January is always a special month for me. The last weekend of January marks the anniversary of the very first time that I played the organ for Mass. Nineteen years later, I look back and give thanks for those people that give me that first opportunity and to those who have mentored me along the way.
From my earliest memories, I remember how I would watch our church organist play the Mass. Organists were nearly “living saints” to my young self. I would eagerly behold the organist as she would rehearse the cantor and walk across the altar to check in with the priest in the sacristy. If I was lucky and we attended the Saturday evening Mass, I could even observe the organist or the cantor place the numbers on the hymn board. The best of all was when we attended the choir Mass with all those singers and their anthems at the offertory and communion. All of this quickly transferred to my playroom “home church,” complete with one cardboard box that had two manuals (to represent the organ) and one box that had just one manual (that represented the piano), where I would mimic what I had seen at Mass. My young puppy, Leaps, a Terrier-Dachshund mix, was often drafted to play the part of the cantor or lone chorister.
It wasn’t long after I began my piano studies that I approached the pastor of the interdenominational church just across the street from my maternal grandparents’ house and tugged on the shirt of the minister while he was mowing the lawn. “Excuse me, sir, do you need an organist?” I asked. “As a matter of fact, we do. Do you happen to know one?” Despite having never played the organ before, my nine year old self replied, “I am an organist!” He invited me to come and meet his wife the next day. She was in charge of the music for the church and would be happy to have me play. I eagerly darted back across the street and up the stairs to phone my dad to ask permission to stay an extra day in order to play for their church service.
When I was 12 years old I played for my first Mass at St. Jude the Apostle Parish Church in Wilmerding, PA on January 28, 2001. From that point forward, my work as a church musician has been the bedrock of my life. From then until now, I have been so blessed to have been mentored by countless individuals along the way. Without the opportunities provided to me by the mentors in my life, I would not be where I am today.
Did you know that January is National Mentoring Month? First inaugurated in 2002 by former President George W. Bush, National Mentoring Month is endorsed by both chambers of the United States Congress and is sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, MENTOR (the National Mentoring Partnership), and the Corporation for National and Community Service. It is a program designed to connect young people with mentors in a field of their choosing and to provide them with the resources needed to pursue their own unique version of the American dream.
Our American Guild of Organists Chapter is all too familiar with the importance of mentoring. Whether it be through the fine work of the Pittsburgh Organ Academy led by Tyler Randolph, those who study for guild exams championed by Sr. Cynthia Pock, or through the monthly educational outreach of our programming executed so well by Ken Danchik, we each, through our support of these programs and our chapter itself, understand how important mentoring is in the career of organists, both in the church and beyond. I encourage each of you to take advantage of these opportunities. Be a mentor to others this year. If you have piano students interested in studying organ, invite them to audition for the Pittsburgh Organ Academy; consider promoting a guild exam to one of our colleagues or jointly study to take an exam; or be a mentor by bringing a new organist in your neighborhood to one of our monthly meetings.
The National Mentoring Month movement usually ends with a day inviting people from across the country to give thanks for their own mentors, by way of writing them a thank you note, becoming a mentor, making a contribution to a mentoring program, or tagging them in a social media post using the hashtag #thankyourmentor.
I would imagine that it is safe to say that none of us would be where we are without those who have mentored us along our way. I hope you will join me during this month of January to give thanks for those who have helped each of us along our way and to celebrate new ways in which we can inspire the hearts and minds of young people to continue the incredible work of our local guild.
Sincerely, Chaz Bowers