When I moved to the North Shore in 2010, recently married and freshly hooded from the University of Iowa with a DMA in Organ Performance and Pedagogy, I immediately sought NSAGO membership. After a summer spent interviewing for church jobs, an issue of Overtones alerted me to an opening I hadn’t seen anywhere else: my ideal, and present, position as Minister of Music at St. David’s Episcopal in Glenview. The NSAGO provided early networking and subbing opportunities, both for me and for my husband, who is a healthcare administrator and musician “on the side.” I served on its board from 2011-14, and I increasingly enjoy attending the diverse programming and connecting with new and veteran members.
For anyone with whom I’ve exchanged a few words, or who has Googled my bio, the tidy account above is probably unsurprising. On paper, I’m a typical organist: degrees hanging on the wall, competitions under my belt, periodic invitations to perform, a respectable church job. Surely I don’t have much in common with the part-time, casual, aspiring, uninspired, former, or non-degreed organists in our midst . . . or do I?
Allow me to momentarily lift the veil over the bio.
My history with the organ has an inauspicious beginning. My testimony excludes the words “fascination” and “intrigue.” I prefer hearing other instruments and ensembles before the organ. If limited to one musical activity for the rest of my life, I’d sing in a chamber choir. If stranded on a desert island, I’d bring a piano.
In 5th grade, my parents suggested I study with the assistant organist of my church in Pennsylvania. Well meaning but undereducated, she had no affiliation with the local, thriving York AGO. As I wasn’t allowed near the pipe organ until 7th grade, I learned on my teacher’s electronic organ. Pedaling was left-toe, lower octave. Repertoire peaked with “Bach Made Practical for Church Organists” and music from Aladdin, transcribed for organ. (Yes, that book existed. The most fun I had was playing “Arabian Nights” on the oboe stop). I often “forgot” to practice and “accidentally” left books at home. I loved the piano and singing and played the trumpet in every band at school, but money was limited and my mother was a private music teacher, herself, so organ lessons were my only option.
College time: my parents suggested music education with organ as my instrument. I felt it stifling to select just one area, and insisted upon auditioning on piano, organ, and voice. Thank goodness for some natural talent, because lack of formal training makes my auditions too embarrassing to recount. I got into my first choice (a small, liberal arts college), not knowing I was about to begin lessons with a top-notch organ professor. Everything I might have learned in the previous seven years she taught me in one semester. I realized that, while I didn’t love the organ wholeheartedly, I could excel at it. I worked hard, but still needed to rebel by branching out a little. My teacher pushed me to make organ number one, and I pushed back by spending time in marching band, concert band, musical theater, and choirs. It was she who encouraged graduate study at Iowa, her alma mater. I sent a CD, was offered a spot, and I accepted, sight unseen. It was the most terrifying and life-changing move I ever made. The pursuit of a masters led to a doctorate, and I began to understand how organ would serve as the centerpiece for what I wanted to do with my life: music ministry. (Maybe my parents’ “suggestions” weren’t so bad, after all).
All this time, the AGO was an important thread in my life and budding career. I discovered it wasn’t a group for elitists; nor was it a special-interest group for amateurs and enthusiasts. Ideally, it should slice through both of those labels and incorporate anything and everything in between.
Enter the NSAGO, St. David’s, and then a huge curveball in 2011: a baby. The breezy comments of past colleagues nagged at me: “I was back on the bench two weeks after I had my daughter,” and “Having a baby isn’t that hard. It just fits in.” (Lies!) I remembered a certain professor referring to a non-traditional masters student who was expecting her third child and, with a hint of exasperation and eyes toward the ceiling, saying, “Oh, she’s having another baby.” He might as well have said, “Why does she even bother?”
With no desire to leave my daughter at daycare or with a nanny, it was impossible to maintain my former practice schedule, expand my repertoire, and run a music ministry. I was more overwhelmed than I knew. When we learned that baby #2 was due in April 2013, I was ready to throw it all away. And so, I did. I was a 30-year-old retiree, and, in my view, an utter failure.
However, one thing stuck: NSAGO. I had another year of my board term, after all. I don’t know if my involvement influenced what transpired, but after much sorting-out of personal and professional priorities, within six months I was ready to ask for my job back, with a much-altered attitude toward work-life balance. In January 2014, I resumed my post at St. David’s, with my husband in tow as my assistant. In January 2015, we welcomed baby #3. And in November 2016, we look forward to baby #4. On paper, my bio has only changed to include the children. In reality, my life is wildly different – and the limited time I have to practice is incredibly more focused!
The beauty of the AGO, and particularly the NSAGO, is its ability to meet members where they are. I felt well-served six years ago, and I still do today. I imagine that in a couple decades, when I’m able to return to the field full-force, the AGO will be even more diverse, inclusive, broadly appealing, and helpful. I’m grateful for the warmth and respect shown to me by my fellow members, and I hope to spread this same encouragement to those who, for whatever reason, may feel that they are on the fringes. The NSAGO is here for all of us.
Julia Brueck, NSAGO Member