Michal Zachowicz grew up on Buffalo’s East Side just off Sycamore Street. He worked a variety of jobs while a student at the University at Buffalo before he started to play the church organ in 1992. His first church job, he said, was at a small Hungarian reform church in North Buffalo, where he was paid $30 for each Sunday.
Today Zachowicz is 43 and lives in Cheektowaga, where he has served as organist and cantor at Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church for more than 10 years. He also plays at Our Lady Help of Christians Chapel, where the Tridentine Latin Mass is celebrated at 1:30 p.m. each Sunday, and he is evening host of a classical music program on WNED-FM 94.5.
People Talk: Can you make a living as a church organist?
Michal Zachowicz: As a single guy in suburban Buffalo, yes. As someone who plays six Masses on the weekends, and weddings and funerals for the week as well as various occasions and holy days, certainly it satisfies both my musical interest and helps pays the bills, and then some.
PT: I’ve never interviewed a church organist.
MZ: I think of myself as someone who happens to play the organ and who sings as well, rather than someone who went to school and formally studied music. I bought a keyboard when I was 17. I saw the mathematical relationships in music. I read a little bit about music theory. Music is very logical.
PT: What did you study?
MZ: I earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies, and I studied language, some Polish and Russian.
PT: You seem to have a strong religious base.
MZ: Being a product of St. Luke’s grammar school on the East Side of Buffalo, and a couple of years each attending Bishop Turner and Bishop Timon [high schools], I was instilled with good values.
PT: What’s your audition hymn?
MZ: I don’t know if I’ve ever had one, but I’d probably play something like “For All the Saints.” It’s rousing.
PT: Why is there a rear-view mirror on most church organs?
MZ: To help the organist keep pace with the service. During the offertory, the priest wants continuous music during the collections – until the offertory is complete, essentially. Four o’clock Mass is often standing room only, so I will try and have interludes between each verse. I may even have to repeat a verse or so. My rear view mirror is essential. My role is not to put on a recital, it is to accompany the congregation.
PT: Do you do bar mitzvahs?
MZ: I haven’t. I’m not familiar with that. Essentially I do Catholic Masses. I’m most familiar with that liturgy.
PT: Are you a devout Catholic?
MZ: I would like to say that I am faithful to church teachings, and I like to submit to the legitimate authority of the church. There is nothing wrong with questioning authority as long as you are open for the right answers, open for the truth. As the pope said, we’re living in a tyranny of tolerance.
PT: How do you unwind?
MZ: A cold glass of Zwiec [beer] and watching replays of Yankees World Series victories while having a chessboard to my right and a little Chopin in the background. It shows my proud blue-collar roots and the Renaissance man wannabe.
PT: Is there a local organ that takes your breath away?
MZ: St. Stan’s.
PT: You also work at WNED-FM 94.5.
MZ: A few nights a week from 6 to 10 p.m. on “Evening Classics” playing various pieces of music. I play the piece, talk about the composer, the work, the historical context. I’m talking about music that spans centuries and that represents many different cultures. We’re not DJs. We’re program hosts, so we’re not just cranking out Top 40 music.
PT: You discovered classical music as a child?
MZ: As a teenager. I have siblings who are 12 and 14 years older than me, so I was exposed to music from the ’70s, a healthy dose of Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin. I remember specifically at Bishop Turner, what led to classical music. It was Father Joe Janaczek, who taught history. He would introduce us to great painters, writers, composers. That helped fuel the interest. So I would ride my bike to the Fronczak Library on Broadway, which is now closed. I would borrow records and record them. That’s how I built my library.
PT: What have you held close about your Polish roots?
MZ: It’s more of a raising of consciousness. My approach is to celebrate the real diversity in the world. I can’t possibly learn about every culture in the world. But by learning about my own – its thousand-year glorious and tragic history of being defenders of Western civilization and its great contributions to arts and sciences – I have an appreciation of all cultures. Having an appreciation for your heritage enhances your life.
PT: What has been a main influence in your life?
MZ: The new evangelization of John Paul II, which entails the understanding that faith and reason are “two wings of the same bird” leading us to truth, as well as appreciation for the church’s intellectual tradition. This is the stuff that makes me tick.
PT: Are you always this intense?
MZ: I’m not sure there is an answer to that, but during any conversation I like to get to the crux of the issue. I don’t like superficiality. You might say I have a disdain for mediocrity, but we are all works in progress. I spend a lot of time in church. As the saying goes, church is not a museum for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners. I think passionate would be a more accurate word to describe me.
PT: What is your aim for the future?
MZ: A general aim, I guess, would be to self-actualize, to fulfill my potential: to pursue a degree in mathematics and to become a more proficient musician. I think the pipe organ is the king of instruments and has a prominent place in church music. Up until the Industrial Revolution, the pipe organ was the most complex instrument. It still fascinates me that I can flip a switch and 50 feet away a whole rank of pipes is activated.