Organ academy teaches sacred music to students at Cardinal Newman

Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: From left, Marshall Seezen, Thomas Blake, Pen Verver, Andrew Scott and Zion Roberts listen to Jim Johnson, organist for the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, describe the workings of a pipe organ in the seminary’s chapel. The students also had the opportunity to play the organ.

COLUMBIA—Wooden pipes, boards, black and white keys, red tubing and other parts lay scattered across tables in a music classroom at Cardinal Newman School on Feb. 20.

Most people would have been totally confused if asked to build something out of them. 

For the five students who make up the Cardinal Newman Organ Academy, it was an easy assignment.

The Organ Academy, launched during the 2018-19 school year, offers students hands-on lessons on how to play the organ. They also learn about the mechanics of different types of organs and its importance in the tradition of sacred music. The students are taught on an electric Allen organ located in the school’s chapel, but are also learning about the majestic pipe organs found in many large churches and cathedrals. 

The pipes, keys and other elements on the tables were parts for a miniature, mechanical-action pipe organ. The challenge: put the parts together correctly so the organ plays music, all within 50 minutes. Brad Cunningham, instructor, said the organ had to be in complete working order for the students to receive academic credit, which offered a good test on how well they learned their lessons.

The students assembled the musical instrument under the watchful eye of Stephen Spake, an organ builder from Lincoln Pipe Organ Company in Lincolnton, N.C. He brought the parts and explained how each component worked together to enable the playing of music.

Students work together to assemble a miniature pipe organ in class.

The miniature organ took shape well within the allotted time, giving the students a chance to play a few tunes on the small keyboard. Then, they were off to the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary across town to try their hand at playing a much larger version of the instrument.

Jim Johnson, organist for the seminary, introduced the class to the beautiful pipe organ, which provides music for worship services in Christ Chapel at the seminary. Made by the Flentrop Orgelbouw organ company in the Netherlands and installed in the chapel in 1985, it is modeled exactly like instruments that were in use in churches around the world during the 18th century. 

Johnson played a hymn on the organ and told the class a little about its history. The students were able to climb into a narrow passageway behind the instrument to observe its inner workings and to play classical pieces and hymns they had memorized. 

Cunningham said playing the Flentrop is a completely different musical experience than playing the school’s electronic organ. He hopes it will inspire the students to want to play similar organs in churches in the future.

The final product is tested out.

“I’ve been teaching young people to play the piano for 20 years but my real vocation in life is to be an organist,” said Cunningham, who is also the music director and organist at St. Joseph Church in Columbia. “A few years ago I asked myself, ‘who is teaching kids to play the organ?’ The organ is the preferred instrument in the Catholic Church, going back thousands of years, and it is the instrument that has grown with the Church throughout its history.” 

Cardinal Newman’s Organ Academy had four students during its first year, and has five enrolled this year, with one student who is considering joining the classes in the fall. Cunningham said at least two of the current students have expressed an interest in a music career after graduation. 

Sophomore Marshall Seezen, 16, said he played piano for several years before beginning organ lessons two years ago. 

“It’s been pretty cool learning how to play the organ, and also challenging because it’s much different than the piano in a lot of ways,” he said. “You have to learn what stops to pull and other skills.” 

Junior Cameron McIntosh, 17, has been playing piano since age 7 and joined the academy this year because she wanted to learn another instrument and is considering pursuing music when she goes to college. McIntosh said the organ has been an exciting challenge because there are so many details to remember when playing even the simplest pieces.

Cunningham and David Cochrane, chairman of Cardinal Newman’s music department, hope the program will help train young people who represent the next generation of organists for the Church.

“Church tradition teaches us that the organ is the preferred instrument to be used during the liturgy,” Cunningham said. “It’s the instrument that has grown with the Church throughout its history.”