Pipe Dreams at Vassar

By Gail Archer

In fall, 2007, I was appointed College Organist at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar, a former a member of the Seven Sisters, is now a co-educational liberal arts college of 2400 students in the Hudson Valley. The college has two fine organs, a four-manual Gres-Miles concert organ in the college chapel and a two-manual Paul Fritts Baroque-style instrument in Skinner Hall, the music department building on campus. There are also two practice organs and four harpsichords available for student use every day. The practice policies allow students access to the chapel organ every day around the clock, as the names of the organ students are listed at college security. Students simply show their college ID at the security desk to receive the keys to the side door of the chapel and the organ key. They also have open access to the practice instruments in Skinner Hall and they may sign out hours for the Fritts organ during the week, as well.

When I began teaching organ in 2007 there were three organ students. I held an open session at both organs the during Orientation in August at which I spoke briefly about the history of the organ, played some short pieces and then invited the students to try their hand at the keyboard. Several pianists signed up for organ lessons, so I had six students to begin the first year. The open keyboard welcome talk is now an annual event which typically draws 40 students during Orientation. The organ studio has grown to 12-15 students each semester, as it is easy to recruit new students in the fall to take the places of the students who graduate in May. The word is out on the campus that organ study is fulfilling and enjoyable and there is great community among the students as they all explore a new instrument and its rich repertoire. I teach two lessons on the chapel organ and two lessons on the Fritts organ during each term, alternating instruments such that the students play the right repertoire on the right instrument. Whether a student is advanced or just beginning their study, all students play music from every historic period and learn the techniques necessary to play the music in convincing fashion. The chapel organ has a concave pedal board and more than 200 levels of memory with 22 general pistons on each memory level. All students are assigned ten levels of memory to register their music, so everyone can register the music they study each term without any concern that they might overlap with their peers. The Fritts organ has a flat German Baroque pedal board and 35 traditional German draw stops. Students must learn how to combine the registers necessary to play the Baroque literature in a colorful, creative style.

One of my first students, John Wolfe, has recently completed his DMA in organ performance at Rutgers University. John completed an MA in organ performance at the Aaron Copland School at Queens College and then went on to Rutgers. He serves as Dean of the Brooklyn Chapter of the AGO and has a church position in Westchester. Sarah Johnson received an E. Power Biggs Fellowship from the Organ Historical Society during her undergraduate years and will complete the MA in Sacred Music at Boston University this May. Sarah won a full scholarship for her studies in Boston where she also holds a church organist position, a requirement of her degree program. She plans to continue in a DMA organ program next fall, still to be determined. Patrick Walker is enrolled in a three year double degree program in Sacred Music and Composition at Boston University. Patrick directed the student Collegium while at Vassar and included a Handel organ concerto on his senior recital program at Vassar. All Vassar organ majors play a split recital, performing the first half of their program in Skinner Hall on the Fritts organ and then take a break to walk over to the chapel where they present the Romantic and Modern repertoire.
Since 2002, I have organized an artist and student organ recital series at Central Synagogue here in New York City. The series presents international organists on the second Tuesday of each month and students from organ programs across the country on the fourth Tuesday of each month October to May during the academic year. In April each spring, two of my Vassar students share a recital at Central on the fine Casavant Organ. The instrument has four manuals and more than 200 levels of memory and was given in memory of the son of one of the members of the congregation, Gabe M. Weiner. In April, 2018, Michael Pennington, a double major in math and music, and Junrui Liu, a computer science major, represented the Vassar organ program on the series. Students are reimbursed for their travel and receive an honoraria for their performance from the Wiener Foundation. The organ series gives students professional experience playing on a grand instrument in a grand space in New York City.

Since building community helps to build education programs, we hold an organ party at the end of the year with lasagna, salad and brownies. All students perform one or two pieces for rest of the studio during the organ class. They invite their friends and family to join us, so the evening has become a festive part of our program which encourages other student to get involved. Current students volunteer in the spring to join me in the organ talk during Orientation in August to share their experience with the new first-year students. The positive energy we already have is passed on to the new members of the Vassar community and helps the organ program to grow and flourish.

On alternate years, I play a faculty recital on one of the two organs, presenting the performance projects I am working on that year, Messiaen, Bach, Liszt, women composers, Russian literature, Reger. Next year, my colleague in the voice department, Robert Osborne and I will present a work for organ and voice by Shostakovich on the ModFest program, an annual contemporary music festival at Vassar.

The kindness and support that the organ program enjoys at Vassar has been rewarding and fulfilling for me over the past ten years, and I look forward to many more years of developing the talents of young organists at Vassar College.

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