The following article is by Alexandra Ripperger. Alexandra is a student at St. Olaf College, majoring in Biology- Pre-Veterinary Medicine. She was introduced to the organ by Jeanine Walter, who is double-majoring in music (organ performance) and nursing. Alexandra wrote a paper about Jeanine as a living organism for a science class.
On Assumptions: How An Organist Taught Me To Be More Open-Minded
I didn’t know anyone under the age of 50 played the organ. To me, the instrument was the huge thing with the pipes that an older woman played during a church service. Those preconceived notions were drastically altered on my first day of college when I met my roommate, Jeanine Walter. A bubbly, blunt California girl, Jeanine shocked me when she explained she was an organ performance major; she didn’t just know how to play the organ, she planned on doing it professionally.
Three years later, after watching Jeanine play the organ on numerous occasions, I have a deeper appreciation for the time and dedication it takes to become good at this grand instrument. My social biases against organists have come crashing down, as Jeanine slowly introduced me to the small community of collegiate organists. Although it can be difficult to not have initial judgments when it comes to something foreign, I quickly realized I needed to be more open-minded during my next four years at St. Olaf.
Watching Jeanine prepare to play a song on the organ is like watching someone adjust a car to his or her exact specifications for driving. She flicks on the light and sets her sheet music on the stand. Leaning over, she twists the knob on the side of the bench, lowering it a little. Jeanine sits down, tests the height out, and deems it too high. She repeats this process three times before being satisfied.
Every St. Olaf student has seen the massive organ in Boe Chapel; with 5,068 pipes, it is hard to miss. But without Jeanine as my roommate, I would have walked past Skifter Hall on St. Olaf’s campus every day for four years never knowing what was inside. Thankfully, she gave me a tour of the building, which houses the organ practice rooms. The seven small rooms, no more than 10ft by 10ft, each contain a different organ that fills almost the entire space. Even with multiple practice organs available, Jeanine says “the worst part about being an organist is not having your own personal instrument that you can carry around with you and claim as just your own, like a trumpet or flute. And it can get complicated sharing the best ones with other students, having to practice at odd times to fit others’ schedules and in public where anyone can interrupt with noise and presence.” I hadn’t realized until this point how constantly playing tucked away in Skifter Hall withdraws the organists’ visibility from the St. Olaf community. Not only are there only 25 organists at St. Olaf, people rarely get the opportunity to watch them play.
The Boe Chapel organ allows organists to set “memory levels” in the console. Each organist has specific “memory level” numbers that, when entered, set the organ’s pistons correctly for the organist’s songs. The pistons, which are cylindrical rods with knobs on the ends, correspond to a set of organ pipes. Depending on if they are pulled in or out like a drawer, they allow or prevent airflow through the pipes to make a sound. This may sound simplistic, but the Boe Chapel organ, like many church organs, has over 100 pistons. Imagine having to individually set all of them each time you played a song!
The Boe Chapel organ has three levels of hand keys that can be played, and it also has foot pedals, which essentially look like extra large piano keys (complete with sharp notes). Did you know organists must wear special shoes when they play? Jeanine’s shoes look like plain black pumps with a thick heel; organ shoes must have a heel so that multiple foot pedals can be played at the same time. Jeanine pulls on her shoes and settles in. She fools around for a bit, playing a fun, simple tune to check that everything is in order. Finally, she flips to her senior soloist audition piece and prepares to play.
If you have never closely observed someone playing the organ, you would not be able to appreciate the physicality involved. Jeanine is currently playing Organ Symphony No. 1 by Guilmant for her organ professor, and although I know nothing about organ compositions, the number of notes on the sheet music almost makes my eyes water. I can’t imagine how one person will be able to play all the right notes at all the right times. As Jeanine begins, there is so much movement involved I forget momentarily to listen to the music. She leans, slides, and shifts across the bench to reach various notes. Her feet are also in constant motion, and occasionally cross in a heel-toe action as she moves down a series. Her body is even sometimes diagonal, if her feet need to reach pedals to the far left and her hands need to reach keys to the far right. On top of everything, her entire body rocks back and forth through the entire piece, emphasizing certain notes and evoking passion. After she is finished, her organ professor comes over togive a few constructive criticisms. She tells Jeanine the piece “must be perfect, you are here to impress and move people.” She goes on to remind her of an organist alumnus who, at the end of every song, would throw himself off the bench in excitement. “Nobody noticed that half the time he messed up the final chords, because his enthusiasm was so incredible.”
I think it is safe to say if you chose to major in organ performance, you have a great passion for the instrument. Jeanine started playing the piano when she was six years old and moved on to the organ when she was 11. “I went to a Lutheran school from kindergarten to 8th grade, so my teacher gave lessons in the chapel. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten into playing church music at all,” she explains. After a successful audition at St. Olaf, Jeanine decided she couldn’t turn down the chance to continuing playing and take music history classes (which, she now notes, were “ridiculously hard”). Her favorite organ pieces to play are from the French Romantic era, which Jeanine says are characterized by “emerging individualism in music, the emphasis on human emotion rebutting rationality…and huge, powerful chords.” Jeanine describing her favorite organ pieces is similar to an elite athlete at the top of their game: “the feeling of vulnerability paired with raw power is right at my fingertips, and I zone out completely when I know a piece well and can jump into it completely.” Although Jeanine knows all the organs at St. Olaf well, she says her favorite organ is at the Macy’s department store in Philadelphia, because it has seven keyboards and “so many stops and pistons that [you feel] literally engulfed, like in an airplane cockpit.”
Society tells us college is a part of your life overflowing with change, particularly in regards to your assumptions and beliefs about the world. I never would have guessed one of my hidden presumptions would be exposed and smashed into pieces within hours of moving in. I’m glad to have been educated on the preparation and facets of playing the organ, but more importantly, I’m glad to have become friends with one of best collegiate organists in the U.S. The next time you see a blonde girl playing the organ in Boe Chapel, pause for a moment and take a closer look.