Michael Shortal’s fingers flow in a mesmerizing rhythm over the keys of the pipe organ while his feet dance across the pedal keyboard in the First United Methodist Church of Orlando. The dancing of his fingertips is only interrupted by the quick pulls of the stop knobs before he sinks effortlessly back into the swelling music.
Shortal said that, ever since third grade, when he came to the church for an organ concert, he became obsessed with the pipe organs and the church music.
“My parents thought I was going to fall asleep at the concert when, in fact, the complete opposite happened,” Shortal said. “I was absolutely electrified.”
Since then, the 41-year-old director of music at Oakland Presbyterian Church has not only developed a working business relationship with organs but a certain love for them as well.
“This instrument was inspiration for my life’s journey in a way,” Shortal said.
Shortal’s journey first began in Alton, Illinois, in 1978 where he was born into a family of esteemed musicians. His father, well-known conductor Bill Shortal, and his mother, a long-term elementary school music educator, instilled music in Michael and his three older siblings since they were born.
In 1982, the Shortal family moved to Fort Myers, Florida, where they lived for eight years before coming to Winter Park in 1990.
Growing up in the intricate music community of Winter Park, Michael said he always had dozens of opportunities to be involved in music, including music camps at Rollins College and helping the organist at First Methodist, where he turned pages, pulled out the stops of the organ and learned to read complicated music scores.
When the young musician decided to pursue vocal performance at Florida State University, it came as no shock.
“Music was one of those things that I didn’t choose,” Michael said. “It choose me.”
After graduating from FSU in 2001, Michael said that his belief was truly tested when he tried to run away from music for real estate. Michael said that, although he enjoyed his work at Old Town Brokers downtown, it never held the same fulfillment for him that music had.
“Over the years, music kept calling me back,” Michael said.
When the opportunity to get back into the music world arose, Michael quickly took it.
He heard of the Knowles Memorial Chapel Organ, which had just been rebuilt by Randall Dyer and Associates Inc., at Rollins College and decided to check it out. Michael met Dyer, who had heard of Michael and saw his interest and talent and invited him to take an opening in the company.
Michael said he immediately moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he worked with the company to construct pipe organs and rebuild existing instruments. During this time, Michael later went back to the University of Tennessee where he earned his master’s in choral conducting in 2012.
Throughout his time with the Randall Dyer company, Michael said he worked on a multitude of organs, including ones at the First Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Tennessee, Cummings First United Methodist Church in Cumming, Georgia, Church of the Immaculate Conception in Somerville, New Jersey, and even on the first organ he fell in love with in third grade, the Aeolian-Skinner Organ at First United Methodist Church.
He said that, although the organ may not look as big as what originally met the eye, a lot of work goes into re-constructing organs. With over 4,000 pipes, this organ was no exception.
“There is no guidebook to organ building,” Michael said. “You must learn by apprenticing and through your ears and eyes.”
To break it down, each organ, regardless of size, is originally rendered down into sets of drawings. According to the Randall Dyer company, with the exception of pipes and electrical equipment, “All the parts of our organs are made in our well-equipped shop.” Pipework is then scaled and voiced, followed by parts of the organ slowly coming together and being built from the ground up. In the end, the organ is assembled and tested.
Michael said that the work was divided up into stages, to keep everything operating, and took about a year-and-a-half to two years to complete.
Although Michael still works with the Randall Dyer company when they are in town, his main focus now rests with his position for the last five years as director of music.
“Music gives joy to people and allows you to see the best in everyone,” Michael said. “It allows you to see people of all backgrounds come together and express emotions naturally.”
From administrative work, planning and paperwork to filling music, making sure all the instruments are taken care of and organizing eight to 10 music ensembles, Michael’s job is anything but easy. He said that oftentimes the underappreciation from the general public is frustrating, as he shows up to work many more days throughout the week than just on Sunday.
“I have faith in people, and I try to see the good in everyone and every situation as well as working on patience,” Michael said. “Although it is frustrating, the people who do understand and appreciate the work and the music is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Seeing that spark that comes alive in a person when the music moves them is unlike anything else.”
Currently, Michael lives in Ocoee with his partner Kevin and their two dogs, who he refers to as “my children.” Outside of his work, Michael enjoys cooking, museums, photography and, of course, practicing his musical talents with vocals and the organ at every opportunity he can.
Michael said he hopes to continue to pursue and foster his role in church music in the future.