To become an organist, or any other professional musician for that matter, a person can take a variety of routes. Many professional organists began their careers taking traditional music lessons as children. Although a piano or synthesizer keyboard is often the first instrument a keyboardist learns to play, the same basic principles of music theory and keyboard techniques can be applied to the organ at a later date. Some keyboard students prefer organized lessons to learn the instrument and music theory, while others prefer to teach themselves the basics through self-study and experimentation. It is often thought that learning music theory and appreciation is more important than becoming technically proficient on any particular musical instrument during a musician’s formative years.
After learning the fundamentals of musicianship, an aspiring organist may choose to specialize in a particular type of keyboard instrument. While both organs and pianos are classified as keyboard instruments, the techniques used to perform on each differ significantly. A pianist who wants to become an organist or an organist who wants to become a pianist must both learn a new language of performance technique. A piano is essentially a percussion instrument, whereas an organ is more akin to a woodwind instrument in terms of performance and tonality. A musical student pursuing a college degree in music should enroll in specific courses geared toward organ performance in order to become an organist. Many organ performance programs require applicants to show an aptitude for the instrument as well as an interest in it.
Some keyboardists with natural organ abilities can learn to play well enough to work as church accompanists without pursuing further education. A talented organist or keyboardist could also work as an organist for local sports venues, rinks, or funeral homes. Wedding ceremonies, private funerals, and memorial services could all benefit from the services of freelance keyboardists who can play a variety of organs. Professional organists can be hired local orchestras or musical ensembles to enhance a performance because the instrument can provide an unobtrusive background accompaniment.
Through experimentation and practice, an experienced pianist or keyboardist could learn to play the organ. Learning to perform on multiple “ranks” or keyboard rows at the same time, as well as coordinating the foot-operated pedal keyboard and swell pedal, can be difficult. Organs also have a number of switches known as stops that are used to select different instrumental voices. A professional organist performing on a full pipe organ must be able to switch stops for several keyboard ranks, perform difficult musical passages, use their feet for additional bass support, and control the dynamics using several different foot pedals, all while essentially doing everything at the same time. This is one of the reasons why a young keyboardist should think about the instrument’s requirements before deciding whether or not to pursue a career as an organist.