ROSWELL, Ga. – Sunday mornings this month at Roswell United Methodist Church, something will happen that has happened every Sunday for the past quarter century: Tom Alderman will be at the keyboard of the 94-rank Moeller pipe organ, serenading parishioners as they enter the church.
His congregation honored his service to the church and to the community at a special recognition of his 25 years at Sunday services Oct. 7 in the sanctuary. And like all gifted musicians, he was asked to play at his own celebration.
Not that it bothered Alderman in the slightest. If ever a man was born to be the organist at a great church, it had to be Alderman. When his family would take him to church at age 3 or 4, he remembers coming home and taking out his toy piano in his room to pick out on the instrument the hymns that were sung that morning.
But that wasn’t enough.
“I would line up all my stuffed animals to be the congregation, just as if I were in church. Then I would ask my parents to come in my room to be the choir and sing the hymns as I played. Then my parents heard I was actually playing the notes of the hymns. Soon after that, I started getting music lessons,” Alderman said.
He took piano from age 5 through high school, but he always said that it was the organ he wanted to play professionally.
Alderman earned his Bachelor of Music degree in organ performance from Shorter College and in his words, “never looked back.”
Out of college, he was able to land a couple of part-time positions in Atlanta and working a day job. Then he received some offers from several large churches outside Georgia.
That was when the Rev. Malone Dodson stepped in. He was the senior minister at RUMC then.
“I knew we didn’t want to lose him, but to keep him, we would have to make him full-time at the church. So we made him the associate to the music director, who was Michael O’Neal. They have worked well together ever since,” Dodson said.
“It’s a busy job,” Alderman said. “Sometimes, I don’t get to the organ until Thursday. I have to deal with brides and the mothers of brides all the time. Then there are funerals. Sometimes, students and their teachers.”
Alderman also became the accompanist to the Michael O’Neal Singers, and that means more rehearsal time for six to 10 concerts a year; but there are perks to that as well. Alderman performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall in May 2000 as the accompanist for the Michael O’Neal Singers and the RUMC Sanctuary Choir in their performance of Schubert’s Mass in G.
He also has played internationally as accompanist for the International Methodist Choral Festival in England and for the Amalfi Coast Music Festival, both in July 2008.
But he says enjoys each Sunday service just as much for the opportunity to play for the RUMC Choir.
“The music we do is first rate. I just hope the worshippers enjoy it as much as we do,” he said.
They do indeed. He is well-known for his postludes at the end of services, and many in the sanctuary wait in their seats until he is finished.
At Alderman’s celebration, his colleague and collaborator O’Neal told the congregation what Alderman’s music has meant to him.
“As Roswell United Methodist celebrates your 25th anniversary as organist and music associate, we are all appreciative of your incomparable musical skills, your patience and kindness to everyone and your constant desire to bring your best to everything you do,” O’Neal said.
“As a trusted colleague for 20 years, you have played an integral role in anything I have been able to accomplish, both at Roswell UMC and with MOS,” O’Neal said. “I cannot imagine doing many of the challenging works we have done with both organizations without your phenomenal keyboard skills and musical wisdom.”
When he joined RUMC in 1987, it was nice church, a comfortable church.
“Roswell then was a small bedroom community, and RUMC was only just discovering itself as the mega-church it would become,” Alderman said.
Again, he was in the right place at the right time. With the new sanctuary that was built, it would need a pipe organ commensurate with size of the sanctuary. Alderman was thrilled to be the church’s consultant on the purchase of its Moeller pipe organ.
He said it is a gem.
“The keyboard is like an artist’s palette. It’s all in how you mix the colors,” he said. “I work by the sound and not loudness. I go for richness not volume.”
Of course, the Moeller organ is perhaps the most versatile instrument in the world in the hands of someone who understands it and knows how to use it. It has 118 knobs or stops and 32 pedals. With them he can produce a number of sounds that almost make it an orchestra – trumpets, French horns.
“Fortunately, there is a sophisticated computer with it than can store a lot of [stop] combinations so that they come up quickly and I don’t have to fumble and do manually during the piece,” he said.
Asked his favorite hymn, Alderman says he doesn’t have a particular one.
“I guess it is whatever the choir is singing. I tend to get caught up in the moment. But as an organist, Bach is always ranked high,” he said.
J.S. Bach was of course the best and most prolific composer for the organ. Alderman is happiest playing at the Moeller.
“That is as good as it gets,” he said. “So we have played through a lot – Sundays without air conditioning, ice storms and weddings.”
Alderman has played at “thousands of weddings” at RUMC and other churches. He loves to play for weddings, but he’s seen enough behind the scenes for a reality show.
Weddings are always a stressful event, beginning with the bride and the bride’s mother. One particular wedding Alderman recalled was a 6 o’clock service that seemed to unfold in slow motion. Normally about a 40-minute affair, it dragged on to an hour, then 90 minutes and then two hours.
“It turned out the reception could not begin until 8 o’clock, and they were stringing it out so they could be seated at the right time,” he said ruefully.
Another wedding had a special photographer to capture the faces of the wedding party as each was carried off in one of three limos.
“They wanted photos of their faces when they got in,” he said. “Then there was the wedding where the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom had to be separated. Tensions can run high at these things.
“One wedding, we had security guards because an ex-boyfriend threatened to show up. Weddings can bring out the worst in some people.”
But any day playing is a good day for Alderman. He plays at schools sometimes and at baccalaureate services. After one such service, he got calls from two students who wanted to take lessons.
Alderman is an active member and officer of the American Guild of Organists, and is much in demand as a popular recitalist and organ consultant in the Atlanta area.