Organ, Sacred Music, and Historical Keyboards

Organ Study

Eastman Organ Study at a glance

  • Renowned faculty members with a broad variety of expertise, providing a comprehensive experience.
  • Individual attention from the entire organ faculty in a friendly and supportive environment.
  • Regular access to an unparalleled selection of historic and modern instruments of many kinds.
  • With a metropolitan area of over 1 million residents, there are abundant opportunities for paid employment in Rochester area churches, and many performing opportunities for students in Rochester and beyond.
  • Instruction in improvisation, sacred music, choral music, continuo, harpsichord, piano, organ repertoire, jazz piano, theatre organ, clavichord, organ building, and more.
  • Personal instruction in “Healthy Keyboard Technique” for all incoming students.
  • Access to Sibley Library, the largest university music library in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Frequent performances and master classes by some of the world’s leading organ artists. Students recently enjoyed performances and masterclasses by Diane Meredith Belcher, Bine Bryndorf, Ken Cowan, Isabelle Demers, Scott Dettra, Vincent Dubois, Bruce Neswick, and Stephen Tharp; presentations by Christopher Anderson, Michel Bouvard, Wm. A. Little, Wilma Jensen, Robin Leaver, Annette Richards, Kerala Snyder, and David Yearsley, among others.
  • Eastman hosts the annual Eastman-Rochester Organ Initiative Festival (EROI) festival, one of North America’s premier organ events.
  • Recent Eastman students have won organ competitions around the world: the AGO’s National Young Artists’ Competition in Organ Performance; the AGO’s National Competition in Organ Improvisation; the Westfield International Organ Competition; the American Theatre Organ Society National; the Royal Canadian College of Organists; Arp Schnitger (Germany); Chartres (France); St. Albans (UK); Schnitger (Holland); Pipeworks Dublin (Ireland); Tokyo-Musashino (Japan); Odense (Denmark); Mader (CA); Miami International (FL); Rodland Memorial (NJ); Taylor (GA); and Schweitzer (CT).
  • Eastman students are recipients of funding from many outside scholarships and academic awards.
  • All graduates who desire it find full-time employment in music; others are easily accepted into the finest graduate schools in North America and Europe. Our recent graduates hold many top positions in academia and in ecclesiastical settings.

Department Courses

Monday Night Colloquium

All organ majors attend the departmental colloquium as well as individual studio classes, held each Monday in Schmitt Hall or at a local church.  The department Colloquium serves as a forum for lectures and masterclasses by Eastman and visiting faculty and students, a weekly “town meeting” for the department, hymn playing and anthem leading sessions, and discussions pertaining to the diverse requirements of our profession.  The purpose of the hymn playing session is to help increase skills in leading congregational singing.  In these sessions, one student plays a hymn for the class, and the class functions as the congregation. The primary purpose of the anthem leading session is to help increase skills in conducting from the console.  In the anthem leading sessions, the student leads the class in a brief vocal warm-up and rehearsal of the accompanied anthem.  Students are expected to prepare these presentations at the highest possible professional level as if auditioning for a major church job. A very brief and well-prepared presentation on the context (some information on the history of the work, composer of the music, author of the text, appropriate liturgical use) of the hymn or anthem is also expected. The class, the presenter, and the faculty engage in a discussion about the presentation, offering helpful advice and comments in a workshop format.

Healthy Keyboard Technique

Every organ student who is studying at Eastman for the first time, regardless of degree level, is automatically enrolled in this course, taught in small groups by Anne Laver as a complement to weekly organ lessons. This involves an introduction to playing the pedal clavichord, culminating in a brief jury performance in the spring semester. The clavichord is an instrument where any tension in a player’s body has a direct effect on the sound, which is produced by a metal tangent being in constant contact with a string. Because of this, a balanced and therefore healthy playing technique is actually required to produce a good sound at all, so it is an ideal instrument for the development of a truly musical technique. Instruction in effective playing techniques for other important keyboard instruments — harpsichord, piano, fortepiano, harmonium as well as organ — are also addressed in this two-semester course.

