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Organ Academy serves individual, parish needs


Doug O'Neill, director of the Organ Academy at St. Cecilia in Omaha, watches as Ana Carlson, a home-schooled sixth-grader, practices during an organ lesson at the cathedral. The academy educates studetns in organ techniques, music selection, accompanying and improvation. Photo by Lisa Schulte
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By LISA SCHULTE
The Catholic Voice

Susan Walsh has always had 'a thing" for the organ.

As a young girl, she listened to her father's organ albums and was mesmerized by the talent of the organist at Omaha's Holy Cross Parish, where she and her family attended Mass.

But it was after her father, then-president of the Hammond Organ Society, took her to watch a local organist practice at the Orpheum Theater that she fell in love with the instrument and wanted to learn to play.

Now at 47, Walsh's dream is finally coming true.

Since September, she and 13 other people have been taking organ lessons through the Organ Academy at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.

Sponsored by the St. Cecilia Schola Cantorum, the academy offers students as young as the fourth grade the opportunity to study the organ. It also provides training to parish organists.

'We're here to serve the needs of the parishes," said Doug O'Neill, director of the Organ Academy. 'We're hoping to educate kids and create a new generation of future church musicians and also serve the needs of people already playing in parishes."

Founded in 2005

The academy, founded in 2005, provides private lessons on a pipe organ or related instrument, access to Organ Academy instruments for practice and participation in group events with other students, such as liturgies, recitals and field trips.

During lessons, which are taught on the cathedral's organs and at other nearby venues, students learn the technique of playing the organ and other related keyboard instruments, registration of the organ, music selection for the organ, service playing, accompanying and improvisation.

Academy participants attend weekly lessons, commit to the full academic year of lessons, practice daily and participate in scheduled reviews and evaluations.

Unlike Walsh, most of the academy's current students are elementary or high school students, O'Neill said. Some come with piano experience, while others are first-time keyboard players.

For eighth-grader Daniel Selzle, the organ experience has given him a new venue for sharing his musical skills. He has played the piano since he was 6.

'Organ itself is more difficult than playing the piano, but the lessons are really fun and I have a very nice teacher," said Selzle, who one day hopes to become a church organist or a college organ professor.

Kali Taylor, a junior at Duchesne Academy in Omaha, said she would encourage those who, like her, enjoy music to consider learning the organ. It has not only been fun, but also has had an effect on her faith, she said.

'It's a way of just praising God, of using my skills to praise God," the 15-year-old said.

The elementary and high school students, as well as non-students in the third through 12th grades, are invited to attend the academy's Summer Camp, which takes place July 19-21.

'It's a great opportunity, especially for those who have not studied before, to become exposed to it and to consider enrolling in the Organ Academy," said Kevin Vogt, director of the Schola Cantorum, a liturgical music initiative of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

The summer camp is also for those who are already studying organ to receive more intensive learning and to study with other teachers because a larger faculty is assembled for the camp, he said.

A new organ

The idea for an Organ Academy happened nearly five years ago when the archdiocese began planning for a new pipe organ at St. Cecilia.

Vogt and other liturgical leaders at the cathedral wanted to come up with a way to engage people, especially youth, in becoming familiar with the organ and to give them opportunities to explore it. They also wanted to develop a mechanism through which parish organists in the archdiocese could tap into the resources at the cathedral and to support them in their ongoing work and formation, Vogt said.

'While we continue our serious education work with adults, we're really pouring a lot of energy into kind of creating a fertile pot of soil where children, especially, can have their talents identified and cultivated," he said. 'And hopefully, whether they're musicians or priests or religious or just really well informed parish council people, teachers and parents in the future, that kind of leadership will be there as a result of this."

Vogt and O'Neill said they understand that not all of the students are going to go on to become church musicians, but they hope the experience will at least be educational for them.

'The first year was enormously successful," Vogt said. 'I'm very pleased that not only was there a strong participation from members of the cathedral church, but we had some very talented students, both children and adults, involved from other parishes as well. I think it's certainly a model for the kind of formation programs that we hope to cultivate in the next two years."

Walsh, a parishioner at St. Cecilia, said she plans to 'give back" to her parish and to the archdiocese when she plays well enough to lead the music during worship.

'I am profoundly grateful to the Organ Academy for this opportunity and am encouraged by the prospect of new talent regenerating an art that has seemed to be less utilized in worship services in the past few decades," she said. 'It's very exciting."

The Catholic Voice

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