More than a piano man: Pfrommer’s passion for playing



John Michael Pfrommer (11) plays the organ. The complex instrument consists of keyboards and pedals as well as various stops that alter the sound.

John Michael Pfrommer (11) poses with the organ he plays on Sundays at First Baptist Church. Pfrommer has been playing since 2019. (KELLY PFROMMER//USED WITH PERMISSION)

His first instrument was piano, which he started when he was just six. Now, John Michael Pfrommer (11) plays many more than just the 88-keyed instrument. Alto, tenor and baritone saxophone. Flute and clarinet. Pfrommer has even explored the bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and oboe. But in 2019, he started playing the largest and hardest instrument for him to learn —  what some call “the king of instruments”: the organ. 

But before Pfrommer’s story with the organ began, he met the piano. Pfrommer’s older sister played the piano, and that was his first exposure to the instrument. 

“From a very young age I was infatuated with [the piano], because we’d have it in the house, and she’d have her lessons and whatever, and I just loved listening to her play, and I loved watching her play,” Pfrommer said. 

Pfrommer started taking lessons from his sister’s teacher and he began building up his skill set. Fast-forward to 2019, Catherine Kellett (11), who Pfrommer met in sixth grade and attends church with, noticed his blooming interest in their church’s organ. She then suggested to Pfrommer’s mom to gift him lessons on the instrument .

“I think it was [in] seventh grade, when he really started … talking about how beautiful the organ was — just like a respect for the instrument and just kind of fell in love with the idea of it,” Kellett said. “And I’m sure he was already reading up all the Wikipedia articles about the history of it … it was just fun to see him get excited about something like that.” 

Pfrommer received the lessons and is now an organist at his church. He has substituted at other churches and hopes to eventually be part of the American Guild Organists sub list for Memphis. However, his own church is still a special place for him to play. 

“Playing there is real fun because all the old people love to hear a young person on the organ. They think it’s so cool,” Pfrommer said. “And everyone’s all complimentary always, and I’m like “‘Okay, okay, okay. I made so many mistakes; what are you even talking about?’ … It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the church, so it’s nice.”

The organ is similar to piano because of the keyboard aspect; however, there are also challenges to the instrument that make it difficult for Pfrommer to play. Coordinating his feet with his hands, registration — which is mixing different sounds together — and the organ’s ability to sustain notes were all challenges for Pfrommer. 

“When you hold a note, it doesn’t decay like on a piano, and I mean that sounds like probably a minor difference, but it’s really actually kind of important,” Pfrommer said. “[W]hen there’s moving parts on an organ piece, you’ve got to substitute fingers a lot, and you’ve got to be much more careful about which fingerings [you use] than you do on piano … On [an] organ, if you accidentally press a note then like, it’s going, and it’s gone if you let go of it, and if you repress it again, it’s clear that you repressed it. You can’t softly play a note on the organ.”

Despite the challenges, Pfrommer enjoys the expressive capabilities of the instrument and has grown through his years of playing it. He even had the opportunity to play with the Memphis Youth Symphony Program’s youth symphony on “Symphony No.3” by Saint-Saëns known as “the organ symphony.”

“It’s so fun, because the organ part in that song, or at least the part of it that I played with them, was so loud and so overpowering and it just sounded so cool with the orchestra — especially at the very end,” Pfrommer said. “Everything was just so grand.”

Due to his organ gig with MYSP, he was invited back to play alto saxophone with them — a rarity as saxophone is a non-orchestral instrument. Pfrommer also picked up clarinet for a school musical and tenor sax to substitute for another student. He learned baritone saxophone for the MYSP’s concert band and flute this past year for the White Station Jazz band. Pfrommer hopes to conquer all of the woodwinds, as he has explored all the major instrument families except for bassoon. His favorite instrument, though toggles between two.

“The argument for the piano is, it was my first instrument,” Pfrommer said. “I have the longest and deepest connection to it. I can express myself [the] easiest on it … The argument for organ is that I love it so much because … [there’s] so many different sounds, so much different repertoire, so many different things you can do with it. I mean powerful. You can deafen people with it. It’s awesome. I’d probably say tentatively organ, but it shifts on a weekly basis.”

In the future, Pfrommer wants to become an astrophysicist, but music will not be leaving his life. He plans to minor in music and play for churches during college. 

“I don’t think I can put it into words, how diverse and passionate and just committed his love for music is because it really is like — so many different aspects of music like the composition and the history and the mechanics and the science behind it, because he loves physics too … learning the science behind sound and stuff — it goes that deep,” Kellett said.