GSTOS Member John Baratta Creates Exciting New Organ Program For Young People

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One of the goals of our Society as stated in our by-laws, is to contribute to the musical education and cultural enrichment of the public, and to pass on the tradition of the Theatre Organ to future generations through programs specifically designed for young people.

Enter professional theatre and classical organist, organ teacher, and retired high school band director John Baratta.   If you don’t know him, John is a GSTOS member, a NYTOS member, and an AGO member living in Sussex County. He plays the Wurlitzer at the Lafayette Theatre in Suffern, NY, and until recently played at a theatre in Newton, N.J.  He is also a church musician.  Since retiring from school teaching John has become a man on a mission.  He hopes to expose as many school children in our area to the grandeur of the King of Instruments as possible.  “We all know that interest in organ and organ groups is dying”, says John.  “It’s because nobody is exposing our young people to the instrument we love”. John has recently set a plan in motion to help change all that.

Anticipating this type of mission, John Vanderlee, a New York Theatre Organ Society  board member whose wife is also in public school music education, approached NYTOS about purchasing an electronic “traveling organ”.  The concept is “If you can’t bring the audience to the instrument, bring the instrument to the audience”, says Vanderlee.

With security, insurance, parental permission, and funding issues, it’s very difficult and expensive to take school students on field trips to visit a real pipe organ in a theatre.  The concept of the “traveling organ” solves this problem. 

my turnI'm next

The proposal was met with enthusiasm, and a used Allen 3 manual theatre organ (which also features classical sounds) was located and purchased.  About 2/3 of the funding for the acquisition of the Allen was made possible by receipt of funds paid to NYTOS by ATOS as a result of the settlement agreement concerning the recent ATOS Convention in New York.

Once the organ was purchased, John Vanderlee went to work arranging storage space for it.  He also was able to acquire a battery of utility type organ speakers to show off the sound at its best.  Currently the “Allen Traveling Organ” can be played in several configurations. For smaller rooms, the instrument drives 4 regular organ tone cabinets and 2 special cabinets for low end sounds.  For larger rooms, the number of regular tone cabinets can be increased to 8.  John Vanderlee has become the “equipment guy” and the “perpetual mover” for the project.  He rents a truck or trailer to transport the equipment from the Poughkeepsie, NY area where it is stored, to the various venues where it will be played.  He sets up the instrument at each location, and later dismantles and transports it back to storage.  He has also been the official photographer for the project so far, and has had some of the sessions videotaped. A DVD will be available later this year to help “sell” the program. Funding for the trial programs (moving expenses, etc) has been provided by the AGO.

While John Vanderlee was readying the equipment, John Baratta was honing his plan.  Given his vast experience with middle school and high school youngsters, he felt that the best result would come from a program focused at music students in the public schools. “They are the ones who already have exhibited an interest in music”, says John, “and they are most likely to respond favorably.”  He also felt that his proposed program should be formatted as part of the regular music classroom day, not as special assembly type arrangement.

this is easier than it looksglad i practiced my piano

John drew up his “lesson plans” and put together a cohesive ½ hour live program which exposes the novice to how pipe organs work and what a digital version sounds like playing theatre and classical music.  Students get to handle real pipes and understand a diagram of the parts of a pipe organ.  They hear alternating styles of playing by John, back and forth between theatre and classical. Each song is specifically chosen to demonstrate a concept and to appeal to the youngsters. They learn about stops, pistons, pedalboards, and “those funny shoes I wear”.  They hear about how percussions and effects are added to the mix. They get to understand why theatre organs were invented as unit orchestras for silent movies, and, if time permits, a few kids get to play in front of the class. 

But John Baratta’s concept goes beyond just exposure.  He wants to develop young organists out of this effort.   Therefore he invites anyone interested to come back at the end of the day and try out the Allen individually.  He also lets the students know that he has lists of qualified organ teachers in their area (mostly from AGO), and that transitioning from piano to organ is not that difficult.  His favorite story is about one of his organ students who is 16 years old, and already earning $150 a week playing for one service at a local church “doing something that he loves”.

A trial version of the program was launched in late May.  Schools were chosen because of connections John Baratta and John Vanderlee had in the public school music education community.  At each venue the program was presented to its music students every period of the school day. The first try was in Hyde Park, NY at Roosevelt High School where there is a plan to eventually install a Wurlitzer Pipe organ. The Allen was brought to the school and set up to “play in/out” the audience at their spring musical “Annie Get Your Gun”. With Allen Organ already in place, John Baratta suggested a trial run of the educational program he had conceived. This effort was successful beyond expectations, and set a clear course for the future.  Subsequent programs took place at High Point High School, Sussex County; West Essex High School, North Caldwell; and Kittatinny Regional High School, Newton.

Your editor attended the last of these trial programs at Kittatinny High School on June 12th.   John Baratta was put thru a marathon, as he repeated his program for all 7 periods of the school day.  It is obvious that John knows how to talk to this age group and how to hit their “hot buttons”.  While the reactions by the students were mixed, they listened courteously, and after each program, about 6-10 students would converge on the console to try it out and learn more.

John Baratta is currently putting together statistics, but by any measure, the trial run has been wildly successful.  Over 1,000 teenage musicians have been exposed to the “King of Instruments”.  At every school there have been at least half a dozen inquiries about taking organ lessons.  The AGO leadership in the Poughkeepsie area was dumbfounded to find that 6 of their members had been contacted about teaching organ as a result of this program!

look at all those keyscan i split the keyboard

Not content to rest on his laurels, however, John Baratta has a plan for expansion in the 2007-2008 school year.  A DVD of parts of the trial program is being prepared for presentation to school music faculties.  Endorsements are being solicited from the music staff of the trial schools. A networking effort is being put in place among organists and school music professionals to spread the word.  Ads are being prepared for organ publications to solicit funds to help expand the program.

While dead tired at the end of the day at Kittatinny, John Baratta was all smiles and couldn’t have been happier with the results of his efforts.  John Vanderlee was also beaming. “This is the most satisfying thing I’ve done with organs since getting the Wurlitzer at the Bardavon Theatre going” said he. “It’s great!”

Coincidentally, GSTOS has just been gifted a 3 manual Rodgers Theatre Organ with real glockenspiel and Deagan chimes!  This instrument could conceivably join the Allen, traveling to schools throughout our region.  The program that John Baratta is developing could really be the start of something big, especially if GSTOS and NYTOS can collaborate using two organs.  A program such as this has the potential to reach thousands more youngsters in our region than any of our previous efforts, and it is designed to develop new organists, not just expose youngsters to the organ. That’s why this is such an exciting new venture!

June 26, 2007 Article: John Becica; Photos: John Vanderlee & Tom Stehle