Ryan Hebert is associate professor of music and department chairman at the University of Tampa, where he teaches organ performance and is director of choral studies. He is also director of music and organist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Tampa, and he composes music for the organ.
“The organ found me, I didn’t find it,’’ he says. “A lot of people spend a lifetime trying to find the thing that they’re passionate about, and I was one of the lucky ones.”
Hebert (pronounced a-bear), 47, who is a Doctor of Musical Arts from Louisiana State University, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about teaching and his lifelong love of the pipe organ.
How did you first get interested in the pipe organ, and when?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the organ. I have vague memories of it, being a child at our little Presbyterian church in Thibodaux, Louisiana, which is a small, rural town. They had an electric organ. I remember Miss Anne, she was our organist, and I remember being able to watch her play, and seeing all the buttons. It was probably a modest little spinet organ, but to my 4-year-old eyes, it was probably the most magical thing I had ever seen. ...
And then my family moved from the Presbyterian church to the Methodist church, which was just about a mile down the road, and they had a real pipe organ. And I had remembered going to Bible school at the Methodist church and just, even at a very young age, seeing it in the summertime, with the shiny pipes and the gold and the silver. … It was one of those things that was very mesmerizing to me.
How hard is it to learn to play?
I can tell that it’s hard because I have to teach people, and when they first sort of play it and touch it and look at it, you can tell they’re just gobsmacked. You look at it with googly eyes because there are so many buttons, three or four keyboards, a keyboard for the feet. You have to read three lines of music. Yeah, it’s a challenge in ways that no other musical instrument is, because you have to touch it with fourteen separate appendages – five fingers on the right hand, five fingers on the left hand, right toe, right heel, left toe and left heel. So what other instrument requires you to touch it in 14 separate locations to play? So the answer to that is yes, it’s very hard.
Where else in Florida can one major in organ performance?
You can get an organ degree at Stetson. You can get an organ degree at Florida State University, and there may be various and sundry places, but in this part of the state I think we’re it. ...
The reality of it is fewer and fewer students are going into it as a means of study, which is unfortunate, because I think the organ is alive and well. It’s just that it’s found its new home in concert halls and secular universities like UT. … They’re finding their way into secular venues, and you’re starting to see more and more organs being built in China and countries that have historically not had them. So they’re making their way into non-western cultures. ...
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So it’s not going away but it’s certainly dying in its previous form. There are fewer and fewer churches that use the pipe organ as a main musical instrument. There are churches that are closing their doors; you can get a pipe organ for a song now. ... It’s really sad to see these organs that people can’t get rid of, and they’re basically just salvaged or given away or thrown away.
It’s very much like what happened in the ‘20s when silent movies began to have sound and they no longer needed organ accompaniment. And all those theaters threw away all those fabulous Wurlitzer organs. ...We’re lucky here in Tampa that we still have our Wurlitzer (in Tampa Theatre). … We still have a remnant of the past, which has now become an appreciated treasure.
You said in a past interview that there’s nothing like the sound of a pipe organ and a choral group singing.
Just to hear people singing together and the synergy that that creates, people cooperating together and working on one unified experience. That might be the epitome of cooperation, people singing together in a choir. Not to be cliché, but there’s simply no “i’' in the word team. Choirs have to sort of be like a football team or a basketball team. But they have to be absolutely in sync with each other. And I think as a choral director, there’s something so magical and fulfilling and meaningful about getting people on the exact same page musically. And the larger the group, the more difficult that is, because you have so many people to focus. And I think that’s where the magic lies, is getting people to pay attention to the musical detail.
And that’s what an organ is, it’s a synthetic version of a choir. You’ve got all these pipes trying to sing together harmoniously, and you’re trying to get all this complicated music to sound beautiful, and you’re carving out something on an instrument that shouldn’t sound good – there’s a bunch of whistles on compressed air (that) shouldn’t have a good sound. In the wrong hands an organ can sound like a combine. And the same is true for a choir. In the wrong hands a choir can just be dreadful, because the director doesn’t really know how to get people laser-focused on the musical task.
What is your favorite music to play on the organ?
Playing hymns is probably one of the most joyful experiences that an organist can do. Just getting underneath the congregation and getting them to lift up their voice, and they’re such a joyful, fulfilling part of that. I love playing hymns of any ilk.
But in terms of what gives me the most satisfaction, I think, it’s the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Why? Probably because it’s so hard, and it’s so beautiful and it’s so cerebral, nobody has ever been able to touch the music that Johann Sebastian Bach created. I mean, he’s the archetype that nobody else has ever been able to surpass. And it’s just challenging, and that really brings a lot of fulfillment to somebody that can master his pieces. I’m still trying, haven’t gotten there yet, but the joy is in the journey of trying to conquer such complex music.