Organ History, Literature, and Design

The organ literature course is designed to provide a comprehensive survey of solo organ repertoire, instrument-building traditions and issues concerning performance practices from antiquity to the present day. The curriculum is a four-semester cycle, based around a weekly class for which reading, written work and listening tasks will be assigned. The class sessions may take a format ranging from lectures and student presentations to seminar-style discussion and are supplemented by occasional playing workshops focusing on particular areas of the repertoire.

For their success, these workshops depend on the variety of instruments available locally and regionally. The approach taken is that of allowing the musical language of the instruments themselves to have final say on issues of performance practice which, when taken out of their appropriate musical context could well seem a mere academic exercise. For example, the repertoire on the 18th century Italian organ at the Memorial Art Gallery, careful examination of voicing and tuning give firsthand insights into the musical vocabulary of that time.

Likewise, the two four-manual E. M. Skinner instruments — at the Church of the Ascension and St. Paul’s respectively — are fine examples of unaltered 1920s “period pieces” where the sounds of original Skinner installations, free from inappropriate additions and alterations, can be worked with in gaining a genuine understanding of the American orchestral school of organ playing, both in original repertoire and orchestral transcriptions.

Workshops have also been held on modern and avant-garde playing techniques (e.g. graphic notation, cluster techniques, special winding effects) on fine mechanical action instruments built in modern styles (instruments by Fisk, Fritts and Brombaugh). The class has also taken field trips to instruments to Cornell University’s historic American Classic Aeolian-Skinner, as well as their new instrument in the style of a late Schnitger organ, which gives insights into both the 17th century North German tradition of Buxtehude and Bruhns, and a different perspective from Eastman’s Casparini organ on music in the newer 18th-century style of Bach and his contemporaries. Workshops on French romantic literature have taken place on the 1990 Fisk organ at the University of Buffalo, a large three-manual, symphonic instrument heavily influenced by the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll.

Organ Maintenance

A requirement for all undergraduate organ majors, and recommended for all members of the department, the Organ Maintenance course covers all aspects of pipe organ construction, as well as tuning and general maintenance.  Students receive practical technical experience by working with Eastman’s technicians on routine maintenance as well as occasional building and restoration projects.

Keyboard Continuo Realization

Keyboard Continuo Realization is a two-semester course taught by Lisa
Crawford.  The course focuses mainly on realization at the harpsichord in
order to give those less familiar with the harpsichord than with the organ an
opportunity to become well-acquainted with basic harpsichord technique, to
learn more about the instrument, and – above all – to become skilled at
making a good sound.

Students are required to practice their exercises every day, and to play them
in class. The goal of one’s practice is not simply to learn to play the exercises
with ease: this is only the first step. Once one has gained fluency in realizing
the exercises, the goal is to play them again and again so that one
internalizes, by the coordination of sight, sound, and the feeling in the hand,
the movement of bass and harmony. This, and this alone, will build skill in
realizing a figured bass at sight; it will also reinforce inner hearing. Practice at
the harpsichord, rather than at the piano or even the organ, is strongly
encouraged. Just as the harpsichord is not a substitute for the piano, so the
piano is not a substitute for the harpsichord. Good continuo playing goes far
beyond the ability to realize a figured bass; the ability to play dynamically and
rhythmically – with attention to shape and gesture – at the harpsichord
requires one’s intense involvement with the expressive capabilities of the
The first semester course focuses on helping the student become proficient in
realizing the basic figures, following the development of continuo during the
17 th  – 18 th  century.  In the second semester, students will learn more complex
figures, and will learn different styles of continuo playing through performance
projects, including French music, Bach, and a Handel solo cantata with
recitative.  Each project will be accompanied by readings from original
treatises (in translation).

Sacred Music Skills

Sacred Music Skills I focuses on the choral responsibilities of the church musician and the history, function, and future of liturgical music practices in the Christian Church tradition. The course includes sessions on training the voice, phonetics, English and Latin diction, chanting, conducting, and choral rehearsal techniques. In addition to assigned special projects, students participate through weekly rehearsing of the class as choir. “Lab” time for honing students skills is be available during the semester.

