Mike Bigelow fell in love with the pipe organ during high school, and it's been non-stop ever since.
Bigelow combines the creativity of design with sound business practices in the successful M.L. Bigelow & Co. Inc. Organ Builders. The proprietor opened on the second floor of The Cannery in Provo in 1978 and relocated to an old LDS meetinghouse in American Fork five years ago.Bigelow's specialty is tracker-action pipe organs - organs operated mechanically, rather than electronically. As the builder explains, "There's a certain type of mechanical action. When you press a key, you move a gizmo that plays the pipe." A mechanical organ has a broader range of tone color, said Bigelow, "and a sound that makes me feel like singing."
Owning his own organ-building company seems a natural outgrowth of Bigelow's creative interests. While taking piano lessons in Alexandria, Va., during his high school years, Bigelow was allowed to play the three-manual (keyboard) Moller organ in the Baptist church across the street from his teacher. He was also fascinated by the pipe organ at an LDS stake center, which he played for baptismal services while still a high school student.
After completing a year of architectural studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, then serving an LDS mission, he got a degree in psychology from the University of Utah - and finished a premaster's program in architecture at the same time. The next two years were spent in Los Angeles studying with two different organ builders.
For four more years Bigelow served as apprentice to John Brombaugh, an organ builder in Germantown, Ohio. During his apprenticeships, Bigelow also took three major tours to northern Europe to study organs there, observing their look and sound.
"I wanted to have a firsthand experience with the fountainhead of organs, which is 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Listening to some of those organs is like being transported back in time."
In 1978, Bigelow secured his first contract for an organ with 13 stops (combinations of sound) and set up shop in Provo. In 1983 he discovered an old meetinghouse in American Fork that had space enough in its chapel and cultural hall to construct cabinets and pipes, and room upstairs for his family. He describes the place as 90 percent wood shop and 10 percent metal shop.
There is always something in the works there, with five full-time employees and other part-time assistants, including wife Beth, who keeps the books. You could say Bigelow's organ-building business is non-stop. Right now, there are two organs in various stages of construction. A tall, 11-stop organ being built for the All Saints Episcopal Church in San Francisco has part of the casing painted blue and red. (Most organs are not painted.) The other part, in oak, will remain natural. A larger, wider organ with 22 stops will go in the First Methodist church in Tahlequah, Okla.
As with each organ he builds, Bigelow visited the churches to make measurements and see what style of architecture would fit before spending around 200 hours designing the instrument. His organs are custom built, so there are no standard designs.
That's one of the things that makes organ building so rewarding, say the people who work there. Brock Wilkinson, Highland, hired on two years ago as a woodworker who knew nothing about organs. "But I found out there's more to it than cabinet work," he said. And he likes that. "I'm not stuck doing the same thing every day."
Robert Bigelow, the owner's brother, who lives in Pleasant Grove, is a licensed podiatrist who enjoys trying his hand at a variety of things - including organ building during the winter months. He enjoys the woodworking and finds great satisfaction because "the finished product is so unique; there's no other like it!"
David Chamberlin, associated with Bigelow for four years now, echos praise for the variety in his job. "There's always something different." In addition to trying computer-aided drafting for organ design and being the tonal specialist for the operation, Chamberlin has a master's degree in organ performance from Eastman and gets to demonstrate the finished product. Recently, he and his wife, a mezzo-soprano, put on a concert in Mesa, Ariz., where one of Bigelow's organs was installed.
For Bigelow, the enterprise is a double challenge. "There's the thrill of creating a musical instrument," with a variety of interpersonal as well as technical skills involved, he said. Then there's the challenge of keeping the business afloat. Typically, it takes two years from the time the contract is signed until the instrument is operational. Bigelow designs each individual part and supervises the organ's construction every step of the way.
Where does the business come from? "Word-of-mouth," Bigelow said. "It's the best marketing tool we have. So you build a good organ that people will talk about in a positive way. One bad instrument could ruin your business."
Word-of-mouth has his instruments in a monastery in Iowa and in churches as far away as Raleigh, N.C., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and as close as Provo - one of eight Bigelow organs in the Mountain West.
Seventeen have been completed to date. "We average about two a year," said Bigelow, who obviously enjoys the slower pace of custom building as opposed to the assembly-line approach of electronic instruments.
He thinks his instruments sound a lot better, too.
For Mike Bigelow, organ builder, "It's a real thrill to create something that's beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to."