St Andrew's Anglican Church organist Michael Drake says while playing the organ in church is a bit like giving a concert every week, it's the organist's job to stay relaxed and do it properly.

But even this most experienced organist with 50 years' service under his belt, had a few nerves during the most high-stakes service he ever played at.

It was February 2002, when the Queen and Prince Philip attended a Sunday service at St Andrew's. They were staying at Huka Lodge, and the vicar of the time, Geoff Hickman, had arranged for the royal couple to be invited. Michael says from the organist's perspective it all went smoothly — well, almost.

"We were having God Save The Queen and you hardly ever play it for real in New Zealand. I had practised it and you don't want to be the only organist she's been in church with who ruins God Save The Queen.

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Michael Drake has been playing the St Andrew's Anglican Church organ for 50 years. Photo / Lesley Cotterill
Michael Drake has been playing the St Andrew's Anglican Church organ for 50 years. Photo / Lesley Cotterill

"But the tricky thing was, God Save The Queen came about five seconds after a really big hymn and I had the music ready but I'd turned over two pages at once and I had to decide in about one second was I going to find that music or was I going to try and play it from memory? It only took about three seconds [to find the right place] but it felt like a long time when everybody's standing up waiting for that piece."

Although Michael can't remember what other music was played that day, it will be recorded in one of the notebooks in which he has written details and music of every service he has played at since first becoming one of St Andrew's organists in 1968.

Michael learned the piano as a schoolboy growing up in Auckland and sang in the parish choir. He describes himself as "an adequate pianist" but because his father was a vicar, he also had the opportunity to play the church's pipe organ.

"St Alban's in Dominion Rd had a very nice and very old organ, well over 100 years old and that's where I first began to play for occasional services. I became a good friend with the organist Don James and a very good organist he was too."

Michael moved to Taupo in 1968 to teach at Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and joined the congregation and choir at St Andrew's. The vicar asked him to join the organist team. Michael's first service was All Saints' Day, November 4. Soon he found he was playing over half the time.

Michael is still one of St Andrew's five organists as well as the one who organises the roster and makes sure there is always an organist.

He is proud that in the last 50 years there's never been a service that hasn't had an organist, although covering Christmas can sometimes be awkward.

He is a details man who keeps a notebook setting out the hymns and music at every service he plays at, plus where the music is kept so that he can find it quickly when he needs to.

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"I have got a good record. I can tell you everything I've played on every single service for the last half century. I'm a bit too precise in that I keep everything and I don't tend to throw written records away."

Such attention to detail counts.

"Sometimes you might have a funeral and people will say 'we'd like to have the hymn that Mum had at her wedding', and I can look it up and play it."

An organist is usually required for St Andrew's two Sunday services each week plus occasional other services like funerals. Michael says these days people often elect not to have an organist at weddings and funerals and use pre-recorded music instead. He thinks that's a good thing, saying people need to have the music they like. But if organ music is what they like, Michael is happy to be involved.

"Someone said to me 'don't you get tired of playing at funerals?' And I said 'no, not at all. It's a privilege to be involved in the final ceremony of somebody's life and it's an opportunity for the community pay their respects to that person'."

Michael has seen plenty of change during his 50 years behind the organ, the two biggest being the extension of the church in 2001 and the purchase of a new Allen organ in the 1980s, which is still in use today. The organ has two keyboards and many features, and Michael says it can do a tremendous number of different things.

"It sounds very much like an acoustic pipe organ in some of its stops. There's no sustain pedal so you have to play in a really smooth legato way and as soon as you take your finger off, it stops.

"There are hymns and other pieces of music that I play that have parts of them that are quite enchanting and part of the organist's job is to bring that out in the organ. You have a great variety of ways you can make things sound on the organ so you have to use things to their best advantage really."

As well as enjoying playing the organ, Michael says it benefits his health.

"When you learn a new tune you have to make a new pathway in your brain and I think that's very good thing for your brain. I don't learn new things particularly quickly. Some people sight read and away they go. I have to work at it.

"And you have to be alert during a service, you've got be prepared and have your music ready and be prepared for unusual occurrences. The vicar might announce that you're having a hymn and you thought it was going to be five minutes away."

He says although he has been an organist — and it is entirely a voluntary role — for 50 years, it is not a big deal at all. He reckons it was just one year repeated 50 times.

"Lots of people in all sorts of organisations play parts at running it. I always think in a community if you have a skill and it's needed you ought to use it.

"I tend to stick to things. I taught at Taupo-nui-a-Tia College for 46 years. There's always things you can do better, so it's never boring, you're always finding new ways of doing things and trying to improve. I practise a fair bit on the piano at home and if I'm playing on a Sunday I'll play three or four sessions at home and I might have one on the organ. There's lots of work involved."

The payoff comes when Michael is playing, the congregation is singing and it sounds magnificent.

"You feel you are making a wonderful sound all together, the congregation and the organist and everyone so everyone gets a really great lift."