By Lori Gottula
David von Behren placed his foot on the organ pedals, slid his fingers across the warm slick keys, then moved into position for the first chord of Franz Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on BACH.
“This is just like every other pipe organ you’ve ever played,” David said to himself. He took a deep breath. The aroma of the church was musty, but in a comforting way. Like a rare, antique book.
He looked up at the rich, gold façade of the organ. His heart pounded. Goosebumps popped on his skin. The truth was, this wasn’t just like every other organ he had ever played. This was the organ at La Madeleine Cathedral in Paris, France.
It was the summer of 2014, and David had traveled to Europe with six members of the Harvard Organ Society, and the group’s instructor, Christian Lane. Although David was a freshman at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Professor Lane had invited him to join The Society on a two-week trek across Europe, to see and play some of the world’s most-renowned organs. The one at which David sat was the tour’s top prize.
Built in 1845, the organ had been maintained in exquisite original condition. In addition, Franz Listz, considered by many to be the greatest keyboardist in history, had first played his original composition on that very organ! The same song that David was about to play!
David pressed down on the keys. The deep rich chords rippled through the air, and filled every inch of the cathedral. He felt the 32-foot pipes rumble. The sound seemed to float around the room.
Suddenly, joy consumed him. He felt like he was in heaven.
“I love that feeling,” von Behren said in a recent telephone interview, “The feeling of being surrounded by angels who sing along while I play the most beautiful music imaginable. Sacred organ music. It was that feeling that led me to decide on a career in the music ministry.”
David had known from age four—when he started piano lessons with his mother, Glenda von Behren—that music would be the center of his life. (Glenda is a preschool teacher here in Falls City, and teaches private piano lessons on the side.) His mom and paternal grandfather instilled in him, and his brother, Timothy, a passion for music. Unlike other kids David’s age, he couldn’t wait to practice.
By the time he was seven years old, von Behren was taking violin lessons, too, and performing in front of crowds on both instruments. He loved the excitement of performances, but still, something was missing. People just didn’t seem as passionate about classical music as he was. Especially kids. And that made him feel different. Weird. Unaccepted.
His mom and dad did everything they could to help him foster his passion for music, but they still believed he needed to do “normal” kid things like sports and 4-H. He enjoyed public school but deep down inside, couldn’t wait for the evening, so he could practice. In fifth grade, he added voice, trumpet, and organ lessons to his music schedule. When his hunger for music out-grew his mom’s available time, she very graciously connected him with progressively- talented instructors and delegated his grandmother to drive him to out-of-town lessons.
He continued to perform, too, and by the time he was in the seventh grade, was also playing the organ for a church here in town. Regardless of the instrument that he played, he felt weightless, passionate, and moved when he performed. The audience members seemed to enjoy it, too, but as they walked out, most returned to the same stoic, gotta-get-the-kids-in-bed, rush, rush, rush attitudes.
“I wanted my music to change people,” David said. “And I wanted other kids to feel as passionately about it as I did.”
But the few who seemed to be moved were adults. So David continued to feel alone. By his eighth-grade year, he had figured out that, to find others like him, he was going to have to travel outside of his comfort zone. He started competing in music contests, and attending summer camps across the Midwest. On a whim, he sent a taped audition to one of the best-known music camps in the country, Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan.
“I was floored when I was accepted,” he said. “When I attended, I found kids who were just like me—passionate about music. However, I also found them intimidating. Most of them attended music preparatory schools. Some played in school orchestras, and took private lessons with college professors or orchestra principals.”
Not only that, but they were rich, and hailed from big cities like New York, Chicago, even Tokyo. “I thought I could never compete with kids like that!” he said.
But when he got home from Interlochen, he decided not to give up that easily. He started taking violin lessons with (the late) Margaret Kew of Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and piano lessons with (the late) Dr. Thomas Ediger of Peru State College. He continued a daunting practice schedule, while trying to maintain his “normal kid” life.
“I socialized with my classmates, and participated in school activities like cross country, track, show choir and speech team. However, as soon as I got home, I closed my bedroom door and disappeared into the worlds of Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin.”
The practices and local performances filled him up emotionally. But still, he couldn’t find the joy for which he had long searched. He wanted so desperately to find that one moment that made him say, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
The summer after his sophomore year, he experience two of those moments.
The first was in Lincoln. von Behren had started taking organ lessons from Tom Trenney, music director at a church in Lincoln a few months earlier. Tom had invited him to attend a service where he was playing organ and conducting the choir. One Sunday, David went. His instructor played with a dignified grace, but also with passion. The choir members sung out joyfully. The congregants swayed to the beat. Their faces lit up. They were changed. It was the same feeling that David felt when he played the piano, violin, or organ. It was the same feeling for which he had searched since I was a little boy. A connection with other souls, and with God.
The second moment occurred when he attended his first Pipe Organ Encounter in Colorado. (POEs areaudition-based organ seminars which are held annually around the United States and are conducted by some of the most noted organists in the world.) David was one of 12 students accepted for the week, and his organ instructor was Dr. Joseph Galema, organist at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. When David entered the chapel of the Air Force Academy, he was struck by the symbolic beauty of the room – the breathtaking stained glass, and a cross at the front of the church that was formed by two perpendicular airplane propellers. He sat near the organ throughout one of the performances, and as he looked out over the audience, watched wide-eyed as people were transformed by the music. Then it came time for him to play. His instructor moved over on the organ bench, and motioned for him to play his piece – Widor’s Toccata from Symphony No. 5. As he played, the “voices” of the organ rose in harmony, and he was transported to God’s kingdom. He knew then that playing sacred music was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He wanted a career in the music ministry.
“After that moment, I began studying the organ with intensity,” David said. “I started auditioning for the best music camps, and for Pipe Organ Encounters across the country. My family made sacrifices so that I could travel.”
He was accepted to two more POEs. One was at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, IN, and the other at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he studied with none other than Christian Lane of Harvard.
“Also that summer, I was honored to perform in El Paso, Texas, as part of National Public Radio’s From the Top series,” David said.
After David played the organ in that concert, he was awarded the Stereotype Smasher award, because he, an organist who planned to study for the music ministry, had been elected homecoming king at Falls City High. Talk about smashing a stereotype!
As part of NPR’s series, David also received the Jack Kent Cooke award, which came with a $10,000 stipend that allowed him to travel to auditions for music conservatories across the country. He auditioned for seven programs, and was accepted by all of them, including Julliard in New York City. He chose the Cleveland Institute of Music because the intimate setting felt like high school, and the organ instructor, Todd Wilson, acted like a down-to-earth friend. To David, that spoke volumes.
Today, David is a sophomore at CIM, studying organ performance, and music theory. He practices for seven to eight hours a day, and also works as assistant music director at the First Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, OH, near Cleveland. In addition, he has had the honor of presenting organ concerts across the country, and in his adopted hometown of Cleveland.
This Sunday, April 18, he will play at Chamberfest Cleveland’s Verve Gala, accompanying grammy-winning recording artist, Frank Cohen, the principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra.
But David will always remember the summer of 2014, when he sat at the organ at Le Madeleine Cathedral in Paris, and felt like he was surrounded by angels.
“It was then that I knew I had made the right decision,” he said. “To help others connect to God through the gift of music. And to feel the joy of heaven every day, through song.”