Gainesville Daily Register

January 16, 2011

Historic pipe organ gets makeover

By DELANIA TRIGG, Assistant Editor
Gainesville Daily Register

Gainesville — John Dill can make a pipe organ sing. He can also restore a damaged organ from the brink of disaster.

Dill recently completed a major repair project on the First United Methodist Church pipe organ and said he’s been playing the instrument since he was a child.

“I was 12 when my church, First Baptist, bought their pipe organ,” he said. “That was the bug that bit me.”

He admits playing the organ — with its finger keyboards and pedal keyboard — is no easy feat.

“It does require some coordination,” he said.

Besides being a church organist, Dill is also an organ tuning and maintenance expert who hopes to generate interest in historic church organ preservation during a series of monthly concerts on pipe organs at six Gainesville churches.

His performance, on the newly-restored organ at First United Methodist Church, is set for 7 p.m. tonight in the church sanctuary. It is free and open to the public.

The first recital is significant for several reasons. For one thing, at 117 years old, the FUMC pipe organ is the oldest organ in Cooke County.

The FUMC performance is also important to Dill because the organ he’ll be playing was almost destroyed by water last summer and required extensive repairs. The damage occurred August 31 when a construction worker used a power washer to clean a stained glass window frame on the south side of the church. The high-pressure water penetrated the frame, soaking into the instrument’s delicate mechanisms.

The flooding was a potential disaster for the church, Dill said.

“We weren’t sure of the extent of the damage,” he noted. “I was up here that night until 1 a.m.”

What followed were many weeks of work, he said.

“We had to replace some of the major components of the organ,” Dill said.

He finished the project in time for New Year services but said he expects to continue making small adjustments for about another year.

Dill is a master craftsman, but he didn’t go to college to learn organ repair.

“There aren’t any schools to teach what I do, outside of Germany,” he noted.

He did earn three degrees including a bachelor of arts degree in music education and a bachelor of arts degree in organ performance from Baylor University.

He also earned a masters degree in organ performance.

He began putting his mostly self-taught mechanical skills to use working on the college’s organs while he was a student at Baylor. Instructors quickly learned to call on Dill when something went wrong.

Now he calls himself, “a tinkerer with mechanical common sense and a knowledge of the laws of physics.”

He is also a historian.

“You almost have to be because our music is so old and knowing history (also increases) technical knowledge about organs,” he said.

Dill pointed out that the technology behind pipe organs hasn’t changed much since ancient times.

“Pipe organs have been built this way for 2,000 years,” he said, noting that lap-sized pipe organs were discovered in the excavated ruins of Pompeii. There was also pipe organ music in the Coliseum in Rome.

In addition to his repair and restoration work, Dill is the organist at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco — a church which often features an orchestra and averages about 5,000 worshippers each week.

His association with Stonebriar and its pastor Charles R. Swindoll helped spark his interest in performing local concerts.

Dill spent the summer on tour with Swindoll, playing magnificent pipe organs in places such as Prague — the capital city of the Czech Republic — and in Germany.

He said a highlight of last summer’s tour was playing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” in the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany where Luther is buried.

When he returned from the tour, Dill said he began making plans to perform recitals on the six Gainesville pipe organs.

At one time or another, he’s worked on all of them.

Playing the organs will be a joy, he said.

“No organ in town is superior to another,” he said. “They all serve the various needs of their congregations.”

But the FUMC organ is a treasure, he admitted.

“This organ is quite special because it’s original. It has sat here in this spot for 117 years,” he said, reaching out to touch the stenciled zinc pipes of the facade. “It’s very beloved and has served the church well.”

The FUMC pipe organ was built by William King & Son of Elmira, N.Y. and was finished about two weeks before the church was completed in 1893.

Despite his accomplishments, Dill is modest about his talent. Being a musician has allowed him to travel extensively tuning and repairing organs in places as far away as Anchorage, AK. and Gavington, Scotland. He’s also played sacred masterpieces by composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven in the countries where the music was written.

When he talks about pipe organs, there’s no doubt Dill loves everything about the instrument and likes to share his knowledge and talent with others.

He plans to play recitals at First United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Whaley United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church.

Dates and times for the next five concerts will be announced.

Besides his work and music, Dill is devoted to his family including his wife Misty and son Seth, a second grader at Era Elementary School.