AUBURN — Phil House is coming up on a year of milestones.

Thirty years playing organ at the First Universalist Church of Auburn. Thirty years playing weddings at the All Souls Chapel at the Poland Spring Resort.

Thirty years playing in the Monday night Sunset Concert Series with good friend Kathy Haley of Danville.

House started on piano, self-taught at age 5. By 12 years old he was the organist for the Bryant Pond Baptist Church. He’s being honored Sunday by the First Universalist Church. He said he’s flattered, church members are like family, but he’d also rather let his music do the talking.

“I can play in front of thousands of people, but if I have to stand up and tell people what I was going to play or talk in a microphone, I’d pass right out,” said House, 67. “We all have our strong points.”

He started his music career young. After Bryant Pond, House also became organist for the Deering Memorial United Methodist Church in South Paris and the Norway United Methodist Church at age 16.

After high school, he spent a year at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, but a professor there could tell he wasn’t happy.

“He said the style that you play, you should be playing in places like Nashville, Tennessee, or down South,” House said. “So I moved to Nashville and played down there professionally for 13 years.”

His style is known as stride, freewheeling with jazz roots.

“A classical piece, you have to play the exact notes the way they’re written on the music, and the way I play my songs, I just take off and make it my own left hand,” House said. “I make up a lot of my right hand, as well.”

In Nashville, he played piano at nightclubs while keeping up his organ work at a hospital and church.

“It was wonderful, I got to meet a lot of neat people. Floyd Cramer (a famous Nashville pianist), I got to meet him and we went to the same barber,” House said. “Randy Travis, I got to meet him, (and) Dolly Parton.”

By 1986, House felt it was time to come back to Maine. He poked around, no one needed a church organist, so he began playing piano in the Graziano’s lounge.

“The (First Universalist) organist and his wife came to eat at Graziano’s one day,” House said. The man mentioned he was leaving. The spot was open.

House had been the organist there for two years in the early 1970s before leaving for Nashville, and the job was his again.

On Sundays, he plays on a Hook and Hastings organ and a Chickering grand piano that’s more than 100 years old. He never walks in with a set playlist.

“I just feel the moment,” House said. “I’ll even have something planned in my head and when it’s time, my fingers just play something else.”

He’s also stayed busy playing for residents at places such as Clover Manor and Schooner Estates.

“Some lady came up to me once and she had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘You are a hero.’ I said, ‘I am?'” remembered House. “She said, ‘My mother has not sung in years and the music that you were playing brought back memories and she started singing.’ When I hear things like that, it’s like, wow. People tell me, ‘You cannot see all the smiles on the people’s faces and their tears of joy.’ People tapping their feet. That’s what keeps me going.”

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Phil House of Auburn is celebrating 30 years as the organist of the First Universalist Church of Auburn. He’s being honored at the church Sunday. (Photo courtesy Troy R. Bennett)


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