The pipe organ has been a part of Jay Zoller’s life since he was in high school, and on April 3, he will share his love of the instrument with the community during a benefit concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle.
Zoller’s first venture into the musical world began when he was in third grade, when his parents started him in piano lessons. He didn’t put a lot of thought into being a musician, however, until he saw the organist play at the local church.
“There is a lot that goes into playing the organ,” Zoller said. “You often have more than one keyboard and your feet are involved as well. Watching how all the pieces worked together really peaked my interest and made me want to learn how to play.”
Zoller began taking organ lessons when he was in high school and refined his skills at the University of New Hampshire, where he majored in applied organ and composition. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1967, Zoller enrolled at the Boston University School of Theology to continue his studies.
While in Boston, Zoller studied with Dr. Max Miller, the university’s chapel organist. Under Miller’s tutelage, Zoller became the assistant director and organist at the chapel during his time at the university.
Zoller worked as an apprentice for a number of organ builders in the area during the summer months.
“It was a summer job related to what I wanted to do,” Zoller said. “I learned the basic ins and outs of organ-building, but it was all at the basic level at that point.”
Zoller graduated with a Master of Theology degree in 1970 and took a job at a church in Nashua, N.H. teaching Christian education and directing the music program. After six years, he decided he wanted to pursue a different career path.
“I wanted to get back into building organs, so I decided to spend a year working at what was then Bozeman-Gibson in New Hampshire to learn about the organ,” Zoller said. “I only meant to stay a year, but ended up staying for 11. I really loved it.”
Zoller stayed with Bozeman- Gibson, which later became Bozeman & Co., until 1987, when he went to work for Andover Organ Co., of Methuen, Mass. During his career of more than 30 years, Zoller designed and worked on organs around the country, including in North Carolina, California, Florida, and Maryland.
“The process really varied based on the organ and the space we were designing it for,” Zoller said. “Some could take two or three years from the designing phase to completing the installation. Others could take 10 years or more due to a number of factors.”
One of the organs Zoller helped rebuild currently resides in St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y. The organ was so large, three tractor-trailer trucks had to transport it, Zoller said.
“I was in Buffalo for seven weeks putting it together,” Zoller said. “We had to do it in sections. The truck would arrive late Sunday or early Monday. We would unload it all into the church and have to have all the pieces out by the next Mass service.”
While working for Bozeman & Co. and Andover Organ Co., Zoller continued to play the organ for church services and in recitals. He also studied with Heinz Wunderlich, a world-renowned organist and composer from Hamburg, Germany. Zoller met Wunderlich at a dedication for one of the organs Zoller had designed. The two started a correspondence that lasted many years, and Zoller has performed in concerts celebrating Wunderlich’s work in Germany many times.
Wunderlich passed away at the age of 92 in 2012.
“His music is difficult enough that many of his students can play one or two pieces he wrote and no more,” Zoller said. “I really enjoy it personally, and tend to play a lot of it.”
In addition to his musical pursuits, Zoller also paints. He would sketch technical drawings of organs while working for Andover, and found himself wishing he could draw or paint in a freer manner. After he retired, he enrolled in art courses. Zoller works mostly with oils and acrylics to create abstract paintings.
“I’ve drawn for years, but once I started taking the classes, I really got into creating artwork,” Zoller said. “It’s a lot of fun, but with preparing for the recital and other projects around the house, I haven’t been able to do it as much as I like lately.”
After retiring, Zoller moved to Newcastle almost 14 years ago with his wife, Rachel. He plays the organ for church services at South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta.
“I don’t think I will stop playing the organ,” Zoller said. “It’s been a part of my life for so long, and it’s just too much fun!”
The April 3 concert will begin at 3 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle and will feature the work of Swedish composer and organist Thomas Aberg. Donations will benefit Spectrum Generations Coastal Community Center in Damariscotta.