Towards the end of the interview I was standing next to Krystof Srebrakowski, high above the ice of Amalie Arena, admiring his mastery of the arena’s pipe organ, when a tour group of about 30 or 40 people came around the corner.
They were marketing students from the University of South Florida. Srebrakowski, taking note of his new audience, immediately went from an interviewee to an entertainer.
Srebrakowski’s hands seemed almost weightless as they moved from key to key, and he performed with confidence and an enormous smile. As the group made their rounds he grinned, took pictures, and above all gave the audience a great performance.
After the group of students came a small family. The dad suggested to his young daughter that she stand next to Srebrakowski to get a picture as he played.
Srebrakowski, noticing this, invited her onto the organ bench and encouraged her to press some of the buttons. Although she was hesitant, she soon got excited to be a part of the performance.
These moments encapsulated my time with Srebrakowski — he was not simply an entertainer, but an inspiration to me, a music student who also loves the sound of the pipe organ as it rolls out across the ice of the NHL arena. I learned from Srebrakowski that you have to care about your listeners as much as you care about the perfection of your craft.
But what does Srebrakowski do that’s so very special, and how did he find himself playing the pipe organ for the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The game’s musical glue
Srebrakowski can be seen nightly behind Amalie Arena’s massive five-module, 300-speaker Walker Company Organ.
I asked how and what determined when he would play. Was there a set piece during face-offs and intermissions? Or was it all determined on the fly?
“Well, we are constantly communicating throughout the game,” Srebrakowski said. “I have headphones and microphone and it’s on the whole entire time, and I have to know exactly what’s going on every minute and to be alert.”
The “we” he’s speaking of are arena DJ Sean Bovelsky and VP of Arena Entertainment John Franzone. They both sit in the middle bowl within eyesight of the organ. The three talk constantly during game night, and usually determine the music together based on the feel of the game.
Everything is very situational. Crowd excitement, power plays, penalty kills, and of course, goals, all come into play when deciding whether to go to the organ, or to Bovelsky to DJ something through the PA system.
“I have to know exactly what is coming in the game,” Srebrakowski said.
There are a few set moments that the trio have to adhere to, such as advertisements, arena involvement, and presentations like the Lightning’s Community Heroes display.
Incredibly, though, the sights and sounds of the night are really left as a split-second decision by these three people, which seems like quite a workload.
When I mentioned this to Bovelsky and Srebrakowski, they shrugged. With Srebrakowski’s five years of playing for the Lightning, and Bovelsky’s experience with the organization since the Ice Palace days, they have it down to a science.
Both men credit Lightning owner Jeff Vinik for why they enjoy their jobs so much. I commented that it was refreshing to see so many people in a building all enjoying music, and they both heartily agreed.
But how did Srebrakowski, who was born and raised in Żary, Poland, decide to become an organist 5,043 miles away in Tampa Bay?
Growing up with music
I had to look up Żary.
Żary is in Western Poland, and sits halfway between Berlin and Prague. The region has a strong musical history and was the birthplace of composers like Georg Philipp Telemann, George Frideric Handel, and Frédéric Chopin. Proud of his home country’s musical lineage, Srebrakowski grew up always trying to get his hands on their scores.
“Sheet music was not readily available, especially because the internet had not yet been invented,” Srebrakowski told me. When he got his hands on music, he would analyze orchestral scores from Claude Debussy, George Gershwin, and Sergei Prokofiev, along with other classical greats, and transcribed music as much as he could.
One of his first real loves came in the form of symphonic rock, including groups like Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd. These bands had a heavy synth and keys sound, and Srebrakowski loved combining jazz idioms with classical or rock.
This, along with artists like Frank Zappa and John Wetton of Asia, paved the way for Srebrakowski’s discovery of jazz fusion. He credited Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock as huge influences on his own compositions, and said he learned from them the beauty of “Odd rhythms like, 7/8 and 5/8, that are typical of folk music from Eastern and Central Europe.”
Srebrakowski did not have any musicians in his immediate family, but when he decided to take up piano at the age of five (“And naturally organ as well,” he said) his family quickly obtained one for the home. His mother was a pharmacist, and his dad was an engineer. Despite his family having nothing to do with music, they were still very supportive of his passion. “I had a piano at the age of five and I enjoyed practicing,” Srebrakowski recalled. “When I was at church, I was always fascinated with sounds and music.”
Srebrakowski spoke highly of the European tradition of music being a part of education, which made his musical development easier. As he got older, he began playing regularly for the church as well as weddings.
As for hockey, it wasn’t new to Srebrakowski.
“Hockey was very popular as a kid, and with Czechoslovakia nearby, it was big,” Srebrakowski said, “I remember the first time I learned about the organist being a part of hockey, it was in 1986 when I watched the Olympic games from Calgary, and I was fascinated. I was like, wow this is so cool. That is so great that there is an organ player, and he’s cheering the crowd on!”
Learning to be flexible
Torn between his passions for music and science, Srebrakowski said it was difficult to decide between the two. But when it came to choosing his career path, he picked what he enjoyed most, and eventually found himself at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“After traveling the world for several years playing on cruise ships, I did the jazz piano program at Berklee,” Srebrakowski said, “So I am actually a jazz pianist, or I would say a ‘universal’ pianist, because I can do all styles of music. But I know the jazz idiom very well. So that morphs into organ and into everything.”
