One Man’s Pipe Dream, Another Man’s Reality

By Dr. Ryan Hebert

Professor of Music

It’s 7:00 a.m. when I arrive on campus most mornings. With the exception of some dedicated athletes and the occasional security personnel stirring about, the campus has a rather calm, if not austere, feeling to it. Although they’re deserted, in a few hours the sidewalks will be a flurry of people, walking with purpose, but oddly stuck inside their heads, perhaps worried about getting to class on time, or dealing with the stress of navigating another busy day.

For me, it all starts with a good cup of coffee in my hand and a short walk from the music building to the chapel. Through the quietness of the twilight, the morning haze lifting through the sunrise, my short walk from the music building to the chapel gives me a moment of reflection. I am travelling to one of our campus’s most unique spaces – Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values. I am grateful for this place for several reasons.   

Most who walk through the doors of Sykes Chapel will see the organ first; it’s too obvious to miss its imposing stature. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to an imaginatively designed case of shiny pipes arranged in perfect proportion. There is so much for the eye to see, and it takes a moment to take it all in. The case towers 80 feet into the air, and the sheer beauty of its design leaves one breathless. For me, this machine, this musical instrument, is so much more real than what the average person experiences when they see and hear it. I am one of only a handful of people who actually get to play it, and because of that, my day doesn’t start like most who arrive on campus to work and attend classes.

Not only do I have at my fingertips and toes the ability to control the sounding of the organ’s 3,184 pipes, but I have an understanding of its vast inner-workings. How is this? Because I have crawled around behind the organ, high above and deep behind what most people see. I have traveled into the bowels of the organ case to witness the complexity of its design; I marvel at how this great cacophony of mechanics, levers, electrical wires, wood and metal all work together to make such a glorious sound. And even more so, I marvel at how I can make this happen with my own hands and feet, even in the early hours of the morning. But it’s not the engineer in me that appreciates the organ, it’s the musician in me that is drawn to it. From a very early age, I can remember being curious about the organ and drawn to its massiveness and beauty. I remember feeling like I wanted to be the one making those pipes sing, and I have never lost my passion for playing what Mozart once called “The King of Instruments.”

It’s 7:15 a.m., and just a few steps away from the students sleeping in their dorm rooms, dreading the inevitable sound of their alarm clocks, the organ sings in its fullness and richness of tone inside the chapel. I turn the switch and air rushes into the “lungs” of the organ, each pipe standing erect, ready to sing. The lights on the console shine brightly, ready to illuminate the music to be worked on. Sometimes I play full organ, yet no one is aware of even the slightest disturbance on campus. No one outside of the chapel walls is aware of the sounds within them. I am alone, but that’s OK. I too am unaware. I am unaware of the activities that are slowly emerging as each minute marches toward the start of the day. Faculty and staff arrive and students wake from their slumber; the sidewalks prepare for the bustle of another day. In this sacred moment, I play centuries-old music that feeds the soul. Without a concern for what happens outside of the building, my mind is refreshed and my awareness soars with the music of the organ, wafting high above my head. I am focused and centered, working out difficult passages of music. This is my escape from the mundane activities of everyday life.

It’s 8:50 a.m., and I realize it’s time to get to my first class. As quickly as the organ came to life, the switch is turned off, the lights extinguished, and reality emerges with a great sense of urgency to make it to class on time. However, in preceding moments time has stood still inside the building, while the sidewalks now feel the increased vibration of activity. The time I just spent practicing seems to have vanished, and feels as illusive as playing the organ is in and unto itself. But that’s okay. My mind is clear–my consciousness is fully aware of the present moment.

Before the “regular” day begins, my soul is full. My mind is overflowing with energy and creativity. My ears are gleefully saturated with the sounds of organ music heard just moments before, in the stillness of the morning. My spirit is rejoicing because I worked out those difficult passages of music and found just the right combinations of sounds on the pieces I am preparing to play for a future concert.

It’s a good feeling. I’m already looking forward to tomorrow.

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