Tag Archive | Lowery organ

My Musical Destiny

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Seventeen years ago, Mim and I created a new business called Korth-Jacobson, LLC. Within that business structure we have done lots of different things – from being a bed and breakfast to selling real estate; from doing strategic planning and project management for small businesses to providing music in churches and a pub and other venues; from hosting spiritual retreats to caring for the elderly in our home. All of these businesses have been based out of our home. For the past 12 years, one of our businesses has been Country Comforts Assisted Living. We currently care for two 94-year-olds in our home, and we also coordinate the care of a third almost 94-year-old who lives with a neighbor.

By the very nature of this caregiving business, we are working 24/7. Whenever we are at home, we are responsible for being sure the needs of our residents are met. Whenever we are not at home, we need to be sure another caregiver is present to meet these needs. We have finally realized that to meet our own need for a break, we must take some time off, and that means we need to be away from our work environment – away from home. Lately we’ve established the schedule of taking Tuesdays and Thursdays off from about 1:00 or 1:30 pm till about 8:00 pm. Our most usual destinations on these days are Woodmans, Costco, and occasionally Trader Joe’s for groceries; Menards for hardware items; Farm & Fleet for dog treats and toys and for clothes when they go on sale (really!); and resale shops for books, clothes, gifts, and other bargains we “need.” Occasionally we’ll go to a movie if we don’t have any shopping that needs to be done.

A couple weeks ago we redeemed a gift certificate from a good friend and went to see the matinee performance at the Fireside Theater of “All Shook Up.”  We had a wonderful time listening to all those Elvis songs from the 50s and 60s, and laughing about the inter-racial mix-ups and mistaken sexual identity antics. Hearing those Elvis songs from our grade school and high school years brought back one of my childhood memories.

Lowery Organ 2

Lowery electronic organ, state of the art using vacuum tube technology in 1957.

My sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started giving me piano lessons before I started school. I’ve  enjoyed playing the piano ever since. When I was nine, my mom bought a Lowery electronic organ. She had grown up playing a reed pump organ, and she missed playing an organ. A piano wasn’t as much fun for her, although she played it some. When the new electronic organ was delivered to our house I was as excited as I could be. I got to take the ten free lessons that came with the organ from Ward Brodt in Madison, and then I continued taking lessons from our church organist – both piano and organ. But from my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt I learned that any kind of music can be played on an organ – not just hymns. I had to walk through the print music department at the store to get to the lesson rooms, and I always browsed the music on my way out of the store. Most of my allowance was spent on music books with titles like “The Best Hits of 1962 for Easy Organ.” I acquired quite a collection and learned to play songs as varied as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

One Thursday morning when I was about 10 or 11, (I know it was Thursday because that was my mom’s day off) Eleanor Jarlsberg, one of my mom’s friends from church, came over for morning coffee. Mom and Eleanor were sitting at the dining room table drinking their coffee, and I was in the living room playing the organ just for fun, not practicing. I was going through my latest “Greatest Hits…” book. I was playing mostly the slower and quieter songs so that I wouldn’t disturb their conversation in the next room. When I finished playing the Elvis’ hit “Love Me Tender,” Eleanor asked me what hymn that was – she really liked it. When I told her it was an Elvis Presley song – not a hymn, she laughed and laughed, and I felt kind of embarrassed.

That’s when I began to put two and two together to understand that my destiny was to be a gospel pianist/organist, regardless of the type of music I tried to play. I’m not the gospel pianist that my Aunt Edith was who added all kinds of embellishments all over the keyboard. I’m not very good at that. I’m the kind of gospel music player that can play very expressively by varying volume and where on the keyboard I’m playing – high or low – and by sometimes holding a note a little too long to build the tension. I do simple stuff to draw the listener into the emotional message of the song.

Over the years as I learned more classical music on the piano and more traditional hymns and hymn arrangements on the organ, I tried to become more classical in my style of playing. But that was never as much fun for me. But then I noticed that Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” can easily morph into “Jesus Loves Me.” And that “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” can weave itself into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

Beer Barrel Polka sheet musicOne morning last week I had a musical breakthrough. A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning her funeral, and she asked me if I would be willing to play for it. Of course, I said sure. Then she said she wanted the funeral to be a joyous time of celebration. One of the songs she wanted me to play was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” I happen to know the song because that’s one of the songs my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt taught me. But, I’ve felt uncomfortable with that song for a funeral ever since she made the request. My friend died last week. As I was mulling over whether nor not I should play the song, it suddenly dawned on me – if I can morph “Clair de Lune” into “Jesus Loves Me” I certainly can morph “The Beer Barrel Polka” into “Jesus Loves Me.” So I did.

Yup. That’s my destiny. Regardless of what type of music I try to play, gospel is what’s going to come out. God made me that way, and I’ve finally come to whole-heartedly accept it.

Thanks, Nancy, for helping me learn that lesson.

