For Abraham Ross, the calling of a centuries-old instrument — the organ — turned into a passion. And the organ has given him more than just an appreciation for sacred music: He will study the instrument in college, with a career goal of playing and teaching the organ.
The home-schooled teenager lives in Holden, but has been studying music in Bangor since age 5. “I knew I loved music from a young age, but did not discover the setting in which to apply my interests until later,” Ross said.
The son of Jennifer and Levi Ross, Abraham Ross started studying piano with Sarah Pendleton of Bangor and was a member of the youth choir at St. John’s Catholic Church. Ross, a second-chair All State cellist, has been the organist at Grace United Methodist Church in Bangor for the past four years. Ross has two younger sisters who both play violin and sing.
In 2008 he began studying organ under Dr. Kevin Birch. His lessons are on the historic 1860 Elias & George G. Hook pipe organ located at St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor.
For Ross, the allure of the organ came during his time as a youth chorister at St. John’s.
“I was fascinated by the many different [musical] colors and intrigued by Dr. Birch’s playing,” he said. “I started lessons and remember it being apparent to me early on that this was something I wanted to pursue long-term. My experience in and devotion to the organ and liturgical music was further extended when I was hired as organist at Grace United Methodist Church in 2008.”
His foundation in piano was a boon to learning the organ. “He had a great foundation in piano and as an All State cellist, he has a superb foundation on which to build his organ technique,” Birch noted.
But make no mistake: Learning the organ is not an easy task. Organists must have a well developed knack for playing with both hands and feet.
“Making music on the pipe organ requires the development of coordinated manual [keyboard] and pedal technique,” Birch said.
Organists play on multiple manuals, while also using their feet to play the pedalboard. Pipe organs, such as the ones Ross plays, have stops for both manuals and pedalboards. Add to that the continuous supply of wind in the organ, and notes are sustained as long as the corresponding keys are pressed. But unlike many instruments, each organ is different and non-transportable.
“As a cellist I understand the connection that a musician has with their [instrument],” Ross said. “Organists play on different instruments in different locations. It’s really great that I got to take lessons on this instrument, which is one of the best. I have learned a lot from this instrument and how refined it is.”
His background on cello and piano made learning the organ slightly easier.
“The transition to organ was mostly a matter of adjusting to the many differences between piano and organ,” Ross said. “Playing on various manuals and a pedalboard is surprisingly easy to organize, but I found the touch of the organ keys, adjusting to different acoustical settings, and finding suitable registrations to take the most amount of time and practice.”
He practices each day for two hours in addition to preparing for his work at Grace United Methodist Church and practicing cello.
“Abraham handles the complexities of the pipe organ with grace and composure that is startling for someone of his age,” Birch said. “[As a] relaxed and focused performer, he is devoted to the whole process of music making.”
Ross knew he wanted to go to school for organ in New England, but “it was hard to find a school with an organ program.” However, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. had such a program.
Then he learned he had an opportunity to apply for a scholarship. Ross auditioned; he received a full-tuition scholarship.
“I was really comfortable while applying for this scholarship,” he said. “It wasn’t nerve wracking at all. The organ is a unique instrument because it is intricately tied to the room. It has to have a beautiful acoustic space.”
The Holy Cross Organ Scholarship is renewable yearly and is awarded once every four years. Ross will study on a 1985 four-manual, 50-stop mechanical action organ built by Taylor & Boody Organbuilders, located at the Saint Joseph Memorial Chapel. In addition, as an Organ Scholar, Ross will major in music, study organ privately for four years, and plan a career in church music or organ performance.
According to Birch, this is an “incredible honor” that is well deserved. Ross begins his Holy Cross studies this fall.