Learning to Improvise: My First Days as an Organist

Youngstown, Ohio 1986

Even before I graduated high school in 1985, I realized that I wanted to go to college to study piano. By my junior year of high school, I was practicing consistently and winning competitions for piano, and without any desire to study anything else, I decided that piano was my path.

I was fortunate to have received a full scholarship to a college close to home so I took the opportunity and started my Bachelor’s degree at Youngstown State University. It was a very good music school at the time, and I had a wonderful piano teacher who I felt was not only my teacher in music but in life; a mentor of all things. It was his mentorship for which I am most grateful.

He taught me how to look at life and music in many different ways, in addition to helping me learn how to organize my life in ways which I cannot even begin to understand.

After the first year of college with my piano teacher, affectionately known as “Doc,” I decided to get a job at a store in the mall to help defray college costs and to have money for movies and going out. However, the many hours at this job began to take a toll on my schoolwork and music. At one point during class when I was working too much and practicing too little, Doc looked at me and said, “you know, you could make a lot more money in a lot less time if you played organ at church.”

Fortunately, while I was in high school I studied organ for a short time. But in that short time, I developed enough proficiency at the organ that I felt good enough to play for church services, although I had not taken the time to pursue a job as a church organist. Knowing my ability, Doc found an available church job and voila, my days as a retail salesperson ended and my days as a church organist began!

For those of you who don’t play the organ, and I’m going to assume we’re talking about most the readers here, there are points in a church or synagogue service where there needs to be “filler;” i.e. music that the organist or pianist plays to fill the time until whatever action that was happening stopped happening.

It was in this “filler” time where I grew in my ability to improvise at both the organ and the piano. And this improvisational ability helped me to create the pieces that I am now proud to call my own. Vive l'improvisation!