Organ Department 101
Before arriving at Oberlin, I didn’t even know that the school offered a degree in organ performance - not to mention, one of the best organ degree programs in the country! Because I think this is something that everyone should know about this school, I would love to outline a handful of the things that I believe make this department especially unique.
So Many Instruments!: We have something like 30+ organs in this rural Ohio town. I am also quite positive that there are oftentimes more organ practice rooms at this school than organists -- and these are GOOD organs. All of the practice organs are pipe organs, and some are even designed for practicing early music vs. later music.
The concert organs are incomparable… The organ in Finney Chapel was designed to model organs made during the French Romantic period, the organ in Warner Concert Hall was built in the style of the German Baroque period, and the organ in Fairchild Chapel was designed with 17th-century organ-building principles in mind. All organists get online access to booking practice time in Finney, 24/7 card-reader access to Finney Chapel, and a personal Warner organ key. We are honestly spoiled here.
Organ Pump: The organ department hosts an event called “Organ Pump” several times each year in Finney Chapel. When people ask “What is Organ Pump?” it is often difficult to find an appropriate answer to that question. Each one is so different in its own uniquely bizarre way.
Organ Pump normally commences at 11:59pm on Friday night, although if the organists are running behind (as is the norm), the party sometimes begins at 12:03 instead. The purpose of Organ Pump is to break down the idea of organ as being only a sacred instrument used in religious settings and just have a good time. At Organ Pump, the organ students perform some of the greatest and wildest organ repertoire, interspersed with comedic hosting and unexpected interludes. Oftentimes, there are police blotter chants, spontaneous skits, organist Q&A’s, pop songs on the organ, crazy duets, costumes, candy, and who knows what else? (We usually don’t.) It is tradition that, during the last piece, the lights are dimmed and the audience is invited onto the stage to lie down and let the music rumble through their bones! It is quite powerful, I have to say.
The event is normally hosted by two organ majors, who, this year, were masters students, Abraham Ross and Albert Bellefeuille. “I like how Organ Pump is a variety show of sorts, and we can play the organ in a fun way, outside of a concert or church context,” says Albert Bellefeuille. In addition, each organ pump has a theme. The past couple of years we’ve held Pajama Pump, Halloween Organ Pumps, Christmas Organ Pumps, Commencement Organ Pumps, and many more.
How do we come up with this? Albert Bellefeuille has the answer: “To prepare, I spend like a week thinking of things to do and say, and invariably abandon all of that and make it up five minutes before the show and after a few drinks.” Organ Pump is a fun, creative outlet for the organ department and a low-pressure, supportive performance opportunity. However, my favorite thing about Organ Pump is the way in which it brings our department together for one night. Even organ students who aren’t playing are often in attendance, participating in an onstage act or just having a good time backstage. “I could say more about the inside drama of organizing Organ Pump but that would probably not make it into your blog,” says Albert. Hey, well, we get along for the most part.
Secondary Lessons for Non-organists: If you’re reading this post and you’re thinking, “Wow, this organ department sounds amazing… I wish I could do that…” you are in luck! Students with experience in piano have the chance to audition for organ secondary lessons. The audition is extremely relaxed, and you don’t have to play the organ. However, you are asked to play something of your choice at the piano. Accepted students are then paired with an organ professor or student teacher. I didn’t start organ until I came to Oberlin and auditioned for secondary lessons… and now it’s what I want to pursue as a career!
Small but Strong Department: Something I love about the organ department is the general unity among us. Although students are highly diligent, I don’t get a sense of negative competition. Maybe I’m just blindly optimistic, but I believe that there’s something unique about the way we interact as a department and support one another. I found almost all of my best friends in the organ department. We also have an incredible organ curator, David Kazimir, who not only tunes and maintains the organs but brings our department together even further. This year, he has often hosted receptions, dinners, and other get-togethers at his house during audition weekends, after special guest concerts, during commencement weekends, and at the start of the year. We are truly blessed to have Mr. Kazimir and his generous attitude in our department. Kazimir house parties will definitely be something I remember fondly when I leave here.
Job Opportunities: Almost every organ major, and most of the minors, in the department currently hold church jobs… and the only organ major who doesn’t have a job is the department’s resident substitute organist: Vincent. Sick? Call Vincent. Vacation? Call Vincent. Tigran breaks an arm? Call Vincent. Don’t feel like playing this week? Call Vincent. (Thank you, Vincent.) There are so many churches in the Cleveland area that need organists, and being able to immediately get this kind of experience and put your education into practice while a student is so valuable! I am very grateful for my church position: not only does it allow me to afford The Feve every once in a while, but it provides me with invaluable experience and a place to test and apply my skills.
Guest Recitals and Master Classes: The Oberlin organ department brings in amazing guests to play at the school. Just a few weeks ago, we had an amazing organist, Vincent Warnier, from France. Last year, Professor Christie went on sabbatical and his substitute was Madame Langlais, the wife of famous organ composer Jean Langlais! We all were able to take lessons with her while she was here and were able to get first-hand instruction with someone who lives and breathes the music we were working on.
