NORTH NEWTON, KAN. Bethel College students, faculty and staff have heard the sounds of Christopher Shaw’s organ playing for the past four years. Since the organ is centrally located in the Administration Building Chapel on the North Newton campus, the sounds of Shaw’s practicing have found their way into many classrooms and offices. However, afternoons filled with his organ playing are numbered as Shaw’s senior organ recital on March 14 draws near. "I chose to do organ because of all the color that can come from it," said Shaw. "And it’s fun to add your feet, too."
Natural light filters through the stained-glass windows presenting its own color on the floor of the Bethel College Chapel as Shaw perches atop the organ bench, looking more like an extension of the instrument than its operator. He has spent many hours on that bench. In the cool, calm atmosphere of the sheltered space, only the soft ticking of the radiator, like that of a metronome, breaks the silence. That is, until Shaw begins to play.
"Right away I liked it," said Shaw, recalling his first encounter with the organ. He fell in love with the instrument, Shaw says, when he attended an organ recital at Bethel College.
"I remember being fascinated with all the stops and the colors produced alone and in combination," he said.
Shaw’s journey toward his senior recital began when he was a sophomore at Peabody-Burns High School. Shaw’s piano teacher, Karen Andres of Elbing, encouraged him to take organ lessons. Shaw started taking lessons through the Bethel College Academy of Music with then-professor of music Shirley King.
Shaw recalls his first recital in which he performed a Mexican square dance that used every stop on the instrument.
"I was opened up to a new color palette that allowed me to be an artist, painting the lines of music," he said.
When Shaw enrolled at Bethel College three years later, he discovered another reason to love the instrument: organists aren’t required to memorize their music.
Memorization or not, a music major requires plenty of work--to the tune of a recommended 12 hours of practice per week. Shaw’s primary practice instrument is the chapel organ, but he also uses the organ at Bethel College Mennonite Church, where he plays regularly for Sunday services.
In addition, Shaw has played for several local congregations including Zion Mennonite Church of Elbing, West Zion Mennonite Church of Moundridge and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church of Newton. Shaw has also performed on organs in other states, once studying for a month with organist David Cherwien in Minneapolis, Minn., as well as in other countries, as he accompanied the Bethel College Concert Choir on its European tour. He estimates that he has played on more than 40 organs.
When he’s not performing or practicing solo, Shaw takes lessons from Bethel’s current organ instructor Roseann Penner Kaufman. During a recent lesson, Kaufman and Shaw seemed as much like collaborating chemists as student and teacher. Experimenting with different organ stops, the two mixed different tonal elements and listened to the result.
"We experiment a lot," said Kaufman. "Composers will make suggestions, but a stop with the same name will sound different on different organs. That’s part of the fascination with the instrument."
Outside of lessons and practice, Shaw researches his recital pieces to compile program notes with background and performance information.
"It helps give the audience a better understanding of the piece," said Shaw. "It also gives me a chance for extra research."
Aside from informing listeners about the organ through program notes, Shaw also wants them to understand a few things.
Most people associate organ with church, hymns and preludes, observed Shaw. "But I’m also a soloist," he said, "and I think that’s important to differentiate."
And one more thing: organ doesn’t always equal loud.
"I think that’s a common misconception that people have to get over," he said.
All the lessons, practice and research will culminate in Shaw’s senior recital. Having already passed the preview jury for the music faculty, Shaw’s nerves are more relaxed now.
"I think after you make it through the jury, the next step is pretty easy," he said. "The music faculty are your real critics anyway."
Kaufman echoed Shaw’s statements, adding, "We have a good history of preparing students to play. He’ll do great."
Shaw’s recital will include preludes, sonatas, concertos and free works by Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Messiaen and Scheidemann. The recital is planned for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 14 in the Administration Building Chapel, Bethel College. Admission is free and open to the public.