What does a 100+ year old pipe organ have to offer school children in today’s world?
Portland, Maine’s iconic Kotzschmar Organ, donated over a century ago by publishing mogul Cyrus Curtis and the centerpiece of Merrill Auditorium ever since, has become the inspiration for a progressive and multifaceted education program in Maine schools. Developed by the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ (FOKO) nonprofit, the curriculum includes a series of events, presentations, and in-school courses.
As an organist and choir director of both youth and adults, I am teaching all the time. My experience with FOKO’s education in the schools over the past ten years, presenting youth concerts on the Kotzschmar, has been eye opening to say the least. I continue to grow as a teaching artist through teaching in different school systems and working with teams of classroom teachers.
The beauty of the Kotzschmar Organ as a teaching tool is multifaceted. It resides in a public auditorium and the mere nature of its construction, allows students and the public to take tours of its inner workings. The Austin Organ Company is known for their Universal windchest, one airbox that supports the entire instrument and…because of its size (HOW BIG IS IT?) you can walk inside it!
I integrate our curriculum with the school’s curriculum to make the learning experience relevant to the students, while incorporating and enhancing the learning standards with our activities based/hands-on approach. Have you ever used a slinky to teach sound wave energy? Using our traveling, portable pipe organ “Kotzschmar Junior” (K Jr.), I can demonstrate pitch, timbre (color), dynamics — and the function of the instrument can easily be explained. Students can actually pump the bellows to make the organ sound. If they pump to fast, the sound flutters, if they pump too slowly or stop, the sound and pitch sag.
So we are teaching the scientific and mathematic/engineering aspects of the instrument as well as providing music as part of the fabric intertwined with art, language arts and social studies.
One of our most recently developed events is the Kotzscharama, which explores the music of Bach or Messiaen through various media. This all day, all school or grade event provides an all encompassing experiential day for students allowing them to express their reactions to the music through various media: writing, painting, movement.
We employ the music of composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Olivier Messiaen. I guide students through pieces by these composers on the portable “Kotzschmar Junior” (K Jr.) pipe organ that lives in the classroom during our residencies.
If you take an objective look at the Kotzschmar Organ, it can be approached from historical, mathematical, scientific, artistic, musical, sociological, and emotional viewpoints. Making these connections and comparisons models for students the inter-connectivity of our lives and living. It is exciting and rewarding to open these vistas to human beings.