St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Columbia Heights, Minn.
Organist and pianist

I started studying piano at the age of 6 and loved it. When I was 12, I heard the pipe organ and said, “I want to play that.” I bought all the recordings I could of Bach and absolutely said, “That’s where it’s at.” I studied with a church organist when I was 12 but wanted more. Then at 15, I heard of Heinrich Fleischer and he let me study with him for free.

Dr. Fleischer, an instructor at the University Minnesota, was a direct descendant of Martin Luther. He was born in East Germany and became the youngest cantor at Bach’s church, St. Thomas in Leipzig. He lost a finger in [World War II] and yet became world famous. It was hard work for me to learn such a profound organ technique.

In that same year, 1962, Dick Hamlin (founding pastor of St. Timothy) heard me play and said, “You have a calling. Come with me. I know you’re only 15, but God has a world for you at St. Timothy’s.” He was right.

It was Dr. Edward Berryman who became my greatest creative teacher. He offered me the assistantship at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis when I was 17. But Dick Hamlin wanted me to stay with him at St. Timothy’s.

I will never retire. I intend to make music all my life because it is a gift from God.

My love for being a church organist and pianist comes from the energy, the art and the great joy in music [that] the church and clergy have.

I like to practice and pray when no one is at church so I’m not self-conscious. I spend Saturday nights there to be ready for Sunday morning. It’s part of my calling to be purposeful and dedicated. I can play all night long. Sometimes a Somali student, who I tutor in English, will call and read me the Quran, and I read from the Bible in return. Sometimes I just quietly listen to the coyotes from the nearby bird refuge. 

It’s important for me to stay connected to the life of St. Timothy because all the musical miracles constantly remind me why I love it—including I Casa, a Central American church that uses our space, whose musicians I helped mentor. I have played music for the young children at the Montessori school that also rents from the church.  

I intend to make music all my life because it is a gift from God.

Music came to be a significant part of worship at St. Timothy because, from the very beginning, it has always been word and music together, as Luther taught. The choir was voted the best in church music three years in a row in the local paper. It is exciting to see people hungry for church music.

I led the first Young Choreographer Evenings at the Walker Art Center and was hired by the Guthrie Theater to create movement music and rehearse incoming scores as assistant to production with Fran Bennett. That led me to compose music for the Cricket Theatre and Theatre in the Round. I worked with Frank Langella, Barbara Bryne, Kenneth Welsh and the dancer Suzanne Verdal, about whom Leonard Cohen wrote the song [“Suzanne”].

When I was in Paris, the organist at Church of Saint-Merri invited me to play the organ. I played virginals for the reception of Queen Elizabeth II’s scribe, Donald Jackson, when he was in Minneapolis. He later returned to the area to produce a handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible for Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville [in Minnesota].

I played and lectured at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for 35 years. I played harpsichord concerts and piano, most notably for the festival of Britain, the dedication of the [Grand Salon] and the opening of Bastille Day, with an attendance of 10,000. I played piano for Alliance Française’s receptions and played many Sunday afternoons for Family Day there. 

I composed and performed 16 silent film scores for the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I was challenged by public programs to do so. The process opened a whole new world for me. It challenged me to understand time and space and create a sonic and emotional landscape for each film. They were live performances, and it was one of the most exciting things I have ever done. The Crowd, Nosferatu, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Wings, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis were a few. I also reconstructed a score for the Charles Lindbergh film festival at the Minnesota History Center.

I pray for guidance, compassion and humility for the gift of music from God.

Grace, to me, means unconditional love and the gifts of creativity, assurance, joy and eternal life.

I’m a Lutheran because I am Jesus People.

John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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