from Pianist to organist, now where?

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If you didn’t already know, you do now! I have been an church organist since last year. I’m living in the northern suburbs of Chicago and a friend called me asked me if I could fill in as a sub from September 2019. I wasn’t looking to become an organist, but after the position opened up at Grace United Methodist Church in Lake Bluff, IL, I gave it careful consideration and finally accepted the offer of Organist and Piano Accompanist in November that same year.

Organ was actually my secondary instrument in university, but does that even mean anything? For me, it meant I studied organ for a year and performed in student recitals, but after not playing organ for over 4 years, I could barely play with the pedals. All of that is becoming much easier now, thankfully! I have been blessed to have friends who gave me long-term loans (most likely, indefinitely) of organ music that ranges from intermediate to IMPOSSIBLE. So now I spend countless number of hours each week preparing this music. I’ve lost count and my piano practicing often gets pushed to the side. You might ask, “Well, they both have keys, aren’t they the same?” Mostly no. Simply put, any pianist can play the organ as I continue to do, but challenging repertoire is different to what a pianist learns. You add in pedals, registration, different techniques, different approach to the keys, and different action. I sit down at the organ and it’s a different animal, it’s a machine.

COVID-19 has put many things into perspective for me. I’m ever so grateful to have a job where I can play music albeit it may not be the music I love playing on a daily basis. I’ve come to ask myself, who am I as a musician? What does music mean for me? Where do musicians have a place in the world? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but music is a journey and one that will be a lifetime pursuing. To be a serious classical musician I will always need to practice. Classical music is not remotely similar to other professions. The amount of time that goes into perfecting a piece means numerous hours of solitude. Solitude does not equate to loneliness, but can lead to that, so I’m trying to make sure I spend time on my health, sleep, and friendships. There are no real jobs that can pay decently enough to make a full-time living as a performer. This is the reality that is hitting me a little too late, but I’m still young, with a positive outlook on life. My wonderful piano and organ teachers have done a mix of performing and teaching, so this goes to my point. There are yet only a few world renowned pianists who had everything right from a young age, such as Lang Lang. That doesn’t mean they are the most gifted, but they’ve been able to monetize their performing careers. You need money, teachers, connections, pianos (go figure!), parents to push you, etc. I’m not making an excuse for myself, as I implied I’m being realistic. It’s my dream to continue to play classical music and I think everyone should follow their passion(s), but meanwhile having a true set of tangible skills as a backup.

For now, I express my gratitude for the things I have. Before COVID there were places and people around the world with limited resources and opportunities and this will continue on after the pandemic. We all deserve opportunities no matter race, creed, or religion. The fact that I have always been able to go to a quiet place, sit down, and learn a complex piece of music which will bring me joy is truly a gift and I am grateful for that.

Practicing Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude on the church’s Steinway.