Early Years - Thomas Schippers

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Early Years

Born on March 9, 1930 in the small town of Portage Michigan, just a few miles from Kalamazoo, to Agnes Nanninga and Peter Schippers, Thomas was the third of four children. The family was of Dutch descent. His brother Henry was born a few years earlier and his sister Gracetta several years later. The elder daughter named Cornelia Grace died from diphtheria.
Tommy, as he was always called, had his first piano lessons at the age of four. The Schippers household did not have a piano but their grandmother did and while accompanying his brother to lessons at their maternal grandmother’s house across the street he began to pick up the essentials. In his own words:

“Even before I could pronounce two words together correctly, I was already ‘pounding’ on the black and white of those magical keyboards.”
By the time he was six, Tommy was already accomplished enough to give a small recital. Occasionally he played duets with his brother until Henry tired of piano lessons and quit. When he reached the age of eight, he changed teachers and began studying with the 90-year-old Victoria McLaughlin who had studied in Europe with Brahms. She was convinced that he would someday become famous.
He then began taking organ lessons with Henry Overley who was the organist and music director of St. Luke’s Church in Kalamazoo. At age nine he was playing the organ using special shoes that had three to four inch soles in order for him to reach the pedals.
About Tommy, Overley observed that, “He seemed to sense instinctively the musical essence of a score. His registrations* were so revealing of the heart of the music that at times his discernment was almost uncanny. He could sight read with a sureness that many players never acquire.” Although he eventually became an excellent conductor, this instrument always held a special place for him.
Tommy graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School at the extraordinarily young age of fourteen, having skipped three grades. He won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied organ and piano, completed his studies there at sixteen, and also attended courses at the Julliard School of Music finishing at seventeen. After studying composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale University, he decided to enter the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Young Conductors competition and was chosen by Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as one of the six finalists out of forty entrants.
 * Registration is the technique of choosing and combining the stops of a pipe organ in order to produce a particular sound.
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