When I asked why he chose Central Florida to be his home after his education, he seemed almost shocked.
For him, it was an obvious choice. “New York was out of the question,” Srebrakowski said, “It’s too expensive and besides I don’t like the lifestyle...LA is too crowded, too spread out. So out of a few places left where live music is still present, is Central Florida. It’s because we have enough people coming and visiting from all over the world, and we have a lot of retired people that have been raised with live music, so they value the presence of live music in their daily life.”
Right at first, playing music for a living left him struggling to make ends meet. “In 1996 when I first moved here, I was already into midi programming, sequencing stuff, doing the one-man band. I had commercial arranging under my chops. I just trusted myself I would be able to do that. I was poor, and had to start somewhere.”
Srebrakowski’s goal was simple: to not let music become a hobby.
“I wanted to continue with music as my source of income and career. If you have enough chops in every style of music then you have become a successful working musician,” he said. His adaptability was something he prided himself on, and he knew that working musicians had to perform every genre.
Like many musicians who come to Florida for the entertainment industry, Srebrakowski found himself working with Disney. Because of his versatility, he originally wasn’t assigned organ, but keyboard and piano. “The person who hired me at Disney basically tested what I could do. I played classical and popular music. I could play everything he asked of me,” Srebrakowski said.
Srebrakowski passed the audition and was assigned to work with Kids of the Kingdom, an eight-piece band that performed in front of Cinderella’s Castle. “I also did Magic Music Days,” he said, which is a workshop Disney hosts where local community and school music ensembles can take part in a clinic and learn some Disney repertoire. Seemingly his most proud gig with Disney was his job as the band leader for the seven-year long production Tarzan Rocks.
But it was Srebrakowski’s time spent performing at Disney Weddings that was the ideal way to prepare himself for the task of mastering the keys at Amalie Arena.
When Srebrakowski began to work at Disney’s wedding pavilion on a Rogers three-manual organ with all-midi implementation, he realized he had to make something new out of something traditional. “That was actually the challenge for all Disney organists, because all of a sudden I had to play Disney music,” he said, “Which is popular music, film scores, soundtracks, oriented to make it believable — to make it not sound like in the church, because that’s not what people wanted.”
People wanted a piano sound, strings, an orchestra. Less organ, more pop. “We, the organists at Disney, invented the style. We invented the way of playing it,” Srebrakowski said. “And then of course came requests. Sometimes I have to play Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, U2, whatever people have on their requests before every wedding. And this is a challenge. Some stuff we all ready know. Here comes the bride, Canon in D, Water Music, Ave Maria. Classical stuff.”
With Ave Maria, Srebrakowski was again given the challenge of being able to play the style requested of him.
“I had this challenge a year and a half ago. The guest said, ‘Oh, Krystof we have a guest singer, she is going to perform Ave Maria,’ and I said, ‘Okay I don’t know which one it is, but that doesn’t make any difference to me, if it’s (composed by) Schubert or Vavilov.’ But no, she wanted Ave Maria by Beyonce. Even with that you can be surprised. As a musician you have to constantly update yourself and constantly know whats going on.”
In the arena
Outside of Disney, Srebrakowski played with the local symphony orchestra, Orlando Philharmonic. It was through this connection that he discovered the opportunity at Amalie Arena, to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“One of my friends from Orlando Philharmonic told me [the Lightning organization] were looking for an organist here,” Srebrakowski said, “And they auditioned a bunch of people, and luckily I was the person who fit.”
Srebrakowski immediately put in weeks of work just to understand the capacity of the organ. “I had to find my language and learn how to play with the audience and the crowd. The most important thing is to play and respond.” He said he worked extensively at trying to find what he called “the hockey sound.”
Srebrakowski’s pride in the arena’s instrument was evident when he described it. “I listened to a lot of organists. I did my research and did my homework. This is a magnificent instrument that gives the ability to do anything musically. In addition to a traditional theatre organ spectrum of sounds, it also has a midi module as well. You name it. It has it.”
Srebrakowski spent days tinkering and practicing to fully grasp the potential of the instrument. He spent time recording percussive instruments that he uses to play along with many of the modern tracks he performs.
“The essential part is the rhythm section,” Srebrakowski said. “Drums become a part of the music, otherwise it doesn’t have the rhythm factor that would propel the music for the modern listener. So that is why I do a lot of production music in my studio at home. I do a lot of background music and tracks for myself and use it here. Mainly just bass and drums and maybe some other utility instruments.”
The most “magnificent and loud” moments, Srebrakowski saves for the blackout, the nightly sequence before puck drop that ropes in fans with the excitement of the sound.
And although you can hear Srebrakowski playing weekly for the Lightning during their home games, you can also find him on iTunes and Spotify. His album Dream Journey (under the name “Krystof”) showcases many of the original compositions that he often plays at the games. These are evidence of his varied musical background, and showcase his ability as a pianist and composer.
But back to hockey.
Earlier that day, Srebrakowski exchanged banter with a few interns. He boldly predicted a 7-0 victory that night. With that in mind I asked Srebrakowski what he thought of the team’s performance this year.
Srebrakowski replied with optimism, “We are only six points out of the playoffs!”