Matthew Kaminski said landing his job as the Atlanta Braves' ballpark organist was “dumb luck.” The 1995 Jacobs graduate happened to have an organ student who knew the person in charge of hiring an organist.
He auditioned during spring training games in 2009 at Turner Field and landed the gig. Kaminski has been the Braves’ organist ever since, first at Turner Field and later at their new ballpark, SunTrust Park. He has become known for his creative walk-up song choices for visiting team players.
Kaminski, 42, played basketball and tennis at Jacobs. He went to the University of Arizona and transferred to Georgia State when his family moved to Georgia.
He currently lives in Lilburn, Georgia, with his wife, Kathleen, and their two daughters, Allison, 8, and Sarah, 5.
Kaminski recently spoke with the Northwest Herald about landing the job with the Braves, his walk-up song selections and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your audition with the Braves like? Were you nervous?
Kaminski: Yeah, but the type of organ music that is played at the ballpark is not necessarily the hardest of the hard music. Meaning I’m not up there playing some Bach preludes and fugues, which are really hard piano pieces. Playing-wise, I was very confident in myself, and I guess I still am. The hard thing was getting used to following directions while I was playing.
At Turner Field, I had a headset on where the director would tell me when to play and give me five seconds to stop playing. So while I’m playing I had to hear other conversations going on. In our new stadium at SunTrust Park, I’m in the same room as the audio engineer. So I don’t have to have a headset on.
This isn’t your only job, correct?
Kaminski: So it’s not exactly this but a third of what I do is baseball organ – I also do college baseball. Another third of what I do is teaching, even throughout the Braves' season. I have about a dozen private students who take piano, accordion or organ lessons from me. I also teach a couple senior-citizen organ classes. Teaching has been a part of my life since 2000. The other third of what I do is performing, other gigs other than baseball organ. I play in a salsa band, I play in a lot of different jazz groups, as well as a polka band during Octoberfest season.
Actually, in July, I’m going to be playing in Arlington Heights. There’s a place called Hey Nonny. I believe it’s on July 9. I’ll be playing there with a gypsy jazz band. Gypsy jazz is the music of Django Reinhardt. I’ll be playing the accordion along with a couple guitar players.
What is your process toward deciding which walk-up songs you’re going to play?
Kaminski: I put a post out to Twitter and Facebook asking the fans. It’s not only Braves fans, it’s also the opposing teams. When the Cubs came to town, a lot of Cubs fans were giving their suggestions. Before a series, I get up to 100 requests or suggestions. These days, it’s not really me coming up with all the songs; it’s me picking the ones I think are the best.
I have to choose the ones that will work well on the organ, as well as be noticeable right away. The walk-ups are only about 20 to 30 seconds long. So I don’t have very much time to grasp the audience.
Throughout the games, people will also suggest another song. Often, I’m on my iPad listening on YouTube to another song someone had suggested. Then I try my best to play it in front of 40,000 people. I have an app that lets me play a little bit of the song. If I have at least the melody down, that’s all I need.
How do you know if a walk-up song was a success?
Kaminski: Twitter is a good indication, but I realize that the teenage to 40-year-old crowd is on Twitter, but for the 50-and-up people, they’re not always on Twitter. I’ll get different reactions on Twitter than I get from someone in their 60s who comes up to me after a game. So I try to play walk-ups that cater to all age groups. One that I’m known for playing is “Camptown Races” for Lucas Duda.
"Camptown races sing this song, doodah, doodah."
Something everyone knows and can sing along with. There used to be a James McDonald [on the Pirates]. I used to play “Old MacDonald.”
And instead of just playing one song for the entire series for a player, I’ll mix it up. For Starlin Castro, I played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” but I also played “Star Wars.” And since his last name is Castro, I played “Havana,” and then I played “Guantanamera.”
So you grew up liking music, did you like baseball too?
Kaminski: I wasn’t a fanatic. Before I lived in Algonquin, I grew up in Park Ridge. I lived in Park Ridge until the end of seventh grade. Then I started at Algonquin Middle School in my eighth-grade year. Growing up, I’ve been to a dozen or so Cubs games, a couple White Sox games, but I was mainly a Cubs fan.
Back then, I was more of a basketball fan, in the Michael Jordan era. I was much more of a basketball fan, and I played on the basketball team my freshman and sophomore years at Jacobs. And I was also more into watching the Bears than into watching baseball.
Did you play any other sports in high school?
Kaminski: Yeah, tennis. I played tennis all four years. I was decent. When I was a senior, I was No. 1 doubles, but I can’t say that I had a winning record or anything like that. It’s a good thing I became a musician. Right now, I’m trying to teach my daughters how to play tennis.
Do you play other instruments?
Kaminski: My main instruments are organ, accordion and piano. I play a little bit of guitar, nothing professionally. I play a little bit of drums. Those are more or less hobbies.
Do you make it back up to the Chicago area much?
Kaminski: I still have a lot of my cousins and aunts and uncles, family and friends in the Chicago area. My sister lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, so a lot of times if I go up to visit her, I’ll stop by and visit a lot of my friends and family.
Have you ever gone back to Jacobs?
Kaminski: I’ve driven by and I didn’t even recognize the area. It was all cornfields back in ’95. We would see cows. There was a big farm. Randall Road was so different. Even the high school is so different.