A new era of organists

A new era of organists

Prominently positioned in St Paul’s Chapel is an exquisite Letourneau pipe organ. It is used to musically accompany Chapel services, assemblies and other school events – and it’s not the teachers who do the playing, but the students.

St Paul’s offers an organ scholar’s programme. Only the second school in New Zealand to offer a scholarship of this kind, selected students receive organ lessons funded by the school. In return, the students are required to play at school and community events.

Considered the grandest musical instrument in size and scope, pipe organs have been in existence since the 14th century. A common misconception of the organ is that it is “an old man’s instrument, commonly used for playing hymns”, says Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral organist, Phillip Smith. “The organ however, has such a wide repertoire of music – it can be played at varying speeds and in varying styles,” he says.

Mr Smith is one of the organ scholar teachers. He teaches the scholars at Auckland’s Baradene College – the other New Zealand school to offer these scholarships – and has spent the past term in Hamilton, working with St Paul’s scholars.

“St Paul’s is blessed to not only offer more scholarships – 10 as opposed to four in Auckland – but to also have a beautiful pipe organ that has been custom built for its place in the school’s Chapel. There are pipe organs in schools around New Zealand, but not of this quality – its touch and action is excellent as a teaching instrument,” he says.

The Auckland Cathedral organist for 10 years, Mr Smith has been playing the organ since he was 14. He has noticed in more recent times a change in the way the instrument is perceived. “Once labelled a man’s instrument; the organ now attracts more female players, and with scholarships like the one at St Paul’s, the organ is also attracting younger musicians.”

The St Paul’s organ scholars are selected from each year group, generally piano students who have Grade 5 or above. Spaces are limited and offered only after an audition and interview.

“It is wonderful to have these young scholars take up this instrument and prepare themselves for service to the school, as well as outside in the community,” says St Paul’s Director of Music and Head of the Music Department, Michelle Flint. “Many of our scholars play for community churches and there is always a demand for organists to play for weddings and funerals,” she says.

Aside from Mr Smith, the students have had lessons with piano accompanist Francis Cowan, Tauranga Civic Choir musical director Nigel Williams, St Peter’s Cathedral organist Rachel Griffiths-Hughes and St Paul’s Director of Choral Music Timothy Carpenter.

For Year 13 student Jordan Wise, learning the organ has been a unique opportunity. “Not many people get to play the organ and its role in church and chapel services means you get to play quite a bit,” he says. Jordan has enjoyed learning the instrument so much that he has constructed his own digital organ at home.

Past pupil, Jonathan Mayer, speaks highly of the programme and the performance opportunities that came with it.

“Thanks to learning my first solo piece the entire Suite Gothique by Léon BoëllmannI at St Paul’s, I was able to perform this piece on the Auckland Town Hall organ – the largest organ in New Zealand. This was definitely the biggest highlight for me."

"I also took part in a New Zealand organ congress in Christchurch where I met other organists, organ builders and learnt about the history of organs in Christchurch, along with the impact of the earthquakes on music there. An incredible experience and something I would have never found out about had it not been for learning to play this instrument,” says Jonathan.

Photo Caption: Auckland Cathedral organist Philip Smith takes Year 11 student and organ scholar Hannah Mayer through her organ practice.