How I Became A Concert Organist

The Earliest Years

As I sit down to write this, I think back to my early childhood. I heard my first Organ probably at age 3 months or so at my baptism but don't remember that day too well otherwise.

at the age of 18 months, I heard a big pipe organ for the first time, and I cried. My Mom always thought that I cried because it was loud but I think I cried because I thought it was beautiful. My first memory of sitting in Church and listening to an Organ was at age 3 years and I fell in love with the wondrous sounds it made. Since, there was never a time when I didn't want to play the Organ; it was never a choice for me.

My First Organs

At about the same time that I remember first enjoying the Organ in church, I was given a small pump organ on which I began creating tunes and improvising chord progressions, imitating what I heard when I came home. I didn't have to think about it, I just instinctively new where my fingers should go, and how to make my little toy organ sound as close to the organ that I heard in church as I could.

As I grew up and got older, my instruments got bigger and more advanced.

When I was about six, I got the most advanced organ that I could have that might be still thought of as a toy. It was a Sears Silvertone Chord Organ. It had a 37 note keyboard along with buttons for the chords much like an accordion. I remember going out in mid December on a cold and snowy day with my Mom and Dad to shop, and look at the different models of chord organs that were available back then. All of the chord organs we looked at were reed organs, and the Silvertone came with it's own table with storage, and it had steel reeds. Out of all the ones we tried, I told my Dad that I liked the Sears one the best. I always knew that I wanted to make a career of playing the Organ, but my parents weren't there yet, and they regarded this exercise as looking for a more advance toy for me to play with and amuse myself.

I was told that I was to have this new organ for Christmas. My anticipation and my excitement were almost unbearable as I went to visit all of the "Santas" who were at all of the department stores around town. I described the organ I wanted to Santa by taking Santa's hand and showing him on his fingers how the buttons for the chords were situated and stretching my hands out to explain to Santa just how wide this great new Organ was. I wanted to make sure that Santa gave me the right one.

On Christmas morning, Santa made good, and when I got out of bed and came out to open my presents, there was my new organ all set up on it's new stand and everything. When I turned the Silvertone on, it didn't take but a minute for me to figure out which fingers on my left hand I should press in order to play the right chord to go with the tune that my right hand was playing. I already knew how to play the carols and Christmas songs I knew by playing them on my smaller organ. So when all of the relatives and guests came over for Christmas cheer, I could accompany them all in singing Christmas carols. I remember one of my playmates saying: "That's just like church!"

I got on well with my chord Organ, and my Dad tried to figure out how to make it sound a little better by amplifying it. He bought one of those Heathkit amplifiers, and placed a couple of Crystal Microphones inside the organ with rather dubious results. The amp was only a couple of wats, and there was more magnetic hum than sound from the Organ. After a few months of trying out the organ, I figured out how to remove the microphones, and place my transistor radio near the amp, and put the mics close to the radio, and pretend I had a big radio or a TV set.

Starting Organ Lessons

A couple years later, my Dad came home from work one day and asked me whether I wanted to take piano, or organ lessons and without hesitation I said that I wanted organ lessons no question about it.

My Dad discussed it with my Mom, and said that he found an Organ manufactured by Hammond called the Hammond Extravoice. This was a small home organ with one 37 note keyboard and 12 peddles for the feet. I was 8 years old. When the guys from the Hammond Organ Store brought it to us, the salesman who sold the Organ came along to demonstrate it and to make sure everything worked right after plugging it in. After they left, I sat down to the organ and began imitating the salesman and sounded just like him to the astonishment of my parents.

A store promotion gave free lessons with the purchase of a new organ, and we took advantage of that. My lessons consisted of my Dad and I going down to the shop, and having my teacher play a song through once, and having me play it back to her copping her note for note. She let me pick and choose which songs I wanted to learn. After about 2 months of this, my Teacher called my Dad aside and told him that she went as far as she could go with me, and that the Organ I had was far too small and not advanced enough for me. So the store gave us a store credit as we traded in my Extravoice Organ for a Hammond model M3 Spinet Organ. I now had what I considered to be a real organ with 2 44 note keyboards and 12 peddles for the feet.

