Christmas Memories–Music

Zion Lutheran, Chattanooga, Christmas 2011

Christmas is the season for beautiful music and music is a big part of my life. I play both the piano and organ and I have been the organist at Zion Lutheran, Chattanooga, for nearly 46 years now. We have a beautiful church with very good acoustics.

The Christmas Eve service is particularly beautiful at Zion. The church lights are dimmed while the congregation sings Silent Night by candlelight. Each member holds their own small candle.

We used to go Christmas caroling when I was in Luther League, back in the 1960s. Caroling was a lot of fun. We visited shut-ins at their homes and in nursing homes. One of the stops was at the home of Vic and Chloe Bollenbacher. They lived on the Ohio/Indiana State Line.

There were usually several carloads of carolers and sometimes we went on some very cold and snowy evenings. We once parked along the side of a road and I stepped out of the car into a ditch full of snow.

Most folks invited us into their homes to sing. We had some good singers in our group. Among them were Susie Brandt, Karen Westerberg, Diane Humbert, Kirby Stetler, and Tim Green. We sang 4-part harmony and we sounded pretty good. I usually sang alto. Afterward we were often rewarded with delicious home-baked cookies. When we were finished caroling we usually went back to the church where there were more cookies and hot chocolate.

I made my musical debut was when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My church musical career did not start as an organist or pianist, but as a vocalist. I sang a song for a New Year’s Eve service in our church basement. I remember being scared to sing but my neighbor Cindy had put a beautiful pink and blue teddy bear on top of the piano. I kept looking at that little bear as I sang. Afterword Cindy gave me the teddy bear. I named the bear “Smiley” and I kept him for many years, until he wore out.

I eventually worked my way up and became the organist at Zion. The position of church organist means job security. I have yet to know of anyone wanting to take over my job. I have heard that the heavenly rewards are good, too.

Karen at Zion's organ, 1993

Kendra Miller, our church pianist, and I enjoy playing piano/organ duets. I don’t remember when Kendra and I started playing duets together but we have played together long enough that we seem to be of one musical mind. It often just takes a glance to convey what we are thinking.

Kendra & Karen, Christmas Concert 1995

Last Sunday evening we gave a Christmas concert at Zion. Kendra and I performed several concerts in the 1990s, but none since. Originally our concerts featured only piano and organ duets. This year’s program featured our duets as well as piano and organ solos, vocal numbers and readings. One number consisted of two pianos and the organ. A good number of people attended and everything went quite well. It was a great way to celebrate the birth of Jesus and feel the Christmas spirit.

To perform our duets we strive to achieve several things:

Playing the same song at the same time.

Both playing at the same tempo.

Beginning an arrangement at a reasonable tempo. Some songs seem to accelerate as we play. There is one beautiful Christmas song that we played once but will probably never play again. We refer to it as “The Train Wreck Song”. That song somehow picks up momentum and by the end of the song we are speeding along, but not playing in unison. It has a way of going out of control. Just like runaway train.

Beginning and ending a song at the same time. However, things occasionally go awry in the middle. There are just some songs that you don’t want to get “lost” in. This has happened a couple of times and it gives me panicky feeling every time. It can be very difficult to get back together again. The “lost” one has to find the right measure and join the song again. He Shall Feed His Flock and The Hallelujah Chorus seem to be the worst offenders. It must be something about Handel’s music!

Karen & Kendra, 1995

Having the piano and organ in tune with each other. Duets sound best when they are. The temperature in the organ chamber is important because it affects the pitch of the organ. Our pipes are in a little room with an outside wall.  At Zion the piano and organ will be in tune as long at the temperature in the chamber is around 70 degrees. That is why the chamber door is left open in the winter, to bring warm air to the pipes.  And that is why we don’t play duets in the summer.

This has been a look at some of the behind the scenes worries of an organist and pianist.

Joy To the World, The Lord Has Come!

Merry Christmas, everyone!



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