There's no mistaking what a pipe organ sounds like. It doesn't need amplification and can lead hundreds of people in song. But people may not realize what goes on behind the scenes — how the combinations of sounds are created.
Lorenz Maycher, the organist at First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, has adored the grand instrument for decades. The Oklahoma native works full time at the church and is an adjunct professor at Kilgore College, teaching the organ.
For the third year, Maycher will host the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival in November, which makes stops in East Texas and Louisiana churches to pay homage to renowned pipe organ designer Roy Perry, who played at the church from 1932 to 1972. The festival also acknowledges the beauty of the instrument's sounds, which range from almost inaudible to majestic.
"It's like having an orchestra at your fingertips," Maycher said. "It's limitless in its colors, its volume and its effects. I feel like it just reaches the soul."
At First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, the ornate pipes are visible behind the pulpit. Tall rows of spotted metal are encased with intricately carved wood. In four rooms on another floor, more pipes are hidden. These pipes range in size from 32 feet long to the size of a pencil. In all, there are 4,199 organ pipes.
The instrument cost the church $25,000 in 1949, which Maycher said is equivalent to about a half million today.
Among the most treasured are the trompette-en-chamade, a set of horizontal pipes. These were the first of its kind built in the U.S.
"It is an internationally famous organ and one of the most important organs ever built in the United States," Maycher said.
There are no two pipe organs alike, and each are carefully designed. In Kilgore, Maycher said his church's Opus 1173 was designed by Perry for a large, reverberant church.
"Each organ builder is an artist just like Van Gogh," Maycher said.
A former pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church in Tyler was built in 1949 and finished by the early 1950s. It served the church until a new one was installed in 2000. It received renovations and a new console over the last two years following a church fire. It has about 6,000 pipes and is valued at about $1.5 million.
Donald Duncan, the organist at First Presbyterian Church of Tyler and a participant in the festival, said people need good eye-to-hand coordination as well as feet coordination to manipulate the complex system of knobs, keys, buttons and pedals.
Today's pipe organ is digitally controlled but the concept of the instrument is still unpretentious.
"At its basic level it's really pretty simple," Duncan said. "That is, you have air and you have a cylindrical pipe made of metal or wood or a combination of the two. You're putting air through a pipe to make music. It's the similar concept of blowing through a coke bottle."
Duncan also agrees that its range makes it a distinguished instrument.
"There's not another instrument on the planet that can give you the variety of sound that a pipe organ can — everything from whisper, soft, quiet, lush, beautiful, all the way up to a really grand, loud, raucous kind of sound and lots of things in between," he said.
Current enthusiasts say pipe organ playing is still very much alive in East Texas and that its history dates back to Biblical times.
"There are allusions to people playing the pipe in the Old Testament. The history of organ playing and organ building as we know it today, really, is the result of the Middle Ages," Duncan said. "The organ primarily has existed in churches. The reason for that is that the organ, even smaller organs, are very good at leading large groups of people in singing."
FOR THE LOVE OF IT
Both Maycher and Duncan have loved the pipe organ since childhood. Maycher began playing when he was 10. He's stuck with it for 38 years, playing for nearly every Christian denomination.
He took interest when his mother taught school at Oklahoma State School for the Blind, where there was a pipe organ.
"For as long as I could remember I always wanted to get my hands on it even when I was 3 years old," he said. "So I started taking lessons as soon as I could reach the pedals."
As a child, he had a connection to the church he would later play at.
"My teacher had a record of this organ," he said, referring to the organ at First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. "She gave it to me to listen to, and I said, ‘that's the kind of organ I want to play.' I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that I would someday actually be the organist here."
Duncan's interest peaked at age 3, when he would watch his church organist play.
By the time he was 12, he was playing piano in church before studying the pipe organ in high school. He went on to study it in college as well, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in music with the organ as a primary instrument. He said education is never-ending, but welcoming for both amateur and veteran pipe organists.
"I think for most of us who want to play the organ, its more thrilling and exciting than it is intimidating," he said. "Its an instrument that you want to conquer and control and explore rather than something that's intimidating."
In the last two years, the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival concerts have drawn about 350, including at least 75 registered guests from across the country. They are organists, music lovers and others who just want to learn about it. This year, the festival will be held Nov. 10-14, with concerts in Longview, Kilgore, Tyler, Nacogdoches and Shreveport, La.