What happens when you have 17 first-graders gather around a pipe organ?
Last Friday in the morning, I had a privilege of witnessing this in my own eyes when a group of elementary school kids with a few teachers came to Vilnius University Saint John's church for an organ demonstration.
It was a rainy day in Vilnius, and I met them all downstairs at the entrance to the church. The first thing we did was to say hello to each other and let their wet coats in the pews.
While they were getting ready to climb to the organ balcony, I told them the legend of "Damned Brothers" - a scary story from 1600's about an incident in this church where one boy took the ring off the finger of a rich man who was buried in the cellars under the floor. Suddenly the rich man sat up as if alive and shouted, "damned brothers" help me!" To avenge the little thief hundreds and hundreds of bones and sculls rose and tried to chase the boy around the church. The boy ran up the balcony to the organ and locked the doors behind him. Because the dead couldn't climb stairs, they started to climb on top of one another and would have caught the boy if not the rooster whose song announced the breaking dawn. When people came into the church in the morning, they found the boy in shock trembling from terror and hundreds of skulls and bones all over the place and a hideous stench in the room.
The funny thing was that when I asked the kids somewhere in the middle of the story if they weren't scared, they all shouted "No"!
By the way, afterwards I thought that this colorful legend could well serve as the basis for my organ improvisation recital on June 17, 2016 during "Culture Night" - a special festival in venues across the city (last year I played "A Legend About the Founding of Vilnius" on the same occasion).
So anyway, when the kids followed me on to the organ balcony, I told them to behave very carefully so as to not fall off from quite the distance down to the floor. Then I opened some of the panels of the organ case for them to see the action and started my demonstration.
I talked about how the organ sounds are produced, about some of the more interesting things about the mechanics, also about the largest organs in the world with 7 manuals. Again, when I asked them if they wanted to see the windows and the columns of the church break from the tremendous roar of the organ, they all shouted from "Yes" from joy!
To illustrate my talking, I chose to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which I hoped they would know and appreciate. At the end I played Bach's D minor Toccata but the kids were not familiar with it yet.
Children were very curious and constantly tried to find out various details about the organ. I had to keep their attention at the maximum by telling various stories which wasn't easy.
Luckily there came a time for them to sit down on the organ bench and to play themselves. Boy, you should have seen their faces - with their feet and hands they touched the stops, keys and pedals and sat 3 at once on the bench.
Incidentally, the music they produced reminded me of such avant-garde and landmark piece from the 1960's as Volumina by Gyorgy Ligeti.
When we were finished, they reluctantly came down the balcony, we made a group photo, and I asked them to draw pictures of this organ at home or at school which hopefully they did.
Who knows, perhaps they will remember the organ for some time and maybe one or two will want to learn to play it in the future?
How would you demonstrate the organ for first-graders? Their curiosity about this instrument is certainly very different from what interests adults in the organ, isn't it? Would you agree that storytelling is the key when it comes to organ demonstrations? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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Don't have an organ at home?
Download paper manuals and pedals, print them out, cut the white spaces, tape the sheets together and you'll be ready to practice anywhere where is a desk and floor. Make sure you have a higher chair.