Career Musings: The “Alternative” That Helped Preserve My Lifelong Love Affair

By Diane Luchese

My first and truest love has always been the organ! I was immediately attracted to the organ the first time I ever heard one. Although when growing up my parents unfortunately did not have the resources to provide me with musical training at an early age, I would nevertheless regularly listen to organ recordings that I borrowed from the library and pretend that I was playing the organ, mimicking all the gestures, much like those who “play” air guitar. I was enthralled with the instrument’s tremendous color palette, captivated by its magnificent repertoire, and excited that playing it included using my feet!

While a college student, my esteemed organ teachers (Fred Swann at Manhattan School of Music and Yuko Hayashi at New England Conservatory) attracted many talented young organists to study in their studios. Because I both started my musical training late (at the end of high school) and did not believe that I had any special musical talent, I remember feeling discouraged when comparing myself to my gifted conservatory peers. I concluded almost immediately that I would never achieve the high level of proficiency that many of them had already achieved at young ages. Then after suffering with two bouts with debilitating tendonitis (both instances followed demanding Holy Week responsibilities), I began to wonder about the reliability of my hands in the future. (Self-doubt is a terrible thing!) Thus after earning my MM in Organ Performance from New England Conservatory, I enrolled in their masters program in music theory, and subsequently earned a PhD in music theory at Northwestern University. Ever since, the bulk of my career has been primarily involved with this “alternative.” For almost two decades I have worked as a Professor of Music Theory at Towson University. Even though I am identified professionally as a music theorist, this alternative career path has actually helped preserve my relationship with the organ.

Regarding my relationship with music theory, I believe that the comprehensive analytical and theoretical study of music has always helped me understand the music I’m trying to perform on a deeper level.  I’ve learned that even the analysis of non-organ music enlightens us about music making and can be helpful in better understanding organ compositions.  Because theoretical analysis has helped me become a better musician, in my role teaching music theory to music majors I always try to make clear how details uncovered in analysis might inform performance. In addition to music analysis, I teach harmony, voice leading, figured bass, counterpoint, aural skills, form, and sometimes even a course on Music and the Brain.  I think that certainly every organist with a church job applies on a daily basis most of the skills that I teach!

Because the duties of my academic appointment are rather demanding, I am unfortunately unable to hold a church organist position or even to practice regularly. But I have not abandoned the organ! I am listed on the AGO substitute list and frequently substitute on weekends at churches in the Baltimore area. Being a substitute organist has numerous advantages, which include the opportunities to get to know and play many different instruments all over town, to get to meet organist colleagues, to learn new choral repertoire (and hymns) that music directors in various denominations have chosen, to maintain my skills, to ‘perform’ new organ repertoire I learn, and of course to earn extra income! Because my academic institution has a small organ department, I assist with semester-end organ and harpsichord juries as well as attend recitals of our organ majors. My scholarly work (with research interests including musical time and motion, pedagogy, counterpoint, and the musics of Messiaen, Bach, and Ligeti) has led to several conference presentations and even occasional organ performances. For example, this summer I will perform an overnight marathon realization of John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP at Leeds Cathedral as part of the Performing Indeterminacy International Conference. Finally, what I consider the greatest perk of my academic career has been the two sabbaticals I received.  My first project involved a trip to Germany to study a Bach manuscript of contrapuntal sketches where I could examine firsthand how Bach explored musical ideas to identify their contrapuntal possibilities, and my second sabbatical project afforded me the opportunity to record an organ CD (Light and Dark and In Between, Raven CD label, 2015).  My CD project was intended to be a kind of time capsule capturing sample repertoire composed during my lifetime and featuring different organs in Baltimore that represent the different kinds of organs one typically now encounters in an American city.

I will admit that I sometimes lament the fact that I was unable to realize my dream of becoming a great organist. But I take satisfaction in that I found a way to work in music and help music students acquire skills necessary for their future musical careers. I am grateful for the research and performing opportunities that my academic position has provided me. As the decades whirl by, I still believe that the organ, my first love, is the greatest instrument!

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