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Mighty Pipes: Professor Bill Peterson and Dan Kleinman '06 Preserve Pomona's Tradition of Pipe Organ Music

The sound of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor echoes throughout the entire ground floor of Thatcher Music Building, filling the hallways with the eerie trilling of the pipe organ. Even as visitors enter Lyman Hall, where the massive instrument is housed, the source of the sound is still a mystery: it looks as though no one is even in the room. The musician behind this outpouring of noise is hidden behind a wooden platform housed a flight of stairs above the stage. For Dan Kleinman ’06, a student of the organ for five semesters, this is just the way he likes it.

Lessons in the pipe organ have been offered at Pomona College since 1915, when the first organ was built in Bridges Hall of Music. This organ served the College for 87 years before it was replaced by the Hill Memorial Organ, Fisk Opus 117, which was installed in 2002. Thatcher also houses two organs that can be used for practice, for smaller audiences, or for pieces that are particularly suited to their sounds.

Despite the fact that organs have a long history at the College, the students who decide to take on the instrument have remained a select crew. Professor of Music and College Organist Bill Peterson is currently only teaching Kleinman. Nevertheless, it probably sounds like many more to the occupants of Thatcher. The single instrument, played by a single musician, can easily create as much sound as the entire orchestra.

“It’s like a little power trip every time I sit down,” said Kleinman. “The whole instrument is literally at your fingertips. You have thousands of pipes under your control.” Kleinman, a pianist of 14 years, was first introduced to the organ at a recital in 6th grade. As the recital was located in a church, he was able to attempt the Toccata and Fugue in d minor on an organ even though he only practiced it on the piano.

“My feet couldn’t even touch the pedals, but it was fantastic,” he recalled. “I’ve wanted to learn to play this song on an organ ever since then.” Passion for Bach’s famous composition inspires him, but it is clear that the challenge of conquering such a massive instrument is also a motivating factor. After all, the organ proves a daunting challenge to even the most experienced keyboardists.

“Some people find it’s more than they want to take on,” said Peterson. Only seasoned pianists even attempt lessons at the organ, and they often find that learning to use two hands as well as two feet takes an overwhelming feat of coordination. A traditional score for pianists is contained on two lines, but a piece written for organ contains an additional staff for the feet. Kleinman keeps a pair of pointy-toed organ shoes in Lyman, and even though they are a few sizes too small, he eagerly suits up to even have a chance at striking the correct wooden keys with his toe and heel. Pencil jottings over each note demarcate which foot to use, as well as heel or toe.

“Dan works very hard and is very focused, musically and intellectually,” said Peterson of his student. Kleinman calls himself a perfectionist, and attributes his attentiveness to detail to his success as an organist. As he plays through the toccata, his actions are somewhere between a dancer and a puppeteer. His entire body is engaged, as if the immense wall of pipes have become extensions of his limbs.

The mere act of setting up the instrument, before a single key is struck, can be a challenge. Four different keyboards and four sets of stops that control which pipes will be activated. Defining these stops is called “registration,” and a musician’s decisions at these moments are critical. As Kleinman demonstrates, a Mendelssohn sonata with a more relaxed sound will use fewer pipes than the Bach, which demands a full, vibrant sound.

“It would be a crime to play this piece soft,” said Kleinman. “Unfortunately, if I mess up it is at 120 decibels. But if I get it right it’s like a divine symphony.”

For all of its challenges, the pipe organ clearly offers a unique set of rewards. Kleinman took piano lessons for his first year at Pomona, but soon found that he wasn’t having much fun. He wasn't eager to perform in public. “My hands shake and get sweaty when I perform,” he said. As an organist, every day of practice is somewhat like a performance, given how many people can hear him throughout the building, but it still feels like the moment is only his.

These contradictions surely define the instrument, as well as its dedicated admirers. It is a singular instrument with the voice of an entire orchestra. The performer is allowed to hide, invisible to the audience, but also has the gall to pull out all the stops and force anyone within earshot to listen. Learning the instrument is an intellectual and physical feat, but the finished product sounds organic, fluid.

“I guess people are just fascinated by the instrument,” said Peterson. “It’s dazzling, overwhelming. It activates ideas from older ages.”