Playing to the red light districts

Posted: July 3rd, 2015 | Civic Organist News, Columnists, Featured | No Comments

By Carol Williams | Civic Organist News

My first recording experience was playing a three manual theater organ for the BBC. I was terrified. I had rehearsed so much and could play the music in my sleep.

Dr. Carol Williams

Dr. Carol Williams

The BBC truck arrived at my house and out popped several men and various leads, cables, microphones and all sorts of equipment. They set everything up way too quickly for my liking; it made me more nervous than I already was.

As the sound check ensued I was told to give some more dynamics. Hmmm, I thought, did they even know about organ music? It’s not a violin. But, my dad and I figured out what they wanted and I managed to do as they asked.

“Okay,” said Mr. Producer. “All listening to the BBC will hear you. You’ll be great. Watch that red light. When you see it go on, you play!”

I peered at the bulb in trepidation. My eyes intensified their focus. I was so scared my mind suddenly raced with all kinds of interpretations of the “red light”!

“Oh my goodness, must I be in that red light district place?” I figured somehow that this is what it meant about the red light district that I sort of heard about. I became petrified staring at that light bulb. Waiting and waiting with anticipation building up inside of me ready to explode! Was I now finally in “the red light district”?

Suddenly the bulb came on. My adrenaline was flowing faster than anything I had ever known, but I played like I intended. I managed all my three pieces in one take. I sighed with relief and with no applause like “business as usual,” the guys packed up everything and drove off drove. Did I enjoy this? NO!

It took many years to understand this ordeal and working as a performing musician and mature adult, I have come to see recordings as intensive but rewarding work. And yet, a very similar resemblance with the actual real world “red light district.”

We musicians — like in the days of Bach and Mozart who would have to compose and play for occasions of their King (instead of radio) — are at the command of our audience.

We — all musicians — are still at that place where our audience is in command.

As in life, when we look in the mirror, we usually criticize what we see. And in a way, I feel we are in that dreaded red light district, performing what people want to hear and what makes people feel good!

Another pleasing interest to those musically inclined is a documentary series my husband, a fine filmmaker, and I have developed, called, “Tour Bus to the King of Instruments,” its music, people and places. It’s about the large and small, famous and unique pipe organs of the world. We have 11 episodes so far, from England to Germany to Luxembourg and the U.S. You can find video demos at

We take you inside these organs with the curators, get demonstrations of the organs from the organist associated with the venue and learn some history of the venue. Plus there are lots of spectacular video shots.

Also, I have just released a CD of my own compositions, “Just Carol — Compositions” at

As you can see, I’m now barking for my own revenue profit, although, not from behind a storefront window in Amsterdam or Paris. I ask you, does this seem like a red light district to you in any way? It does to me and it probably does to any other professional musicians.

—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

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