It’s true that organs are large, costly, and rarely found in the average home, but the reason organ students are a rare commodity is multifaceted. “For better or for worse, the organ is historically linked to the music of the church,” says Thomas. “Before the prevalence of amplified music, organ played a pivotal role in most congregational worship, so the pool of people exposed to the instrument was larger than it is today.”
With fewer people counting themselves as regular churchgoers, and some churches removing their organs or letting them fall into disrepair, the organ faces a shrinking opportunity to make an impression on budding musicians. Still, Thomas insists this is not an insurmountable challenge.
Thanks to the Internet and various forms of social media, it’s actually easier than ever for organists, composers, and would-be organ students to find one another. “Many of the young people attracted to organ, today, are drawn in by the dynamic body of work now posted online. They have instant access to the most dramatic organs and charismatic performers,” says Thomas. “I would say that finding dedicated students is still a challenge; I wouldn’t say the challenge is growing, but my students are coming from a different place than when I began teaching.”
Organists can sprout up almost anywhere, and Thomas is living proof of that! Although he came from a musical family where everyone loved singing, he grew up on a pick-your-own strawberry farm far away from his classically trained relatives. Life on the farm fostered a love of mechanical things and fed his penchant for problem-solving, as there was always something needing to be fixed. “Embarrassingly, my entry point into music was all of the organ’s gizmos and thing-a-ma-gigs,” admits Thomas. “I loved all of the keyboards and buttons… the ultimate mechanical marvel that also sounds cool!”
“The organ in the church I grew up in was in clear view of the congregation,” he remembers. “I always picked my seat so I could watch the organist during the service.” Not surprisingly, it was a church organist (John O’Brien) who eventually became Thomas’ first music teacher. Though he wanted to hop right on the organ bench, he was first required to learn piano.
He went on to study at Interlochen Arts Academy and then earned degrees from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music, where he received the prestigious Performance Certificate and the first Harold Gleason Emerging Artist Award. Having performed as both an acclaimed soloist and accompanist in New York, Copenhagen, Cambridge, and London, Thomas has returned to Interlochen where he masterfully trains students, most of whom go on to attain impressive accolades and performance positions.
Asked if teaching organ might be different than teaching other instruments, Thomas says he believes all instruments require basically the same core values in both teachers and students. “The traits I work to model and champion for my students are passion and individuality,” he explains. “Passion drives us to work hard, to strive to learn as much as we can, and to do the dirty work even when we don’t feel like it. Passion motivates us to leave our comfort zones and to try again after we fail. Passion goes hand-in-hand with individuality, so I do not believe in doling out the ‘definitive’ interpretation of pieces. I want my students to invest themselves in the music and commit to their ideas.”
While the organ may not be as familiar to concert audiences (especially chamber music audiences) as it once was, organists know firsthand it is surprisingly versatile, adding color and richness no other instrument can provide. Thomas admits there are cringe-inducing misconceptions about the organ and what it’s like to play it. “Any guesses how many times I get asked to play ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Come on Baby, Light My Fire’?” he laughs. “People often identify the organ with loud, spooky chords full of clamorous harmonics — that, or the Hammond B-3. Truth is, the organ is extremely versatile. It can cover everything from super-soft pianissimos to towering fortes. I love surprising people with how great the organ can be as a collaborative instrument.”
Great musicians can often discover new insights even within familiar repertoire as they return to those pieces over the years. When Thomas joins Manitou Winds in concert, however, he’ll premiere a brand-new work for organ and wind quintet written by Manitou Winds founder, Jason McKinney. There will be more on this collaboration in a future article.
Interpreting a piece of music with absolutely no performance history demands a creative spirit and an adventurous musicality. “More and more, I want to feel like I’m presenting a piece as a fellow composer — someone who understands intimately how a piece is put together,” he says. “With any music, new or old, I want to find the inherent genius in it and find a way to move the audience to experience it as I do.”