the organ in St. John’s. My mother urged me to have a go. There were a few other interested people and the church ran a scheme to encourage organists. I was a competent pianist by then, quite at home playing for theatre shows and accompanying soloists. Although I started the organ scheme I quickly realised I wanted a teacher who could take me through the grades, just as I had done when learning the piano.
I have had a few mentors over the years but the one who influenced me most was the late John Lester. I was captivated by his skilled use of different registrations (pulling out the stops to achieve a unique sound) and his overall mastery of the instrument was impressive.
At first the whole learning process was scary and hugely frustrating. The organ is a completely different instrument to the piano and I was out of my depth completely. For one thing, you have to read three lines of music at the same time, use a swell box for volume, pull out stops, and turn pages. You can’t always hear what the organ sounds like, so many of my lessons were spent with me wandering around the church while John Lester played as I listened to combinations of stops that I liked. It didn’t help that people told me strange things about organists – that they were usually dwarf-like creatures, quiet and retiring, with big heads and long fingers.
At first, I treated the organ like a piano but I was phased by the three keyboards. Also if you pressed the keys harder, unlike the piano, you didn’t end up playing louder. Then there were the pistons which control certain stops as well as the stops that couple up with others. At least you can use a staccato touch on the organ, which is very appropriate for Bach’s fugues.
Lastly, there was the practising. I spent many hours in the church alone. When the wind was whistling outside, the clouds darkening in the sky, the whole place seem to creak like a great big galleon. I nearly jumped out of my skin in one practice session when the cleaner turned up unannounced and suddenly put the hoover on.
The pedals were something else I took ages to master. I know I’m not perfect yet but I’m proud that I persevered and am able to play the king of instruments to a reasonable standard.
I have taken Grades 5 and 6, achieving distinctions in both. When I retire from teaching next year I hope to take more lessons and maybe even finish my organ journey with Grades 7 and 8.
Article submitted by Linda Stevens (Assistant Organist at St. John’s)