I was now eligible to take lessons using Hammond's proprietary method of learning to play called the pointer system. The melody of any song was disposed on the page as a lead sheet, and the appropriate chords were shown as placing one's pointer finger on the note that is the route of the chord, thus causing the thumb and little finger to be positioned over the right notes to make up the rest of the chord. As I am totally blind, and have been since birth, I was not able to see the printed score so my lessons consisted of having the teacher play through the song, and my playing it back to her as before. Six books made up the pointer system method, and each book had about 20 songs in it.

As before, my teacher let me pick the songs I liked, and she would play them. Then we would spend the allotted time having me play the song over. My teacher and I went through the six books in as many months, and again, she took my Dad aside and told him that I had gone as far as I could go with her, and that it was time for my Dad to look for a more accomplished and competent teacher. Meanwhile, I, as I listened to phonograph records, and learned to play in the style of each of the Organists that I heard as best as I could, I built quite a repertoire of popular songs for myself to perform.

A Not Too Good Instructor

The Teacher with whom I had just finished studying, recommended a instructor who use to work for the Hammond Organ store, but was a player who would probably be able to teach me on a more advanced level and who would be able to work with me toward my becoming a more professional Organist. He lived close to our home as well. My parents contacted him and arranged an audition at his home studio.

He accepted me, and my first lesson was an orientation lesson so that I might be more familiar with the keyboard. In hindsight, as I look back on this, I realized that right there, that should have been a red flag, because I was not a complete beginner. I was instructed that I was not to pick up anything on my own, but that I was only to play the songs that I was assigned by my new teacher. Rather than listening to him play, and copy him, He would sit down on the bench next to me and move my fingers and place them where they should go. Not only that, but the songs that he assigned me were far below the level that I was playing at before I came to him.

For the first year, we all thought that I was really learning, and that as time would go on, I would advance to playing what my teacher would call "Church Work". I told him that I wanted to play Bach like the music I heard in church. As time went on, and I studied with this guy, we would spend my lesson time with him doing more playing than teaching me, and after 2 years, I learn 6 songs. after those 2 years of study with him, by Dad realized that it wasn't doing me any good, and that it was time for us to find me a "real" teacher. Now, it was 1964, and I was 12 years old, and without an Organ Teacher.

My First Professional Organ

One of my favorite pass-times was for my Dad and I to go visit all of the Organ dealers around town, and sitting me down at what ever Organs they had on their showroom floor, and I always enjoyed playing them. It was my Dad's hope, that I would get noticed, and the dealer or some one who might be able to do so would hire me and I could start earning money playing out. Well one day, we wandered in to the store where we bought the Organ that I now had, to find an organ like the one my most recent teacher owned. It was a Hammond C3 organ that was pre/owned, and the price was right, so my Dad bought it without my actually knowing it. As we left the store, the store manager said: "We'll bring it this afternoon Earnie.". Did I hear right?

I remember going up to my bedroom and putting on a talking book to listen too, when I heard some activity down stairs. I heard the Organ. It was my Dad running his fingers up and down the keyboard, but I could hardly believe my ears as there were many many more notes on this new organ than there was on my little M3 Spinet. This new Organ was the most advanced Hammond Organ available, and it was designed for the pro, with 2 61 note keyboards, and a 25 Peddle keyboard for the feat. So here I was with a top of the line Hammond Organ, and no teacher. But the up side to all of this was that I was free to listen to recordings and learn to play on my own.

My Dad like Ken Griffin. Ken Griffin's music style was rudimentary and therefore, very easy to imitate. I can still sound just like him with almost no practice or preparation. But I still wanted to play classical music, in the baroque style and that was much harder to pick up just by listening, because the mind can only absorb just so much information at any given time.

Finding A Good Teacher

As my Dad scouted around for a new teacher for me, he learned of a guy who at one time, worked for GM, disappeared, and when he came back, he could "play the piano real good". My Dad looked in to all of this, and found that the guy did indeed give Organ lessons. My Dad contacted him, and arranged for me to meet someone my own age, 12 years, who studied with this teacher. It seemed to me that I might be able to learn from this teacher, and perhaps learn some classical music.

My Dad then set up an audition for me, and my first lesson. I was assigned a piece of music that was a light classical piece, "Berceuse" From the opera "Jocelyn" by Benjamin Godard. It's not a piece written expressly for the Organ, but it sounded classical, and I learned it in 2 lessons rather than 1. My new teacher was impressed. In his estimation, I was a worthy talent, and I just might have a successful career as an Organist.

