Filmmaker Q&A

Young Musicians Play Ancient Instrument in the “Olympics of the Pipe Organ”

June 17, 2020 by Craig Phillips in Behind the Films

The Montreal-based filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum‘s joyful film The Art of the Shine, which aired on PBS, took the director all over the world, from New York to Toronto, Paris to La Paz, Bolivia, to look at the forgotten profession of shoe shining.

Now with her film Pipe Dreams, she brings the world to her hometown, covering an international group of extremely talented young pipe organists for what is deemed the “Olympics for the organ,” the Canadian International Organ Competition [CIOC]. There’s Alcee Chriss III, from Texas, whose unique style and joyful playing is influenced by a background infused with gospel and jazz; there’s risk-taker Nick, from Pittsburgh (and now based in Montreal); the strong-willed and highly competitive Yuan Shen, the daughter of China’s most famous organist; and young prodigy Sebastian Heindl, from the same town in Germany as his idol and namesake Bach.

“Stacey Tenenbaum’s surprisingly high-stakes documentary…[is] a gripping look at an international music competition,” wrote Sarah Melton in Exclaim! (CA). “A crowd-pleaser,” adds Glenn Sumi for NowToronto, “the film’s competition provides nail-biting tension, of course, but there’s room for imaginative touches, like one stunning sequence in which Tenenbaum splices together musicians playing the same piece.”

Stacey talked to us about why she wanted to make a film about the ancient “king of instruments” brought to life by young talents, whether she had musical talent of her own growing up, and how the organists seen in the film are keeping the rust at bay during COVID quarantine.

Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum
Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum

Why did you want to make a film about pipe organists?

I made this film because as somebody who knew nothing about the organ or organ music, I was completely blown away the first time I saw the organ being played at the inaugural CIOC in 2008.  I wanted other people like me to discover this amazing instrument.  I was also intrigued by the fact that the competitors were so young and were playing such an ancient and inaccessible instrument. 

That made me want to find out more about these musicians, why they started playing the organ, and what it takes to be an organist.  

What kind of reaction do you hope PBS audiences have to watching Pipe Dreams?

I hope it will change people’s minds about organs and organ music. A lot of people are only exposed to organ music in church and may have a negative association with it as a result. I want to show people that organists are serious, talented musicians and that organ music doesn’t have to only be associated with church—it can be appreciated in concerts and competitions like the CIOC. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

The biggest challenge was definitely wrangling all of the organists for shoots. Organists are super busy people so it was hard to pin down times and places to shoot with them. “They opened up to me because they could sense my love of the music and my passion for the instrument.” 

Since the organists were all perfectionists it was also difficult, at the beginning, for us to film their practices since they didn’t want to be filmed making mistakes. I had to explain to them that nobody is perfect on day #1 and that the point of the film is to show how hard they practice and how they improve over time.  

A few of the characters were also very private so it was a bit of a negotiation to get access to their personal lives. 

Once the competition began, the stress levels were very high so some of the competitors didn’t want us filming practices or didn’t want to wear microphones during their performances. It was a series of negotiations with each of the characters to get what we needed for the film. 

Finally, I filmed with 9 characters in total so it was a lot of travel and a lot of schedules and personalities to contend with. 

How did you gain the trust of the young musicians featured in Pipe Dreams?

Since the organ is such a misunderstood instrument and organ music doesn’t typically get a lot of attention from the mainstream media, all of the organists were supportive of what I was trying to do with the film. 

I think they liked that I was not from the organ community and that I wasn’t a musician—all of their music always sounded beautiful to me since I can’t really tell if they make mistakes. I think they opened up to me because they could sense my love of the music and my passion for the instrument.  I made it clear to them that the goal of the film was to share this passion with a wide audience who knows nothing about the organ.

I also made it clear to them that I didn’t care who won or how they did in the competition. The important thing for me was to show their dedication and talent and to make audiences fall in love with each of them. 

Yuan Shen practicing on organ
Yuan Shen

How do pipe organists practice their craft in this period of COVID quarantining we are in? 

