Q&A with Raymond Hawkins
(Everything you ever wanted to know, but were too afraid to ask.)
So, tell me, the pipe organ… definitely not “cool” like guitar or drums. What brought you to pursue this particular path?
Well, I grew up in a very musically-inclined family. In fact, I’m the fourth consecutive generation on my father’s side to play the organ. Yet, it was still never taken for granted that I would follow in their footsteps. My pursuit of the organ specifically first took root when Donna Swanson, the organist at my church at the time, coaxed my shy six-year-old self out from behind my mom’s chair during choir rehearsal one evening and asked me if I would turn pages for her. At first, I was reluctant, but before you knew it, I was sitting beside her on the organ bench every Sunday morning. [chuckling] The church even started listing my title as official page turner in the bulletin. Anyway, it began as me just turning pages and pulling stops (not very competently, granted, but she was gracious) and it eventually developed into me even accompanying part of the Doxology on occasion. This was all before ever beginning organ lessons. That didn’t start until I was ten.
But you must have taken piano lessons before that, right?
Actually, no. I learned some of the fundamentals of music very early on from my parents and casually attempted some basic piano exercises, but it never went very far. So, when I actually began studying music formally, it was at the organ. People are often surprised by this, but the way I see it, studying piano is beneficial for organists in the same way that studying organ is beneficial for pianists, but neither instrument is a prerequisite for the other. I’m adamant about this point because I think this “piano first” myth often deters people, especially young kids, from pursuing the organ. I couldn’t even reach the pedals when I started playing. So what?
Who is your favorite composer? Wait, let me guess, you’re an organist, so it must be Bach...
Okay, okay… don’t get me wrong, I like Bach a lot, but believe it or not, Bach isn’t every organist’s favorite composer. [inaudible gasp] I actually hesitate to use the term “favorite” when discussing music, but I do admit to having a particularly strong affinity for the music of French organist and composer Louis Vierne.
So, why Louis Vierne?
Something about his musical style, bridging the gap between Romanticism and Modernism, caught my interest early on. In fact, it was the “Final” from his Symphony No. 1 that coincided with, or I would actually venture to say that it was greatly responsible for, a major musical learning breakthrough that I had around age fourteen. After years of learning music at what seemed to be a snail’s pace, I polished off the “Final” in just a few weeks, which was unprecedented for me at the time. It’s not the easiest piece of music either. I guess, aside from just having been introduced to this piece at the right time, I had finally found a piece of music that inspired me to really persevere and work in a more concentrated and accelerated manner than I had before.
Perseverance, which is coincidentally a major part of Vierne’s life story…
Indeed. Vierne faced seemingly constant hardship, never mind the fact that he was almost completely blind from birth, yet somehow, he always managed to continue making incredible music. Just one example was the time he nearly died from typhoid fever and later attributed his survival to his determination to finish the last movement of his violin sonata. So, for me not only is Vierne a musical inspiration, but a personal one as well.
I understand you also really love improvisation...
Absolutely. It’s something that I guess really began in those days when I was first being introduced to the organ but hadn’t yet started lessons. Then later on I developed the skill further, mostly from practical experience. When I became organist at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I all of a sudden found myself having to improvise all the time, often at very exposed points in the mass. At first it was an intimidating task that had a fifty-fifty chance of being quite unsatisfactory, but eventually it came to be one of my favorite things. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve lost in the practice room to improvisation when I should have been practicing repertoire. But, alas, it can be really cathartic.
So, do you have a life outside of the organ, or is that all you do?
Well, I also enjoy singing and composing…
Okay, I guess what I meant was, outside of music entirely…
Ah! Yes. Well, I love learning languages. So far, I’ve worked on, to varying degrees, French, German, and Spanish. And, on a related note, I guess you could say I have a weird obsession with the International Phonetic Alphabet. [laughs] Just bring up the term “voiceless palatal fricative” in conversation and watch my face light up.
Yeah, that’s weird…
I do also enjoy some normal people things like cooking and eating food and riding my bike.
Do you have a favorite quote you would like to share?
One of my favorite quotes is from a former organ teacher of mine, Porter Remington. She would always tell me during lessons, “Going slower gets you there faster.” I have an uncanny feeling that the day I truly put this advice into practice will be the day I make my next big musical breakthrough. In other words, it’s easier said than done. [chuckles]