Braille Music

as he thought about this, he thought he might undertake the teaching of music braille to me. He found the American Printing House for the Blind in Kentucky, and ordered several of their music publications both in print for himself, and in braille for me. It was like Christmas morning when all of them arrived, and we opened the packages at my lesson.

My Teacher placed in my hands the braille version of a book called, "Lessons in Braille Music : To Be Used in Connection with the "Revised International Manual of Braille Music Notation, 1956"
prepared by H. V. Spanner ; edited to conform with American usage by Harry J. Ditzler. My teacher also bought the Revised International Manual of Braille Music Notation in both print and in 3 braille volumes, as well as a few other Braille Music books.

We opened to lesson one, which was quarter notes.

I read:

"Quarter notes starting with C. thghederouoww


You see, I thought that it was a word I didn't know, and couldn't figure out.

I didn't expect that the same braille symbols would be used for music notation as the ones used for contracted literary braille.

I supposed my teacher saw the bewildered look on my face, so he explained as follows, "Now here are quarter notes starting with the note C and going up the scale.

Now the C note, is 2 light dots, and 4 heavy dots.

The D, is 3 light dots, and 3 heavy dots.

The E, is 4 other heavy dots, and 2 light dots."

at this point, a little light went on for my Dad, and he got up and literally got in my teacher's face and explained, "Oh oh no! See, a braille cell consists of 6 dots numbered 1 2 3 down the left side, and 4 5 6 down the right. The figure shows the braille cell, and shades in the appropriate dots for the symbol. In other words, the C note is dots 1 4 5 6, and the D is 1 5 6, and E, is 1 2 4 6 and so on."

My teacher never quite got it.

But from then on, for the remainder of my time with this teacher, we would read through each of the lessons, and my teacher would play the exercises, and then I would go home and read and play them through for myself. My teacher also taught me to play in the jazz style, because I later found out that he hated classical music. we would use the old tried and true method of having him play through a song, and then having me imitate him.

His plan was to groom me as an Organist who would play for supper clubs around town, make a mint, retire early, and then take up the study of church music for my own amusement. He didn't think there was any money to be made as a concert or church organist. As I became more and more aware of concert and church organists, I knew otherwise, and I never lost the ambition to become a concert organist.

I started collecting church organ records, and tried to pick up what I heard, with little success. I studied with this teacher for about 3 years, until he fell ill and passed away.

A Church Organist Teaches Me

Now, I was studying with a church organist, and was at last, learning what had always been my hearts desire. My teacher understood that I had to learn, if I were to use a braille score, the right hand while reading with the left, learn the left hand while reading with the right, hope I remembered both right and left hand parts, then learn the pedal part and put it all together. Therefore, he reasoned that he might prepare tape recordings of the pieces that he assigned me but not just to record them, but separate the parts as though it was a braille score. Instead of reading the music with my fingers, I would hear it one part at a time, and just a few measures at a time. Eureka! That was how I learned music all the way through college because I was lucky enough to have professors who were more than willing to use my method, and because it was easier than trying to find music transcribed in braille that I knew how to read.

I used my knowledge of music braille mostly for my music theory choruses, to complete my melodic dictation assignments, and to prepare exercises for the corses I took.

Now that there is MIDI, I can pretty much learn the same way. And with development of MIDI conversion software, I can pretty much learn what ever I want or need.

When I started taking lessons with a church organist, my Dad and I met a guy who had a small pipe organ in the basement of his home. My Dad and I went to visit him and my Dad was fascinated. We went looking for a small pipe organ for our house too. We found one, and my Dad installed it, and I had it until I got my Masters degree from the Catholic University of America. My Dad sold it after I got my first full time job as a music director of a church in Anglewood Florida.

Well, that's my story, and I am sticking to it.


I use MIDI almost exclusively now to learn new pieces. It is easy to split the tracks so I can learn one part at a time, and advance the music a few measures at a time. Well that is how I do it and it works for me quite well. I'm not a young man anymore but I try to keep up with the technology that an organist might find useful.

About The Author

Michael Bayus is the music director at a church in Sarasota, Florida. He's a classical organist who can play in other styles if asked. He's a graduate degree in music from Catholic University in Washington DC and has more enthusiasm for speech synthesizers than do most blind people.

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