Please do post details of concerts, courses and other events into the Calendar
0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.
Teen organist, who has big plans for future, showcases skills at Appleton's First English Lutheran Church
When I was 16 years old, I couldn’t wait for summer to arrive. It was my favorite time of the year. I was a pretty typical teen. I played video games, worked a part-time job in a camera shop, traveled around the country with my soccer team and, of course, was a bit distracted by the girls. OK … so I was real distracted by the girls. But I think that defines a typical teenage boy enjoying his time off from school. It was a wonderful period in my life, but not exactly a time to focus on my future.Contrast that with Don VerKuilen’s life. Before he could even walk or talk, 16-year-old Don VerKuilen’s mother, Wendy, would take him to church. He says listening to the organ playing and people singing was the only time he was quiet. Later, when he was in preschool, something uncanny occurred. Don’s teacher, Miss Liz (Lokensgard) at the First Congregational Church, was playing the piano. When she finished, Don sat at the piano and played back to her exactly what she just played … without seeing the music or practicing. Don remembers it freaked her out a bit and she called his mother.“That was the day my music career started,” Don said.It’s a funny thing. The organ seems to call out to Don. After his preschool discovery, Don continued playing the piano. He took lessons until he could reach the pedal board on the electric organ at Our Saviors Lutheran Church and he taught himself how to play. He learned by ear. Along the way, he learned how to play many other instruments: the harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, banjo and even his grandmother’s accordion. But it was his involvement with the Appleton Boy Choir and Frank Rippl that propelled his musical skills to a new level.
Frank Rippl is the organist and choirmaster at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Appleton. He is also the founder of the Appleton Boy Choir and founder and coordinator of The Lunchtime Organ Recital Series. And he is Don’s organ teacher.Don began studying with Frank after he finished seventh grade. Don and Frank were on tour in Croatia with the Appleton Boy Choir, sitting across from each other during the last dinner. He said he would love to study the pipe organ and Frank agreed to teach him.“He is one of those students that grabs you by the lapels and demands to be taught. You know, ‘Teach me!’ It’s a joy because teachers don’t get students like that very often. He began studying with me and he just took off like a rocket, such that I could hardly keep up with him because his learning curve was extraordinary. He just wanted to do it and wanted to do it and wanted to do it,” Frank said.“He is constantly setting goals for himself and then leaping over them. He is just an astonishing talent and an astonishing musical talent. Some people can play a musical instrument and it sounds very mechanical. But Don can put all of this wonderful feeling and shape of the musical phrase and it just comes to him naturally. He’s a natural-born musician. He was born to play the pipe organ. He’s got it.”Although Don enjoys some typical teenage activities like water-skiing and playing golf with his stepfather, he has more important things on his mind.“I’m career focused,” Don says.It’s June and the sun is shining down on the First English Lutheran Church in Appleton. The noon hour approaches and the church begins to fill with people of all ages attending a Lunch Time Organ Recital concert. The recital series highlights organs and musicians around the Fox Valley and beyond. And today Don is the featured artist.“I think performances are really special for me because it’s something I work very hard to do and it’s very rewarding,” he says. “I think the whole point of me wanting to perform is wanting to share my gift with the community, not keep it to myself, but to be able to really change people’s lives.
“Music has a great power to change people’s lives. It can change your mood in a matter of seconds and it feels really good to me to be able to take and share my gift with the world.”As the concert begins, Don starts with Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532) by J.S. Bach. It’s an awesome experience. Looking across the pews in the church, the sound is powerful and intoxicating. People seem to literally consume the notes as Don’s fingers glide across the organ’s keys. It’s hard to believe that this level of musical maturity is on display by a young man with only 16 years of life’s experience.“In performing I think that I take away more than I have given,” Don says. “To know that I have an audience to support me through all of the hard work that I have done and to know that I have possibly changed someone’s life … changes mine. I can’t describe the feeling that you get when you know that you have changed somebody’s life just from something that you love to do. If I have changed one life in my lifetime, I have lived my live and done all I’ve wanted to do.”The future is bright for this young talent. Don is an E. Power Biggs Fellow and is one of three high school students in the nation picked to compete in the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Organ competition in Wethersfield, Conn., in September. He plans on attending Lawrence University and then studying at Yale for a doctorate in organ performance. He wants to be a professor of the organ at a university. At age 16, he wants to give back.Not your typical teenager indeed.
A Northwest suburban music major and the historic pipe organ at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago came together last month for a rare event.Heidi Rittmeyer of Arlington Heights performed her senior recital on the majestic instrument. She is graduating with a music performance major from the University of Illinois at Chicago, having studied organ under Thomas Weisflog, the organist at the University of Chicago.Advertisement >“She’s a wonderful player,” Weisflog said as he introduced Rittmeyer to the senior recital audience. “This organ, for those of you who haven’t experienced it, you’ll hear something like you’ve never heard before.”He described how the organ was built in 1928, the first of four university organs built by E.M. Skinner, who went on to build ones at Yale, Princeton and Michigan.“It is the Cadillac of instruments,” Weisflog added, “built for major higher institutions of learning.”As it stands now, the organ at Rockefeller Chapel is the largest in the state, with more than 8,000 pipes, including more than 6,000 in the front chamber and another 2,000 in the gallery.Rittmeyer commanded them all — giving the audience the feeling as if a “747 was landing on them,” Weisflog said. She performed four major organ works for her recital, opening with a ceremonial processional by the Welsh composer William Mathias.Her interest in the organ goes back to her youth and growing up attending St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights.“I became interested in the organ at the age of 9, after taking piano lessons for a few years and from growing up in the church,” says Rittmeyer, a 2008 St. Viator High School graduate. “I enjoy organ so much because of all the different sounds to choose from, from trumpets to flutes to reeds.“The instrument allows you to be the conductor,” she adds, “literally of your own orchestra.”Her mother, Marilyn, credits the local Fox Valley Guild of Organists and the American Guild of Organists at the national level, with giving young organists a chance to perform.Both groups offer “pipe organ encounters,” which bring together young, aspiring organ players at Chicago area and national venues.“Heidi attended pipe organ encounters in several cities,” Marilyn Rittmeyer says. “So she had the opportunity to play some of the best organs in our country and hear some of our nation’s best organists.”While attending high school, Rittmeyer played a conventional band instrument, but she also studied privately with David Christiansen at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Park Ridge.Weisflog describes Rittmeyer’s talent and interest as exceedingly rare.“The numbers of students studying organ is declining,” he says, “so they have to be fostered.”However, Rittmeyer knows that she has to diversify. Consequently, up next she plans to earn an advanced degree in church music, possibly from the University of Alabama, where she’d study under organ professor Faythe Free. But she also has another plan in place: to earn a nursing degree.