Hyoun Joo Song has been the organist at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth since 2001. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Hyoun Joo Song’s fingers flow lightly over two sets of keys, or manuals, as she plays a soft piece by Bach, “Wenn Wir in Höchsten Nöten Sein,” on a pipe organ.
The 42-year-old moves on to a louder piece, “Wur Nur Den Lieben Gott Lässt Walten,” also by Bach, deftly running her feet along a pedal board to create low notes.
“That’s a pipe duster,” she laughed. “It dusts the pipes.”
The pipe organ, which is referred to as the king of instruments and has been around in some form for centuries, Song said, can be intimidating, with all its keys, buttons and pedals. The pipe organ at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian, where Song has played organ since 1991, is a hybrid organ, which combines real pipes with digital capabilities, as well as MIDI sounds. Song said the instrument is capable of producing more than 1,000 sounds.
“The organ itself has so many capacities of different sound, it’s almost as if conducting an orchestra from your organ pit right there,” the Duluth resident said. “When you have all those pipes going at one time, it’s really powerful.”
Song, who learned to play piano at the age of 7, started playing organ right out of high school and studied organ in college.
“Having been in church as long as I remember, I think kind of it was a natural thing to be interested in organ music,” Song said. “That’s a fancy instrument. It’s different from piano yet kind of similar, too.”
Like Song, Philip Myers Jr., the organist at Lilburn First Baptist Church, started playing piano at the age of 7 and then organ at 15.
“I got real interested in the organ watching the organist at our church in Jacksonville,” the Grayson resident said. “The organ console was down on the floor so you could see it real easy from the pews. It intrigued me to see her pulling all the stops and playing the pedals, and just the sounds, the different sounds you can get out of it.”
The organ’s many different sounds may be fading out in some churches, Myers said, given the shift to contemporary music.
“I think sometimes we go through phases. I know the Baptist churches, quite a few of them, have gone the contemporary route and of course, the organ doesn’t really fit in to that. We try to do things with it, but you really can’t.
Myers said most contemporary music is rhythm based and the organ doesn’t fit that style very well.
“I don’t think it’s a dying art,” he said. “I think it depends a lot on the denomination. I think if you run into the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, I don’t think it’s backed off that much there. Baptist probably has, and some of the more independent churches where they’re nondemoninational, generally speaking you won’t see an organ there at all.”
Song agreed that the playing the organ isn’t a dying art but the number of organists working at churches could decrease due to the shift to contemporary music.
“It is my hope that the organ will remain a staple in the church music,” she said. “I think there is room for these traditional churches to co-exist with the churches who may prefer the contemporary Christian music.”
Myers, 73, who has played at Lilburn First Baptist for more than 30 years, said he enjoys the instrument itself.
“It sounds like ego, but you can go in there and play the organ and enjoy playing it,” Myers said. “I can go in there by myself and just enjoy making music with it. You don’t have to have an audience to enjoy it. You can sit there and fill the room (with sound).”
Myers gracefully moves his hands from one manual to another, his feet skimming the pedals, as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” fills the sanctuary at Lilburn First Baptist. The organ there is an electronic organ with three manuals, all with 61 keys, and 60 stops, which are pulled to produce different sounds, such as flutes, trumpets and other instruments.
“I think it’s very calming to play,” Myers said. “You get immersed in the sound.”
“Organ, it’s like being able to paint different colors,” Song said. “Piano can only have certain colors, yet organ has so many options, so many different colors you can mix and match and paint.”
Church organist around Gwinnett
Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church organist Hyoun Joo Song and First Baptist Church Lilburn organist Philip D. Myers Jr. talk about their love for the organ.