Prepping for my European debut
In the summer of 1984, I had just received my letter from Dean Spielmann, the assistant organist of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg City. Maestro Albert LeBlanc was inviting me to come to Luxembourg the next July and play an organ concert in the cathedral. It would be part of the Luxembourg Classical Summer Music Festival.
I sat and stared at the letter for the longest time, thinking that maybe I would wake up and that it was just a dream. I was going to play in Europe. For most American organists such an invitation is something you dream about, but something that very seldom ever becomes a reality.
This was not a dream. This was real. So I said to myself, “Self, get-up, dream later, you have work to do.” In the time after I had left Luxembourg and before I returned home to the Upper Peninsula, I had prepared a “to do” list. It was long.
The first thing I had to do was connect with a really good organ teacher, someone whom I admired and someone with whom I could work. I had someone in mind; Ed Berryman, the organist at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. I had met him on a couple of occasions and had heard him play. He was “my guy.” One of the reasons for my choice was that I needed someone who loved both the Classical and Romantic styles of music.
I already had my recital program made up and I didn’t want to fight with a teacher over what I wanted to play. I needed a teacher to work with me on playing technique, interpretation and registration. It had to be someone who would be passionate about giving his all, and who would really want to guide me to make my “impossible dream” become a reality.
I called Ed and after we exchanged the usual pleasantries I asked him if he would be willing to accept me as a student. He was very nice, but said “no,” I am not taking on any additional students. My schedule is really full, and I’m getting a little older, so I have to say no, but thank you for asking.”
I was disappointed but not ready to give up without a fight (so to speak). A little flattery perhaps? I told him that I wanted Europeans to experience the fact that Americans knew how to play Classical and Romantic organ music too, and that I, through his teaching, could carry that message to Luxembourg. I told him about my whole “Luxembourg experience” and about meeting and hearing Maestro LeBlanc.
I explained why I was so passionate about needing him to make my recital not only possible, but successful. He paused and said “Ok Gerrit, I’ll do it. It sounds interesting.”
I almost cried. I was on my way. We discussed the details of the lesson schedule and together we decided that I would come in for my lesson at 10 a.m. on the first Monday of every month. On the Sunday before my lesson I would leave Houghton after playing my morning service at Trinity Episcopal Church in the U.P., drive to Minneapolis, and spend the night. On Monday morning, at 9 a.m., I would have the organ to myself, and then at 10, I would have my lesson with Ed. It was supposed to be a one hour lesson, but it usually lasted at least two hours or more. Ed liked to talk as much as I did.
After the lesson, I would drive the 350 miles back to Houghton and arrive home in the evening. It would become my routine for the next 10 months: summer, fall, winter and spring. It was a good thing that I loved driving and traveling.
These were the days when C.B. radios were still popular in cars. I enjoyed mine a lot. It provided a connection to other drivers on the road. Everybody that used one had a “handle” (code name) to identify themselves to other users, without having to reveal your real name. My code name (handle) was “The Music Man,” and I had some interesting conversations with truckers. None had ever talked with a church organist, a Dutchman, or someone who drove 700 miles round trip every month to have an organ lesson. By the time we went our separate ways, I was “a Good Buddy.” I had also made cassette tapes of my planned recital pieces so that I could study the music orally. It proved to be time well spent.
The lessons with Ed went well. He was a fantastic teacher/coach, as I knew he would be. He was genuinely interested in what I wanted to accomplish with him and he shared in my enthusiasm. He even asked for copies of the pieces that were unknown to him. I considered that a compliment.
Of course all my other work in the U.P. went on as normal. I had started a community chorus, and we performed some major choral works such as the Christmas section of Handel’s “Messiah” with choir and orchestra. My school choirs were active. My Piano Tuning business provided some extra income. I was playing for the Michigan Tech hockey games, as well as fulfilling my job at Trinity Episcopal, preparing for the upcoming Christmas season.
The folks at the church were just wonderful and extremely helpful. During the winter months, the Sunday services were in the “undercroft” (Episcopal language for “basement.” I needed to practice on the organ as much and as often as possible. A couple of men in my choir built a removable cage that fit over the console. We put a small space heater in the “igloo” as they called it, and voila; I had a heated practice facility during the winter months.
They did impress upon me, “Be sure to leave one side open enough so that air can enter. If you don’t do that we may have to look for another organist, again.”
Needless to say, their advice worked, I am still around.
I had my car checked over before winter; it had a rough winter ahead of it. Everything was fine, except the tires were near the end of their lifetime. I invested in four Blizzak winter tires. I knew I was ready for most anything. Some of the U.P. stretches were pretty lonely areas, and I wanted to be ready for the normal 200-300 inches of snow.
Fall became winter and the long winter turned into welcome signs of spring. Many stories to tell about that period of my life, but they will have to wait until a future time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.