Organist Dominick Abbate

Posted on 21 March 2012


By Claire Walla

At the tender age of 24, the Southampton native is the new organist for the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. He discusses his 10-year career and what it’s like to play the oldest organ on Long Island.

Q: Usually, it seems to be little old ladies who play church organs. It’s quite a contrast to you, who started playing church services when you were just 13.

Yeah, people would be so surprised to see me at the organ in church, and when people saw how little I was, they were like: Wow, that’s incredible that you can do that!

Q: Where did you first start playing?

I was the organist for the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary in Bridgehampton when I was 13. Then I played at the Methodist Church right across the street. It was funny, all my friends were working other jobs in the summer and I was playing the organ year-round. That was my job.

Q: When you went away to college, how did your friends there react when they found out you played the organ?

They were completely baffled. Like, “Why do you play the organ?” But, they were also impressed, because it is a strange talent; not a lot of people play the organ.

Q: Yeah, I imagine it’s kind of a dying art. Have you come across many other young people who play the organ?

No, the majority of organists are older. This is why I thought it was important to get my sister [now a high school junior] to learn to play the organ. I taught her when she was even younger than I was when I learned, because I knew how in demand it was. She’s actually now at the Lutheran Church [in Bridgehampton], and she took over at the Methodist Church when I went to college.

Q: You currently live and work in New Jersey. How did you end up here, as the resident organist for the Old Whalers’ Church?

I came out here to sub for two weeks, and Pastor Mark kind of made a joke about having me full time, then I told him I was looking for full-time work. I had never really considered Long Island because it is such a commute — it takes me about two hours to get out here. But, running everything through my head, it was like: I grew up here, and I could be with my family instead of being in New Jersey. So the combination of everything just worked out.

Q: How did the organ initially make its way into your life?

I started playing the piano when I was around 4. Then, when I was 10, I started taking piano lessons from Ray Duvlas, who was the organist at Southampton Methodist, and he very quickly asked me if I wanted to learn the organ.

Q: Before you began to play, what was your concept of the organ? Was it something that you saw solely as a church instrument?

Yeah, more or less; I really had no concept of it.

Q: You didn’t have visions of the Phantom of the Opera, or anything?

[laughs] No, no, not really. It was just very foreign to me.

Q: Can you explain how an organ works?

For this organ, you have the Swell keyboard and the Great keyboard, and then you have these Stops — [large wooden pegs at the sides of the keyboards] — which all have different sounds. So, for example, if I pull this out… [the notes changed pitch]. And then for every verse you pull out more Stops.

Q: And you have a series of pedals below your feet. What do they do?

You couple them with the keyboard; it’s like adding a bass guitar to a band. That’s what I love about the organ, it’s every instrument: you’re playing flutes and bass…

Q: This is very complicated.

Yeah, it is… Especially on an organ that was built in 1845.

Q: Right, I heard that this is technically the oldest organ on Long Island.

Yeah, it’s really cool. I feel honored to be able to play an instrument like this, which has been maintained for that long — and I think it sounds beautiful.

Q: Because it’s so huge and rather immobile, the pipe organ seems like an instrument that’s integrally linked to the church.

Yeah, it’s not something that you just pick it up and start learning. You really need to have the connections.

Also, there’s the art of playing for a church service. You need to know when to come in on the cues, when to stop playing, what intros to play, when to stop playing. That’s something that I don’t really think can be self-taught, because it’s not just about playing the music, it’s following the methods and the flow of the service.

Q: How long did it take you to figure that out?

A long time! When I first began playing, my teacher would stand behind me with his hands and say: If you falter I’m going to jump in and start playing.

Q: During the service?

Yeah, during the service. I just remember shaking… it took a long time to learn. People in the choir would help me when I first began, because it is really difficult to follow all the cues from the pastor.

Q: Were there ever any moments when you started playing out of turn and it became very awkward?

Yeah, last Sunday!

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