Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Today is Pam’s last time on the St. Mark’s organ bench. Last time on any organ bench. She has one of those deterioration diseases. Her brain still knows the notes so well, just like always, but her hands and feet are no longer cooperating.

It is a hard future for her. It is a hard future for the congregation. We have depended on her for so much. Most of it, we don’t even know about. In addition to Sunday morning services, there are choir rehearsals, and soloist rehearsals, and weddings and funerals, and special services at Christmas and Holy Week and other holidays. And practice, always practice.

I remember the first time I heard an organist practicing. Laura Kohlmeyer wasn’t my first organist, but she was the first one where I had an office in the building. Poor Laura. It’s amazing she practiced at all, since she had to climb a ladder to get up to the organ in the back of the church, and it was always cold there in the winter and hot in the summer. But I was in my office, early in my pastorate there, when I heard her practicing. She was terrible! Mistake after mistake. As she mangled an iconic Wesley hymn, I found myself humming “O, for a thousand hands to use, to cover up my ears.” That can’t be Laura. I peeked. It was. How could this be? She was so perfect on Sunday morning. Of course, because she was so imperfect during the week. She practiced. As John Wesley put it, she was “going on to perfection.”

That became one of my favorite stories about growing spiritually, what William Stringfellow titled Free in Obedience. Laura had the freedom to play so beautifully on Sunday because she had worked on it during the week. We become free to play the right spiritual notes because we have worked at observing and hearing the ways of God. None of the rest of us in the congregation were free to play the organ, because we had not chained ourselves to the organ bench, the way Laura did.

And the way Pam has. In a town of great organists, because of the famous IU School of Music, Pam is as good as any of them. Because she put in her ten thousand hours. [1]

There are fewer organists all the time. It’s a hard instrument to learn. And hard to practice. You can’t just pick it up any time you want, like a guitar. You have to go to where the organ is. And church music, and music in general, is moving away from organ sounds. It’s a bit ironic: the organ was developed to mimic the sounds of a whole orchestra, so churches could get by with only one musician. Now that one musician is increasingly being replaced by a whole band, of guitars and drums and saxophones.

Pam will be replaced. On the bench. That’s the way life goes. But she will not be replaced in our prayers. And our appreciation.

Even though organists practice hard on their preludes and postludes—and Pam Freeman has so often played amazingly beautiful arrangements--people rarely hear them because we’re talking as we get seated, or talking as we leave. Today, as a way or honoring her, as Pam plays her last postlude, we shall all sit right there, still, listening for grace notes.

John Robert McFarland

1] In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that it takes ten thousand hours of practice really to master a craft.

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