Janette Fishell in Conversation with Jeffrey Smith, appearing in the October edition of The American Organist.
FISHELL: Your career has taken you in and out of academia, churches, cathedrals, and freelancing. Is there a common thread?
SMITH: One recurring theme is my enjoyment of young people, whether an eight-year-old treble chorister or a twenty-something organist. I’m energized at every rehearsal, every lesson to bring out their best.
JF: And you’ve studied and worked abroad. What is your impression of church music in this country seen through that international lens?
JS: Honestly, it’s easy to “crush” on European church music culture, with its long history and its geographical proximity. (Their rail systems!) From Lowell Mason’s travelogues to yesterday, we’ve envied English choirs, French organs, and Italian acoustics. Of course. But, counting our blessings, we Americans typically enjoy a vibrant parish life and a culture of philanthropy not found elsewhere. At our best, we’re also generous in spirit. We view porous artistic borders as a strength. And we’re not so cynical as to demean the concept of personal initiative or institutional progress. It’s “change you can believe in.” So yes, I think Americans can be proud of our superlative organ teaching, organ playing, and organ building. Consider the feast offered at the Seattle convention!
JF: What did you most look forward to when returning to Indiana?
JS: Too much to say here. Colloquium, a weekly session with the entire Organ Department is a laboratory for learning. On a rota, each student plays hymns, accompanies anthems, and conducts; I’m there to coach. I enjoy the collegiality amongst the Young and Fishell studios and, beyond our department, too—thinking, for example, of Dana Marsh (chair of Historical Performance), who is also an extraordinary church musician. I’ve found the IU faculty to be approachable and committed, and that makes for a happy ship.
JF: You’ll be developing the IU offerings in organ improvisation. But backing up a step: can improvisation actually be taught?
JS: Absolutely! In fact, I think Buxtehude and Bach, Franck, and Tournemire, were first taught to improvise, as youngsters, and from that grounding emerged their “theory and composition.” We organists in America lost that thread for a while, but I’m thrilled to see evolving appreciation. I love teaching improvisation because I learn so much.
JF: Our students are very excited to study improvisation with you, but it is also daunting for many of them. How will you make the study approachable for students at many different experience and confidence levels?
JS: Maybe we need to banish the ghosts of Marcel Dupré and the great Sebastian lurking over our shoulder? To improvise, even badly, is a journey, with risks and rewards en route. It calls upon the complete resources of our musicianship and our personhood, too. (Sorry, it sounds daunting again!) Anyway, it excites me to explore these skills with a student because each is so individual and so deserving of individualized teaching. I teach them how and what to practice, and aim for a gentle coaxing along the way.
JF: As you see it, which aspects distinguish the IU program?
JS: Since the department’s founding, faculty such as Oswald Ragatz, Wilma Jensen, Robert Rayfield, and Marilyn Keiser have taken up the banner of the practical church musician, aspects other than playing the organ literature itself. Of course, we have brilliant recitalists here. But in their jobs, present and future, most students will spend at least 60% of their “on-air” time accompanying singing. Our aim at IU is to send out graduates who do this expertly. Not begrudgingly, but with joy.
JF: Have you sensed storm clouds over the church music profession?
JS: Well, I’m sensing that after our traumatic lockdowns, those in church leadership are only tentatively regaining their footing. There’s a “What now?” anxiety which might make this a tricky time.
JF: And the “Great Resignation.”
JS: That too. Individuals bowing out of our profession, perhaps connected to present trends.
JF: How do you see a degree program addressing these trends?
JS: With confidence. We needn’t apologize for the excellence we represent. But neither should our degree programs exist in a vacuum. As tempting as it is, we’ve got to resist escapism and absolutism and every kind of head-in-the-sand thinking. At IU, I see us redoubling our effort to form complete church musicians. That’s a vocation, not just a job. We’re not a seminary here, but our students need to be conversant in liturgical tradition, psalmody, and hymnody. And—perhaps this is controversial—I feel we need to address topics easily avoided in music schools: leadership and communication skills, conflict management, staffing, budgeting, fundraising, etc. So much of the success of our graduates and the music programs they build will be grounded in these areas.
JF: You mentioned Colloquium, which you spearheaded here back in 2009-11. How do you see it and the Sacred Music core curriculum working in tandem with extra-curricular opportunities to enrich our students’ experiences at Jacobs?
JS: Genuine learning comes simultaneously from many different directions, beyond the classroom and beyond the practice room. Colloquium is a forum for connecting the dots. Many of our students secure organ scholarships/assistantships in Indianapolis and elsewhere. We find them mentors. And I bring to the department a long and varied experience of working in the church.
JF: So, we continue the IU tradition of balancing the practical with the theoretical.
JS: Exactly. And as Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
Congratulations to Chase, Valentina, Shayla, and Owen for their performances at the Liszt Society Organ Recital!
Congratulations to Matthew Wachtman on his M.M. recital on October 11!
Congratulations to October’s Concerts at the Crossroads performers!
Congratulations to the performers on our September Concerts at the Crossroads!
Recent Professional Activities of our faculty and students
This summer, Chase Loomer took a trip to Europe to play organs in Stuttgart, Germany; Ulm, Germany; Toulouse, France; Saint-Maximin, France and Paris, France. While in Paris, he took several improvisation lessons with Thierry Escaich on the organ of St. Etienne du Mont. When he was back in America, Chase went on tour singing and chaperoning with the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, performing at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and St. Thomas 5th Ave. in New York City.
In June of 2022, Nicholas won second prize in the Arthur Poister Organ Competition, held in Syracuse NY. This past summer, he was the inaugural organ scholar at the Chautauqua Institution, where he worked under Joshua Stafford. At Chautauqua, Nicholas assisted with seven choral services each week of the 9-week season and also performed three solo recitals.