Sacred Music Skills & Organ Literature: There are two classes in the conservatory that are required for all organ majors and specific to organ majors only. During the 1st or 2nd year, organ students enroll in Sacred Music Skills: a survey of the skills needed for working as a church musician. Some topics studied include: basic hymn playing, transposition, improvisation, re-harmonization, chant, hymn “elevation,” descant writing, conducting, score reading, sacred music history, and so much more. I believe these are all incredibly important practical skills to have as an organist. Students are also required to register for Organ Literature during their junior or senior year, which surveys the entire history of organ music.
Winter Term Internships: The organ department has relationships with many churches across the country. Organists who want to build hands-on experience in church music are able to travel to cities like New York, Portland, or Washington D.C. to intern in some of the nation's top sacred music programs for the month of January.
Winter Term Abroad: Every few years, the organ department travels to another country to study historical organs. I was fortunate enough to travel with the department to Holland and Northern Germany in 2017. We visited and played on 32 different organs and travelled to so many different cities within 2 weeks. It is here that I grew closer to some of my best friends and also strengthened my love for the organ. There isn't anything like playing on the same instruments that Bach, Mendelssohn and other composers actually composed their music at. There isn't anything like the beautiful sounds of these traditional instruments, which fortunately have been so well-preserved.
Amazing Choirs: All organists are required to enroll in a large ensemble. Many organists in the department choose to enroll in choir. Luckily, Oberlin houses some amazing choral groups. There are several organists enrolled in Collegium Musicum, a vocal ensemble which sings beautiful early and unaccompanied vocal music, primarily from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and early Baroque period. Other organists audition for Oberlin College Choir. Voice majors are required to be enrolled in the college choir for two years, which means that working in this choir means working alongside some truly amazing singers.
The organists who don’t enroll in either of these two choirs often enroll in Musical Union, which requires no audition. Musical Union is an incredible opportunity, because they perform huge masterworks, often in collaboration with orchestra. Community members are also welcome to join the ensemble, which brings an even greater number of voices to the choir. They also rehearse only once a week, so it works great for students who already have a very busy schedule.
Master's Program & Studying Multiple Subjects: One thing that makes the organ department at Oberlin incredibly unique is the fact that the school offers a master's program in Historical Performance. This is the only master’s degree the school offers! Better yet? Students enrolled can complete their bachelor’s AND their master’s in a total of five years! Every organist in our department is doing something unique. Most of the organ students choose to study a secondary keyboard instrument as well, such as harpsichord. Master's student Albert Bellefeuille studies all different types of keyboard instruments: organ, harpsichord, fortepiano, and clavichord. When I first came here, I could not believe that the school has all of these! One of our other organ majors, Matthew Bickett, is enrolled in the historical performance master's program, but is also double-degree in religion! Several students graduate without continuing on to the master's at Oberlin, which is also completely acceptable.
Organ Department Instagram: I did say something about departmental unity, didn’t I? The Organ Pump instagram is just one example of this. Shared by several members of the department, it is a place for us to share our own amusingly strange world and publish practically pointless content. Follow us at oberlin.organ.pump!
Diversity: Oberlin’s organ department remains strong in its diversity: from Avon Lake, Ohio, to San Francisco, California, to Holland to Armenia to South Korea… we come from all over! It’s not uncommon for our undergraduate organists to be 18, 19, 20, 28, or in their 40s! Just like its diversity in people, the organ instruction definitely promotes a diversity in skill. Organists are required to study and perform music from various contrasting eras (and our different concert organs allow us to do this)! The organ is an especially unique instrument due to its strong historical roots.
Having access to a liberal arts college which offers European history classes, art history classes, religion classes, and so much more allows organists to explore other subjects that are integral within their own art! Oberlin offers so many specialized music history classes, whether it be American Music, Music in the Tudor Era, Romantic Music History, The Music of Beethoven, and everything in between. There are many courses that organists can take at this school to inform their own musical knowledge, and I believe we are truly fortunate at this school to have the opportunity to develop such a well-rounded skill set.
Memorizing Music: It isn’t all fun and games, though. Like all other conservatory students, organists have to play in a departmental recital during their freshman and sophomore years, and then give a junior and senior recital (well, I guess this should be fun and games)! Excluding their senior recital, they are expected to play all other performances memorized. Now, I grew up learning music from memory at the piano, but I do believe it is quite a bit more difficult to memorize music at the organ when there is all that footwork going on. However, I do believe that memorizing music brings one closer to it. It becomes a part of oneself: something that they truly own and know so deeply.
I’m realizing this has been an incredibly long post. I suppose I just have many positive things to say about the general dynamic of this department. It is easy to get stuck in the things that we don't like about a school, a department, or a course. It is also easy to take certain privileges for granted as time passes and as they become more and more routine. I realize, as I look back at the time that I’ve been a member of this department, that my experience would have never been the same here without the support of such wonderful students, access to such amazing instruments, and the individualized and encouraging instruction I’ve gotten from my amazing professor, Dr. Jonathan Moyer. When I started off as an eager beginning organist, I would have never expected to be playing the music that I am working on now: at least not for the next 15 years! Yet, Professor Moyer has helped me to get to this point and has had faith in me from the beginning. I don’t know if I would have even started studying the organ at any other school. Would I have gotten that opportunity? I will never know. What I do know is that my experience in the organ department here has changed the course of my life, and I am so excited to ride that course.