Stephen Beddia, of Egg Harbor Township, will experience something new when he sits down to play music this morning at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Linwood.
Beddia, 60, is the music director and the choir director at Our Lady of Sorrows and has been with the church for the past 20 years. This will be Beddia's first Easter service playing the church pipe organ that he rebuilt. For the past 19 years, he has been making do with a bad electronic organ, he said.
Pipe organs are the most expensive instruments in the world. If the church was charged for the three and a half years worth of labor it took to make the organ work, it would have cost more than $1 million, but Beddia volunteered his time, and parts and materials were donated.
"I'm playing music that I haven't played since my previous church job that had a pipe organ. We're talking about 22 or 23 years ago, It's very exciting for me," Beddia said. "It's very challenging. I haven't played a pipe organ on a regular basis in so long. I actually have to relearn how to play it and practice. It's a very humbling experience for me."
Whether the church organists are playing a new instrument, performing in a new church or doing another year with their regular church, the symphony of sounds produced by organs will help spread Easter joy along with the preacher's words and the sound of a choir.
For the past two centuries in America, the organ has been the backbone of religious services, especially church services, said Anthony Thurman, director of development and communications for the American Guild of Organists. The organization boasts 20,000 members nationwide and 300 local chapters, but not all members are organists.
"The organ is really the ideal accompaniment for congregational singing because of the sustaining quality of the organ ... unlike a piano where the minute you play a key the sound immediately begins to dissipate," Thurman said.
Those in attendance today at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Bridgeton will hear Gerri Battle, a Bridgeton resident, play the organ during the Easter Sunday services for the first time. Battle was at the church from 2004 to 2007 and returned last year, but the church's organ didn't work during her first stint, so she played the piano.
"Being a church organist, it's not just about the instrument. Just like a pastor, you are giving the service. You have to be able to come in and move the spirit as you are playing," said Battle, who has been playing for more than 20 years, but didn't give her age.
Battle feels she can touch the congregation with her playing on a particular Sunday by attending the prayer service before church.
"I try to listen to whatever someone is saying. I try to listen to what their heart is saying through their mouths, to see what kind of spirit they are really into," said Battle, who selects the music played each week during services.
Battle determines whether to play music that is more joyous, or more of a cry out to God, based on how the prayer service hits her.
Many of the local organists learned their organ skills in the churches where they grew up, but knowledge gained in religious halls can be supplemented by academic training.
For instance, the Westminister College of the Arts of Rider University in Princeton, Mercer County, offers private lessons on the organ.
Tyrone "The Maestro" Harris, 65, of Atlantic City, played piano as a teenager at Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City. He usually played piano in the church as a teen while another musician played the organ. One of the people who taught Harris the organ was Bishop Charles Lyles of Victory First Presbyterian Church in Atlantic City. Harris also studied music at The Juilliard School in New York and the Boston Conservatory.
In June, Harris celebrates his 17th anniversary as the minister of music at Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City.
"I love the people in the church, and I love my choir. They work hard. It's more of a senior group," Harris said. "We do traditional gospel and contemporary gospel. I've been there that long. I just like the people, and they tolerate me."
Harris plays a Hammond B-3 organ that used to be in the now defunct Grace's Little Belmont on Kentucky Avenue.
"I play about 75 percent through all of the service," Harris said. They (Easter and Christmas) are both equally as important. Those are the two biggest Christian celebrations worldwide."
Harris said he can play the organ to such appropriate Eastern hymns as "He Lives" and "Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross."
Rev. William E. Greene, Sr., the interim pastor at Asbury United Methodist, said the church organ playing is extremely important to the service. The church was willing to pay hundreds of dollars to repair its Hammond organ after it was recently damaged by a power surge.
"The organ is the driving force behind the choir and behind the congregation singing. It's an essential piece," Pastor Greene said.
Individual churches hire organists through a variety of methods, including a sign out front and classified advertising, Thurman said. Competition is great for the jobs that are full-time and pay well with retirement and benefits. The jobs range from part-time to full-time with other responsibilities to just being a full-time organist if the congregation is big enough, Thurman said.
Calvin Anderson, 55, and Kenneth B. Moore, 67, both of Egg Harbor Township, have each been playing the organ in churches for years, but their partnership at St. Paul AME Church in Pleasantville is relatively new.
Anderson has played the organ since the 1980s and has been at the church for the past seven years. Moore has been playing the organ for 44 years, but from 1997 to 2010, he was the organist at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Pleasantville. For the past two years, Anderson and Moore have been together with Anderson on organ and Moore on piano, keyboards and saxophone.
"In my opinion in the black church, the organ has always played a special role along with the choirs. When Easter comes, and Christmas and so far, those are very special days. Easter is the day in which we believe Christ rose from the dead and that sealed our salvation for us, so that became a vital part of the ministry of music, and of course, the organ plays a vital role in that," Anderson said. "The Scriptures speak of having the brass, the instruments, the organ. It literally speaks of the organ in Scripture."
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