OPPORTUNITY FOR ORGANISTS: A student performs on the Casavant organ (also known as the Scheide organ) in Gill Memorial Chapel at Rider University. 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 of Rider University is inviting those interested in serious study of the organ to apply, and audition, for six full-tuition scholarships.
Prospective organists will try out during Westminster’s 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 along with experienced organ students.
“One thing Westminster administration wanted to do was make it possible for piano students to audition, even if they haven’t done much or any organ study,” said competition director Robert McCormick, a 2001 graduate of Westminster and the current organist and choirmaster of Saint Mark’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. “They can audition on piano, and if they are at an appropriate level of proficiency and have a willingness to learn, it can work.”
Making the transition from piano to organ “is hard, but a talented student can certainly do it if they want to,” he added.
Serving as judges along with McCormick are Steven Pilkington, associate professor in Westminster’s Department of Choral Studies, Music, and Sacred Music; Clara Gerdes, director of music at Most Holy Redeemer and Nativity Parish in New York City; and Thomas Gaynor, assistant organist and choirmaster for Saint Mark’s Church.
“The new competition presents an incredible opportunity for prospective students who are interested in playing 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 . “Organ is a critical part of Westminster Choir College’s history and can be selected as a primary instrument for the Bachelor of Music Education program or the Bachelor of Arts in Music program which includes tracks in sacred music, music history, and music theory, among others . I am thrilled that the University has chosen to support organ study this way.”
Rider and Westminster merged in 1992. In recent years, Rider has attempted to sell Westminster’s Princeton campus. In 2020, Rider moved Westminster’s programs to its Lawrence Township campus, an action which has been legally challenged.
Some buildings at the Princeton campus are occasionally still used, including Bristol Chapel, where Westminster’s largest organ is located. The Casavant organ, also known as the Scheide organ, was moved to Rider along with a few practical organs.
Offering the scholarships is part of an effort to revive interest in the instrument. “There has been a pause in organ studies at Westminster, because of what has been going on there, as well as the pandemic,” said McCormick. “In general, there are fewer organ programs today than in the past. So I think one of the hopes is that this might be a program that will give consideration to piano students who want to work hard and learn organ as their primary instrument.”
Serving as organist and choirmaster 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 said.
Those interested in competing must apply by January 15, to pursue a Bachelor of Music in Music Education or a Bachelor of Arts in Music with organ as their primary instrument. Piano or voice can be selected as a second primary instrument.
“One thing that could be good about this program is that somebody can major in music education with the organ as their primary instrument, which could prepare them to teach school music and maybe have a part-time job as a church organist.”