Sacred Music Skills II focuses on choral repertoire and anthem/motet planning and rehearsing. Students program anthems/motets for the church year (A,B,C) based on the The Revised Common Lectionary. The course explores innovative ways to enhance the liturgy with music within the context of the evolution of liturgical practices. Students are guided in rehearsing the class in choral repertoire, listening to musical examples, studying scores, class discussion, and student presentations. “Lab” time for honing students’ skills is available during the semester.

Sacred Music Skills III focuses on essential keyboard skills for the church/synagogue musician, with emphasis on congregational song in various religious environments and traditions. Primary areas of instruction include hymn playing (introductions, reharmonizations, performance practices of various styles and traditions), anthem accompaniment, adapting piano/orchestral accompaniments to the organ, conducting from the organ console, and a survey of Christian hymnody. Each student receives several individual “lab” coachings during the semester.

Sacred Music Skills IV focuses on the training of young vocal and instrumental musicians through early musical training and the creation of opportunities for their involvement in the musical life of the church. Choral and handbell repertoire is explored, and conducting techniques specific to younger participants are learned. In addition to assigned special projects, each student participates through occasional supervised conducting of children’s and handbell choirs at a local church. Also included are sessions on the administration of a large music program.

Perspectives in Sacred Music

Perspectives in Sacred Music (SMU 407/408, two credits each) is a two-semester sequence designed to provide students in the Sacred Music Diploma program (and other graduate students with organ and choral background) an opportunity to explore selected historical (SMU 407) and philosophical and practical (SMU 408) aspects of sacred music in the Western Christian tradition.

SMU 407 is devoted to historical issues concerning worship, liturgy, and music in the Western church, with an emphasis on the liturgical contexts in which sacred music was composed, improvised, performed, and heard. Examples of course topics include music in the early church; the sixteenth-century reformation movements; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century genres of chorale, concerto, cantata, and chorale prelude; nineteenth-century renewal movements within the church; twentieth- and twenty-first-century Roman Catholic statements on liturgy and music.

SMU 408 considers questions of how the lectionary and church year provide theological contexts for our choices of music. We work with the appropriate volume from the three-year Revised Common Lectionary on a weekly basis to choose hymns, organ and choral music for each Sunday in the seasons of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, as well as Holy Week. Other topics for reading and discussion include: theology of worship; the meaning and purpose of liturgy; considerations of church and culture; considerations of value, purpose, meaning, and identity in the practice of sacred music; and issues of twentieth- and twenty-first-century hymnody.

Organ Pedagogy

The main goal of the one-semester class in Organ Pedagogy is to provide students with the foundation to develop their own teaching methods.  This is done by examining existing organ methods and schools, understanding the interrelated aspects of organ building, performance practice, improvisation and repertoire in organ teaching, and learning about basic pedagogical and communication skills.  At the start of the course, students are asked to reflect on their own beginning organ study and research existing organ methods.  Through observation of lessons taught by fellow students and faculty, experience in teaching at least one lesson, and resulting group discussions, students gain first-hand knowledge about the many aspects of organ pedagogy.  The course culminates in a final project, in which students develop their own organ curriculum and study plan for beginning organists.


Everyone can develop skill in improvisation! This is confirmed again and again by the impressive results of our students in this area. One of our goals is to replace the fear that many of us have of creating our own music with the confidence that each of us has something significant to say musically, waiting to be shaped through practice, and expressed through performance.

Every student studying improvisation at Eastman begins with an introductory course on building essential skills in harmony and counterpoint, along with a sampling of various – mostly tonal – procedures of improvisation, emphasizing formal coherence and melodic, harmonic and rhythmic invention.

While no student is required to study improvisation, most of our students take this first-semester course, and many then continue through subsequent semesters, focusing upon particular topics that build skills in a variety of genres and styles. It’s possible to become proficient in improvisation in various modern styles, ranging from those using modes of limited transposition, to the use of minimalist techniques. But our students learn more traditional approaches as well, and it is not at all unusual for a student to become accomplished at improvising sonatas, toccatas, fugues, versetti, and partitas.

