EHC: Can you please explain what you do as a Concert Organist?
Donna: I perform solo theatre pipe organ concerts. My performances are usually two hours. Typically, I memorize music pieces, so I need to know a wide variety of music because the pieces can range from classical to top 40.
EHC: Where do you perform?
Donna: My profession has allowed me to travel within the U.S. to most of the well-known music venues, but I have also traveled globally to places like Australia, New Zealand, Vienna, Japan, and Canada.
The popularity of theatre organ has varied quite a bit over the years. When I was younger, home organs were extremely popular, which drove more audience attendance; additionally, people remembered the pipe organ from the silent film era. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in this art form. I work diligently through the American Theatre Organ Society on the preservation and education of theatre pipe organs.
EHC: What type of degree or experience do you need for this career?
Donna: Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, was the foundation of my music career. I attended Cal Poly Pomona, which provided a good musical base, but I did not need a degree to pursue a career as an organist.
The courses I took at Cal Poly provided a great education, but I was fortunate enough to study with top people in this field, which was instrumental in my music education. For example, I studied with Richard Pervis, and the California Board of Regions gave me permission to receive college credit by studying with him. I also knew theatre pipe organists from the 1920s through the American Theatre Organ Society who were excellent musicians because they played in silent film theaters.
Musicians from the 1920s were typically classically trained and needed to make the experience interesting for movie-goers. When a silent movie arrived to the theater, the organists would either receive a full score for the movie they were accompanying, get “themes” such as “storm” or “chase” from a large book of suggestions, or receive nothing and need to create an original score. So, they were very talented and always encouraged me to perform.
EHC: What steps did you take to get into this career?
Donna: I started performing concerts at the age of 13. Then, at the age of 15, I was approached by the Conn Organ Company, a company that builds home organs. They asked me to serve as the official organist for the Los Angeles Dodgers. So at 15, I did that! From there, I performed at all of the sporting events: hockey, tennis, and other special events. I really enjoyed performing the national anthem, sometimes with famous people, sometimes not, but it was fun to rehearse with everyone.
After continuing to perform, I went to the LA Sports Arena and played for the women’s tennis team. This was during the 1970s when women’s teams were unheard of. In fact, the arena planned a surprise celebration, and I played “Happy Birthday” for Martina Navratilova, one of the best tennis players of all time–male or female–on her 18th birthday.
EHC: Wow! That’s amazing! Have you done anything outside of performing?
Donna: As a child, I was a gymnast but was always super interested in sports, so performing in the venues like the LA Sports Arena was a dream come true. After college, I moved to Arizona and continued performing, married, and moved to the Midwest.
My husband and I started a family restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan called The Roaring 20s that sat 375 people and then, in Indianapolis, built a larger restaurant, The Paramount Music Theatre, which sat 600 people. Both restaurants were built around and featured a theatre pipe organ, which was often the main attraction for restaurant goers.
I also currently teach piano and organ to children and adults. Additionally, through the American Theatre Organ Society, I host a week-long summer camp that is held in different locations throughout the U.S. Kids come from all over the world to learn about the theatre pipe organ, get to know each other, and play! It’s so much fun to see kids who share the same passion share knowledge and build lifelong friendships with one another.
EHC: What is your favorite part of your career?
Donna: I most enjoy playing for the general public versus concerts for people who already know and appreciate the theatre pipe organ, mainly because people who aren’t familiar with the instrument don’t know what to expect. A lot of times, people associate organ music with weddings, funerals, or haunted houses, but ninety-nine percent of the time, they are absolutely amazed! It is so much fun to see people enjoy the music and want to learn something about the instrument.
I’ve racked my brain about why the theatre pipe organ creates an awe. In my mind, it’s because it’s mechanical, acoustic, and big! Today, kids see a lot of computerized things, but the theatre pipe organ is huge. You can see it work, and it creates a sound that people can actually feel but also appreciate!
EHC: What do you find most challenging?
Donna: The most challenging part is just trying to figure out how to perform rhythmic-based techniques because with the theatre pipe organ, it’s more like having an orchestra to work with versus a rock band. I have to figure out if I am going to perform in real time or with a recorded track because I don’t want it to sound dumb or hokey. . . I want it to sound great! People really appreciate that. It’s like going to a foreign country where the people there may not speak the same language as you, but they know and appreciate what you are saying.
EHC: What advice would you offer to young women exploring careers?
Donna: It’s a struggle because younger people interested in music are often very idealistic and think they will become a musician–they believe there isn’t anything else, and they will make a living doing that. Some teachers want to tell them they cannot make a living this way. I don’t want to discourage that but rather encourage them to attend school and choose something that they can make a living doing, such as teaching, but then also pursue their passion for music and performance.
The most important thing is to choose something you love versus just making money because that won’t make you happy! Choose your passion, and the money will follow. My daughter has done this, and she is so happy and is excelling in her career.