50 years of mak­ing mu­sic

Taupo & Turangi Weekender - - Front Page - Lau­rilee McMichael

St An­drew’s Angli­can Church or­gan­ist Michael Drake says while play­ing the or­gan in church is a bit like giv­ing a con­cert ev­ery week, it’s the or­gan­ist’s job to stay re­laxed and do it prop­erly.

But even this most ex­pe­ri­enced or­gan­ist with 50 years’ ser­vice un­der his belt, had a few nerves dur­ing the most high-stakes ser­vice he ever played at.

It was Fe­bru­ary 2002, when the Queen and Prince Philip at­tended a Sun­day ser­vice at St An­drew’s. They were stay­ing at Huka Lodge, and the vicar of the time, Ge­off Hick­man, had ar­ranged for the royal cou­ple to be in­vited. Michael says from the or­gan­ist’s per­spec­tive it all went smoothly — well, al­most.

“We were hav­ing God Save The Queen and you hardly ever play it for real in New Zealand. I had prac­tised it and you don’t want to be the only or­gan­ist she’s been in church with who ru­ins God Save The Queen.

“But the tricky thing was, God Save The Queen came about five sec­onds after a really big hymn and I had the mu­sic ready but I’d turned over two pages at once and I had to de­cide in about one sec­ond was I go­ing to find that mu­sic or was I go­ing to try and play it from mem­ory? It only took about three sec­onds [to find the right place] but it felt like a long time when ev­ery­body’s stand­ing up wait­ing for that piece.”

Although Michael can’t re­mem­ber what other mu­sic was played that day, it will be recorded in one of the note­books in which he has writ­ten de­tails and mu­sic of ev­ery ser­vice he has played at since first be­com­ing one of St An­drew’s or­gan­ists in 1968.

Michael learned the pi­ano as a school­boy grow­ing up in Auck­land and sang in the parish choir. He de­scribes him­self as “an ad­e­quate pi­anist” but be­cause his fa­ther was a vicar, he also had the op­por­tu­nity to play the church’s pipe or­gan.

“St Al­ban’s in Do­min­ion Rd had a very nice and very old or­gan, well over 100 years old and that’s where I first be­gan to play for oc­ca­sional ser­vices. I be­came a good friend with the or­gan­ist Don James and a very good or­gan­ist he was too.”

Michael moved to Taupo¯ in 1968 to teach at Taupō-nui-aTia Col­lege and joined the congregation and choir at St An­drew’s. The vicar asked him to join the or­gan­ist team. Michael’s first ser­vice was All Saints’ Day, Novem­ber 4. Soon he found he was play­ing over half the time.

Michael is still one of St An­drew’s five or­gan­ists as well as the one who or­gan­ises the ros­ter and makes sure there is al­ways an or­gan­ist.

He is proud that in the last 50 years there’s never been a ser­vice that hasn’t had an or­gan­ist, although cov­er­ing Christ­mas can some­times be awk­ward.

He is a de­tails man who keeps a note­book set­ting out the hymns and mu­sic at ev­ery ser­vice he plays at, plus where the mu­sic is kept so that he can find it quickly when he needs to.

“I have got a good record. I can tell you ev­ery­thing I’ve played on ev­ery sin­gle ser­vice for the last half cen­tury. I’m a bit too pre­cise in that I keep ev­ery­thing and I don’t tend to throw writ­ten records away.”

Such at­ten­tion to de­tail counts.

“Some­times you might have a funeral and peo­ple will say ‘we’d like to have the hymn that Mum had at her wed­ding’, and I can look it up and play it.”

An or­gan­ist is usu­ally re­quired for St An­drew’s two Sun­day ser­vices each week plus oc­ca­sional other ser­vices like fu­ner­als. Michael says these days peo­ple often elect not to have an or­gan­ist at wed­dings and fu­ner­als and use pre­re­corded mu­sic in­stead. He thinks that’s a good thing, say­ing peo­ple need to have the mu­sic they like. But if or­gan mu­sic is what they like, Michael is happy to be in­volved.

“Some­one said to me ‘don’t you get tired of play­ing at fu­ner­als?’ And I said ‘no, not at all. It’s a priv­i­lege to be in­volved in the fi­nal cer­e­mony of some­body’s life and it’s an op­por­tu­nity for the com­mu­nity pay their re­spects to that per­son’.”

Michael has seen plenty of change dur­ing his 50 years be­hind the or­gan, the two big­gest be­ing the ex­ten­sion of the church in 2001 and the pur­chase of a new Allen or­gan in the 1980s, which is still in use to­day. The or­gan has two key­boards and many fea­tures, and Michael says it can do a tremen­dous num­ber of dif­fer­ent things.

“It sounds very much like an acous­tic pipe or­gan in some of its stops. There’s no sus­tain pedal so you have to play in a really smooth legato way and as soon as you take your fin­ger off, it stops.

“There are hymns and other pieces of mu­sic that I play that have parts of them that are quite en­chant­ing and part of the or­gan­ist’s job is to bring that out in the or­gan. You have a great va­ri­ety of ways you can make things sound on the or­gan so you have to use things to their best ad­van­tage really.”

As well as en­joy­ing play­ing the or­gan, Michael says it ben­e­fits his health.

“When you learn a new tune you have to make a new path­way in your brain and I think that’s very good thing for your brain. I don’t learn new things par­tic­u­larly quickly. Some peo­ple sight read and away they go. I have to work at it.

“And you have to be alert dur­ing a ser­vice, you’ve got be pre­pared and have your mu­sic ready and be pre­pared for un­usual oc­cur­rences. The vicar might an­nounce that you’re hav­ing a hymn and you thought it was go­ing to be five min­utes away.”

He says although he has been an or­gan­ist — and it is en­tirely a vol­un­tary role — for 50 years, it is not a big deal at all. He reck­ons it was just one year re­peated 50 times.

“Lots of peo­ple in all sorts of or­gan­i­sa­tions play parts at run­ning it. I al­ways think in a com­mu­nity if you have a skill and it’s needed you ought to use it.

“I tend to stick to things. I taught at Taupo¯-nui-a-Tia Col­lege for 46 years. There’s al­ways things you can do bet­ter, so it’s never bor­ing, you’re al­ways find­ing new ways of do­ing things and try­ing to im­prove. I prac­tice a fair bit on the pi­ano at home and if I’m play­ing on a Sun­day I’ll play three or four ses­sions at home and I might have one on the or­gan. There’s lots of work in­volved.”

The pay­off comes when Michael is play­ing, the congregation is singing and it sounds mag­nif­i­cent.

“You feel you are mak­ing a won­der­ful sound all to­gether, the congregation and the or­gan­ist and ev­ery­one so ev­ery­one gets a really great lift.”

Photo / Les­ley Cotterill

Michael Drake has been play­ing the St An­drew’s Angli­can Church or­gan for 50 years.

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