Spotlight on Keyboard Concerts: Nicole Keller will give the Lyles Pipe Organ a musical workout

People jabber all the time about the amazing coordination of professional athletes. Sure, they’re very talented. And they make the big bucks.

But have you ever watched a professional organist play a pipe organ?

They can be playing with their hands on two, three or even four keyboards at the same time. In between they manipulate dozens of “stops” to open and close the individual pipes. They use their feet on a pedalboard, which is like another keyboard that typically consists of 30-32 notes.

Plus they have to read the music, consider tempo and volume, and monitor the sound to adjust to the acoustics of the room.

For Nicole Keller, who performs 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, as part of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series, the dexterity is part of her routine.

“It’s an extra added component of coordination that you need to have,” she says.


I was able to chat with her for a few minutes on Friday after her rehearsal session in the Fresno State Concert Hall. Here are some highlights from our talk:

She started her musical journey as a pianist: Her mother and grandmother were church organists, and throughout her childhood, Keller resisted the idea of playing the same instrument. She enrolled as a piano major at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Berea, Ohio, but family tradition became too hard to resist. “I took organ as a secondary instrument and had a really good teacher. She saw some promise in me and pushed me pretty hard, and by the end, I was doing just as much work on the organ as I was on the piano. And then I met who would become my graduate school teacher, David Higgs, and played a master class for him, and I really hit it off with him. And I really liked his approach to things and decided maybe I’ll try this for graduate school. So I did.” (She ended up going to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester; she now teaches at the University of Michigan.)

Her first thoughts on the Elizabeth Lyles Pipe Organ in the Concert Hall: “It’s a wonderful instrument. Martin Ott, the builder, I know him. It’s a mechanical action instrument, which I love. There’s a direct connection between the keys, and how the mechanism of the pipe works, which to me is very much like playing the piano or playing the harpsichord. I have direct control over how fast I open the pipe and how fast I close the pipe, which controls the beginning of the sound and the end of the sound. It gives me much more control over the sound, which is more fun for me as a musician.”

The first half of the program: It fits this organ really well, because it’s a Baroque-style instrument, she says. “So I’m opening with some Buxtehude, a German composer. And then moving to some Sweelinck, a Baroque composer from the Netherlands, and then ending the first half with some Bach.”

The second half of the program: It opens with Mendelssohn, another familiar name. Then, Keller says, she makes a big jump to composer George Shearing, which is another familiar name because of his association with jazz – but not so much the organ. “He was very interested in early American hymn tunes. So I’m playing two settings that he wrote for organ of early American hymn tunes that actually, though hundreds of years apart, work really well on this Baroque-style instrument.”

And there’s more: She will play a small set of pieces by Florence Price, a Black composer who died in the middle of the 20th century. “Her music has a lot of color and flavor in it. She did a lot of accompanying silent movies, and she wrote jingles for advertising. So you can kind of hear the pop style of that time and that music as well.”

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The most spectacular place she’s ever played in: Notre Dame in Paris.

On the importance of the American Guild of Organists, whose San Joaquin Valley chapter is co-sponsoring the Keyboard Concerts event: She’s been a member since she was a student, and she’s active at the national level on the nominating committee. “It’s a really important organization, not just for education for students, but I think for the organ itself and keeping the organ visible and relevant in many, many ways.”

For an organ newbie, what is a piece that could turn someone on to the instrument? (Besides the Bach Toccata and Fugue): Try for something a little modern, she says. A good pick is Calvin Hampton’s “Five Dances for Organ.”


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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