One Sunday morning in 2007, Eric McKirdy was standing in the garage of his new home in Albany when he heard pipe organ music.
The house was literally across the street from Albany First United Methodist Church on 28th Avenue Southwest. Local resident Russ Tripp had deeded a portion of his property to the congregation, which explains why the “new” building, built in 1962, is tucked away in a largely residential neighborhood.
McKirdy had grown up in Albany, learned to play the organ, studied music at college and spent some time in the Bay Area during the dot-com era. Now he had returned to his hometown.
He crossed the street and poked his head into the rear of the church, where a service was going on. “I saw pipes for days!” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a pretty cool neighbor.’ Once I determined there was a very competent instrument across the street from me, I asked the pastor, Richard Fuss, permission for practice time, and it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the church.”
Later that year, the church’s regular organist told the pastor he wouldn’t be available to play on Christmas Eve. The pastor asked McKirdy if he’d be interested. As McKirdy remembers it, his reaction was something like “Is the pope Catholic?! Of course I want to play Christmas Eve! That’s like the Holy Grail!”
In early 2008, the organist/choir director position became vacant and McKirdy was hired. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been 12 years,” he said. “It flies by. It doesn’t feel like work.”
McKirdy's love of organ music began at an early age. As a child, he was part of the congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also on 28th Avenue. He became intrigued by the ward's organ “because it was even louder than the piano,” he said. He also watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on television and was impressed by the Tabernacle’s pipe organ, one of the largest in the world. He notes that his great-grandfather, an organist, was one of the few non-LDS organists once allowed to play that organ.
When McKirdy was 14 or so, he took two organ lessons from Nancy Christensen, the organist for the LDS congregation. “We had pretty much covered ‘This is how you turn it on’ when she died,” he said.
Suddenly young McKirdy and another congregation member found themselves picking up the pieces and pitching in to cover organ duty. “The congregation had to endure my learning,” McKirdy said. He listened to recordings of famous organists such as Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs, checking them out from the library or ordering them from the Musical Heritage Society catalogue.
“I started paying attention to good players and what made them good,” he said. “I tried to emulate them.”
McKirdy graduated from West Albany High School in 1995. He played piano accompaniment for the school choirs, which is where he became excited about choral music.
After graduation, he studied music at the University of Oregon, where his organ professor was Barbara Baird. “She didn’t know what to do with me,” McKirdy said. “I was self-taught up to that point and had listened to ‘good’ music, but I was a bit of a puzzle to her.”
“Your playing sounds good,” Baird told him, “but how you’re doing it (producing the sound) is weird.”
“We had to undo and redo some technique stuff,” McKirdy said. “I was making it hard for myself. Turns out less is more; I love it. You have to be about economy of motion.”
He earned a bachelor of music degree and then spent time working in Eugene and in the Bay Area before returning to Albany.
During his tenure at the Methodist church, he has taken the choir on a couple of trips. They visited Ireland in 2016 and England in 2018, tracing the footsteps of John Wesley.
McKirdy has also enjoyed setting up recitals to allow the community to experience the church’s organ, which is the largest in the area, having more than 2,000 pipes.
McKirdy said last year’s Lenten recital series consisted of only two performances — the rest were canceled due to the pandemic. He is now preparing this year’s online recital series, which will take place on six Sundays, starting Feb. 21. Performers include McKirdy, Lisa Boylan, Amy Isted, Beverly Ratajak, Mindy Kleinman and Annette Upton.
It is apparent McKirdy loves his work. No matter what subject you broach with him, the conversation will soon return to pipe organ music.
“The organ intrigues me because of the fact that playing involves three lobes of the brain operating at the same time,” he said. “Most activities we do involve only two lobes. When you play the organ, you’re using your hands, using your feet, reading music and judging how it sounds — all at the same time. Between that and doing crossword puzzles every day, I’m hoping to ward off Alzheimer’s!”
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