'I had to learn to play that organ'

World-renowned instrument at Rockefeller Chapel inspires College student’s music studies

When Chelsie Coren stepped inside Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on an autumn day in 2012, she heard the majestic thunder of the chapel’s E.M. Skinner organ echoing through the high-domed space.

“It seemed like all the stops were pulled out; the entire building just shook,” recalls Coren, then a high school senior visiting campus as a prospective student. “I knew right away that I had to learn to play that organ.”

An accomplished pianist and clarinetist, Coren says she spent the rest of her senior year in suburban Wheeling, Ill., dreaming about finding someone to teach her.

A year later, she had her wish. In fall 2013, as Coren enrolled as a first-year in the College, Rockefeller Chapel inaugurated its organ scholar program, a scholarship available for full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students at the University who wish to play and study the organ.

Coren was accepted after an audition and is now on scholarship for a second year. As an organ scholar, she receives free weekly lessons and performance opportunities on world-class organs in both Rockefeller and Bond chapels. She also is granted a $3,000 stipend.

“We invite students who have strong keyboard skills to consider auditioning for organ scholarships,” says Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, who founded the program that ensures two scholarships per year. The University Women’s Board had provided funding to establish a highly successful choral scholarship program, now in its fifth year, Davenport adds. “I decided it was time we start making it possible for students to study the organ.”

Expanding music program at Rockefeller

Davenport says training programs for young organists are common at British universities that have a major college chapel, and she vividly recalls the practice when she was a student at Oxford in her native England.

At Rockefeller, the organ scholar program is one facet of Davenport’s mission to “expand the music program in all directions,” she says. Since her arrival in 2008, she has invigorated student participation in choral and carillon programs, overseeing an initiative to commission and perform new music for voices, organ, and carillon. More than 30 new works have received world premieres at Rockefeller during the past seven years. Davenport also has initiated Arts Rock, a vibrant calendar of music and arts programming that draws students and the wider community into the chapel.

The next logical step was to create more student access to the organ, Davenport says, and a timely confluence of factors made it possible. In 2008, the University completed a three-year, $2.1 million renovation project for Rockefeller’s 86-year-old organ, restoring to its former glory the crown jewel instrument built by E.M. Skinner.

“This organ is the best example of American Romantic organ building,” says Tom Weisflog, the University Organist, who played a major role in the organ’s renovation. “It is widely considered to be one of the great organs of the world.”           

With its 8,565 pipes, ranging in size from two nearly 4-story, wooden shafts resembling narrow coffins, to small, tin-and-lead tubes that look like penny whistles, the organ provides a colorful, musical feast. There is an array of stops—oboes, flutes, strings, brass, and effects like the “bombarde,” a growling sound that rumbles deep in the bass. “It’s like having an orchestra at your fingertips,” Weisflog says.

In addition to a world-class instrument to learn and perform on, organ scholars get to take lessons with a master teacher. In fall 2012, organist Phillip Kloeckner joined the Department of Music, assuming a joint appointment with Rockefeller Chapel to direct its organ studio. With a doctorate in organ performance from Rice University and extensive teaching experience, Kloeckner arrived at just the right moment to oversee the future scholars.

Davenport approached him straightaway. “She said to me, ‘Let’s get something going,’” Kloeckner says. “She realized that it made no sense to have these resources here and not engage the student population.”(In addition to Rockefeller’s Skinner, Bond Chapel houses the stunning Reneker mechanical organ in the North German Baroque style that also is available to students.)

'An extraordinary talent'

Kloeckner began teaching Coren even before she had enrolled in school or auditioned for a scholarship. In yet another bit of serendipity, Coren’s parents, Lourdes and Steve Coren, had spotted Kloeckner practicing in Rockefeller while they toured campus the summer before their daughter matriculated. “Her mother introduced herself very respectfully and said, ‘You’re going to be hearing from our daughter this fall,’” Kloeckner says. “‘She’s completely taken by the organ, and she wants to study.’”  

Coren arrived weeks later and took to the massive instrument with passion. “She’s an extraordinary talent,” Kloeckner says. “You never have to tell her something more than once.”

Impressive, given how difficult it is to play the organ. “It requires the totality of your mental and physical capacities,” Kloeckner says. “Physically, most people can’t manage playing the organ until they are of a certain maturity.”

Coren’s strong background in piano was a prerequisite for success, but she also credits her childhood dance training for helping her read and play three musical lines simultaneously using her right and left hands—and both feet. “I was totally unprepared for the feet,” Coren says. “You must play as musically with your feet as you would with your fingers.” 

In October, her lightning-quick progress landed her a spot performing at Rockefeller Chapel as part of the WFMT Bach Organ Project, a series of 10 concerts held at different Chicago venues dedicated to the performance of Bach’s complete organ works. The performances are set to be broadcast on the classical and fine arts radio station WFMT-98.7 FM. Coren also plays regularly at Rockefeller’s Sunday services under Weisflog’s guidance.

A second-year anthropology major, Coren has considered switching full-time to music. But for now, she says she’s content to continue her weekly lessons and periodic performing opportunities, building her skills and enjoying the capacity to “play such a powerful instrument and make big sounds.”

One thing she knows for sure: “This is the next phase in my musical life,” Coren says. “I’d like to keep playing the organ—no matter what.”