It felt like being hit by a bus.
The massive Fisk organ at Oberlin University loomed over Organist and Assistant Choirmaster Glenn Stroh as he learned of his friend and colleague’s death.
She died instantly in a car wreck. No chance to say goodbye.
Despite this swirling blend of emotions, Stroh still needed to put on a recital to meet his graduation requirements.
But instead of letting his emotions cripple his music, Stroh played with a purpose he’d never felt before.
In the range of the concert, sorrow, anger, calmness and joy flowed through Stroh and out of the organ. Memories of the good times mixed with the pain of present.
Everything was clicking, and to Stroh it seemed like he was “in a state of nirvana.”
Stroh’s exceptional playing led him across the Atlantic to Germany and introduced him to teachers like Dr. David Heller, chair of the music department at Trinity College and the recitalist for the school’s organ dedication January 11, 2015.
“He’s a really great musician,” Stroh said. “I studied with him at Trinity. One of the big concerts that I gave in Germany, David Heller came to visit for that concert. That’s the type of teacher he is. He came over to Europe and supported me.”
Stroh started playing organ in seventh grade, taking up the instrument at a local church.
“I grew up in a small town in central Texas,” Stroh said. “It’s called Marion, population 984. And basically, in a little church there was an old lady who had carpel tunnel syndrome. She had to stop playing, and they needed someone.”
He knew how to play piano, but the organ was an entirely new instrument and new challenge.
“So I faked my way through it for a while until I was like, ‘Wow, I can make a pretty big noise with this,’” Stroh said. “Its nothing like a piano. I reached out to some people and had organ lessons and got started that way. I really had no idea what I was doing. I still have no idea what I’m doing.”
Despite the difficulties of learning a new instrument, Stroh developed into a talented artist.
“A lot of people play guitar and a lot of people play piano,” Stroh said, “but the organ was this unique thing that was always interesting, even if it wasn’t really a career to me.”
Initially, however, Stroh’s motives for playing the organ were slightly different.
“I was young and I got a paycheck,” Stroh said. “So I was like, ‘Oh my goodness this is great. I can go buy videogames.’ I was an eighth grader. I did do it for the money.”
Stroh progressed from playing at a local church to playing at universities, including Trinity College in San Antonio and Oberlin University in Ohio.
“I started out by going to San Antonio, which was the closest major city to where I was and playing in the university and churches around there,” Stroh said. “I went to undergraduate school there and that transformed into an opportunity in Vienna. From that to Oberlin. That’s where I really started to explode.”
Oberlin University has the oldest continuously operating conservatory for music in the world.
“I found myself with people that were incredibly talented and focused,” Stroh said. “Not to say, there are bright people at Trinity too, but [at Oberlin] it’s just ultra competitive and music is everyone’s focus.”
After his time at Oberlin, Stroh traveled to Germany to study music, giving him an opportunity to play organs over a century old.
“It was really cool to be interacting with that and making music through those instruments,” Stroh said. “It’s not just a piece of furniture that’s a few centuries old, you’re hearing what it sounded like when Bach was sitting down and writing music.”
Now Stroh has an opportunity to play on another great organ, the new, multi-million dollar Létourneau organ in the chapel.
“For most of the history of the school,” Stroh said, “there’s been talk about the dream of having something more substantial for the choir and the chapel that really can support the music that they want to do.”
Organ consultant David Heller worked extensively with former Eugene McDermott Headmaster Arnie Holtberg, Eugene McDermott Headmaster David Dini and Stroh to find the perfect organ for our chapel.
“It had to be an instrument that could accompany a choir,” Heller said. “It had to accompany choral voices and a wide variety of voices. It needed to support hymn singing, and it had to be able to play some of the repertoire. But the primary need was a choral accompaniment.”
Heller, who has played around the world in places like France, England, and South Korea, will be the recitalist for the dedication in January.
“Organ building isn’t simply just putting things together,” Heller said. “It really is a work of art in the way that it is architecturally designed.”
During the dedication, Heller will play the organ and talk about the various pieces of the instrument as well as all of those who worked on the organ.
“Without the donors, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Stroh said. “[The dedication] is a way of saying thank you for that and celebrating all of that time that went into the organ.”
Donors, board members and faculty members from both past generations and today all contributed to the completion of this massive project.
“It’s humbling to work here and it’s challenging in a good way,” Stroh said. “It’s just a tremendous community to be a part of. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than here.”