Play Like You’re an Orchestra

May 9, 2010

The third installment of Measured Passion.

Play Like You’re an Orchestra

I don’t remember the first time my parents took me to the Paramount Music Palace on Washington Street in Indianapolis; I only remember wanting to go back.  It was hallowed ground of my childhood.  When I was young it was popular to boot.  No other restaurant I knew had an entry hall that wrapped around the building for the comfort of amusement-park sized crowds that flocked there.

Inside was the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.  The Paramount was a huge, theatre-like space.  But it didn’t seem as though the Wurlitzer was in the building so much as the building was in the Wurlitzer.  The organ pipes were housed in a separate room behind clear shutters that opened with the organist’s volume pedal.  The wall of pipes might have been 75′ wide and 50′ tall.  The console hid down in a sort of orchestra pit until it magnificently spun up to stage level with a four-ranked keyboard and art deco, gilded side panels.

And there was more.  The organist directed a cornucopia of electronic miracles around the palace.  Bubble machines, a disco ball, xylophones, real bells and real whistles.  Automated drum sets bounced on the wall.  Trumpets blasted from the balcony.  One of my favorite effects was the animated marquee-style lighting that danced around the entire restaurant during a big finale, like the last chorus of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

At the center of it all was the organist.  He was a hero and an idol in my young mind.  I wanted to play that organ.  I wanted to build it in my house.  I wanted to have all the gadgets and lights and control the whole thing like some kind of Jules Verne musician-scientist.

Calisthenics on an organ bench don’t appeal to me any more.  But I still have an orchestra in my head each time I play.  Playing a piano, I’m trying to evoke all kinds of other tones and instruments that I hear in the music.  Sometimes I know them from a recording; sometimes they’re just in my head.

When I play the unexpectedly beautiful theme John Williams wrote for Jurassic Park, I feel the warm depth of cellos.  The triumphant final chorus of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked blares trumpets in my mind, even if they don’t come out of my fingertips.  Intimate moments of Les Misérables were often accentuated with gentle guitar arpeggios.  If I weren’t trying to be a timpani player at Christmastime, the knickknacks on my aunts’ pianos might not be so upset.

My efforts at orchestration are both conscious and unconscious.  Try it the next time you play.  How would you play differently in order to emulate a violin? A harp? A glockenspiel?  A human voice?  The piano, of course, is not a chameleon.  But you may hear nuances in your playing that change with this mental trick.  Things you may not even realize you’re doing will add subtle textures to your music.


The Paramount Music Palace was closed and demolished in 1995, much to my dismay.  I spent the years between then and now trying to find where the Mighty Wurlitzer had gone.  In writing this piece, I took another stab at web searching the instrument.  At long last, I found it.  You can find out more at http://www.roaring20spizza.com.  (Please forgive their lowbrow intro music selection.)


One comment

  1. Another Epilogue: I’m planning a trip to Florida. One of my goals was to visit Roaring 20’s Pizza and Pipes. I revisited my link above to find out the address, etc. The web site now says, “Roaring 20’s Pizza and Pipes is no longer in business.” I appear to be starring in my own strange comedy movie involving a globe-trotting hunt for a 1930’s theater organ.

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