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A Conversation with John Courter

Roaring organ music vibrated through Gray Auditorium in Presser Hall on February 25 in celebration of John Courterís 36 years at Berea College. The evening recital marked Courter's retirement as a professor of music. The recital incorporated a collection of favorite pieces composed by Bach, Richter and Franck as well as Courterís personal compositions. Despite his retirement from the college, Courter intends to remain a permanent fixture within the community by playing the organ at Union Church and Berea Collegeís Carillon.

Prof. John Courter

When did you first decide to play the organ and why?

I was in the second grade attending a Catholic school. I had gone to a church service one morning, and, as I was leaving ... a lady was playing a piece on the organ. I looked at the choir director and said, ďMrs. Klein, Iím going to play the organ someday!Ē She smiled and said, ďYou sure will.Ē

In the fourth grade, I started piano lessons. When I was in the seventh grade, I was finally tall enough to reach the foot peddles of the organ. Usually you have to take three years of piano lessons before playing the organ. The organ incorporates a whole new keyboard that you play with your feet. Itís almost like being in an airplane cockpit with a lot of controls.

How long have you been playing at Berea?

Iíve been here since 1971 - 36 years. This is my last year teaching at Berea. It was exciting to come here. The year before I came, a new organ had been placed in Gray Auditorium and a smaller organ in a classroom. I came for an interview and they liked my playing and I liked Berea. A week later, I was moving from LíAnse, Michigan, to Berea.

What are your thoughts on the recent renovation of Presser Hall?

The building is a dream. The music faculty met with the architects every two weeks for a full year before building began. The first thing we wanted was a large elevator. Theyíve been moving pianos around here for decades, up and down staircases and around corners. Our elevators now are big enough to accommodate a seven foot grand piano.

Gray Auditorium has also been a great improvement. It used to be a presidium stage with curtains that muffled the sound of the organ. When they put in a new organ in the 1970s, the builder refused to place the organ behind the curtains and instead placed it half way down the right side. When the new renovation came along we decided to transform it into a recital stage. The acoustic engineers raised the ceiling to create better sound. It was a good decision.

How long have you been playing at Union Church?

Iíve been playing at Union Church since 1988. I helped in the designing of the two organs at the church.

What is your favorite piece or period of music?

During the recital, I played music from all different periods. We organists are very fond of Bach because he wrote so much for the organ. The music of the north German baroque period and other periods were some of the many pieces played at the recital. I also enjoy contemporary. However, Bach still remains my favorite.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to play the piano or organ?

At Berea, there are a lot of opportunities for people ... who have never had the money or opportunity to play a piano. We have a beginning course for those wanting to learn in our wonderful keyboard lab, which can hold up to 15 students. Itís exciting when we have students who want to continue on to higher level courses. I find it satisfying seeing people who have started out from scratch and developed into really good players.

In terms of advice, repetition and practice are essential to developing your playing skills. Although you may be distracted at times, keep at it.

What has been your favorite class to teach?

Iíve enjoyed pretty much all of them. The class ďMusic and Christian WorshipĒ is one of my favorites. The course covers a wide range of sacred music from Gregorian chant to black gospel. I also enjoy teaching the second year music theory class. In this class, we learn about music construction, how to analyze it and how to create it. Music majors who are juniors and seniors are also allowed to compose their own pieces.

What has been your most memorable concert at Berea?

The organ dedications are exciting events. When we added the Phelps Stokes organ, we had two organists playing on the organ at the same time. It was a funny sight seeing four hands and four feet playing at the same time. We also do an annual Messiah each year in which I act as the conductor, and itís a lot of fun. When the college choir went to Italy and Switzerland, we performed in some of the most magnificent churches. I had the opportunity to play in St. Peterís Basilica in Rome.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time, and what do you intend to do after your retirement?

I enjoy traveling. I will be in Ireland and England this summer. Mainly after retirement, I will have more time for composing. Iíve written several pieces for the carillon here in Berea. A lot of people have also been commissioning me to write for them. This summer St. Colmanís Cathedral is celebrating the 80th anniversary [of its] carillon. For the event, I was asked to write a piece, but later they asked me to come and play the world premier of the piece.

Iíve done of bit of traveling with the World Carillon Federation, which meets every two years. They have been discussing the design of an international keyboard for the organ. When the Berea College organ was built, the designer combined the best features of the European and American keyboard. Organists who played the keyboard enjoyed the organ so much, the Federation inquired about it. Today, the Berea keyboard is the new international standard and is named the W.C.F 2006 keyboard.

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