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Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church custom-designs new pipe organ
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Closeup of the organ's mechanical action (MPR Photo/Valerie Kahler)
Music—even solo music—is all about coming together. Whether it’s the synthesis of a composer’s influences, study and practice, the 4 strings of a violin, or the multitude of different notes on a page–each tiny element is a necessary part of something greater. The coming together of a new pipe organ in town is a very concrete illustration of this principle.

Shoreview, Minn. — It's January 4th, the first Sunday of 2004. Feels like it could be the coldest day so far this winter. In Shoreview it's about 15 below zero with the windchill. Parishoners at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church have abandoned their Sunday best in favor of flannel-lined jeans, boots, gloves. Parkas.

Almost everyone is grinning ear to ear, even though the next several hours will be spent out in the biting wind, trotting back and forth from the parking lot where a 40-foot tractor-trailer is parked. The semi contains the church's new organ—in thousands of separate pieces.

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Image Organ pipes

As the troops are fortified with bowls of hot soup, pie and coffee, they offer various reasons for sacrificing a Sunday afternoon.

Out by the truck, a very serious-looking toddler carries one end of a small board. A twinkly-eyed grandmother follows, her arms draped with coils of ridged tube.

They deposit their respective burdens in the designated places, and return to the end of the line, which winds back on itself TWICE in the sanctuary, before snaking through the long narthex and back out to the semi. It begins to look like an organ triage center inside as this trip is repeated hundreds and hundreds of times.

It wasn't just time and labor that church members were asked to donate. We step back five years to the obvious starting point: Money.

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Image Toe Boards

Often, church organs are purchased with a major gift from a single donor, or a church will have to take out a loan. But, having built a new sanctuary just 7 years ago, the church board determined: no more debt. If the congregation wanted an organ, they'd have to scrape up the cash.

Wheels began to turn. 1400 miles away in Glouster Massachusetts, work began on Opus 122, the newest organ requested of CB Fisk.

If ever there was a company that could appreciate such team spirit, it was this one, founded by Charles Benton Fisk—who had a head for physics and a heart for music. He died in 1983 but the company continues to attract like-minded, multi-talented types who are willing to tackle everything from metal working to acoustical engineering. Just because you have perfect pitch doesn't mean you won't find yourself swinging a hammer or firing up a welding torch at Fisk.

The organ itself was fully assembled and installed by the end of January, but Fisk remained on site til Easter, more than THREE MONTHS after arriving in Minnesota.

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Image Pipes

What took so long? Well, there ARE 1500 different pipes in the organ, and it takes some finessing to make them all sound good with each other. In organspeak, it's called "voicing & tuning."

Throughout those 3 months of tuning and voicing, the church community was there again, as the Fisk crew camped out in guest rooms, borrowed cars and ate lots of home cookin.

It's easy to see why Jack Andersen and the rest of the congregation at Shepherd of the Hills took to calling the instrument-in-progress "the people's organ.” Not only because of how it was paid for and built, but also because of how it will be used.

One member of the extended community is Lili Ardalan, a 16-year old organist and high school winner of the recent Schubert Club young artist competition. She dropped by the church a few weeks ago to take the new organ for a test drive.

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Image "Reversed" color keyboard

Here's where I confess—I was never a big fan of the organ sound. Maybe I just heard one too many bad organs, played poorly.

But seeing Lily at the console, fingers flying, and knowing how many people had contributed to that moment, the hundreds of volunteers, the team at Fisk, Lily, all the way back to JS Bach, sweating over a manuscript 350 years ago. Thousands of elements woven together seamlessly to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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