Watching five young musicians gain mastery over their lives, seeing the hard work that goes into preparing for a competition, travelling with them from one city to the next, getting to know them as they try to conquer their fears, and moving ever closer toward the largest prize in the world of international competitive organ playing, makes one thing abundantly clear. Learning to master the organ is like trying to tame a rather large beast.
In Pipe Dreams, the Documentary Channel production that recently debuted at the Hot Docs Canadian international film festival, writer, director and producer Stacey Tanenbaum shatters the stereotype of the king of instruments by pulling back the curtain on the world of organ playing. She gives us a 78 min. peek into the lives of its players, a young, diverse group of extremely focused individuals with well-thought-out plans to achieve their dreams of being the best they can be. Like a right of passage, they must compete to capture the $100,000-plus prize in Canada’s prestigious International Organ Competition (CIOC) the largest purse available in an international organist competition.
We are introduced to the key players one-by-one at the outset of the film in a slow cinematic flow in cathedral buildings. Way up in the rafters, on the level of stained glass windows, where suited bodies make their way to their instruments, fingers press down on manual keys, feet shuffle in slow motion on a pedal keyboard, we meet Yuan Shen, Thomas Gaynor, Alcee Chriss III, Nick Cappozoli and Sebastian Heindl.
We hear the musicians’ voices over the footage as we see them for the first time. A voice that we will later recognize as Shen‘s tells us about the significance of the competition that she has spent her life preparing for. In Chinese-accented English, she says, “it’s like the Olympics for organs.”
Like a reality TV show Tanenbaum takes us deeper into the lives of the select group of five organists from a line-up of the seven shown in the group photo at the beginning of the film. Not all of them will make the final cut but you may find yourself rooting for them by the time the film is over.
We meet 25 year-old Chriss in Montreal, Canada, seated at an organ by himself playing a classical piece that usually calls for an orchestra.
“I usually scare people at competitions,” he says, smiling into the camera. You get the impression that he is conceited but a second later he admits to being scared himself by a number of his fellow musicians.
In Leipzig, Germany, we meet 19 year-old Heindl, the youngest of the group, walking by the statue of Johann Sebastian Bach, past a group of classical musicians in the square outside a large church, which he enters.
He says when he started playing the organ at a very young age he heard phrases like “child prodigy” and “genius” being thrown around and he spent his life trying to live up to those ideals. He, too, seems conceited until the barrier between him and the audience breaks down.
On a landscaped, outdoor garden path between several high-rise complexes in Beijing, China, we meet Shen.
“I think I’m special,” she says, a statement that also carries an element of conceit. But she is special. She is the first Chinese competitor of the CIOC. She also has the ability to make you feel what it’s like to play the instrument, through words.
And you can see the joy in her face as she tries to explain it. “Playing the organ is like a palette of light. You have so many buttons. You push this one and press that one. It can be a lullaby for the baby and also can be the anger of the gods,” says Shen, making movements and forming pictures with her hands.
Shen, who is 31, tells us that her mother apologized to her father because she gave birth to her, a girl. But her father, an electronic organist, who is also her coach, said he was satisfied, and has never made her feel unwanted. Yet she still feels the need to prove herself.
The camera moves between the pews and down the hall toward the pulpit of another cathedral decorated with angelic-looking sculptures on a light-washed balcony and more colourful windows. Here we find Gaynor, a 25 year-old who lives in Rochester, New York. He moved to the US from New Zealand to study with David Hicks. He says he took the journey to train with Hicks because “two of the past three CIOC winners are students of his.”
Gaynor, too, sounds conceited, listing off three other major competitions in different parts of the world that he’s participating in before the CIOC. “I was really hoping that I wouldn’t get into all three. But I did. So now I’m kind of, well, not stuck, but yeah, stuck,” he says, chuckling.
Back to Montreal, to meet 24 year-old Cappozoli who is about to compete in his first international competition. He is practicing in a room with antique wood all around him that looks like a part of a university. He seems grounded but still conceited.
Professor Hans-Ola Ericcson tells us about Cappozoli’s virtues. He “is a very intense musician,” I’ve never had a student with such a high perfection; never.”
Cappozoli is one of Chriss’ main competitors because of his musicality and his focus. They live in the same city where the organ-playing community members would likely know each other.
“I think ultimately I wanna do something crazy,” says Cappozoli.
In his world, something crazy means playing a Nick Cage piece in a competition where most of the participants play traditional classical pieces. Any departure from that would be a risky venture.
Chriss is afraid of being stereotyped as “the Black guy playing jazz on the organ.” On the day of the final round of the competition he looks down and wonders what it will mean for him when the panel of judges are, seemingly, all white. He decides on a ragtime piece. His performance will make your soul dance and tears run down your cheeks.
As we get to know the five competitors well, climb up the rafters on a ladder to tune the flue pipes with Shen, travel to a rural town, Berleson, Texas, where Chriss grew up, to listen to gospel music, chase chickens in the yard with Gaynor, play a random red piano on the street with Cappozoli as he goes home for the holiday, and drink alcohol-free beer with Heindl and his friends, we feel a connection to them. We learn how they stay calm in the face of competition stress, what makes them happy or sad, who in their lives is important to them, how culture in their formative years influence their music, and why they are taking part in the CIOC.
As competition day get closer the organists are still trying to decide what will win the judges over. Shen tries to learn the piece and says, “I finished all the work. Now I need to eat this piece into my body. This piece needs to become part of my blood so I can play from the inside.”
By the end of the film, the competitors say they were just happy they came out alive, with more self-confidence and that they worked hard and played well. So much work goes into getting them to the level where they are, staying up overnight to practice; moving, travelling. It’s hard work but the payoff to following your dreams is happiness. And none of it is possible if you don’t believe in yourself. Sometimes others may see it as being conceited until they get to know you better.