Promoting the Organ to Students and Churches
By Linda Andrews
As organists, we all are constantly searching for new and unique ways to find students who might benefit from an introduction to the organ, especially younger, grade school students and even those a few years older. It certainly is a recurring theme in my life as I live and work in a small Midwestern community that is primarily a farming area and yet, also houses a state university of 10,000 students in the town.
Let me begin by telling you that I am Organist at First Presbyterian Church, a position I have held since 1995 and I teach organ at Western Illinois University in Macomb something I have done with pleasure since fall semester 2012. You see, the degree program for organ was eliminated at the end of the spring semester 2012 when the organ professor, Dr. Anita Werling, retired after 40 years of very fine instruction. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar happening around the country. It was time for me to start thinking a bit differently about how to attract students to the organ.
There are several ways in which I reach out to students and young people. At the university level, I visit the keyboard area’s “meet and greet” at the beginning of the year and talk with students about the benefits of learning to play the organ and how this will help them with their careers. After all, it would look good on a resume that a student had taken organ lessons for several semesters. Additionally, they would garner income as their services were requested in the community. Each semester the professor from the music education area has me teach her undergraduate students an introduction to the organ. This has been well received by students and faculty alike. Not only are students interested in learning about the organ but faculty is, too. I currently have one faculty member studying organ and in the past, I have had others study organ. I am looking to expand my presentations to other music classes.
Recently, the 4th – 6th grade music teacher for St. Paul’s Grade School, Gayle Cooper, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to teach an organ class at the church for her sixth grade music class. There were 14 young people who were eager and curious to learn about the organ at their church. I asked those students who study piano to bring something to the class that they would like to try on the organ. One thing about young students, they are not hesitant to volunteer for anything! The students loved the experience and that set into motion the next phase for the class. Every Friday morning is the children’s mass, which incorporates the third through sixth grade classes, and utilizes the sixth grade class for assisting the worship service during the musical portions of the mass. Beginning next semester, several students from the sixth grade music class will play the organ during the communion portion of the mass. Fortunately, St. Paul’s offers an after school program for the students so up to three students will have an opportunity to learn more about the organ during this time. I can’t wait to start on this next phase of learning with the St. Paul’s students!
I have been known in the community for many years and it seemed that pastors were calling me to see if I would have an organ student who could play for a church service. When I became the organ instructor for the School of Music, I had made up my mind that I would take on the task of helping churches in Macomb find musicians to play the organ for their services. I knew of the need for church organists in this area. As a result of these various efforts between my work at the university and in the community, there are two churches that currently employ a university music student as their regular organist. One of the churches, Trinity Lutheran, actually pays for a graduate student’s assistantship each semester. The organ scholar is required to attend choir rehearsals, accompany soloists and of course, take organ lessons. Additional stipend is given for weddings and funeral services. The Episcopal Church of Macomb also has a graduate piano student playing for their services and he/ she, too, must study organ. The church raises money through concerts and grants. For a small congregation, their efforts are truly amazing as they raise between $10,000 and $12,000 per year to support their music ministry. Additionally, the church houses a Wicks pipe organ which is on permanent loan from WIU. Immanuel Lutheran has an undergraduate horn performance major who studies organ, play for their services one to two times per month. In the past, they have employed graduate music majors and faculty music instructors to play the organ or piano.
There isn’t a semester goes by that I am not contacted by a pastor or church musician looking for someone to play the church’s organ and could I help. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than helping others learn about the organ and to fill a possible void at the same time. The churches are very pleased with the students and they are happy because students are learning the benefits of playing the organ, thus ensuring that the church organs do not remain silent. I visit the churches and talk with the staff and I also give students some of their lessons at the church. It is all about making connections and promoting the instrument I love to others. I do not think I am doing anything above and beyond what any other music educator or church organist would do to attract students to the organ. What I do is very basic but the satisfactory results are clearly evident as the work in this area continues to evolve.