On Teaching

May 5, 2015

Gavin Black studied formally with Paul Jordan in 1973–74, and informally from summer 1968 through early 2015. Gavin first publicly performed on a keyboard instrument when Paul invited him to play the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the Valentine’s Day service at United Church on the Green in February 1974. You can reach Gavin by e-mail at [email protected].

Paul Jordan

March 12, 1939–March 1, 2015


An appreciation

As I was preparing this month’s column, I received news that my former teacher, mentor, colleague, and lifelong friend Paul Jordan had died after a lengthy illness. I decided to use this column to write about Paul: an appreciation made up of anecdotes, memories of things that he said or did when he was my formal teacher or over the many years following, and my impressions of what he was like as a musician and especially as a person and a friend. This is neither an obituary nor a biography. I don’t want to create a comprehensive version of Paul’s life story, and I wouldn’t be able to. Even though I knew him well for nearly fifty years, there is a lot about that story that I don’t know. That is the way with life, of course: you never get around to everything, and you never know when you will wish that you had. This will be quite personal and idiosyncratic to me and to my connection with one of the very most important people in my own life. 

I met Paul Jordan in the summer of 1968 at Chestnut Hill Creative Arts Center, a summer camp in Killingworth, Connecticut, near New Haven where I grew up. At that point I had been taking piano lessons for three years, but had just decided to switch to bassoon. I had always assumed that piano lessons were only a preliminary activity: a way of learning about music prior to choosing an orchestral instrument. I remember how excited I was when, as we were heading to camp on the bus one day, another camper said that she thought that one of the counselors played organ in a New Haven church. I believe I had been saying something about how I played piano and liked Baroque music, and this led the fellow camper to suggest that I might want to try out an organ. It is not too much to describe that specific moment as the beginning of my life as an organist. I owe it to the camper, and I owe the way it worked out to Paul. 

When I tracked down the counselor/organist I had been told about and asked him about the church and the organ, he expressed how happy he would be to introduce me to the instrument. At the time this seemed like an act of unfathomable generosity, and it felt like the opening of the doors to mysteries, complexities, and joys that I wouldn’t have dared to dream about. That was the perspective of an eleven-year-old who had scarcely ever been inside a church, had never played an organ, and was not too comfortable talking to people he didn’t already know. It’s not just Paul agreeing to let me visit United Church on the Green and play the Hillebrand organ that made an impression: it was his particular combination of the matter-of-fact and the enthusiastic. Looking back on it, I think that he was conveying the message that I (a youngster whom he didn’t know at all and who couldn’t play) was “worthy” to come a play a fine new instrument. That was a message powerful enough to resonate across nearly half a century.

This is also the essence of what was extraordinary about Paul over his whole life. He was excited and enthusiastic about what he was doing—sometimes with a kind of spontaneous joy that we might describe as childlike, or at least as not having lost the best of the attitudes of childhood—and he was very positive that what he was doing was important, and that his doing it was important. But he also radiated the belief that each and every person was important and that no one was on the outside: of course, if you want to come play the organ you should come play the organ.

The fact that it was Paul and the organ that he had designed for United Church that I encountered first steered my tastes and interests in a certain direction. If, living in New Haven, I had first discovered the famous Woolsey Hall instrument, would I have grown up musically in a very different direction? Of course, I don’t know: there are always multiple influences. As it actually happened, though, the first organ at which I ever sat was the United Church Hillebrand. In showing me this organ and letting me come to the church and get to know the instrument extremely well—and largely on my own over several years, before I finally started taking lessons—Paul was sharing something that was a close extension of himself. The instrument was there because of his time studying in Germany with Helmut Walcha and because of his eloquence and persuasiveness in convincing the church that this was the specific organ they should get. Paul was a principal designer of the instrument, and the stoplist reflected some of his ideas, such as the importance of the Quintadena, the beauties of the Regal, the importance of flute-scaled 223 and 2 on the Great, the value of a 513 in the Pedal, and so on (the organ has undergone some redesign over the years). What he referred to as the “chamber-music quality” of all of the reeds also reflected his tastes. 

That Regal was the source of another lesson that has stayed with me—a lesson about diversity of tastes. The impression that I got from Paul over many years was that he had strong and decided tastes and opinions about how things should be in music—with respect to organs and organ design, matters of interpretation and aesthetics, and so on—and had a real delight in different people seeing things in different ways. In those olden days, I was a boy soprano in the choir at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven—two churches away from United Church, with Center Church in between. The organist and choir director there was G. Huntington Byles. Mr. Byles, as we called him, had been there since the mid 1930s and had studied in Europe—especially in England and in the English tradition—in the years prior to that. He was an august figure who exuded knowledge, experience, and tradition. One day Paul was demonstrating the Hillebrand Regal for me—it was (and remains in my memory) an absolute favorite of mine, and clearly was of his. At one point he gave a wry smile and said “Now that sound wouldn’t be to Mr. Byles’s taste.” A simple thing, but one of my first introductions to the notion that the things that I (or “we”) liked or thought or believed were not universal—and to the notion that that was OK. 

