Playing Is Their Passion
And They Fill Their Churches With Music
Marilyn Polson, of Chelsea, has been the organist at Bethany United Church of Christ in Randolph since 1990. She is passionate about the organ at the church, which was made in 1894 and still has all its original pipes. “There are some pieces that I play that are so magical it’s like casting a spell,” she said. “And if I make a mistake, it’s like it shatters everything.” (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Les Gibbs, of Hanover, has been the organist at First Congregational Church of Woodstock since 1995. He has been playing organ since he was 14. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Pianist Ken Yamamoto plays piano at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Student Center in Hanover. He was accompanying organist Liese Shewmaker, who has been playing organ at the church for more than 30 years. Shewmaker asked Yamamoto to join her after hearing him play piano in the empty sanctuary in the summer of 2009. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Candace Montesi of Proctorsville, Vt., has been playing organ for 47 years and for the First Congregational Church in Springfield, Vt., since 1999. She started taking piano lessons at 7, and in the tenth grade began studying the organ. “I can’t play tennis to save my life, but I can make my hands and feet play at the same time,” she joked. “I just love sitting on this bench. I love being up here and making this sound.” (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Ginny Dow has played organ at Hartland First Congregational Church for more than 40 years. She grew up going to the church and started playing music there when she was a teenager. “Never took lessons on (the organ), but I just kind of, you know, do it,” she said. “I just love music. It’s just been my thing.” (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Organist Liese Shewmaker plays at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Student Center in Hanover last month. Liese has been playing organ at the church for more than 30 years. “It’s a joy,” she said. “Even practicing, especially the hymns, they are so powerful. There’s a lot of deeply satisfying spiritual aspects to it.” (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Mary Sutherland, of East Lempster, N.H., has been an organist at Newport’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany for more than six years. She has playing organ for 59 years. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Kathy Hartman of Randolph, hase been a pianist and organist at Christ Church Bethel since 2004. She has been playing for churches since she was in high school. "It brings me such joy and such love," Hartman said. "Music is how I worship." (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Joanne Weatherson of Sunapee, is an organist and pianist at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon. She began taking piano lessons at seven years old and learned to play organ while studying vocal music at Wheaton College in Illinois. "It was just a natural progression (to play organ after piano)," she said. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Jean Adams has been a pianist at North Hartland Community Church for the past 16 years. She took piano lessons as a kid growing up in South Royalton -- she had never played in front of anyone until 1977, when an interim pastor at the church asked the congregation if anyone could accompany the hymns. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Churches often feature organists or pianists who play during services, and these musicians come from all walks of life. One Upper Valley accompanist grew up surrounded by Episcopalian hymns; another played throughout his childhood and during his decades-long Army career. One woman did not begin to play until later in life, after the busyness of school, marriage, and children had subsided. Whatever their backgrounds, they all share a passion for church music that keeps them coming back, Sunday after Sunday.
Accompanists are often longtime devotees to their craft, learning to play at an early age and continuing throughout their lives. Ginny Dow, of Hartland, taught herself the organ as a teenager, after beginning piano lessons at 4. She’s played organ at Hartland First Congregational Church for more than 40 years. Ken Yamamoto is just 26, but has played piano for much of that time. The Norwich resident has been the pianist at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Student Center in Hanover since the summer of 2009.
Marilyn Polson, of Chelsea, didn’t start playing organ until 1983, but her love for the instrument began at an early age. As a girl, she would creep upstairs at church to watch the organist play and stand near the organ during the postlude.
“(Playing organ) wasn’t on the back burner; it was in the freezer,” said Polson, who started playing after her kids were grown. “When there was an opportunity, I took it.”
That opportunity arose when the organist at her church in Tunbridge retired. Having played piano as a kid, she was able to fill in from time to time, starting in 1983.
In 1990, she answered an ad from Bethany United Church of Christ in Randolph and began playing there. She has taken lessons off and on over the years, but much of her learning is through pure determination — she practices the organ on Mondays and Wednesdays for four or five hours at a time. Despite all the work, she says the organ is great fun, and every time she plays, it teaches her something new.
“There are some pieces that I play that are so magical it’s like casting a spell,” Polson said. “And if I make a mistake, it’s like it shatters everything.”
Organ seems to have also cast a spell over Les Gibbs’ life. He grew up in Hartford Village and started playing piano at age 6. He spent many weekends in the town’s Jericho district with his grandmother, who had a pump organ that he played with whenever he visited.
At 13, he started sight-reading hymns from the organ books at the West Hartford Congregational Church and soon was playing during Sunday school. A year later, the church organist began helping him with his technique. Organists from the nearby Methodist and Catholic churches also took him under their wings, and eventually he began substituting for them.
After high school, he enlisted in the Army, intending to become a cook, but the first Sunday he was there, an unaccompanied chapel service drew him to the organ, and by the second verse of the first hymn, he was playing. That week he was called into the office of his company’s commander, who asked him to become a chaplain’s assistant so he could play organ during services. This led to Gibbs’ playing organ for most of his 23 years in the Army. He played while stationed in countries all over the world, including Korea, Italy, Vietnam and Germany, as well as in New Jersey, New York and Texas.
“There’s just something about a pipe organ … that you have control,” said Gibbs, who has been the organist at First Congregational Church of Woodstock since 1995.
Candace Montesi, organist at First Congregational Church in Springfield, Vt., agrees. Sometimes she chooses pieces to play just for herself, to “rock the rafters” with all the power the organ possesses.
“I just love sitting on this bench,” Montesi said. “I love being up here and making this sound.”
Mary Sutherland, of East Lempster, also expresses a connection to the sound. A self-described “cradle Episcopalian,” she plays at Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Newport. She knew at just 14 that she wanted to play the organ. But despite her religious background, for her, playing organ at church is solely about the music.
“We do it because it makes us happy. It doesn’t have a larger meaning,” she said.
For others, accompanying is a faith ministry. Both Yamamoto and his fellow accompanist at Our Savior Lutheran Church, organist Liese Shewmaker, say they play to serve the church. “There’s a lot of deeply satisfying spiritual aspects to it,” Shewmaker said. “(We fill) a need.”
Yamamoto said that when he started attending the University of Georgia, he felt like he could go to church and feel fulfilled, and he wanted to contribute as well.
“There’s something very special about filling a need that’s there,” he said. “It just kind of feeds you when you serve.”