I was born in Burlington, North Carolina, the second child of four. My father was a minister in the United Methodist Church, and I remember at a very young age watching the organist at the Pittsboro UMC play the organ and then going home to imitate the manual technique on the window sills at the parsonage. In the NC conference, Methodist ministers were moved to a new charge about every four years, so it was in Fayetteville that I had my first piano lessons at age seven. Then we moved to Wilmington where I continued with somewhat inferior piano teachers until fifth grade when I encountered Philip Koonce, a well-trained musician, who “gave me the business” and stressed technique. Around then (I was 11 or 12 at the time) I had an opportunity to hear Artur Rubenstein in Raleigh. I took the bus by myself, attended the concert, and was required by Mr. Koonce to write a paper with commentary on each piece I had heard. At age 12 I finally began organ lessons at the First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington with Charles Woodward. A magnificent church (Scottish Presbyterian) with a 1928 Skinner organ, I reveled in the six short months I had lessons, but we moved again. This time to the small town of Williamston located in eastern North Carolina, half-way between Raleigh and the Outer Banks and in the heart of tobacco country. At this juncture it seemed best to continue to focus on developing my piano skills, rather than organ, and I was very quickly charged with being the accompanist for the Junior Choir at my dad’s church. I have to say that this experience really helped me develop my sight reading skills! Studying piano at first with the organist at the local Episcopal church, I then located an exceptional piano teacher, Mrs. Selby Jones, in the small town of Washington – 20 miles south. She quickly raised the bar. Piano lessons always included extensive scale work as well as repertoire, and in the summers it was 2 hour lessons – one hour technique, one hour repertoire. She always compared us to her prize student who knew 12 concertos from memory before she went to college! Mrs. Jones’ piano recitals were often 5 hours long!! I owe a great debt to this wonderful woman. When I was a junior in high school, I picked up my study of organ by going to East Carolina University in Greenville, studying with E. Robert (Skip) Irwin. (I continued my piano study at the same time.)
Dr. Irwin was a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, and he prepared me well for my audition at this fine school. Meanwhile I circled back to the Church of the Advent (Episcopal) in Williamston and became the assistant organist under organist/choirmaster, Mabel Arnold, and then took her place when she retired and I was a junior in high school. Of great importance was my attendance at the Sewanee Episcopal Church Music Conference in 1969, where I absorbed Episcopal ways! But probably my greatest inspiration in my young years was the influence of the magnificent Aeolian organ in Duke Chapel – a cathedral! – where I attended youth conferences and heard chapel organist, Mildred Hendrix, play major works of Bach on this grand organ that shook the floor.
After a scary but successful audition at Oberlin Conservatory, I spent four years working feverishly to perfect my skills. At that time, there were 55 undergraduate organ majors with four full-time teachers. I studied with David Boe, and cherished the experience. The school was extremely competitive, but I survived and went on to study with Yuko Hayashi at New England Conservatory in Boston for my master’s. Yuko was a very insightful teacher, and I truly learned how to play the organ under her masterful instruction at the Fisk organ in Old West Church. Finding a small church job at First Parish Unitarian in Norwell (south of Boston), I entrenched myself there during the two years of my master’s degree and ended up staying there for seven. This was the late seventies, and I put the choir through the paces of a Medieval Feast, Renaissance Revels, and the like, and taught piano and organ students, as well as theory and music appreciation classes. Because the Unitarians didn’t need to have church services in the summer, I was excited to have the opportunity one summer to serve as organist/choirmaster for Memorial Church at Harvard. As much as I loved the Unitarians, I was ready to move on in 1981, and was hired as organist/choirmaster for St. Peter’s Church, Weston, Massachusetts. I served there for four years, enjoying the opportunity of working with a choir that included four section leaders, and a three-manual Aeolian-Skinner organ. During that time, I also worked for six months as an interim music teacher at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, taught piano and theory at Bradford College in Haverhill, and was organist for Temple Sinai in Brookline.
In 1985 my partner got a job offer in Chicago, and I decided at age 32 that it was a good time for me to break away from Boston and find out what else was possible. In October 1985 I began my duties as organist/director at St. Giles Episcopal in Northbrook. In 1993, the magnificent Wolff organ was installed, and continues to be a joy to play every week. I am now celebrating 30 years with a sabbatical this summer. Along the way, I was hired to teach piano at the Music Institute of Chicago (then Music Center of the North Shore) and then morphed my way into administration in 1989, first as registrar and working my way up to vice president. The big event happened in 2001 when the school purchased the Evanston First Church of Christ Scientist. Along with this purchase was the inclusion of the church’s original untampered E.M. Skinner organ from 1914. I formed a committee which saw to raising the funds to have the instrument completely restored by Jeff Weiler. In the midst of all this, the new president decided that my position at the school was no longer necessary, so was let go to find other employment. Fortunately in Fall 2008 Northern Illinois University in DeKalb needed an organ and harpsichord teacher following the departure of Richard Hoskins. Eventually in 2011 I was also hired to be Coordinator of Undergraduate Advising, and this past year added on Coordinator of Graduate Studies.
I continue to be pleased for my outstanding students from the Music Institute, particularly Katie Minion (Indiana University, winner of the Arthur Poister prize, and now going for a Fulbright next year in Toulouse), Käthe Wright-Kaufman (Eastman), and two of my outstanding students at Northern Illinois University – Matthew Doran and Marianne Kim – both of whom played in last fall’s WFMT Bach Organ Project.
James Russell Brown