IT WAS a very old, romantic church, built early in the century. I remember the beautiful stained glass, the cobwebs in the eaves, and the garden outside where a huge magnolia tree with the most lovely blossoms flowered once a year . . . such a beautiful smell.

This was in my home town, a little place called Monroe, North Carolina.

I remember everything about that building. I remember how the radiators popped and cracked in the winter, the dark, cool wood in the summer, the heavy carpets and the huge pew cushions - Americans want the comfort of their lounge even in the place where they worship.

My family were devout Methodists, they held prayer meetings and bible readings, and were very involved in this church, where I was a probationer in the choir.

I knew from the first I wanted to play the organ; I never wanted to drive a train or be a fireman.

My parents begged the organist: 'Would you mind if our son tried the organ?' The organist was highbrow and snotty, he travelled over from Charlotte, about 25 miles away, and he couldn't be bothered with a dirty-faced little kid 'having a go', he didn't want any child touching his instrument.

I took matters into my own hands. It was a Saturday, late in the afternoon - early April, something like that. The sun's rays were long and warm, but the sun was going down fast and it was getting dark. I tried all the doors and windows, and nothing opened. So I broke a window with a discarded Coke bottle I found under the magnolia tree, and as I pulled myself in, damn it, I cut myself. I had never seen blood before and I was pretty horrified, but I wrapped my arm in my shirt.

I sat at the organ.

The inside of a big pipe organ is unbelievable] All those pipes, all different sizes, from 32 feet down to the size of a pencil. They looked alive, beckoning almost, their mouths stretched across the entire front of the church.

It was a proper pipe organ, everything was handmade, a one-off, there was not another on the face of this earth like that particular instrument. It had been made specifically for that space, each pipe voiced to fit the acoustics like a seamless glove; and the facade pipes were exquisitely scrolled with special paints in a late-Victorian fashion.

I touched the keyboard. I heard the wind come rushing up into the windchest, and as I listened to this huge engine, this 10- or 15-horsepower blower, it was like I was alive - I was taking force from this big beast - I was one of the pipes, it was so exhilarating.

At the same time, the shirt covering my cuts could absorb no more, and I was bleeding over everything, which was very scaring.

I played a few hymns; I didn't know what to do with my feet, they couldn't reach the pedalboard, so that was kind of frustrating . . .

I finished my playing and went home, a block away. My mother immediately summoned the doctor, and he sewed me up. Then I was faced with the punishment.

My grandfather was called. He took me over his knee and thrashed me with strap and paddle and switch - anything he could lay hands on. It was trial by fire.

But it was worth every minute of it, believe me.

I never broke into a church again. In fact, now people are dying for me to come into them - it's funny how things change.

The church has been pulled down, it's a parking lot. It was a marvellous building, and they just pulled it down . . . I can't believe it.

The magnolia tree is still there.

Carlo Curley is an internationally acclaimed organist.

(Photograph omitted)

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