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Boston organist’s music brings church community together

BOSTON — Joseph Dietterich has been playing the organ for almost 15 years. While that, in itself, is hardly unusual, that 15 years is half the organ player’s life.

“I got my first, professional church job when I was 14, at Saint Mary’s in East Eden,” he said. “It was the summer after I graduated from Saint Bernadette’s in Orchard Park, the summer before I went to Saint Francis High School. I had heard from some people that they needed an organist, and when they asked how much I’d want to be paid, I was like, ‘You’re gonna pay me? I just want to play!’”

That attitude has gotten the self-taught organist a number of jobs throughout his career, which have taken him from Catholic churches in the Southtowns to Lutheran congregations and independent wedding and funeral jobs, which are the church musician’s bread and butter.

“It’s been a rough road,” he admitted, of his music career. “I started when I was 11 or 12, and first played at the old Saint Martins. The pastor was old and sick and the organist at that time was always late. The fill-in priest, Father Gernatt, knew me and knew I could play a little, so I was at church one day, sitting in the pew, when he pointed at me and said to go play. I had no practice; I just got up there and went with it.

“I did that a few more times before the regular organist came up to me, pulled me aside and said ‘I don’t want to see you up here again.’ That was hard. To say that to a little kid — it’s almost understandable, if I was an adult or an older teenager — but to a kid. There’s that kind of territorial attitude, sometimes, in the organist community.”

Dietterich calls himself the “black sheep pariah” of that community, largely because he has had no formal musical training. He taught himself music theory as a child, learning to read music and play a variety of instruments by figuring out how they work in his own time.

“A lot of people hear that I taught myself and they think I play by ear,” he said. “But the way I prefer is to put my heart and soul into the music and go from there. Some people who have had extensive training, even from Eastman and places, they play wonderfully, but are taught to work in a computerized, almost mechanical fashion, like they’re just taking the notes from the page and outputting them through their fingers. That’s not the way I like to play.”

Dietterich stayed at Saint Mary’s until it closed, where he said he ran a campaign for a digital organ when he was 16 years old. That campaign was the fastest-completed one the organ salesman had ever seen. He also worked for a Lutheran church in Eden, doing back-to-back masses all day at both churches, for approximately a year, before St. Mary’s closed. Although that was a hard year for the organist, but an educational one, too. He learned to “just go with it,” when things go wrong, or unexpected turns require flexibility on the accompanist’s part.

“One day, we had just gotten new wireless body mics at St. Mary’s,” he recounted, “And the priest was elderly, drove himself there from the nursing home to say Mass once a week, and he wore it into the bathroom. I kept playing louder and louder, trying to cover the sounds, and suddenly, this thunderous flush echoed out over the congregation. That was interesting.”

After the closure of that church, he worked for the Lutheran church for four years, before Saint John the Baptist in Boston offered him a full-time job as music director. There, he is in charge of all music selection, as well as playing Masses and events. Now, the organist has been there for going on five years, although he said it still feels fresh. Part of that is the historic organ at the church, which is one of a few of its kind in the area.

“It was made before there were standards in construction, and I thrive on that sort of thing,” he said. “Give me something new and different.” The organist has played most of the organs in Western New York, and is often able to do small repairs, including climbing inside the organ at Saint Francis Xavier, an Opus No. 2 Schlicker, to fix a ciphering pipe. He often gets calls to play at other parishes, and said he enjoys working with new instruments, and new priests, to experience different styles.

But he spends most of his playing time in Boston, where he said he feels most at home. His choir, which is usually eight or nine voices strong, is comprised of professional and semi-professional singers, as well as those who have been singing at church for a long time. Dietterich allows them a “lot of free reign” in music selection and harmony, and said it usually pays off.

“If I had a 30-member choir, it’d be different,” he said. “I like to follow a more traditional route. There’s been a resurgence, in recent years, of people finding beauty in the older music. People come in and come up to me, saying they can’t believe the sound.” The parish, which has been growing, credits some of its success to Dietterich’s influence. Although he likes to stick to the traditional, he can be flexible in his selections, especially in the summer. As he put it, “There’s nothing like trudging through an andagio hymn in 90-degree weather.”

As an organist and an Eden resident, Dietterich said he thinks about his path sometimes and wonders where else it could have taken him, but is largely content with the lot he has found, south of the city.

“Time flies for me. I don’t feel like very much changed. I’m doing what I love for work. Next year, I’ll have been doing it for half my life. I’m still young, I’m still learning and I’m still working my way up,” he said. “But I’ve never had to interview for a job, never had to look for a job. I have some friends in the organist industry and I’m kind of the example that says you don’t have to go the formal education route. That’s not the only road to take.

“It’s tough,” he acknowledged, of the 15-year journey. “Even though I love what I do, it’s still work. I still don’t make that much money, and the Catholic church has to be thinking now about the next round of closures. But I can’t imagine living anywhere else. At [Saint John the Baptist], it’s a small community. We know one another, know when someone gets sick and if we should give them a visit. It’s that sense of community, that support, that makes it all worthwhile.”

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