John breathes new life into old passion

NEW LIFE: Pipe organ enthusiast John Higgins returned to the stool with renewed interest follwoing concert organist Thomas Heywood's inspirational performance at St James Lutheran Church in 2011.
NEW LIFE: Pipe organ enthusiast John Higgins returned to the stool with renewed interest follwoing concert organist Thomas Heywood's inspirational performance at St James Lutheran Church in 2011.

About three years ago John Higgins’ passion for playing music was revived.

Administering the resuscitation was John’s wife, Eliza, whose “gentle encouragement” saw John sitting back at the piano stool after a “dormant” period.

John was raised on a beef cattle farm near Victor Harbor and through his family’s Christian faith was exposed to a range of classical music from a young age.

John’s mother has been a church pianist for as long as he can remember and had a “massive influence” on his music.

John’s early musical studies focused on the piano; however a keen involvement in sport led him to give it up in his late teens.

Years passed, but when renowned Australian concert organist Thomas Heywood played at St James Lutheran Church in 2011, John was awoken from his musical deep sleep. 

John said Heywood’s visit shocked his musical system back into action.

“Things sort of went dormant for a while, but my wife got me back into piano and we saw the Thomas Heywood concert advertised and went there,” he said.

“That was just an absolutely thrilling musical experience in every way.

“The way he plays is just an incredible transmission of life and energy and enthusiasm and feeling; when I heard him play it struck a chord.”

“The way he plays is just an incredible transmission of life and energy and enthusiasm and feeling; when I heard him play it struck a chord.”

John Higgins

Following the concert, John spoke with Heywood who encouraged him to ask around about playing a pipe organ; this spurred John on and realising the need to develop his skills, John sought out coaching support online.

With renewed interest, John discovered Doctor Vidas Pinkevicius, president of the National Association of Organists, and his website which provides training for organists.

John has received ongoing mentoring from Dr Pinkevicius, who is the organist of Vilnius University, Lithuania, and credits his support as the key to his learning.

John attributes his enjoyment of organ music and performance to the support of many friends within the Organ Music Society of Adelaide and the Organ Historical Trust of Australia and is thankful for the generosity of a number of people in Whyalla which has allowed John to practice the pipe organ.

From talking to people in Whyalla, to sending emails to Lithuania, John’s passion has given him a revitalised sense of belonging and led him to discover a community whose members share a unique interest.

Indeed, John said music had the power to unite people; however John said he shared his favourite composer, JS Bach’s belief that “the purpose of all music is for the glory of God and the uplifting of the human spirit”.

John’s first exposure to the pipe organ was at 10 years of age when his grandfather took him to hear Australian tenor Thomas Edmonds perform at Unley Park Baptist Church, accompanied by the pipe organ.

It was an experience that had a profound impression on John and is where the seed for his passion was sown. 

“I’ve got an absolutely crystal clear memory of that event; it was a very, very special occasion because grandpa had organised to take us,” he said.

John recalls creating a school poster of the event for an assignment in the week following, in which he drew a basic stick figure of Edmonds alongside a detailed drawing of the pipe organ, accurate down to the last pipe.

A trained mechanical engineer, John has lived in Whyalla for four years working as a condition monitoring technician at OneSteel, although John often tells people that he is a “machine doctor”.

“That’s what I say to people who don’t understand what I do,” he said.

As an engineer, being interested in how things work is a prerequisite for the job.

John is mechanically-minded and it would be easy to find parallels between his work and interest in pipe organs, complex machines themselves, but for John, pipe organs are different types of machines altogether.

John considers the pipe organ as more of a living organism than machine.

“The movement of air that is creating the sound is something that is living, it’s dynamic; the way that the pipes speak, it isn’t dry and uniform."

John Higgins

“Because it’s a wind instrument the pipe organ has a different sound mechanism to a piano which is a string instrument,” he said.

“The movement of air that is creating the sound is something that is living, it’s dynamic; the way that the pipes speak, it isn’t dry and uniform.

“I’ve always felt that organs area... it’s almost like they’re alive.

“I don’t know how to express that; it’s very difficult to put into words, maybe people who aren’t musical wouldn’t quite appreciate it.”

John said pipe organ music had the ability to connect with people emotionally and that one element that resonated with many people was the bass line, played with the foot pedals

“It produces a deep warm sound that underpins all of the music which gives a warmth and a gravity that can be really touching,” he said.

“The variety of sounds that can be made with a pipe organ has really captivated me.”