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13 November 2014

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You are in: Wear > People > People Features > Behind the keys

Ian Nicholson at St Peter's church organ

Ian Nicholson is also the church warden

Behind the keys

Nobody knows the church organ at St Peter's better than Ian Nicholson. He has been tinkling the ivories there for over four decades but just managed to keep his fingers from getting burned in the 1980s.

Dating back to 674AD when it was built by Benedict Biscop, St Peter's parish church is the oldest building in Sunderland and still stands strong on the north side of the River Wear.

However, in 1984, someone got into the church and started a fire causing much damage. The alter was burned and the church organ was left beyond repair.

"The fire was lit underneath the existing organ and although it wasn't badly burned, it was so hot, the pipes melted," explains Ian Nicholson who was there on the night of the incident.

Foot pedals of the church organ

Foot pedals of the church organ

The fire brigade could not enter the church through the main entrance because it would let more oxygen get to the fire and risk it spreading. Instead, they made holes in the roof to let the gases out and got inside the church through the roof.

Luckily, not a single stained glass window was damaged but the church organ had to be replaced.

The best in the city?

Ian is now the church warden and organist at St Peter's and was on the case to replace the organ which he thinks is better than ever.

"After we lost the other one," said Ian, "we realised we would never be able to replace the pipe organ because of the cost and we had the whole church to rebuild.

"A friend of mine in London builds the best electronic organs you can possibly get, so I suggested we get him to build the new one and I was able to specify what kind of organ we wanted.

Buttons on the church organ

Selection of sounds

"It's one of the benefits of the electronic age, they can simulate enormous organs you would never be able to afford for a place like this, because they're almost cathedral size," said Ian.

That is the organ you can see Ian playing to this very day, so what can it do?

With the organ being electronic Ian has a choice of voices to set which ever mood is necessary. Listen to a three minute clip showcasing some of the sounds it can make by clicking here:

Unfair discipline

Ian began learning the organ from a young age as it's something he's always wanted to do and explains it is something that you can improve on all the time.

"It's a very unfair discipline, music. I haven't ridden a bike for years but I feel confident I could get on one now and pick it up again.

Ian playing the organ

Ian is the church organist

"But you can learn a piece of music, spend hours at it learning it, put it down for a month and come back to it and you'd think you'd never seen it before and you've got to start learning it all over again," says Ian.

Ian first stepped foot in St Peter's in 1962 when he was asked to help out for two weeks.

He obviously did a good job because he is still there decades later and has gone from assistant church organist to being the main church organist and church warden.

"The job I had before this was at the North Bridge Presbyterian Church. The church is now Hebron Church and I was only 14 when I started there.

"I played the organ there until it closed, had a couple of years break and then came down here, but it's a lot of fun," remembers Ian.

last updated: 10/11/2008 at 15:50
created: 10/11/2008

You are in: Wear > People > People Features > Behind the keys

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