Saturday, February 4, 2012

Inside the Organ

Every semester my students and I go through the 3x5 card routine.

You know this routine, if you’ve ever taken a college class. There’s a lot of students and only one professor, and we need a way to track people down. So we ask the students to provide us with contact information so we don’t have to rely on the registrar if we need to get hold of them – phone number, email, that sort of thing.

Way back when I started – and even further back, when I was a student myself – it was standard to ask for the student’s social security number. I was never sure why, but they asked and I complied, and then later I asked and they complied. In this age of identity theft we don’t do that anymore, and it occasionally staggers me that we ever did.

I also take the opportunity to get to know the students a bit by asking them questions that will make them stand out from their peers in my mind. It’s easy to let the class blur into an incoherent grey mass of bodies, but that’s not fair to them and no fun for me.

So, for example, I ask them for the nickname they would prefer to be called during class – I’ve never seen the point of calling someone “William” if he prefers “Bill” or “Rocketman.” Yes, I’ll call you Rocketman if that’s what you want. Just don’t joke about it unless that’s really what you want to be called.

I also ask them to tell me one thing they’ve done that probably nobody else in the room has done.

This is a question I stole from John Scalzi’s blog a number of years ago. I have no idea where he got it from. But every semester for a while now I have posed this question to my students, and I am always amazed at the things they write down. Some of them are big things – I once had a student who smuggled a nurse past Khmer Rouge guards and into a refugee camp. But most of them are the little things that make us human – a catalogue of bizarre injuries, minor achievements, far-away vacations and painstakingly developed skills.

Throughout the semester I post them anonymously on the board – or, in online classes, in a separate forum. “Someone in this class …” I never refer to it. I never discuss it. I never reveal who it is. If the person wants to claim it they can, otherwise it just sits there.

I once had a student ask me why I did that, and all I could think to say was, “Because your classmates are interesting people, and you should know that.”

In fairness, I tell them something I’ve done that they probably haven’t. I try to make it something funny, so they don’t get intimidated by the Big Important Professor in the front of the room. Usually I say, “I once spent an hour in the air chamber of a 10,000+ pipe organ while it was being played." They like that story.

In all the semesters I’ve told that tale, though, this is the first one where anyone has ever asked for the whole story. And I thought, well, I should write it down. So here it is.

When I was in college, I did a lot of theater. Lighting mostly – I was one of those cat rats hanging from the rafters with a crescent wrench tied to their belt loop. The first big show I did was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We put it on in the main auditorium on campus – a Gothic pile of a place called Irvine Auditorium. Irvine could seat about 2400 people with both balconies full, and it was also the home of the Curtis Organ.

The Curtis Organ was a throwback – a massive pipe organ that they would bring out every so often for concerts and, every Halloween, for the midnight showing of the 1926 Lon Cheney version of Phantom of the Opera. It was a lot of fun, going to that.

The organ was maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers who mostly did their work in the wee hours of the morning, since that was pretty much the only time they could get into Irvine without having to work around other people. It was a busy place, Irvine.

If you’ve ever done any theater, you know that at the end of it all, after the audience has left for the last time, there is strike. Strike is where you tear it all down and put it away for the next time. For a show the size of Joseph, if they start as the audience is still filing out of their seats a dedicated crew of stagehands can get it all done in about five hours, provided they have no particular concern for their safety. The lure of a cast party afterward doesn’t hurt, either.

We finished strike at about 3am.

By that point the organ people had filtered in and were putting the instrument through its paces. There were maybe two or three of us lighting people left, and they asked if we’d like to see how it worked. Since the powers that were among the Joseph staff had already figured out that the cast party would have to wait until the following night and we were therefore in no danger of missing it, we said “Sure!”

The organ has two gigantic air chambers, as I recall, one on each side of the auditorium, way up where the second balcony would be if it extended around that far. They took us up to the one on house right, and we climbed through the rather hobbit-sized door.

Inside, the chamber was about fifteen feet long and a bit narrower than that, and maybe six feet high – I don’t recall having to duck, anyway, though I do recall feeling a bit cramped vertically. All across the ceiling were trackers – rods that moved whenever the organist pressed down on a key – and you could see them sliding back and forth as he played, way down below on the stage.

The room was full of pipes. The biggest pipes, of course, were on the outside – some of them ran quite a long way up the wall on the sides of the stage – but many of the smaller pipes were just sitting there in racks in the room with us, just held in by gravity. Some were no bigger than my fingers. You could pick them up and blow on them like a tin whistle if you wanted, and of course we wanted. It was cool, if somewhat dusty.

Inside was quite muffled – you really couldn’t hear the pipes unless they were inside with you – but the air pressure was high. It took a while for my ears to pop back to normal afterward.

They put us to work dusting the pipes a bit, and we had a surprisingly good time for an hour or so before it was time to go. I can remember walking back to my dorm room in the still hours of the night, still listening in my head to the organ being played all around me.

I’ve always loved pipe organs.

1 comment:

Jeri said...

There IS something overwhelmingly impressive about pipe organs, isn't there? Neat story.