Virtual organist lets veteran player take a break

When Marlyss Law first started playing the organ, computers took up whole rooms. Now one of her fellow organists is an iPad the size of a notebook.

Marlyss Law of Blaine has been playing the organ at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Blaine since it opened 52 years ago. She is happy that technology in the form of an iPad app called The Virtual Organist is giving her some needed time off. Photo by Eric Hagen
Marlyss Law of Blaine has been playing the organ at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Blaine since it opened 52 years ago. She is happy that technology in the form of an iPad app called The Virtual Organist is giving her some needed time off. Photo by Eric Hagen

Law started playing the organ over 60 years ago at the age of 15 while living in Sauk Rapids.

When her family moved to Blaine in 1961 and started attending the King of Glory Lutheran Church that had opened that same year, she volunteered to be one of the paid organists and has played many Sundays ever since in addition to weddings, baptisms and funerals.

It has been a blessing for her to be one the main church organists for so many years and she has made many friends and been a part of so many life changing moments, according to Law.

Nevertheless, being a church organist is a huge time commitment because it takes hours to prepare for all the services and other functions, Law said.

Her late husband, Dennis, and she had four sons and one daughter, who now range in age from 34 to 52 years old. All were all on Blaine High School’s cross country skiing team and she missed many of their competitions. She has hardly been to the family cabin in the Superior National Forest because it is not practical to drive over three hours one way for just one day.

Law appreciates that technology will provide her more opportunities to leave town for the weekend to go fishing or go to the cabin with her family or enjoy a church service without having to prepare for it, she said.

King of Glory Lutheran Church works with an Illinois company, Church Music Solutions, to get the organ playing when Law or no other organist can be sitting on the bench.

“I think it’s really good to have something like that as a back-up, especially when you have organists that are dedicated, but not always available,” Law said. “It’s something that we need to have to fill in the gaps.”

Law has not been the only organist at King of Glory Lutheran Church, but she has the most experience there by far. Renee Chambard has played off and on at the church for about 10 years, but has played more recently so Law could have more days off.

Freida Grams joined the organist team about the same time Law’s husband became ill in 2000 and was very helpful in covering for Marlyss when she wanted to be by her husband’s side. Dennis died in 2008.

Unfortunately, Grams had a stroke last year and has been unable to play since then.

Rev. Peter Geuldner said the church had to make a quick decision once they were down one organist. He had heard about a church in Oklahoma using an iPad app called The Virtual Organist and knew that some small churches in rural communities across the country have been playing church hymn CDs when they could not find an actual organist.

According to Christopher Loemaker of Church Music Solutions, Inc., which developed The Virtual Organist software, the company first developed a substitute organist product eight years ago for a very small Lutheran church in remote northern Minnesota. This church was not satisfied with CD recordings, so Church Music Solutions came up with a system that could play a congregation’s own organ. The systems have evolved as technology changed and most of its customers in over 30 states use Apple or Android tablets to use the software.

There is no difference in sound when Law or the computer are playing because the iPad is hooked up to the organ and electronically activates the buttons that Law has to push to get certain sounds. In a way, it is like a player piano, except the keys do not move.

The biggest musical difference is that the computer will play the same way every time, while Law will have her own interpretation.

Computers have become a bigger part of our lives, of course. Smart phones do so much more than make phone calls. We used to be restricted to desktop computers, but now have very mobile notebook computers to get our work done, surf the Internet or try new apps.

With Law being at the church for 52 years, she understands that it is weird for some church members to not see her at the organ when it is playing.

“It’s a matter of adapting to it and getting used to it,” said Chambard, who has heard some people cannot tell the difference and others just do not like a virtual organist.

Chambard understands it is getting more difficult for churches to find organists. She, Law and Grams were pianists first and foremost and taught themselves the nuances of the organ while getting some basic tips from others who have played or instructional books.

People often worry that Law will soon be stepping away from the organ permanently. She did not say that retirement was imminent, but said she was getting a little burned out after playing the organ for about 60 years. When she was not playing the organ, she spent a lot of her time giving piano lessons.

“It’s my inner struggle because this has been my life. This is not what I do. It’s who I am,” Law said.


Eric Hagen is at [email protected]