OPPORTUNITY FOR ORGANISTS: A student performs on the Casavant Organ (also known as the Scheide Organ) in Rider University’s Gill Memorial Chapel. Those auditioning for the new Westminster Choir College Organ Scholarships will do so on this instrument. (Photo by Peter G. Borg/Rider University)
By Anne Levin
Westminster Choir College at Rider University invites those interested in serious study of the organ to apply and audition for six full scholarships.
Prospective organists will try out on Westminster Undergraduate Audition Day on February 4, playing a work by JS Bach or another Baroque composer, as well as a piece by a Romantic, 20th Century or living composer . Accomplished pianists who have never played the organ, but would like to learn how, are encouraged to apply with experienced organ students.
“One thing the Westminster administration wanted to do was allow piano students to audition, even if they didn’t do much or no organ study,” said competition director Robert McCormick, a 2001 Westminster graduate and current organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. “They can audition on the piano, and if they have an appropriate skill level and a willingness to learn, it can work.”
Making the transition from piano to organ “is difficult, but a talented student can certainly do it if they want to,” he added.
Alongside McCormick, the judges are Steven Pilkington, associate professor in the Department of Choral Studies, Music and Sacred Music at Westminster; Clara Gerdes, Music Director of Most Holy Redeemer and Nativity Parish in New York; and Thomas Gaynor, assistant organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s Church.
“The new competition presents an incredible opportunity for prospective students wishing to play the organ to study at Westminster,” said Jason Vodicka, Associate Dean of Rider’s College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Music Education at Westminster, in a press release. . “The organ is an essential part of the history of Westminster Choir College and can be selected as the principal instrument for the Bachelor of Music Education program or the Bachelor of Arts in Music program, which includes pieces of sacred music, d music history and music theory, among others.. I am delighted that the University has chosen to support the study of organs in this way.
Rider and Westminster merged in 1992. In recent years Rider has attempted to sell the Princeton campus in Westminster. In 2020, Rider moved Westminster programs to its Lawrence Township campus, a move that has been legally challenged.
Some buildings on the Princeton campus are sometimes still in use, including Bristol Chapel, where Westminster’s largest organ is housed. The Casavant organ, also known as the Scheide organ, is moved to Rider with some practice organs.
The scholarship offer is part of an effort to rekindle interest in the instrument. “There’s been a pause in organ studies at Westminster, because of what’s going on there, as well as the pandemic,” McCormick said. “In general, there are fewer organ programs today than in the past. So I think one of the hopes is that it might be a program that will accommodate piano students who want to work hard and learn the organ as their main instrument.
Being an organist and choir director in Philadelphia is a full-time job for McCormick, but his situation is not the norm. “It’s harder to make a living as a full-time organist these days,” he says.
Those interested in competing should apply by January 15 to pursue a Bachelor of Music in Music Education or a Bachelor of Arts in Music with the organ as the primary instrument. Piano or voice can be selected as the second main instrument.
“One thing that could be good about this program is that someone can specialize in music education with the organ as their main instrument, which could prepare them to teach music in school and maybe get a job at part-time as a church organist.”