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For Timothy Smith, the organ is a lifelong passion

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By Greg Summers

 

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Did you know?

The Wanamaker Grand Court pipe organ in Philadelphia is the largest musical instrument in the world. Built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, it has 462 ranks, 28,541 pipes and weighs 287 tons. Now housed inside Macy’s Center, it is played twice a day, six days a week. 

 

 

 

Some musicians love what they do.

But Timothy Smith, parish musician at Christ Episcopal Church, isn’t counted among that group.

For Smith, who has spent almost 50 years seated at a church piano or organ bench, it goes much deeper than that.

Smith doesn’t love what he does.

Smith does what he loves.

He found his caalling by following an organ tuner at First Presbyterian Church in Belmont, N.C., and listening to the chimes at a Methodist church in Spencer, N.C. 

Smith said he didn’t choose the organ, it chose him.

“I could play by ear when I was 4. I’d go outside and listen to the chimes from the Methodist church and come inside and play what I heard,” he said, laughing. “It was simply the sound that grabbed me, so much so that I asked for a pipe organ for Christmas when I was 5 years old.”

But before he could become an accomplished organist, Smith had to master the piano. 

Formal training wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but Smith said his parents, Jane Smith and the late Quay Smith, encouraged him. Smith said he was a typical youngster, who, at times, found himself seated on a piano bench when he would’ve preferred being somewhere else.

Smith chuckled when asked if he was ever forced to practice. He deferred by saying his mother and first music teacher were in a better position to answer the question.

“I think they’d probably say yes to that,” Smith said, laughing again. “The discipline of a regular practice schedule " especially when there are more enjoyable things a boy can be doing " can be rough.”   

But Smith toughed it out. After becoming an accomplished pianist, he started taking formal organ training.

“It’s a lot harder than it appears because you are using both your hands and feet,” he said, while seated at the organ inside the Christ Episcopal Church sanctuary. “There was never any doubt in my mind, but it’s any entirely different technique. 

“I love it, though,” Smith said. “If I would’ve had something like this to practice on as a youngster, you would’ve had to pull me out of here.”    

As a sophomore in college, Smith was named runner-up in the 1977 Music Teachers National Association Open Organ Competition in Chicago. He graduated from Winthrop College in 1979 with a degree in organ performance.

“It’s just like anything else,” he said. “It takes an all-around good musician to become an organist. You have to have a passion for all the instruments. The sad part now is there are so few organ students that there’s starting to be a shortage of church organists.”

In 1999, Smith was chosen as the accompanist for the St. Joseph Catholic Choir of Columbia, and was featured in an ETV Christmas special.

He came to Lancaster in 2000 and was on the staff at First Methodist Church for several years before coming the parish musician at Christ Episcopal. He also served as an associate organist at Calvary Church in Charlotte.

Besides teaching organ, piano and voice, he also serves as a musician for the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

“If I couldn’t do this, I’d probably be cooking,” Smith said. “But I don’t think there’s ever been a question about it for me. I just want to use my music ability to be a blessing for others. I get to do what I always wanted to do. I’m just glad I stuck with it.” 

Organ tuning

Shorty after graduating from college, Smith took up another trade.

To show just how life turns full circle, he became an apprentice for a pipe organ tuner. He worked with a partner for several years, servicing pipe organs in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida. 

However, he said life on the road got old quickly.

“For a while, we were gone somewhere just about every day,” Smith said. “Some pipe organs have to be tuned every week or at least once a month.” 

Smith is now in business for himself. As the owner and only employee of Smith Pipe Organ Service, he is now one of a few pipe organ tuners in the Carolinas.

“I think you could count all of us with two hands and have a few fingers left,” he said.   

Since a pipe organ produces its sound through hundreds or thousands of organ pipes, the goal is to adjust the pitch of each pipe so they sound in tune with each other. Smith said about 80 percent of tuning a pipe organ is normal maintenance.

“You have to be a carpenter and electrician and have good ears,” he said.

Smith said pipe organs are quite sensitive to temperature changes and humidity. They must be serviced and tuned whenever heating and air conditioning systems are switched to coincide with the changing seasons. 

“It can get pretty interesting,” he said. “When you get into this kind of work, you never know what’s going to be involved. It takes a certain kind of person with lots of patience. You have to be able to work on a single pipe for hours at a time.”

Today’s concert

Smith will present an organ concert, “Worldwide Cathedral Classics,” at 4 p.m. today at Christ Episcopal Church. It features selections from England, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Spain. There will also be a PowerPoint presentation about each selection and Smith will share a few facts on how an electronic organ “does what it does.”

“You can’t get a true pipe sound, but it comes awfully close,” he said. 

The one thing there won’t be at today’s concert is sheet music. Smith will perform every selection from memory.

“You have to practice because it sharpens the mind,” he said, laughing. “I can always tell when I don’t practice.”