Another time, probably around the summer of 1973, I had attended a few lectures and workshops at which some extremely new ideas about Baroque articulation and rhythm were being expounded. These ideas revolved around non-legato and the use of articulation to create meter-based patterns of stress or accentuation. At that stage, largely through Paul’s influence, but also through my own listening, I was a real devotee or disciple of Helmut Walcha, and I was disturbed by what I heard at these events. I told Paul the story of all of this one evening sitting in his office at United Church. I expressed a kind of urgent frustration that these teachers and the students they were trying to influence didn’t seem to know how much more powerful Walcha’s approach was. I thought that if they listened to his recordings, they would see how wrong they were. Paul smiled (as he always did) and said, “You know, they think that what they’re doing is right. They like it better.” I couldn’t fathom that, but it planted a seed that helped me to grow out of a youthful zealot’s pigheadedness.

As the years went by, I actually became more receptive than Paul did to some of the new ideas (or, new/old ideas) about Baroque articulation, timing, fingering, and so on, which gained currency in and after the early 1970s. The details of my own aesthetic as a performer diverged from his. This is natural: neither his approach nor mine was static. There were times when I was afraid that Paul would dislike or disapprove of some performance or recording of mine. In allowing myself to experience that fear, I was doing him an injustice. When I sent him a copy of my organ recording for PGM—around 1997—I did so with more than a little trepidation. He was enthusiastic in his praise of the CD, and wrote my parents a long, heartfelt letter about what an accomplishment he thought it was, and how proud and pleased both he and they ought to be.

More recently—in fact, only a month or so ago—I sent Paul some informal recordings that I had made that included the three Bach settings of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland from the Leipzig Chorales. He phoned me after listening and said nice things about the performances—also, from his perspective of having known me and my playing for decades, expressing a bit of surprise at the extroverted quality of some of the playing. Then he said that he had some questions (maybe the word was “concern”) about my agogics in the first of the three settings (BWV 559). I laughed and said, “I thought that you might,” and we agreed that we would follow up and talk about that some time later. We never did.

I want to quote something that I wrote in my column in The Diapason from August 2008, about a brief but very salient incident that occurred during the time in the early 1970s when I was taking formal lessons with Paul:

Early on in the time when I was studying organ with Paul Jordan—probably in about 1973—I was trying to play a short piece for him. Whenever I made a wrong note, I hesitated, or stopped, or tried to go back. Paul said to me that I should always know before I started a passage whether I was, on the one hand, playing it, or, on the other hand, drilling it. If the former, then I should be utterly committed to keeping it going, never breaking rhythm, always thinking about the next thing, not worrying about what just happened. If the latter, then I should know in advance what bit of the music I was drilling, and indeed go back and repeat it as many times as I needed to, but on purpose, not as a result of letting myself be derailed. This brief comment was, I believe, the source of at least half of my own ability to practice effectively and to perform, and to help others learn how to do the same.

Paul was a fine countertenor and sang with the New York Pro Musica led by Noah Greenberg. Paul once told me that while Greenberg didn’t think that Paul’s voice was appropriate for solos, he noticed that it could help other sounds to blend. That is, if Paul’s voice were added to the voices of two other countertenors, his voice would help the other two sounds to cohere. He related this directly to organ registration, and thus taught me something about how to listen to the effect of adding or taking away stops: not just “What does it sound like?” but also “What does this change do to the structure and behavior of the sound?”

A brief summary of Paul’s work and career would go like this: he was an organist, pianist, harpsichordist, composer, conductor—both orchestral and choral—church musician, writer (who published in The Diapason and elsewhere), translator (of, for example, the prefaces to Helmut Walcha’s chorale preludes), organ designer, teacher, singer, and a recorder virtuoso unsurpassed by any, and equaled by few. 

Paul came to New Haven—initially to study at Yale, then to serve as organist and choir director at United Church—at the same time when my own conscious memories begin to be plentiful. I was born and raised in New Haven, so it always seemed to me that we grew up in the same time and place, and the same community: I was growing up as a child, Paul was growing up as a young musician and teacher. In any case, we had a shared sense of the New Haven of those days, and a shared love for it. We knew and remembered, each from his own perspective, many of the same people, places, and events. Paul always seemed to feel that everything and everyone was important and worthy of respect, and thus he remembered and delighted in remembering things from the past that might have seemed peripheral to his life: things that happened in my family, among people I knew, or in communities (the Law School where my parents taught, or a school I attended) that were not a central part of his everyday life but were of mine. I realized that, among people who were not members of my immediate family, Paul felt most to me like someone who was, and being with him felt most like being with my family and connected to my origins and upbringing. This greatly colors the way—ways—in which I miss him.