Nancy Koplin cropped

Nancy Koplin, a good friend who helped me find “Jesus Loves Me” in “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

Reflections on a Musical Memory

Christmas Mountain Village SignLast week Mim and I spent four days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. Four days is the longest we’ve been away together in years. We had a wonderful time, just relaxing and being thankful we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary.

As I was enjoying my first real vacation day on Monday, I opened up the magic cloud that follows my computer wherever it goes, and started listening to an album called “Instrumental Songs of Worship for Quiet Moments.” I sat down on the couch and looked through the window at the trees just beginning to turn from dark green to light red. I was going to start reading my book, but I noticed that a symphonic version of an old, old hymn was playing, “The Old Rugged Cross.” As I listened to it, I remembered playing that hymn on a little electronic organ at a Bible camp 56 years ago. I think I was 10.

Mims Reed Organ

Mim’s grandma’s pump organ

Before I explain the significance of that memory, let me give you a little family background.  My mom grew up with a small reed pump organ in the farmhouse. I never saw that organ, but I imagine it was similar to the one Mim’s grandmother had, which we now have at the base of our stairway in our condo.

Sometime after my mom and dad married, they bought a used upright piano. That’s the one I grew up playing. I remember my mom talking about how much she missed having an organ. At that time, in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic organs had become popular. Mom finally saved up enough money to buy a Lowery organ. It had two short manuals and a one-octave pedal board. Mom had negotiated a deal that included our old upright piano as a trade-in.

The night before the organ was to be delivered, I spent all evening playing the piano, for what I thought would be the last time. I was excited about getting an organ, but I knew I would miss the piano. I was saying goodbye to my 88-key friend by playing through all my piano books.

Old upright piano

My mom’s upright piano

The next day, when I came home from school, I was ecstatic to see the new organ, and also to see that the old piano was still there. My dad had bought the old piano back from the delivery men for $50. My dad got a good deal – he paid less than the original trade-in value – because the delivery men were so happy not to have to load the big old upright onto their truck.

Although the piano was my old friend, the novelty of the new organ captured most of my attention for the next few years. The organ came with ten free lessons from the WardBrodt Music Store in Madison. After those lessons were used up, I switched to taking both piano and organ lessons, alternating weeks, from our church organist. The ten free lessons from WardBrodt broadened my repertoire considerably. I’m sure my church organist teacher would never have taught me “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

(It’s a good thing I learned it because a friend of mine, who plans ahead, has requested that I play “The Beer Barrel Polka” for her funeral!)

Lowery Organ 2

A 1960s era electronic organ by Lowery – just like mine.

The following summer, between fourth and fifth grades for me, our church youth group spent a week at Willerup Bible Camp on Lake Ripley in Cambridge. The previous week’s campers had rented an electronic organ for the chapel, and it was still there. Since the camp director knew I was taking organ lessons, she asked me to play a solo for a special evening service toward the end of the week, a service that would include all our parents as guests.

I chose to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” The hymn had two flats, B and E. I always remembered to play the B-flat, and sometimes remembered the E-flat. It wasn’t my best performance, but I was still proud of the fact that I was the only kid at camp who knew how to play an organ.

After the service, my mom asked me why I chose to play that hymn. I didn’t really know why. I guess I kind of liked the melody, and I knew lots of people liked the song. I couldn’t think of any other reason I had for choosing it.

I think my mom’s question had a profound impact on me. For the past 50-odd years, I have always thought carefully about what music I play on either the piano or organ – whether it’s for background music during the dinner hour at the Cambridge Country Inn and Pub or for a worship service in church.

For example, the Scripture readings for last weekend included two stories about God’s grace. The first one was about Jonah, after his whale adventure. He preached to the people at Ninevah, they repented, and God decided not to punish them. Jonah was mad that God had changed his mind. He wanted God to punish them as they deserved. The second story was the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired people to work in his fields. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, and the landowner paid them all the same wage. The laborers who had worked all day weren’t happy. It wasn’t fair. The disciples also had a hard time seeing the fairness in Jesus’ parable.

Mom looking down at me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s looking down at me, listening to me playing in church…

So what music did I choose for a prelude?

I wanted to suggest the ideas that we need to try to understand what God is telling us, just like the disciples were trying to understand the real meaning in Jesus’ parables, and that God’s message this week is about generosity and grace. I cobbled together an arrangement of three hymns – “Open My Eyes,” “He Giveth More Grace,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve been accused of taking my music selection process too seriously. Maybe I do. Occasionally I choose to play something simply because I like it, but that’s only when I can’t think of anything that relates directly to the Scriptures of the day.

At least I know that if Mom is listening up in heaven to whatever I’m playing, I’ll have a good answer for her if she asks me why I chose to play what I chose. And I’m sure she’ll approve.

Marian at Messiah organ 3

And I have a very good reason for playing what I’m playing!