Ross Abbott sits at the console of the pipe organ, faced with an array of keys, pedals, buttons and knobs.
Despite the size of this musical instrument, Abbott manages it effortlessly.
He feels what the organ can do and manipulates it to make gorgeous, almost haunting, sounds.
As Abbott explains the different sounds and how he makes them, he handles the machine like an old friend, which it is.
It’s been a 50-year relationship between Abbott and the organ at the historic Bonavista Memorial United Church.
“It’s a gift. It’s a blessing!” says Reverend Amanda Barnes of Abbott’s talent.
“I’ve worked in churches where we didn’t have music, and that was a challenge . . . now I don’t even have to think about that. Ross looks after the music, the junior and senior choirs … he’s a blessing.”
Dozens of choir members, congregation and friends gathered last week to surprise and honour the stalwart church organist.
This summer marks 50 years of his involvement for the church, teaching and helping generations of choir members and organizing all the music for services and other church events.
Abbott walked into the United Church hall on Thursday evening, April 25, thinking it was the typical year-end potluck for the choir.
Instead, he discovered a large crowd ready to honour and celebrate his 50-year milestone, with presents and cake.
The 67-year-old organist says he began with the church for the morning services in August 1969.
Abbott told The Packet says he still enjoys everything about the choir and church, not even thinking about the longevity or amount of time it takes to do each week.
“There’s been a lot of changes over the years,” he said.
He started studying music fairly young, taking about a year and a half of piano lessons and learning the organ on his own.
“I love the organ and being able to play the different voluntaries. I go up Sunday mornings to practice.”
He still remembers being very young when he bought his own organ. His dad co-signed the purchase.
Over his career, he was also involved with the Newman’s Cove choir for 27 years, and played the music for countless weddings and funerals.
Today, Abbott shares his music with the wider world; playing and recording hymns on social media.
He has an extensive collection of video of many of his past choir members and students — of whom he is very proud.
And the surprise of the 50th anniversary event went unspoiled, as Abbott admits he had no idea it was going on.
“It feels great … I didn’t catch on.”
Elizabeth Reynolds was one of the organizers of the surprise. She’s been a senior choir member for 21 years and, like so many others, has had her daughter sing in choir with Abbott as well.
“(We wanted) to show our appreciation for all the work he does,” says Reynolds. “Without him, we wouldn’t have the choir we’ve got. He’s everything for that choir. He keeps us on our toes.”
Some of the other choir members have even been with Abbott for as long as they can remember.
Senior choir member Shirley Stagg says she can recall singing the very first song she sang with Abbott. And while she still remembers, “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam” Stagg laughed as she declined to perform it at last week’s event.
Another choir member, Brenda Monks, cracked some jokes with Abbott and revealed she was one of his very first music students in 1970. Abbott gave lessons for nearly 45 years in addition to the work with the choir and as organist in church.
Monks couldn’t contain her laughter when she said although it wasn’t indicative of his skill as a teacher, she laughs, “It’s a wonder he ever had another student!”
Choir member Beverly Fisher had two daughters in junior choir and remarked on all the positive effects Abbott has had on generations of young people.
She says it wasn’t just the ability to play piano or organ or sing in the right key which he taught.
“It wasn’t just music. Ross gave kids confidence.”
And as the snow began to fall outside, the appreciation, storytelling, applause — and good-natured laughter — rose within the hall.
Rev. Barnes’ son and husband are also amongst the multi-generational collection of those with Abbott, they’re in the junior and senior choirs respectively.
“We need to honour those people who share their gifts and are involved in this ministry,” she says.
“Our fear was when Ross hit 50 years he would retire (but) we haven’t had any talk of that yet.”
Abbott says he doesn’t have any intention to retire anytime soon. And that’s just fine for the congregation of Memorial United Church, who, as Rev. Barnes says, could not imagine a time without him leading their music.
“We want to give him the flexibility if he wants to go for vacation, but we’re really hoping he doesn’t go yet because he has a lot of music left in him.”
A memorable first time playing
Asked about one of his favourite memories, Ross Abbott says he’s collected many. But he still remembers vividly his very first Sunday in the church, up in the choir loft, sitting at the organ at 10:55 a.m., waiting to begin.
He says, back in those days, the junior choir filled the gallery, adorned with burgundy gowns and cute little beanies on their heads.
On his first morning as the organist in the church in the summer of 1969, however, the small key to the organ was safety pinned to a strip of leather alongside the bench.
Abbott recalls his horror as the key, which was no bigger than that for a diary, was dropped and bounced down between the pedals of the organ, out of sight.
Abbott chuckles when he remembers how he and several of the young choir members had to search along the floor, reaching to try to find the key which would give him access to the organ’s keys.
Finally—and thankfully—as the entire congregation was waiting, Abbott says Willis Hicks approached with a, “What seems to be the hold up?”
And with a single jolt, Hicks ripped the top off the organ’s roll-top cover, breaking the lock and mercifully allowing the service to begin.
Abbott adds a brand-new lock and key for the organ was in place by the following Sunday’s morning service.