Suffolk organist who has been on the keys for eight decades celebrates 90th birthday
A veteran organ player who has played in churches across Suffolk for nearly eight decades is celebrating his 90th birthday this week.
Denis Nichols, who turns 90 on Tuesday, showed musical prestige from a young age – when he passed his first piano exam aged just nine.
It was shortly afterwards, when the organ player at his local church in Parham fell out with the vicar, that Mr Nichols was asked to step up – at just 11 years old.
Mr Nichols took to the instrument straight away, although the process wasn’t without its hurdles.
“I couldn’t reach the pedals because my legs weren’t long enough,” he said.
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Once his legs had grown sufficiently, Mr Nichols went on to play at countless churches across the county – beginning with Marlesford, where he played three times a Sunday. He later played at St Mary’s Church in Woodbridge, and at St Augustine’s Church in Ipswich.
When he turned 18, Mr Nichols began National Service in Market Drayton, north Shropshire, where he worked in the airforce. However the music never left him, and he was lucky enough to play in the church parade – something he said he was particularly pleased about, as it gave him a break while he friends stayed hard at work.
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It was during this time that he met his wife, Hilda Mary, when he returned to Suffolk on leave. He would take camera films into the chemist where she worked, in Framlingham, and the relationship blossomed from there.
At 21, Mr Nichols moved back to Saxmundham where he worked as a cabinet maker – building coffins and repairing furniture damaged in the war. He later qualified as a funeral director, and worked as a special constable in the police.
As always, his music followed him, and Mr Nichols played regularly at a central church in Ipswich. He was mentored by Mr Bates Wilkinson, who encouraged him to become a qualified organ player.
However Mr Nichols’ fortunes quickly changed, and he was involved in a nasty motorcycle accident aged just 22. He broke both his leg and his arm – and was forced off the keys for six months.
After he married Hilda in 1951, Mr Nichols decided not to pursue the qualification because his legs didn’t work as well as they had.
The pair ended up moving to Reydon, during which time Mr Nichols played in Southwold. After a year or so the couple moved back to Saxmundham – where they remained until Mrs Nichols’ death last October.
Mr Nichols said he couldn’t imagine life without his beloved organ, and recalled a number of touching anecdotes about the sentimental value held by the instrument.
When his wife was admitted to Melton Hospital with a nerve problem, Mr Nichols would often play for her in the hospital chapel. After she passed away after a long battle with dementia, he played her favourite hymn: Let All The World In Every Corner Sing, at her funeral.
During happier times, the pair worked out a secret code to help Mr Nichols keep on track while he played in church. As she sang in the choir, Mrs Nichols would put her hymn book down one verse before the end of the song, so Mr Nichols would know when to stop playing. He said if it hadn’t been for her signal, he could have gone on playing forever – verse after verse.
Looking back over nearly eight decades dedicated to the organ, Mr Nichols said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel lost if I am not doing it on a Sunday – it has been my life.”
He will be back on the keys at St Peter’s Church in Yoxford next Sunday.