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'Unique in the nation': American Organ Institute students, alumni reflect on program ahead of closure

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Nolan Reilly

Nolan Reilly, alumnus of the American Organ Institute, speaks to the crowd during a sit-in at Evans Hall to save the AOI Aug. 22.

First-year OU master’s student Luke Staisiunas grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As he started looking for colleges to attend, he knew he wanted to study the organ.

“I think it was when I was 4 or 5, I heard an organ in church for the first time and sort of decided that's what I wanted to do,” Staisiunas said.

Staisiunas had attended some summer programs for the organ in high school, so he reached out to the organists he had met for college recommendations.

Almost all of them told him to look at John Schwandt’s organ program at OU, Staisiunas said. He visited the campus and has been here ever since, first getting his undergraduate degree at OU and now working toward his master’s degree in organ performance — which he was forced to shift to despite intending to earn his degree in organ technology.

The American Organ Institute started in 2006, when Schwandt came to OU from the University of Indiana and began to implement his idea for an all-encompassing organ program. The program included performance and teaching, as well as technology and design. 

This summer, the university announced it would close the AOI and end the organ technology program at the end of the spring semester because steady funding could not be established for the program.

When Schwandt’s mentor at the University of Indiana told him former OU President David Boren was seeking nominations for a new organ position at OU as a way to reinvigorate the organ department, he was skeptical at first.

“I remember I said, 'Oklahoma! Why the hell do I want to go to Oklahoma?'” Schwandt said.

His mentor then told him to consider the fact that the president of a major research university was interested in his idea for an organ program, which Schwandt had been working on in Indiana. Schwandt then decided to apply for the position.

“I didn't think I had a chance in hell, frankly,” Schwandt said. “I didn’t have a lot of years of experience.”

He did have his idea for an organ program, though, and he got the job. This led to an eight-year effort to really get the program going, Schwandt said.

“The American Organ Institute is the name for the entire organ program,” Schwandt said. “Every last bit of it: organ lessons, classes, lab work, the whole thing. ... The AOI is really a model for interdisciplinary study that colleges and universities across the nation are trying to propagate.”

When the program was fully operational, it offered students 14 different courses in organ study, taught by nine different faculty members. This included lab courses in organ technology, as well as organ performance courses. Currently, there are 22 students in the program and three doctoral candidates, which is big for an organ program, Schwandt said.

David Anderson, a doctoral candidate in the organ program at OU, came from Charlotte, North Carolina, to join OU’s organ program.

“The strength of the program definitely brought me to Oklahoma,” Anderson said. “The way in which the organ is taught in Oklahoma was unique in the nation.”

Schwandt’s idea for the program was an attempt to make organ study more lucrative. Its focus on all aspects of the organ made the AOI one of the premier organ programs across the country for students looking to make their careers in the organ industry, Schwandt said.

“I saw the problems. And it's the problem that all the arts have, (which) is, how do you make a living? How do you maintain relevancy?” Schwandt said. “We have a shrinking number of working technicians (and an) increasing number of places, churches, institutions, that they had organs and no one to take care of them.”

This could be seen in the 100 percent success rate of AOI graduates finding jobs, Schwandt said.

Nolan Reilly, organist and director of music at St. Thomas More University Parish, is from Oklahoma City. He considered several other universities to study organ performance before ultimately deciding to go to OU.

“The programs offered here were utterly unique in the field, and that's what really got me to stay in my home state,” Reilly said.

Reilly got his current job as soon as he graduated. All of the people in the program with him also got jobs in the organ field almost before they left the program, he said.

“Every one of the people in the department with me who graduated from the AOI had a job within the field before they graduated, basically,” Reilly said.

Part of the reason for this was the experience the AOI provided students in all areas of organ study, Schwandt said.

“I learned a lot of (organ technology skills) just from, number one, from the coursework and, number two, from being able to work in the workshop,” said Anderson, who is primarily studying organ performance.

Staisiunas, who was studying organ technology before his major was removed from the program, said he thought the AOI was giving him a leg up in the industry.

“I’m wanting to go into organ building specifically, (and) it’s hard for organ builders to hire people because they'll get people that sort of have an interest in it, but they don't know if they're really committed to it,” Staisiunas said. “And if they have to train someone who might not stick with it, they'd rather look at somebody that has shown a committed interest by going through the program.”

The AOI has also had a major statewide impact on the organ industry, Schwandt said. Many AOI graduates have transformed music programs in institutions across the state, and Oklahoma now has resources to service its organs.

“Oklahoma now, for the first time in many, many decades, has first-class organ technicians here in-state to take much-needed care of a lot of instruments,” Schwandt said.

The AOI has also restored organs across Oklahoma and installed them in museums and churches where they are featured in concerts, Schwandt said. This includes the organ in Sharp Hall, which was originally in a concert hall in Philadelphia. The AOI’s first project was the installation of a portion of that organ.

As OU’s organ program tries to move forward despite the closure of the AOI, many are unsure of what the future holds.

“What I would love to see now is an open conversation about the future with the administration about how we can, how we could have a similar program maybe smaller in scope,” Reilly said.

Schwandt said he has no idea what the program will look like moving forward, and he worries this will set a “dangerous” precedent for the university.

“This is a tragedy that goes beyond just organ,” Schwandt said. “This doesn’t just affect the arts.”

While students in the organ program figure out what to do in the wake of the change, they are working to move forward with one another's support. Even though he’s in his first year, Staisiunas said he plans to finish his master’s at OU.

“It’s been a little bit tense, but we're all sort of in it together,” Staisiunas said.

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