Attuned to music

December 25-31, 2017

By Becca Bona

 

Pipes tower over a series of complex keys and pedals which, when played correctly, create the bulk of the music that floats in many a church’s eaves – especially at this time of year.

 

As one of the oldest and most complicated instruments in Western music, it’s not surprising that organs would also have one of the earliest existing repertoires. With such a vibrant history, it’s also fitting they appear in all shapes and sizes, from humble to grand masterpiece.

 

While organs might not be on everyone’s radar, Central Arkansas has a special tie to them through a local company – Nichols & Simpson, Inc., Organbuilders. In operation since the early ‘80s, their now-national reputation precedes them as one of the best in the business.

 

“Nobody knows what we do here. If you go to Detroit or other places they know who we are,” says Joe Nichols, Nichols & Simpson co-owner.

 

Part of that lack of knowledge could be due to the fact that Nichols & Simpson essentially worked themselves out of jobs in Central Arkansas and the Natural State at-large, constructing instruments in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fort Smith, Hope, Conway, Van Buren, Paragould, and beyond. There are only so many organs that need building in such a relatively small area.  

 

Their work around town includes a few familiar organs – those at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, and Christ Episcopal Church, to name a few.

 

Nichols first knew he was smitten with the organ when he encountered one at the ripe age of seven. Originally from DeRidder, La., he devoured information on the subject even at his young age.

 

“By the time I was 12 I had read all the books on pipe organs that the LSU library had,” he says, noting that his local library had to request the books from the collegiate system, as they themselves had none to offer him.

 

He was just as interested in hands-on learning, however, and anytime anyone came to tune or work on the organ at his church he was always nearby.

 

“I was right there shadowing,” he smiles, “I practically ruined all my father’s tools trying to build wind pipes and chests and everything else.”

 

He decided to pursue the route professionally when he went to college at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., but as a music major he spent more time inside of the complex contraptions than he did playing them.

 

In 1977, Nichols found himself in Little Rock via a circuitous route, and began working in the city. It wasn’t long before he met a fellow organ aficionado by the name of Wayne Simpson. Simpson, a graduate of Henderson State University, studied voice and discovered his love of the instrument while at school.

 

The two founded Nichols & Simpson in 1983, and within the year were hiring part-time help and soon after began adding full-time employees. The team moved to their current location shortly thereafter.

 

Driving by the structure on 1115 South Woodrow, the building is easy to miss. The stark painted brick enables the building to blend in to its surroundings, the only noteworthy addition to the façade, a cluster of pipes at the Southwest corner. Upon entering, however, it becomes clear that the overwhelmingly large space is equipped for organbuilding – from a tuning room to a woodworking area and more.

 

Nichols says that there are plenty of rules and guidelines to the process. And, for an instrument that’s over 2,000 years old, it’s pretty amazing that the general operation hasn’t changed all that much. The link between the pipe and keyboard is largely mechanical to this day, even though technology has opened up other avenues.

 

“Most of what we do is built with electricity doing the work, so we’re creating electrical signals at the console when you play the organ,” explains Nichols.

 

There is the possibility to utilize today’s technology for wireless usage, as Nichols details a specific project, “The division in the back of the church wanted to be able to play separately from the main organ. They can literally start across the street from the church […] and sing themselves in by rolling this keyboard along while playing it – all because of an Ethernet connection.”

 

And while Ethernet capabilities sound pretty amazing, it’s not used as often as you think, as Nichols adds, “I would not dare dream that you create the only console for the organ to be wireless, because we all know about wireless stuff – it’s great when it works, but it’s not always reliable.”

 

At the most basic level, an organ consists of a group of pipes that corresponds with a keyboard – each pipe to a single key. Known as stops or ranks, there are usually several sets of pipes, which are playable from several keyboards as well as a pedal board.

 

The wind chest connects to the keys through a set of valves, which manipulate air through electrically or mechanically activated bellows. When a key is pressed, the pallet under that specific pipe opens, and air travels along a narrow channel through the slider hole and into the pipe.

 

Nichols explains the process, saying, “It’s basically a collection of whistles. The keyboard – the part that people see – is the brain that creates […] impulses when you’re playing the keys, sends electrical signals, or in some cases direct mechanical linkages, to where the pipes are to tell each individual pipe when to play.”

 

These days, Nichols starts a project not by hand as he used to, but with a computer program. “Indeed, most of my day is spent at the computer,” he says.

 

He points to a futuristic-looking map on his screen, like something straight out of the most recent “Star Wars” film, and says, “This tells me everything – the direction of the wind, the height of the pipes and so on – [the team] knows exactly what to do when they get this.”

 

Complex in its simplest form, the team at Nichols & Simpson has streamlined all levels of their operation. In the beginning, the toughest speed bump consisted of getting their name out there.

 

With a little ingenuity, they came up with a plan. After they had a finished product, they would send out for a professional organist from a larger city to come play the instrument.

 

“That’s how we got started. That was our advertising budget – to get people to play our organs,” says Nichols. Their name traveled to bigger cities through word-of-mouth, and many projects have taken the team all over the country from Texas, to Florida, to Michigan and farther.

 

Perhaps the most difficult part of the job includes working within the parameters of the room and space they are given. Bad sound engineering is not a phrase that Nichols & Simpson takes lightly.

 

“If we get a church that wants to do acoustics right, that makes our job fun,” says Nichols, “if not, we do our best to get it as good as we can.”

 

The team believes that no organ, within its particular setting, is ever exactly like any other organ. And with over 30 years of business under their belts, Nichols & Simpson has found a winning method for success, and they are proud to call Central Arkansas their home.  

 

 

  • Tucked tightly into the peaceful sanctuary at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, sits one of many Nichols & Simpson completed organs. (Photo by Bobby Burton)
    Tucked tightly into the peaceful sanctuary at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, sits one of many Nichols & Simpson completed organs. (Photo by Bobby Burton)
  • One of the most complex instruments in Western music, organs are not only difficult to play, but also tough to build. (Photo by Maddison Steward/Courtesy of Hendrix College)
    One of the most complex instruments in Western music, organs are not only difficult to play, but also tough to build. (Photo by Maddison Steward/Courtesy of Hendrix College)
  • The overwhelming majority of Nichols & Simpson organs use pallet-and-slider windchests, which are constructed at the shop with unique modifications made by the team. (Photo by Becca Bona)
    The overwhelming majority of Nichols & Simpson organs use pallet-and-slider windchests, which are constructed at the shop with unique modifications made by the team. (Photo by Becca Bona)