Organist Don Yanskey: helping the faithful worship for 50 years


Organist Don Yanskey has an ear for good music and a heart for good worship.

They are gifts he’s been cultivating for half a century.

“Don isn’t just a musician,” said Father Jason Doke, pastor of St. Martin Parish in St. Martins. “He’s got an in-depth knowledge of the meaning of the Liturgy.

“He doesn’t play the organ just to play the organ,” the priest noted. “He plays the organ because we’re at Mass, and we’re there to give God the best we have.”

St. Martin Parish honored Mr. Yanskey for his 50 years of service to the parish, at the end of Mass on Sunday, Oct. 4.

Fr. Doke blessed the church’s new organ, for which Mr. Yanskey raised the money.

Mr. Yanskey chose for the recessional “One Spirit, One Church,” a contemporary arrangement of “Come, Holy Ghost,” the first hymn he ever played at Mass in 1970.

“I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but it’s certainly at the top of the list,” he said.

The enthusiastic congregation included Cecile Jansen, who gave Mr. Yanskey his first organ lessons back when he was in fourth grade.

“She did say she’s proud,” said Mr. Yanskey. “She has taught many a student, but I don’t know how many others have been playing for 50 years.”

Fr. Doke pointed out that Mr. Yanskey has been accompanying Mass for longer than his pastor has been alive.

“I don’t feel like I’m old, but they tell me that it’s been a long time,” Mr. Yanskey stated.

Something to offer

Mr. Yanskey doesn’t remember much about his first organ lesson 52 years ago.

But the teacher told her new student’s mother right off that he had something going for him.

Specifically, he exhibited a knack for recognizing notes and for playing tunes by ear after hearing them.

A year-and-a-half later, when he was starting sixth grade, Sister Mary Cecile at St. Martin School told him, “We need an organist.”

“Mind you, she didn’t say, ‘You’ll spend more long hours practicing than you can even imagine,’ or ‘You’ll have to get to church very early,’ or ‘Your heart will feel like it’s going to beat itself right out of your chest when you start.’

“She didn’t tell me any of that!” he said with a laugh.

Discovering those realities on his own did not deter him. He kept learning, practicing and playing. 

Parishes in the Jefferson City diocese had just begun offering Masses in English instead of Latin.

“We were doing three or four songs per Mass,” he said. “We did not sing the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ or the ‘Gloria,’ except on Christmas or Easter.”

More singing and accompaniment came gradually, especially after Betty Brandt came to work at the parish and encouraged more accompanists to step forward.

“Now, we have kind of a modern-day ‘High Mass,’” he said. “We sing all of those things.”

To teach and lead

Mr. Yanskey’s instructors helped him learn music theory and chords, while he went about exploring ways to combine them extemporaneously.

For the rest of his time in grade school, he spent part of each recess in church, practicing the organ.

“I spent almost a year learning the bass part of it — the foot pedals,” he said. “I did that pretty much on my own, just adding to what I had already learned.”

His mother persistently encouraged him to practice, “even at times when I thought there were better things to do,” he recalled.

He continued taking lessons in high school from an instructor in Jefferson City.

“She taught me how to teach the songs I’m playing,” she said. “She helped me understand that you have to be more of a leader than an accompanist.”

He also picked up the bass and steel-stringed guitar and played for a while in a local band.

“I play guitar and make up the left hand as I go,” he said. “I have what’s on the right hand kind of memorized and make up the rest.”

He takes a similarly organic approach to accompanying the hymns and responses at Mass.

“I guess I have an ear for it,” he said. “I still make a lot of it up as I go.”

For his first 23 years, the organ console in St. Martin Church was located in an open area behind the sanctuary.

“It was behind the altar and you couldn’t see what was going on out there,” he said. “You had to bend your neck to see what they were doing and know what you were supposed to be doing.”

In 1993, he helped bid on a used instrument that would serve the parish well for nearly 30 years.

It stopped working this year, so he set about raising money for a new one, which has now been blessed and paid for.

He’s been spending extra time experimenting with the new organ’s voices and combining them for the best effect.

“It’s definitely a work in progress,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re there by yourself, some of the voices may sound too strong. But when you play while there’s people in church, they absorb some of that sound, and it doesn’t sound as harsh.”

As with one voice

Mr. Yanskey has attended Mass in parishes all over the United States.

“Nowhere is there better participation than at St. Martins,” he insisted. “We have a really good parish when it comes to participation.”

Their consistent willingness to worship with heart and soul helps him become a better musician and accompanist.

“We’re bringing the best out of each other,” he said. “The better people sing, the better I play and the more runs I put in. People say they like that.”

All of that, he hopes, “brings joy to God’s ears.”

Mr. Yanskey likes offering a mix of traditional and contemporary Catholic hymns.

“You certainly don’t want to give up your roots, but I’m always open to new songs,” he said. “As long as it’s not in four flats. You can quote me on that!”

He often transposes songs that are written in a high key to something lower, so everyone in the congregation can join in.

“Whenever you help people sing better, you’re also helping them want to sing,” he said. 

He maintains a great relationship with other musicians, accompanists and cantors.

“I enjoy the fellowship of people who are sharing their talents to help people give praise to the Lord,” he said.

Communication is essential. So is a sense of humor. One time, he was serving as organist while a friend was leading the singing at Mass.

“We didn’t have time to practice ahead of time,” he recalled.

The opening hymn was “On Jordan’s Bank.”

“I played one version and he sang the other,” he recalled. “Neither of us could figure out what the other was doing, so we did it like that through the whole song.”

“It was bad,” he recalled. “I think the people forgave us.”

Still burning

Mr. Yanskey and his wife, Betty, stay busy cultivating 500 acres of row crops and raising 66 head of cattle on their farm near St. Martins.

But not too busy.

“She always talked me into taking the time to be involved at church, even when I felt I was too busy,” he noted.

He’s grateful to all the people who have encouraged him and helped him improve over the years.

“I have been incredibly blessed,” he said.

He still enjoys making music and helping people raise up their voices to God.

He encourages anyone with a gift for music to step up and share that talent with the Lord.

“Anyone who can do it will not regret taking the opportunity,” he said. “I still derive tremendous enjoyment from it.”

“Don’t let it intimidate you if you hear someone in church and you can’t play as well as they do,” he advised. “I wasn’t that good when I started. No one was.”

“You start with a song here and there and you start working at it, and you learn them over time,” he said.

The key is to keep improving.

“I’m still trying different things and throwing in fourths and seconds and adding different major chords,” he said. “I’m still adding something different and figuring out what my ear wants to pull out of it.”