By Joseph Kellard
One wears worn, special dance-like shoes so he can shift his feet on the pedals more easily. The other, nearly six decades his junior, doffs his dress shoes to play in his socks. But while Dr. Denis Nicholson, 77, and Andrew Clavin, 19, prefer different footwear, they share a passion for the organ.
Nicholson has been the head organist at St. Ignatius Church, on West Broadway, since the Kennedy administration. Clavin earned the same title at St. Mary of the Isle Church across town last September. While the two men do not know each other, both said they prefer the organ to the piano, and both offered the same explanation why.
“The organ is a much more colorful instrument,” Nicholson said after playing at a recent Sunday Mass. “With all the different possible combinations of sound, you can more or less orchestrate the music.”
Calling the organ “the king of instruments,” Clavin said, “There’s just so many sounds and registrations to it.”
Nicholson plays a three-keyboard electric Rogers organ that overlooks the St. Ignatius sanctuary from its perch in the choir loft. He presses large buttons, called stops, that light up as they feed the organ’s mix of sounds, from flutes to violins to oboes. The console of his instrument bespeaks a musician at home in his element, with stacks of well-thumbed sheet music, a dusty lamp and a strategically placed mirror that he uses to get his cues from Msgr. Donald Beckmann on the altar below.
When Nicholson, a still-practicing internist in his West Penn Street home office, sets his stethoscope aside, he’s likely at St. Ignatius, whether practicing with the choir on Friday evenings, accompanying the choir at Sunday masses or preparing for the church’s seasonal concerts, such as Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmastime.
At a recent Sunday noon Mass, as always, Nicholson played his favorite Renaissance and Baroque pieces. “Those composers knew how to write for the human voice,” he said.
As worshipers filled the main aisle below, receiving Communion, he led the choir through “Prayer for Jesus.” Later, as the service ended and as congregants filed out of the church, Nicholson and the choir began “Take Up Your Cross.”
The music he plays, Nicholson said, is tied to his spirituality. He fondly quoted St. Augustine: “He said, ‘He who sings prays twice.’”
Across town at St. Mary’s, Clavin plays a two-keyboard Allen electric that stands beside the altar. In contrast to Nicholson’s clutter, Clavin’s instrument bears just a bottle of Poland Spring and a few song books he used during a recent Sunday noon service. At one point, his cell phone vibrated, and he padded off in his socks to a back room to take the call.
The cantor was absent that day, and Clavin has no choir, so he led the hymns himself, summoning his best baritone. He played “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” a hymn based on Psalm 90, and, being that it was Lent, his recessional hymn was “Lord, Who Throughout These 40 days.”
In the past four years, Clavin has played at a number of congregations in and around his native New Hyde Park and beyond. He carries a business card and isn’t shy about handing it out. Last year, through a recommendation, St. Mary’s asked him to play at a funeral. He was later invited to play at all of the church’s funerals, weddings, and weekend services.
Nicholson, too, got off to an unusually early start as an organist, playing for the first time at St. Ignatius when he was 17. He grew up in Manhattan, visited Long Beach with his family each summer and sang in the St. Ignatius choir before playing the parish’s original pipe organ at Sunday Masses.
From 1957 to 1960, Nicholson served in the U.S. Public Health Service and was stationed in Boston, but he drove to Long Beach each weekend to perform at St. Ignatius. “This is where I used to come and worship, but I also love the acoustics in this church — they’re tremendous,” he said. “I’ve sung in many other places, but the acoustics here are unreal.”
The day after he finished his medical residency at a Bronx VA hospital in 1963, Nicholson moved to Long Beach, opened a practice and has been working — and playing at St. Ignatius — ever since. Among his most memorable performances with the choir was a 9/11 ceremony a few years after the attacks, when they performed Brahms's “Requiem.”
Clavin’s experience is measured not in years, but in the many places of worship he has played. What distinguishes St. Mary’s? “It’s a very homey parish,” he said.
His parents bought him a keyboard when he was 9, and he taught himself to play after Sunday church services. Now he’s learning piano as well, but not because he is switching allegiance. A sophomore liberal arts major at Nassau Community College, he is studying piano to help him with his music-reading skills.
And while not settled on a career just yet, he is certain where he wants to go musically. “I definitely want to see myself playing organ for the foreseeable future,” he said.
* This story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald in 2009.