That’s a great question! I have been in touch with the organists from the film during this time but I didn’t ask them that.  A few of them have pianos or electric keyboards they practice on at home so I am pretty sure they kept up that way.  Since most of them have church jobs I bet they were playing alone in those churches during COVID.  They usually have to practice at night time, or when there are no services, so maybe they were able to get more practice time in during quarantine than ever before! 

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

I filmed with 9 characters in total and I really wish I could have included all of them in the film as they were all unique characters and incredible musicians. 

I knew that not all of them could be included in the film but I filmed with so many in order to make sure that all of the cast of the film wouldn’t get eliminated in the first round. 

I also filmed a horror movie scene which I would have loved to include in the film.  Organists usually practice in big, empty cathedrals at night which is pretty scary.  I wanted to show that aspect of the organists lives so I  shot some spooky scenes with a few of them when they were practicing at night.  The music lends itself to horror movies as well so the scene turned out pretty great.  It is one of my favorite things that didn’t make it into the film. 

Sebastian Heindl practicing on organ in Pipe Dreams
Sebastian Heindl

Did you have any musical talents or did you practice an instrument of your own while you were growing up? 

The funny thing is I have absolutely no musical training. I would love to learn to play the piano when I have a bit more time. I did get to have some fun making ‘noise’ on a few organs during filming though. That was a blast! If you ever have a chance to play on an organ go for it! It’s a really cool experience. 

What else was interesting or surprised you as you learned more about the pipe organ?

There is so much interesting stuff about the organ which I would have loved to share in the film. It is such an incredible mechanical instrument with such a huge range of musical possibilities.  

Organs are handcrafted works of art—each one is unique and created for the space it will be played in. Many people don’t know this but the music actually comes from the instrument itself and the acoustics of the building.   I hope more people will go into churches and just appreciate the beauty of the organ itself. 

Another thing about the organ is that it is the only instrument that you can feel the music in a very physical way when it is played. The low notes reverberate and can be felt in your core – which can be really moving when experienced live. I think that’s why organs are used in churches. They are able to move people in a way other instruments cannot. 

I hope that after seeing this film people will seek out organ concerts in their towns so they can experience that feeling.  

Do you have any updates on the stars of Pipe Dreams?

Alcee Chriss III  got his Ph.D. from McGill University and is now a professor of Organ Music at Wesleyan University. Alcee also released a CD of his organ music which is available on iTunes and other online music streaming services. 

Yuan Shen is a composer and is also a professor at the conservatory of music Beijing.  She organizes her own organ festival in China every Fall. Yuan is also composing her own organ music. 

Nick Capozzoli just finished his Ph.D. at McGill University and is performing at concerts nationwide.  He has gotten even deeper into modern music for the organ. 

Sebastian Heindl is still studying organ in Leipzig, Germany. He was a finalist in the Longwood Gardens Organ competition in 2019.

Name three favorite/most influential documentaries or fictional films.

Dish: Women and the Art of Service: I was hired to find the Montreal characters in this film and I really loved working with the director during the Montreal filming. She is a female director and I admired how she was able to deal with issues relating to sexism and class while exploring a simple profession.  It gave me confidence that a film about shoe shining could do the same. 

OJ: Made in America: I watched the whole thing twice and would watch it again.  It is just so incredibly well crafted. I had no interest in watching a film about the OJ trial, but when I heard it was about race in America I decided to watch it. The film grabbed me from the first frame and it never let go. 

The Ten Commandments:  It’s probably the film I have seen the most in my life. It’s just one of those holiday traditions. I love it for the kitsch, overacting, and the costumes!

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I’m working on an environmental documentary called Scrap, which is about ‘where things go to die’ it will be filmed in massive metal graveyards where things like planes, ships, trains and cell phones go when they are no longer useful.

I’m also developing a film called Tough Old Broads which is about ground-breaking women who are still doing amazing things into their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. 


Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum did a Q&A with the stars of Pipe Dreams via Zoom and posted on Facebook Live. Watch it here.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.