Things That Go Pump in the Night

by Zachary Lewis
Photos by Dale Preston

Finney Chapel

It is near midnight on a chilly Friday in mid-October. Tappan Square is dark and deserted. Most of the town’s businesses have closed. Strangely, though, students from all over campus are flocking toward Finney Chapel.

They’re not carrying candles, and this isn’t a late-night prayer vigil. No, these kids have come to hear classical music. They’ve come for the Friday Night Organ Pump.

Judging by the crowd, it’s the place to be. Hundreds of people have gathered at the appointed hour—as have many others on a regular basis since 1992—to be entertained by a group of madcap organ majors. “It’s a tradition,” says Organ Pump President David Crean, a junior organ major. “We’re trying to make the organ fun, contrary to the cultural stereotype. It has this reputation as a boring, old, church instrument. We’re putting on an event that’s fun, high-quality, and different.”

Inside the chapel, moments before the event is to begin, someone is practicing. It’s Noah Horn, a senior organ major who happens to be wearing a cape and a cap. He stops playing to answer his cell phone. It’s nearly Halloween, which explains both his costume and the jack-o’-lanterns resting in the rafters of the spectacular Fisk organ.

Readers of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books might note at this moment the chapel’s striking resemblance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Much like that fictitious establishment, Finney Chapel is now in the hands of students possessing a rare and vaguely mysterious gift, one with a long and illustrious history.

The lights go out promptly at midnight. Every light, that is, except for a tiny lamp at the organ console, where a group of students plays Bach’s famous Toccata in D Minor. Each player takes a phrase before ceding the bench to the next person. Visually, the performance resembles a fast-moving cuckoo clock. Amazingly, it hangs together perfectly in a musical sense. One lucky student gets to play the entire fugue alone.

Afterwards, Crean, the host, dressed like the Grim Reaper, welcomes the crowd. He’s followed by Will Parks, who skillfully delivers a movement from Mendelssohn’s F-Minor Sonata.

Lest things get anywhere near normal, Crean reappears to proclaim a David Letterman-style list of “Top 10 Scary Things” and to lead the audience in Christmas carols warped to suit the current holiday. Among the songs are Deck the Halls with Poison Ivy and The Twelve Days of Halloween.

Crean, reflecting afterward on the event, estimates proudly that 500 people were in attendance: “If you think about it, that probably makes it one of the most well-attended organ events in the world.”

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