Music News & Reviews

Students play Lexington churches’ pipe organs throughout the week

Pipe organ students participate in the Pipe Organ Encounter

Sander Owens plays Bach's "Prelude in F Major" and discussed his experience at the event.
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Sander Owens plays Bach's "Prelude in F Major" and discussed his experience at the event.

Sander Owens, 12, came to Lexington from his hometown of Valparaiso, Ind., to study his passion: the pipe organ.

“It’s an instrument where basically it’s just wind blowing through whistle-like pipes,” Owens said. “It’s got a large variety of sounds and it’s got a diverse repertoire.”

Owens participated in the Pipe Organ Encounter, a week-long program for musicians ages 13-18, hosted by the Lexington Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. From Sunday through Friday, 20 students went on day trips to Danville and Berea, received one-on-one pipe organ lessons from professors and church organists and played in public performances.

The students in the program are on different performing levels. Some have only played piano before attending the camp, and others have played organ for several years. Owens began studying the pipe organ a year and a half ago. He attended a Pipe Organ Encounter in his hometown last year. He said his favorite part of Lexington’s POE was trying out different pipe organs in local churches. Ten Lexington churches offered their pipe organs for students to practice on throughout the week.

Owens currently plays the pipe organ in his own church and he hopes to continue playing the instrument throughout his life. When he grows up, he wants to teach music at a university.

This is the future of our profession, you know. If it isn’t these kids, my profession is dead.

Laura Ellis, organist and a music professor from the University of Florida

When asked what music he liked to play, Owens said, “Well, since I’m kind of an organist, I have to say Bach.” Owens has been practicing some of the Baroque composer’s music throughout the week with his instructor, Laura Ellis, a music professor from the University of Florida.

Ellis teaches the pipe organ at Florida, along with some other instruments. She has taught a six previous POEs, and volunteered to spend the week in Lexington to teach Owens and another student.

“This is the future of our profession, you know,” Ellis said. “If it isn’t these kids, my profession is dead.”

Ellis said teaching the pipe organ at a POE offers an alternate experience than teaching college students. She said the younger students at POEs are often not as experienced as college students, but are enthusiastic and in awe when discovering the instrument for the first time.

Zach Klobnak, director of Lexington’s POE, said the program recruited Ellis for the week because, in addition to the pipe organ, she plays the carillon and gave students a recital when they visited Berea. Ellis said Klobnak was also a former student of hers.

Klobnak said Lexington’s POE is the only one for the Great Lakes region — which includes Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan — of the American Guild of Organists. The other six regions host their own POE.

Students who come to POEs usually become prospective pipe organ students in college, Klobnak said. He said several colleges around the country continue to offer pipe organ programs. He said some pipe organ teachers are still in Lexington, but it is getting harder to find college pipe organ programs in Kentucky.

Schuyler Robinson, a former University of Kentucky pipe organ professor, will soon retire after the last two students graduate from UK. Robinson said the program was 66 years old and the last program in the state. Robinson said a few other Kentucky colleges offer pipe organ classes.

“I’m trying to encourage them to offer it as an elective,” Robinson said. He said the class will help Lexington churches with pipe organs find organists for their instruments and many pianists play the pipe organ since the instruments are similar. Robinson said the reason the program will not continue is because of state budget cuts UK is facing.

Klobnak said seeing full-time organists at churches is not as common as it used to be, but part-time positions are still available. He said those jobs typically require 15-20 hours a week.

“I think it’s a phenomenon that we’re seeing in many professions, that the professionals are baby boomers, so they are hitting retirement age,” Klobnak said. “We need a new wave of people showing interest and coming into their positions.”

McKenna Horsley: 859-231-3197, @mckennahorsley.

If you go

Pipe Organ Encounter

What: Public performance by students participating in the week-long camp.

When: 11 a.m. Friday

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 171 Market St., and Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St.