First SALSA Members: Susan, Daniel and Mark

Introducing SALSA—Society of Awesome Latter-day Saint Accompanists

Today’s post features interviews with our premier SALSA members—three ward organists from various parts of the United States:

Susan Blackham living in Tennessee, Daniel Harral of Utah, and Mark Nichols long-time California resident.

Check out their stories below, then go to Questionnaire and tell us your story!

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Susan Blackham—Tennessee

What was the first musical calling you received? How was that experience?  I was 13 and in eighth grade when I was called as Primary pianist. The chorister was a friend who was a year older than me.  We had the schoolbus make an extra stop at the church every Wednesday afternoon. Looking back, I think I gained a lot of confidence accompanying in Primary’s non-scarey atmosphere. Kids don’t worry if you make a mistake!

How long have you been playing the organ? Why did you start? My mother asked a sister in our ward to give me organ lessons when I was 14. I certainly was less than enthusiastic, especially when my teacher arranged for me to play in different wards to get experience. (There were some shaky and less than stellar moments there!)  Eventually, I rotated with other organists to play in my own ward. Of course now, I am grateful for Sister Hatch’s patience as a teacher—to this day, I hear her voice in my head when I play . . .

Do you play any other instruments? If so, which instrument do you prefer? I love playing the piano and would love to pick up the flute again someday.

What sort of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Being with my family, reading, hiking, long distance biking.

What is your favorite hymn? I grew up out west singing For the Strength of the Hills and My Mountain Home So Dear. Needless to say, we don’t sing these at all in Memphis, and I miss them! Other favorites include Be Still My Soul and I Know That My Redeemer Lives.

What are some of the challenges you face as an LDS organist? We actually have 5 rotating organists in our ward. This works great because we can hold other callings and back each other up for meetings, funerals, etc. It is also a good way to train new organists. The challenge is that you only play every few weeks–just enough to remind you what you should do next time! Only next time is several Sundays away.

What are some of the blessings you have received through accepting the call to serve as an organist? Being willing and able to play the organ is a need in every ward and branch I’ve lived in! It has been a blessing to be able to serve immediately with every move we’ve made.

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Daniel Harral—Utah

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. I am a student at Utah State University, and a graduate of the Utah County Academy of Sciences. I’ve played the piano off and on for nearly twelve years.

How long have you been playing the organ? Why did you start? I recieved a calling about six months ago to play the organ in my student ward.

What sort of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time? I enjoy programming and playing online games with friends.

What is your favorite hymn? In Our Lovely Deseret has the most energy of any hymn I’ve heard, but I haven’t figured out how to play it on the organ for the complicated fingering. Also it probably is not very appropriate for general Sacrament meetings.

What do you consider to be one of your musical strengths? I am very good at sight reading, and I can learn a song very fast.

What is one of the challenges you face as an LDS organist? Playing a piece absolutely perfectly. Organs are not very forgiving of mistakes, at least not to my ears.

What is one of the blessings you have received through accepting the call to serve as an organist? Many students have problems getting to Church because of the lack of encouragement, but even on those days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed, I get out and get ready because people are depending on me. Also, having a key to the chapel and permission to practice my piano playing in there is another great blessing.

Editor’s note:  Daniel recently received a mission call to serve in Florida. Congrats!

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Mark Nichols—California

Will you tell us a little bit about yourself? I’m 56 years old, work full-time for a national corporation doing “data scrubbing” (which isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds) for them; I’m married and have 5 kids, only 2 of which are still living at home (1 in college, 1 in high school); I served a mission in France waaaaay back when, and like most people (or so they say), I live a life of quiet desperation. (Also check out his LDS Organ Player blog.)

What was the first musical calling you received? How was that experience? They called me to be the Priesthood meeting accompanist on the piano when I was fairly young.  I wrote about it on my blog.  The first week out, I was terrified.  My right leg was shaking so badly, I could barely keep the sustain pedal down.  After I came home from my mission, I got called to be the Sunday School music chorister, and part of the calling involved talking about the weekly practice hymn for a little bit before we’d actually sing it. That was fun.

How long have you been playing the organ? Why did you start? I started playing the organ when I was in high school.  There was a guy there, two years older than me, and he had been taking piano and organ lessons his whole life since he was 5 or 6 years old, and he would give an occasional theater organ concert in our school auditorium.  I thought that he was about the coolest person EVER, and I wanted to be able to do what he could do.  I’ve become resigned to the idea that I’ll never be as good as he was, but I know enough to be able to get by.

Do you play any other instruments? If so, which instrument do you prefer? I started out by learning the trombone in elementary school; that’s where I learned how to read music (the bass clef, mainly).  My mother had been the ward organist in whatever ward we lived in for my whole life, but there was no organ in the house, just a piano.  She brought home the Batman TV show theme piano music when I was in 4th or 5th grade, and at that point, I decided I needed to learn how to play the piano.  The best thing I ever did was to figure out what the chord symbols were in the pop music books we had, and piano (and organ) playing got a lot easier after that.  But I didn’t learn the chord symbols until after I started learning to play the organ.  Our Lowrey organ had AOC, which meant that if I played the right chords in the left hand, the whole chord would be automatically added to the melody on the right hand.  Nothing like electronic cheating to help you sound better than you really are!

What sort of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Goofing around on the computer mainly.  Facebook, keeping up on the news; since I have my own blog, I’m always on the lookout for some musical topic or bit of humor I can talk about there.  It’s amazing how the search stats for my blog show that people come there looking for jokes.

What is your favorite hymn? Now Let Us Rejoice will always hold a special spot in my heart for being the first hymn I had to play for Priesthood Meeting in which I was terrified I was going to goof it up, but probably “Press Forward, Saints” is my favorite.

What is your favorite prelude or postlude piece? Don’t have one.  All I ever do is play out of the hymn book.  I may change the chords around a bit and just do a one-finger melody in the right hand, or do some hymns in different keys from what they’re written in, but, unlike my mother, I don’t have a bunch of books of special organ music that I take with me to church.

What is one of the challenges you face as an LDS organist? The organs I eventually talked my parents into buying when I decided that learning to play the organ was an absolute must, only had a single octave of pedal keys, so I never really learned to use my right leg to play the pedals.  I really need to work on that, but I don’t have an organ at home, just an old Yamaha Clavinova piano, so I’m pretty much resigned to being a left-footed organist only.

What is one of the blessings you have received through accepting the call to serve as an organist? It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized just how much influence the organist can have on a meeting by “spicing up” the hymns just a little bit.  Throw in a key change during the interlude before the last verse, and people really sit up and take notice.  I think they really appreciate not just doing the same old hymns in exactly the same old ways for 52 weeks out of every year. Part of “art” is doing something that surprises people from time to time, something they’re not expecting.  And it makes it more challenging for me, as well.

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Are you or someone you know ready to join SALSA? Just go to the SALSA questionnaire, fill it out and submit. No cost, no obligation, no contract and no fine print. Just a wonderful opportunity for lds organists to get acquainted!
btw If you accepted the call to sit on that organ bench, you are awesome!  If you think you’re not, please see The Calling.
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