Clark residents among rare few who make historic pipe organs sing
In the nearly empty sanctuary at First Christian Church, settled on the corners of Hickman and Highland Streets, red, green, yellow and blue light seeps through the stained glass windows, casting light on the heightened noise of the decades-old pipe organ.
It is one of a handful of pipe organs in Clark County, and one of only a smattering of pipe organs in the world.
Organists are even more scarce.
But Winchester is lucky to have a few including Anne Willis, Larry Sharp, husband and wife duo Mike and Nancy Dunn, and others.
Most — if not at all — organists have had some background playing the piano, and at some point in time, they become intrigued by the scores of the moving parts of the pipe organ, producing sounds organized in several dimensions, speaking a musical language no other instrument can.
Nancy Dunn, a West Virginia native who has lived in Kentucky most of her life, said her mother tricked her into learning the organ. While in high school, she had grown tired of practicing the piano, so her mother signed her up for organ lessons.
“I had never thought about the organ in my whole life,” Nancy said.
For Mike Dunn, Nancy’s husband, it was a different story. He was finishing up seminary school and looking for jobs when he was told most churches offer a higher salary for those who can also play the organ.
“I said oh sure, I can play,” Mike said. “And I immediately began taking lessons. I’m still learning.”
“Well, organists are always learning,” Nancy said.
Both Nancy and Mike have been playing more than 30 years. They often play duets together.
Anne Willis, an organist of 50 years, said the pipe organ is often dubbed the king of instruments. It is a complex machine with pipes of every size and kind, of every shape and color — tall or small, slender or wide, from booming and bombastic to hushed and delicate.
Much like the organists who play them, each pipe organ is different from the next.
In the old days, before electricity, playing the organ was a community effort. Willis said she had heard tales of the grand churches, especially in Germany, bringing paupers off the streets to go down in the basement and pump air into the organ’s big bellows with their feet while the organist would practice upstairs.
Nowadays, the organist is the lone artist, attuned to their visceral sense of sound, with all of the power at their finger- and toe-tips.
The organ can have anywhere from two to seven manuals, maybe more. There are keys on top of keys on top of keys with each combination creating a unique sound unlike any other. And the pipes, there are many, many pipes. The organ at First Christian Church has nearly 900 pipes.
Willis, a Clark County native, has played all sorts, some here in town at First Baptist Church and First Christian Church; others across the country in Tennessee, California and Oklahoma.
Willis attended the University of Kentucky to major in music performance with an emphasis on the organ. Today, there are no organ majors.
“It takes a lot of study,” Willis said. “And we’re not prone to doing that these days.”
Willis said technology and digitized instruments might have led to the decline in aspiring organists.
But Nancy said she has seen some younger musicians taking an interest so it smay be making a comeback. Time will tell.
Regardless, the art itself is not dead.
Nancy is the chief organist at First Christian Church; Mike is the music director. They’ve worked together for 10 years.
Willis currently plays the organ at First United Methodist Church on Hickman Street; it’s been her main gig since 2015.
She also holds the title of director of music.
“I’m an anomaly around here,” Willis said. “That’s not usually done around here.”
Willis’ love for music goes way back, though. In the fourth grade, her teacher recognized her talent and begin enlisting Willis to during music class. From there, Willis started to accompany school choirs.
Betty Cowen and her husband helped introduce the organ to Willis. They were the music directors of local schools in the 70s as well as the music directors at First Christian Church.
“They just kind of adopted me,” Willis said.
At 16 years old, Willis was captivated by the organ’s power and its endless possibilities for making music.
“The sound of that instrument is so widely unlike any other instrument,” Willis said.
Though, Willis said it’s more like choreography rather than playing the instrument.
The newest organ in Winchester was installed in 1975. There aren’t many churches installing organs in the 21st century. It’s expensive. The replacement value for the organ at First United Methodist Church is more than $500,000.
Willis said it’s important to remember her local predecessors, such as Faye McCready, Opal Gravett, Ruth Osborne and Billie Pace.
“They all preceded us in our churches here,” Willis said. “We all studied with them … They were kind of our organ ancestors.”
Larry Sharp has played at Beaumont Presbyterian Church in Lexington for four years. In all, he’s been playing the organ for more than 30 years.
“It’s a good hobby,” Sharp said. “Everyone else I know golfs, and I play the organ.”
Sharp said Gravett, who had played the organ for more than 50 years, taught Sharp most everything he knows about the instrument.
“Looking back, the joke goes Opal always saw my interest, my temperament and thought this would be a good fit,” Sharp said. “But no, she was looking for a sub. And I learned that as soon as I started messing around with it a little bit and I was like great, I have enough music for a Sunday, and she would say great, I’m going to take this Sunday off.”
Though, nowadays, it’s more challenging finding a sub. Sharp said last time he looked for a sub he made 13 calls.
Often, he will go through the Lexington chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Most of the Winchester organists are members. Sharp was the previous dean to the local AGO.
In smaller towns, such as Winchester, it’s challenging finding competent organists, Willis said.
“It’s not an easy thing to fill in small towns,” she said. “Smaller towns and churches like this don’t have the budget to pay.”
But Winchester has found luck. Nearly every Sunday, an organist can be found playing one of the few pipe organs in town, acting as the hand — and the feet — to the king of instruments.
Every organist plays because they love the instrument from its voluminous, “knock your socks off” loud to its “quiet as a Nightingale” whispers. Their job as organists is to inspire the audience to sing along, guiding enthusiasm and championing worship in their respective churches.
It all stemmed from a general love for music. Willis, Sharp, the Dunns all said they love music and what it does for the soul.
“[Music is] a wonderful way to express the wide range of human emotions and the human condition,” Mike said.
Though, Nancy said it’s more ambiguous to her. She connects with music for reasons unknown.
“I can’t think of a reason of why I love [music],” Nancy said. “I love it. I don’t know why.”
Whatever the reasons, their love for music — and the music — will never die. And for that reason, they said, the art will live on.