According to junior Austin Philemon, the organ is not just for church music anymore. Philemon is so dedicated to playing the instrument that he’s become UNC Charlotte’s first, and currently only, organ performance major, crafting a curriculum as he goes that will open the door for future students.
He started playing piano when he was 6 years old but first encountered the sound of the organ at 12 years old while watching “The Phantom of the Opera.” His incessant replaying of the musical’s overture motivated his parents to get him organ lessons. Soon after, he began playing the organ for local church services, landing his first official job at 15 years old.
By the time he was a high school senior, he decided that focusing on the organ might be the unusual choice but the right choice for him.
“How many people get to say they’re an organ major?” said Philemon. “I thought I was going to be a piano major, but I just decided organ is so much more fun and so much more interesting, and now that I’ve really gotten into it, I just enjoy the repertoire so much more.”
The university did not offer the major when Philemon applied, but the process for traversing this uncharted academic territory was easier than one might think.
“Our music department is really flexible. We have a harp performance major even though we don’t have a harp teacher on faculty,” said Philemon. “The music theory professor also happens to be one of the greatest organists on the East Coast. We didn’t have an organ major but she’s this fantastic professor, so I decided to come in as her student, and we’re sort of working on the curriculum as we go.”
Philemon and organ instructor Jacqueline Yost began by simply tweaking the curriculum for piano majors. A few of the classes he simply shares with the piano students. However, they hope to also add to the major’s unique courses with an organ literature class to prepare for an influx of more interested students.
“We’re going to have more organ majors coming next year and in the future,” said Philemon. “Charlotte is set up as the perfect location for really good organ schools, so we’re trying to make it a real established thing.”
The American Guild of Organists, a national organization dedicated to enriching lives through organ music, has a Charlotte chapter, which Philemon notes is extremely active. Plus, there’s a high number of local churches featuring and looking for talented organists.
“The standard here is probably one of the highest on the East Coast, right next to New York City and Boston,” said Philemon. “It’s a great place for organists to come and learn their craft.”
And that craft, according to Philemon, produces more varied work than people give it credit for. Not only does the instrument act as its own orchestra, but also it’s essentially the original synthesize. Organists get to play music all the way from ancient Greek times to today; they aren’t restricted to playing tunes from the past.
“There are some crazy organ composers out right now that are making great stuff, and my goal is to bring the focus of organ music sort of away from the stereotypical ‘old lady playing really slowly in church’ to show how it’s actually really cool. I’m doing a lot of work with organ and electronics and organ synthesizer to sort of bridge that gap.”
Philemon hopes that his passion will be infectious in at least opening others’ minds to organ music. He is well aware of the preconceived notions many might have about the organ, but that does not stop him from championing his favorite instrument.
“It’s really important for people to know that this old, antique ‘grandmother’ instrument that’s perceived as just for boring church music is actually something that’s real and alive,” said Philemon. “People would be interested in if they just took the time to explore it … Not only is it a piece of heritage in history, but it’s a symbol of scientific innovation throughout thousands of years of music, and I think it’s something that can continue to be a trailblazer.”