Organist celebrates 50 years of playing heaven's music
JANESVILLE--In autumn 1963, a young mother-to-be sat down to play a brand new pipe organ at Janesville's First Presbyterian Church.
Virginia Nitz, a farm girl from the town of La Prairie, always loved the organ's rich and uplifting sound. So when she got a chance to make God's music, she let her talent shine.
Today, 50 years later, Virginia continues to play the same pipe organ on most Sunday mornings. All these years later, she still looks forward to performing both old and contemporary pieces.
“There's always new music,” Virginia said. “There's always another song I want to play.”
The longtime musician would never think of singing her own praise. But Rev. Bruce Jones of the church does not hesitate.
“We always say she is the best organist in town,” he said. “The congregation really appreciates her skills. I've said that she can play Bach with her left hand and Beatles with her right hand at the same time.”
Virginia's skill is vital to Sunday worship.
“We ask people to let the first note of the prelude be the beginning of making a connection to God,” Jones said. “We sing our theology. Some people can carry a tune. Some have to hear it. Because of Virginia's ability to help people sing, she draws them closer to God.”
To honor Virginia's long service, the congregation is hosting a public organ recital featuring Charles Barland of the University of Dubuque on Sunday, Oct. 27.
“I'm trying to decide where to sit,” Virginia said on a recent afternoon in the church sanctuary. “I'm looking forward to hearing the organ with someone else playing.”
Sometimes, she still gets nervous before Sunday service, especially if she is performing a difficult piece. Other times, she might show her playful side by sneaking in pieces of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” on a hot August day. Always, she skillfully plays the keyboard with her hands and the pedal board with her feet, while wearing a pair of hymn-worn leather shoes.
Her polished playing on Sundays doesn't just happen. Virginia practices often during the week and before church Sunday morning. She also plays for choir practice.
“It's fun to be here when she is practicing,” Jones said. “Sometimes I hear her when I'm teaching Bible studies during the week. We stop and listen to the music from heaven.”
Virginia's passion for music became apparent as a girl, when she picked out tunes on the family piano. She went with her parents to dances at the Grange hall, where she heard old-time waltzes and polkas. Eventually, she not only studied piano but violin and organ, as well. She plays a lot of music by ear.
“It is an amazing gift,” Virginia's sister Christine Welcenbach said. “She doesn't realize how valuable it is.”
One of Christine's favorite things is to sit in the sanctuary and listen to Virginia play. She often helps her sister by letting her know if she is playing too loudly or too softly.
Virginia's daughter, Sheila, recalls how her mother nurtured a love of music as Sheila and her sister were growing up.
“We took violin lessons,” Sheila said. “She would play our parts with us. It always added so much to our practice.”
She grew up listening to her mother play the organ at church.
“I felt the church was our home away from home,” Sheila said. “I felt special because my mom played the organ at church.”
Virginia has been married to David Nitz since 1957. In addition to two daughters, they have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Virginia's long and lasting love of music echoes in many places. She plays the piano at the Janesville Senior Center for The Choristers and occasionally for the senior band. She has held offices in local music clubs. She used to teach piano most nights a week, and she has played at dozens of weddings and funerals.
“Music is her life,” Sheila added. “If she is not playing or listening to music, she is humming a tune. Sometimes, that is how I find her in a store—by her humming. She's always thinking about music.”
Virginia said she would feel lonely without the organ at her side on a Sunday morning.
“I have to retire someday,” she said.
“But not yet. There is too much more music to learn.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.