Guest Artist Interview
with Brian Mathias
Jeannine: Before we get started with more detailed questions, would you please introduce yourself to our readers. What is your background?
Dr. Mathias: Like many organists, I started on the piano when I was around eight years old. When I was twelve (during a period when I was trying to quit!), my piano teacher introduced me to the organ so I could play in church. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. My primary focus shifted to organ and it quickly became a big part of my life. After high school, I earned degrees at Brigham Young University and the University of Kansas. Since 2014, I’ve been an adjunct faculty member at BYU, where I teach organ and carillon, as well as supporting coursework including organ literature, hymn playing, and improvisation.
Jeannine: What drew you to music and the organ?
Dr. Mathias: It was really the organ that drew me to music. I suppose I had some degree of interest early on, but it was learning to play the organ that inspired me to the point that I wanted to pursue a career in music. I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my teacher would frequently take me to places around the city where he was performing. Having the opportunity to get my hands on some of the wonderful instruments around the Twin Cities was extremely motivating to me. The opportunity to meet a new instrument was thrilling then and remains so today.
Jeannine: I understand there are exciting times in your life! In January 2018 you were appointed a Tabernacle Organist by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Please tell us how you came to this thrilling moment in your career.
Dr. Mathias: Growing up as a member of the LDS church, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a staple in our home. When I began to develop a serious interest in the organ, the Tabernacle Organists were the best organists that I had regular exposure to, and I devoured any recording I could find of the famous Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Of course, through the course of my education, I discovered many other traditions, organs, and organists that broadened my perspective, and I did everything I could to prepare for an academic career. However, playing for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir always remained in the back of my mind as my “dream” job.
Last May, an open position was posted. As you might imagine for a demanding position like this, the selection process lasted several months and included standard things like an application and submitting recordings. Finalists were then invited to spend two days in Salt Lake City with the Tabernacle Choir staff. The audition included quite a variety of tasks, including various types of keyboard skills (improvisation, transposition, sight reading, etc.), writing, arranging, and interviews. This culminated in accompanying the choir in rehearsal for around 45 minutes.
It was an intense, but thrilling experience, and after having the opportunity to actually play with the choir, I came away wanting the job more than ever!
My primary responsibilities as a member of the organ staff will include accompanying the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square on their weekly TV and radio broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” (the longest continuously-running broadcast in the world!) and performing on the daily noon recital series in the Tabernacle. We also provide music for church-wide meetings called General Conference that happen each April and October, as well as a number of concerts throughout the year.
Jeannine: You have taught in the School of Music at Brigham Young University since 2014 and have served on the faculty of the annual BYU Organ Workshop. Would you please describe for our readers the organ program at the University and how these University courses and specifically the Summer Organ Workshops are meeting the needs of church musicians.
Dr. Matthias: BYU is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As you are probably aware, our church has an entirely lay ministry, so the organists of our congregations throughout the world are all volunteers. For this reason, the BYU organ department has a unique focus. In addition to the lessons and curriculum we offer for organ majors, we have a variety of offerings for those who want to learn basic hymn playing skills in preparation for volunteer service in the church.
For university students, we offer two semesters of beginning organ instruction in a small group format. These classes are held in our organ lab that houses twelve electronic organs. In any given semester, we have around 100 students enrolled in these courses. Of course, we also offer more traditional private lessons for organ majors and non-majors, which typically amounts to another 30-35 student each semester. That’s a lot of organ teaching each week!
As exciting as everything happening on campus is, our focus is much broader than just the university community. We have a variety of offerings intended for early-level organists everywhere. These include online independent study courses, the annual week-long BYU Organ Workshop, 10-12 weekend “outreach” workshops offered in various locations around the United States each year, and a variety of online resources that can be accessed free of charge. Credit for these many projects goes largely to my colleague Don Cook (current AGO Councilor for Education), who has been working to get organ training into the hands of organists everywhere for many years. Those curious about our program can find more information at organ.byu.edu.
When it comes to organ, BYU is an exciting place to be, and I will certainly miss being a part of all the wonderful things going on there.
Jeannine: Congratulations Brian on your new position and thank you for sharing your story with us.