Teaching and Nurturing the Young Organist

fine organist is a sturdy shelter:

he that has found one has found a treasure.

It is no exaggeration to say that a fine organist is without price in the ecclesiastical world, second only to the holy and learned priest. The exceptional organist, one capable of elevating the Sacred Liturgy and the experience thereof unto a mystical plane,  is truly a rara avis. He provides the faithful sonically with what the great cathedrals and artists have provided in stone, glass, gold, silver and tempera throughout the ages. While the likes of an Olivier Latry don’t appear everyday, there is no reason why we can’t raise up a generation of very excellent and competent organists, much like the solid Norman churches that sit so beautifully across the planes and sweeps of Northern Europe, buildings which paved the way for the later magnificent medieval cathedrals and monasteries. What follows is an attempt to outline some process by which we might develop “solid” organists ready to take up their positions in our parishes and rebuild the foundations of a healthy and vibrant sacred music program, so much needed today.

The  Beginner
The first and best preparation for any future organist is to find himself in a home where music is both loved AND made, sitting alongside a parent who, perhaps, plays and sings at the piano. Are you, dear reader, one of these parents? It matters not how simple the songs may be, for such experiences form the cradle of musical love. As soon as the child shows interest, he should commence piano studies with a competent teacher, which shouldn’t be too hard to find, even in the smallest and least populated of areas. At the same time, those of us who are organists should ask ourselves if we are ready to encourage and even teach these same young students, for thereby we increase the ranks of our noble profession.

The Piano Studio
Setting up a piano/organ studio is quite simple. As a matter of fact, I would be quite surprised if the competent organist exists who has not been asked to teach. Indeed the more difficult aspect of one’s studio is to keep it from taking over one’s life, but the various piano guilds and online resources are thankfully numerous and generally quite helpful, and a simple Google search should put the reader in contact with any information he might require. I would, however, like to offer a few reflections from personal experience.

Firstly, make it an unbreakable rule to engrain the rudiments of music theory into the very bones of the beginning student, preferably before the age of nine or ten. The young student loves to memorize note names and values and to practice rhythms, and the teacher should take full advantage of this, lest it become a painful chore to the student later on. I have taken on a couple of older students (junior high and high school) who have managed to make it through five and more years of lessons and yet struggle to name any other note than middle C or to tackle dotted rhythms, having spent years learning music by nothing more than trial and error. This can easily be avoided and should be.

Secondly, encourage experimentation at the keyboard as much as possible, which can take any myriad of forms. Many students love to compose. Every student will, at some point in his lessons, latch on to a certain work to the detriment of all others. Instead of becoming frustrated, ask the child to take a couple of extra weeks with the piece and to learn to play it in as many keys as possible, and then to change it from the major to minor mode, or vise versa. The only people who will suffer are the parents, who will undoubtedly tire from hearing “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes,” fifty time a day, but such is the price of greatness? Yes?

Lastly, form players who realize that music, whether piano, organ or any other kind of music, must needs be expressive, able to communicate to the listener a message deeper and broader than mere notes on a page, something intangible that speaks both to the mind and heart of things sings and unseen. Nothing is more difficult and yet nothing is more rewarding.

The Organ Student
Eventually the diligent piano student will acquire a sure keyboard technique and find himself ready to commence his studies upon the king of instruments. There are a number of organ primers one can use, but I rely chiefly upon Organ Technique: Early and Modern and the well known Gleason Method of Organ Playing, both of which lead the student through graded exercises at the keyboard and pedal board, and provide copious amounts of beginning repertoire. The well rounded organ student should also gain a sure facility at chant accompaniment and improvisation. Again, I would, like to offer a reflection based on personal experience.

It behooves the teacher to teach his students the art of practicing well. The old adage “work smart, not hard,” or rather “work smart AND hard” should be our guide. I find very few young people self disciplined enough to do both from the beginning, yet the teacher should move his students in this direction. It will often require the teacher to run entire lessons as a structured practice in order to prove to the student what can be accomplished in as few as thirty minutes.

The American Guild of Organists and the Royal College of Organists
If the teacher, especially the new teacher, finds himself overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching the young organist, I would greatly encourage him to join the American Guild of Organists AND the Royal College of Organists. Both of these institutions provide invaluable resources for both teacher and student, including a fine series on making the transition from pianist to organist and another on the art of teaching organ. In addition, the AGO and RCO have now joined forces across the Atlantic and for the price of a few extra lattes, one can add an RCO membership onto his AGO membership.

Finally, the AGO and RCO provide extremely useful examinations and certifications at every level of organ and service playing (as well as choral conducting), including test in areas such as hymn playing, psalm accompaniment and improvisation. In some ways I find them a greater help to the church organist than a post BA degree because they force the organist to master skills other than simply playing organ literature. I have often observed that the standards of organ playing in most parishes, if organs even exists in many parishes any more, are so low that it is easy to rest on one’s musical laurels and, but this should never be the case.  These examinations and certifications offer the organist a chance to deepen and broaden his potential. The skills of the fine organist should be as wide and deep as the ocean.

I will end with the observation that the young organist should also play an integral role in his parish choral program as either a chorister or young member of the ATB sections. Every organist should have plenty of experience as a singer, if only to realize how important it is for the organist to be attuned the needs of both the choir and congregation alike. This also provides the best education of all, on-the-job training with professionals to a very high standard from an early age. I know of no other profession, with the exception of the the family farm, where this is possible. The organ profession is a noble profession indeed.

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