An introduction to the organ

Posted: February 6th, 2015 | Civic Organist News, Columnists, Featured | 3 Comments

By Dr. Carol Williams | Civic Organist News

I adjusted my seat in the saddle and raised the stirrups a little with my feet as Gypsy’s sure-footed cantor took us across a deep stream. Great splashing in, and on we went, to the top of a bluff with glorious sights and smells. I gently asked her to halt and for a moment we both stood there looking out at the green rolling hills of the lake district in Cumbria, England.

Carol Williams, shown with the Spreckels Organ, hosts performances every Sunday at 2 p.m. at Balboa Park’s Organ Pavilion.

Carol Williams, shown with the Spreckels Organ, hosts performances every Sunday at 2 p.m. at Balboa Park’s Organ Pavilion.

I could feel the energy in the crisp morning air.

Suddenly, Gypsy violently shook like a wet puppy just out of her bath water; this 2,000 pound Shire horse with little me on top. But I have the good knowledge that Gypsy, even in her intent to be comfortable, would not allow me to fall. Her huge head turned back to gaze at me and her eyes looked for assurance that she was still in my favor. I gave her an exuberant smile, a gentle rub on the neck and with a clicking sound in my mouth, and then we were on a gallop along a dry stone wall in an open tree-lined field.

These are the times my soul gets recharged and I am in love with life.

I was daydreaming of that day when I realized that same connection to life fills my spirit when I see the happy faces of children and adults applauding my performance on a weekly basis here in Balboa Park.

I am so blessed to have this job. I love it when people realize what the pipe organ can do for their soul. It’s wonderful to meet and hear about “how they never knew an organ could make them feel so good,” or the glow in a child’s face as they ask me how I did that.

These are the things that drive my life.

Perhaps you’d like to know how a typical Sunday unfolds for me at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. I’ll start with a novice explanation of how the pipe organ works:

A pipe organ is constructed of pipes that speak by means of air pressure passing through them, like whistles. Electronic organs work by amplifying samples of these sounds — a much different animal — and in my opinion, not entirely the same experience.

There are ranks (groups) of pipes that have different sounds, such as flutes, wind, strings, tubas and on and on. Different pipes made of many different materials and even real drums, cymbals, harps, horns, and so on, are operated by pneumatic systems. I’ll try to keep this simple because it can get complicated whether it’s a symphonic pipe organ, or a theatrical pipe organ, or a combination of both; which is our Spreckels Organ.

Today, wires connect the keys to the air valves, but the really old organs have their keys connected mechanically to the valves, which means the musician must press very hard on the keys to operate them and that becomes quite tiring. I’ve strained myself while touring Europe on these old historic organs.

Am I boring you yet? I hope not.

Every organist must set the organ up to play the pipe sounds they want at every specific point of every piece of music performed. This creates the orchestration of the instrument. There are buttons to push, toe studs to push with your feet and pedals to move at different parts of every piece.

My husband, Kerry, is a drummer and knows what it’s like to control four limbs at different beat segments during a song. But organists have ten fingers and two feet all going at once and this totally blows his mind. I bring this up because in this way I can beg extra respect from him — like maybe an extra dinner night out.

I like to keep things hopping and bring new surprises to the Park. Last weekend for instance, I performed with the real Von Trapp family (the grandkids from “The Sound of Music” family). This was the first time they ever sang with an organ. The audience met them after the concert and everyone had a great time.

Don’t miss my 10th annual “Bark in Balboa Park” concert Feb. 15 at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, benefitting the San Diego Humane Society. It’s free and everyone is invited to bring their animal companion to hear pet friendly music, meet other animal lovers, learn about the Humane Society, and then join the pet parade across the stage — come in costume if you’d like!

—Civic Organist Carol Williams is proud to serve as an ambassador of San Diego’s arts and culture arena. Through her concert performances at home and abroad, Carol offers a fresh take on the classical organ concert. She is committed to illuminating San Diego’s colorful romance with the “King of Instruments,” always seeking to bring the organ to new audiences. For more information visit


  1. Fay Clymer says:

    Carol came to Augusta Georgia recently. and was just fantastic!
    Her fingers and feet just danced along the keys and she has a delightful personality. She is an utter joy to watch!

  2. Evan Jones says:

    Carol, if there were more organists like you, more people would attend organ programs! Plus, anyone who rides is OK in my book 🙂

  3. Timothy FC says:

    I think your fantastic and your talent is second to none. You make my love of the pipe organ even greater. But I have not been able to see you in live performance. Would you be performing anywhere between Pensacola, FL. and Tallahassee, FL. in 2015?

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