Have you ever seen a child play the organ? It’s not the typical scenario one envisions when thinking of organists, but I have. In fact, I have seen dozens of them. I am the founder and director of Junior Organ Experience (JOE) a summer organ program for youth.
My usual job is behind a piano, as an instructor, accompanist, and church musician. Around the year 2001 or so, I took up learning to play the organ so I could be a substitute for my home church, Christ Church, as part of my stewardship. And, wow! I found out I really liked it! Well, first I found out it was really difficult! But, oddly enough, I fell in love with it while struggling to manage more than one manual (keyboard) and simultaneously playing with both feet!
In 2007, I decided to share the love and offered a summer organ program to my piano students to give them a different type of keyboarding experience. JOE was born that summer at St. Paul’s Anglican in Conway, where the students were blessed to play on a magnificent Casavant Frères pipe organ. We were hosted the following summer by Trinity Church in Myrtle Beach, where the students had a very different experience playing on a historic pipe organ located way up in a loft at the back of the church. We spent the next few summers at Church of the Resurrection in Surfside Beach where we had a great mentor in Organist and Music Director, Karen Kearney. In 2012, my husband, Mark, and I moved back to Charleston where JOE found a new home at Christ Church, Mount Pleasant, the place where my organ “career” initially began.
Maybe you are surprised that anyone would think kids would want to play the organ because it seems like such a traditional, old fashioned instrument. I understand because over the years a lot of adults have told me they think organ music is boring. Well, here’s another fact that might surprise you: once a student signs up for JOE they rarely quit. In fact, they look forward to it every year and the culminating recital is a joy-filled festive occasion for all.
In the summer of 2013, the first JOE Charleston group consisted of two students. By 2019, that number had grown to 13 youth and one young at heart senior! During these years, in addition to our Christ Church home, students have played at the historic St. Andrew’s Church in Mount Pleasant, as well as at St. Philip’s Church in downtown Charleston.
In this summer of the Covid-19 pandemic, most students have opted to do their summer piano studies via Zoom or Skype which, regrettably, is not an option for organ study. However, three intrepid masked young ladies could not resist the urge and enrolled in JOE, even though they knew there would be no fanfare recital awaiting them at the end. They just wanted to have the unique experience of sitting at the grand organ console making music.
One of those students, 10-year-old Alicia Brown, who is experiencing organ for her first time had this to say about JOE: “I’ve always thought playing the organ would be fun! You are able to pick what sounds would be just right for the song that you are playing. The sound is very beautiful and echoes through the church. I’m happy to have the chance to play the organ.”
Another student, Alicia Tabor, a nine-year-old parishioner of Christ Church, is a second year JOE participant. She said, “I was surprised the first time I played the organ because of how complicated it was and how many things I had to push and pull. When I play it, it can make so many different sounds. That is what I love about it. For the piano I have to make sure it is the right note, but with the organ I can also be more creative. Now that it is my second year, I feel much better playing the organ because I feel more experienced! I want to be able to play the organ in the future.”
Anne Nietert, another parishioner of Christ Church is the afore-mentioned young at heart senior with three JOE programs under her belt. Although not participating this summer, when asked to reminisce about her time with JOE she replied, “For a number of years now I have enjoyed taking a month to work on a new skill – playing the organ. I play the recorder and sing in the choir, so this is yet another venue for me. I love the process of learning and have found the JOE experience life-giving. I also love seeing the younger folks develop their musical skills.” (Note: Due to Covid-19, JOE was not offered to persons in at-risk categories this year.)
This is my 13th year offering Junior Organ Experience as a unique activity to students and also as a ministry to the church. Anyone who has ever had to search for an organ substitute knows that available organists are few and far between. But more than that, I never tire of seeing the wide-eyed glow on a child’s face when he or she hears the sounds – sometimes delicately wafting and sometimes triumphantly roaring – that emanate from the organ.
Over the years many JOE participants have played organ in services at their home churches, being included even on Christmas Eve, or have accompanied me on my subbing assignments and played a prelude or offertory for the service. One student even went on to study with an organ teacher in addition to her weekly piano studies. These experiences may eventually fulfill the mission of Junior Organ Experience which is to introduce youth to the magnificent sounds of the “King of Instruments” in hopes that, out of the many who have this experience, a few may go on to pursue organ study. In this way, JOE hopes to bring up a new generation of organists.
Thanks for letting me introduce you to JOE. I hope one day you can come hear us in person!
By Kathleen Nungesser, Christ Church, Mt. Pleasant
Contact Kathleen Nungesser.