At the end of each term, Eastman’s improvisation students present a concert of improvisations, reflecting each student’s most recent work. The impressive music one hears in these popular concerts is represented in The Eastman Organ Book, Volumes I and II. The book is a sampling of improvisations, composed in performance, and transcribed by each student performer.

The Eastman Organ Book is available from the University of Rochester Press, and directly from the Organ Department.

Theatre Organ

In 1922, the Eastman School of Music inaugurated a three-year course for training organists in the art of silent-movie accompaniment. According to a 1922 catalogue, it was “an advantage not heretofore afforded in the teaching of this increasingly important branch of organ playing.” A miniature theatre was set up, with a two-manual, seven-rank Wurlitzer organ. Students were afforded an excellent opportunity under theatre conditions to become movie organists. The studio included complete projection equipment and a film library of full-length feature films, comedy shorts and newsreels.

Subjects taught included Organ I, Piano 7, theory, Motion Picture Organ, Musical Form, History of Music, Scoring, Repertoire, and Extemporization. Before graduation, each student was required to play one full-length feature picture at the 4/155 Austin in the Eastman Theatre, before an audience. Students either took the course for a certificate or enrolled part-time on a quarterly (nine-week) basis. The eight students who completed the full certificate program were Tura Davidson and Fred McKibben in 1925, Chester Klee and Elizabeth Scurry in 1927, Edgar Lehn and Edith Manison in 1928, and Ira Shirk and Marion Taylor in 1929.

The course was discontinued in 1930, as sound was fast replacing the silent pictures. The organ was “de-theaterized” and installed in South Presbyterian Church. When an electronic was purchased, the Wurlitzer was moved to Groveland Presbyterian Church. It has been moved again, according to the last report and is no longer in the Rochester area. In addition to the Wurlitzer, two 2-Manual, 5-Rank Marr & Colton organs were also installed at the school in practice rooms. The film library for the course was rediscovered by accident in a fifth floor vault in 1964, and included such nitrate-based prints as “A Kiss For Cinderella”, “Peter Pan”, and “Cops”. Those films which hadn’t disintegrated were copied onto safety film and added to the collection at the George Eastman House.

A collaboration between the Eastman School of Music and the Rochester Theatre Organ Society has now allowed ESM students access to the famed four-manual, twenty three rank Wurlitzer in the Auditorium Theatre, in downtown Rochester and since 2007 an annual concert has been given by a group of students, with occasional cameos by professors. In the fall of 2006, as RTOS was planning its 2007 programs, Jon Ortloff, then an ESM student, with the encouragement of David Higgs and William Porter, brought the idea to RTOS where it took root and has grown into an annual event that each year exposes more and more people including many RTOS would normally never reach to the thrills of theatre organ music. This is an excellent opportunity to take a break from the “legitimate” repertoire and explore the joys of theatre organ performance in an authentic setting before an enthusiastic and appreciative audience that thrives on the music of the mighty Wurlitzer.

Contemporary Organ Music Project

Since 2008 Eastman organ students have the opportunity every September to dive deeper into the music of the 20th and 21st centuries within the framework of the Eastman Contemporary Organ Music Project (ECO Music Project). During the first weeks of the fall semester, a focus of Eastman’s organ program is on contemporary organ music, and its various related aspects and topics are examined in a multidisciplinary way drawing on musicology, music theory, organology, performance practice, and aesthetics. Students explore repertoire in individual lessons, there are lectures on current aesthetic developments and the music of individual composers, and workshops about new playing techniques or improvisation enrich the regular weekly study program. Special attention is given to the large variety of different organs available at Eastman and in Rochester’s churches, and every year a concert highlights students playing new pieces. During the last years, a collaboration between the organ and composition departments has involved composition students who take a seminar on contemporary organ music and subsequently write new pieces for organ students they have been working with throughout the academic year. In 2017 two Eastman participants of the ECO Music Project won a grant from the AGO Organ Commissioning Project. Recent topics of the ECO Music Project have included Organ And Instruments, Organ Plus Electronics, Aleatoric Music and Improvisation as well as New Organ Music by French and by German Composers. The ECO Music Project is part of a cooperative network that also includes Cornell University and the University of Siegen, Germany.