A pipe organ is a complicated instrument to master. It features three keyboards, and those are just for the hands. Another keyboard is for the feet. Players pull from a selection of stops to produce different sounds.
Judy Snyder has the setup mastered and has been making noises both joyful and somber at Salem’s First United Methodist Church for more than 50 years. During her time on the organ bench there, about two dozen senior and associate pastors have come and gone. Snyder has accompanied countless singers in multiple ensembles, in and away from her church. She outlasted her husband, choir director Bill Snyder, who retired after 49 years at First United.
As far as the Snyders can tell, she has been playing the pipe organ longer than anyone else in the valley, and she has no plans to quit.
“It doesn’t seem that long,” she said, in an interview last month. “There are times when you work really hard and you just want it to end, but then you look back and think, wow, we have done a lot, but it doesn’t seem that long.”
Judy Snyder, 70, first sat in front of the First United church’s organ on the last Sunday of August 1969. She and Bill Snyder, 75, were brand new to town then, having just moved from Danville. Bill Snyder, a West Virginia native, had moved to Judy’s hometown to teach chorus at George Washington High School. Judy was an experienced accompanist at her home church, Calvary United Methodist. She played piano there from age 15, and after taking some organ lessons in Danville, substituted on that instrument.
A year after they were married, Bill Snyder got a job directing the chorus at the old Andrew Lewis High School. They moved to Salem, where they found a happy coincidence in the making. The teacher he was replacing at Andrew Lewis also led the First United church choir, but was retiring. Simultaneously, the church organist was retiring, too.
“That worked out really well,” Bill Snyder said.
“Extremely well,” Judy Snyder added.
She took more lessons on the instrument for about a year at Roanoke College, and established herself as an accompanist on several fronts.
“When we first came, we had two children’s choirs, a youth choir and an adult choir,” she said. “[Bill] directed all and I accompanied, then of course [I was] playing at the worship service.”
Judy Snyder has played plenty outside of church as well. The couple joined the Roanoke Valley Choral Society in spring 2000, with Bill directing and Judy accompanying for 13 years. With Betty Turner, Judy Snyder formed the Roanoke College Children’s Choir (now the Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir) in the 1980s, with Turner directing. She has accompanied children’s Suzuki violin and flute student ensembles, too.
A lot of those are piano gigs. She gets a bigger kick out of playing organ, though. She has had a couple of good ones to work with over the years. In 2006, the church replaced its M.P. Moller Organ Co. instrument with a Schantz organ, although parts of the 1953-vintage Moller remain.
“It was my new toy and lots of fun to use,” Snyder said. “I experimented with all the different combinations we have. It’s fun to take a piece of music and pull out an oboe solo underneath some strings. Then it’s also fun to pull out all the stops and have a big, grand sound. ... Blast the room.”
She puts in about 12 hours a week at the church, practicing, listening, helping to plan worship.
“I still practice, and I still pull out the Bach and the Handel and what you would call the Baroque and the classical,” she said. “A lot of times on Saturday, I’ll tell Bill that I’m going to practice, that I’ll be back in an hour.”
Yet two or three hours might pass at the keyboards. “I just get going,” she said.
After the couple’s two daughters reached high school, Judy Snyder took a job as an administrative assistant at Hollins College (now Hollins University), where she also completed a bachelor of arts in music, majoring in organ performance. Their daughter, Heather Mitchell, went to school there, too, where she conducted the Hollins Singers for two years. Her accompanist? Judy Snyder.
After graduation, Mitchell wound up on the staff at First United, directing handbell ensembles and one youth choir. When her father retired, the church hired Mitchell to a full-time position, coordinator of music ministries.
“So now, instead of dad and mom working together, it’s daughter and mom working together,” Bill Snyder said.
It was a dream come true to follow in her dad’s footsteps, Mitchell, 43, said. Growing up singing in the choir, she got to watch her parents interact, not as parents but as director and accompanist. Stepping into her father’s role within that dynamic was “easy as pie,” she said.
“We just work well together,” Mitchell said. “I watched it for so long between mom and dad, how that so-called dance seems to work. It’s been very easy to step right in. Mom is a fabulous accompanist and knows what the director wants.”
So, the family tradition continues on a couple of different levels.
“Heather said to me the other day, and I had not thought of this, the four of us never have sat together during a church service,” Bill Snyder said. “One or both of us, or Heather, was up front. In the 50 years that we’ve been here, our family has never sat together in church services.”
Nor have they had a lot of weekends to themselves. The traditional Sunday services are one thing, but weddings and funerals require music, too, particularly from that Schantz pipe organ. It’s all part of the dedication and love that go into their church activities.
“She and her cohorts, the organists, are the ones that keep the services moving,” Bill Snyder said. “They establish and keep the pace of it, and if there’s a pause somewhere that doesn’t feel right —”
Judy Snyder finished his sentence: “It’s me.” They laughed. “I can’t fall asleep. They only know I’m there when they hear the organ.”
And they know she’s there, because they hear plenty of organ at a First United Methodist Church Sunday traditional service. At the beginning of the Sept. 15 service, she played “Festival Trumpet Tune.” She accompanied the choir, under her daughter’s direction, on “Glorificamus Te,” and the congregation as it sang hymns including “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.”
The service ended, as usual, with Snyder playing the pastors, choir and usher out of the 500 seat sanctuary. She was the last person left behind the pulpit. A couple that had been sitting near the front approached a reporter. Barbara and Ron Detgen said they have been members of First United as long as Snyder has been playing there.
“I bet Judy is the only one who knows how to play” that organ, Barbara Detgen said. “Now I hope she plays it for another 50 years.”