As a child, Mark Babcock ’91 would throw a fit if his family didn’t sit on the “organ side” of the church. He would beg to sit in the aisle so that he could see the organist’s feet as they worked the giant pedals. Just a few years ago, as he looked through his grandmother’s keepsakes after she passed away, Babcock, now associate professor of music at Central, found an old drawing he had made of that church organ.
Babcock was able to take both piano and organ lessons as a child, practicing on the organ in his grandmother’s house. As a sophomore in high school, he began playing every Sunday at a local church. By the time he was a senior, he would rush from one service to play at another across town.
Babcock has come a long way from that little boy sitting rapt in the aisle as the organ boomed. In June, at Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, Babcock directed a choir in front of 1,000 people during the opening event of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) convention, which he also chaired. “That opening processional was really a high,” Babcock says. “As a performer, you have to keep your wits about you. But the energy in the room, the sound of 1,000 voices singing along with brass and organ and handbells — it was so exhilarating.”
Organists in Iowa
The AGO is a professional organization for organists and choral musicians, encompassing academics, church musicians and organ enthusiasts. The Region VI convention, which was held throughout Des Moines and Pella June 20-23, had 250 full-time registrants and involved over 4,000 people in central Iowa. “At every evening performance, we had to either set up chairs or turn people away,” says Babcock.
The convention, the first in the area in 50 years, included workshops and clinics for registrants to hone their skills. They held choral reading sessions, learned how to fix a broken organ and practiced the handbell. The budget for the entire convention was over $300,000. “Things like this don’t happen very often in Des Moines,” says Babcock. “Most of the musical power players in central Iowa were connected with it.”
Babcock hoped the convention would spark enthusiasm in the community for two of his great loves. “People who encounter the organ for the first time are wowed by it,” Babcock says, “especially the fact that it can make tiny high pitches and 32-foot-tall low pitches — all from one person sitting down to play it.” But as director of choral activities at Central, Babcock also has a special place in his heart for the choral arts, especially the use of text to tell a story.
Babcock’s goal from the beginning was for the convention to make a mark on central Iowa. In addition to the opening Hymn Festival, highlights included Brahms’ Requiem at St. John’s Basilica in Des Moines, which attracted nearly 1,000 people, and a gala reception at the Art Center. Babcock says attendees kept approaching him to say, “This is the best organ party we’ve ever seen.”
The Right People
That kind of success takes a lot of planning. Three years ago, the Des Moines Convention and Visitor’s Bureau asked Babcock, then the dean of the local AGO chapter, to submit an application for the 2011 convention. After it was accepted, Babcock trained at the AGO’s national office in New York, learning how to secure venues and performers, build a budget, generate grants and manage marketing.
Babcock knew he couldn’t do it alone. “I was willing to chair because I felt that our chapter had those right committee members,” he says. Four of the seven were Central alumni, and several more alums performed and presented during the convention, including vocal soloist Terri Crumley ‘89, Central’s director of development.
Over 20 Central students and recent grads were involved, too. Ten percent of registrants were students, which Babcock calls an amazing number for such a specialized organization. Students got a chance to network with organists and choral musicians of all ages. “I think it’s one of the benefits of being at a place like Central College,” says Babcock. “We were able to get students involved, which is not as easy at a large school.”
Those Central students who revel in the organ, as Babcock did as a student, safeguard the future of the instrument. When Babcock graduated from college, the contemporary movement in the church had just begun, and many were calling it the death of the organ. But 20 years later, the organ is still alive and well. Babcock doesn’t think this will change any time soon, largely because of the instrument’s rich heritage and beauty. He also believes students today are more aware and globally connected. “Americans are just more eclectic now. More happens in the arts today than 20 years ago,” Babcock says. “There are still churches that prize and thrive on organ and choral music. And I suspect they always will.”
Ever wonder how an organ works? Watch Mark Babcock give a tour of the powerful instrument.