Great Lakes: Career Benefits of Degrees and AGO Certifications

Whether you would like to pursue a degree in performance or church music, there are several reasons why an organ degree will benefit your career as an organist:
Formal organ study. Taking consistent lessons, enrolling in music classes, and studying alongside other peer musicians is a phenomenal growing experience. (Studying music in college is awesome!)

Experience. A degree will provide you with valuable performing and teaching experience. This is your opportunity to hone your skills and learn from your mistakes! Take advantage of this time to be a student!

Efficient practice. As organists, we have to learn music rather quickly. Whether learning an anthem for Sunday morning or getting ready for a recital, organists need experience in learning effective ways to practice. A degree program with a terrific teacher will help one learn how to practice efficiently and adequately manage his/her time.

Collaboration. One of the perks of going to school with other musicians is the chance to collaborate with fellow students. Orchestras also require organists on occasion — how exciting!

Collegial connections and outreach
. In school, we meet our future colleagues. You and your organist peers are the future of organ pedagogy, church music, and performance!

Internships. Although not all, many degree programs have connections with organ scholar positions at nearby churches to give one “real-life” experiences in addition to one’s studies at a university, conservatory, or college.

J-O-B. Organists are in demand in the job market. However, many organ positions can be competitive. Holding a degree in organ study gives one a “leg-up” when applying for a job.

For a list of organ degree-granting programs, please visit:

AGO certification tests exam one on a variety of practical and essential skills. The tests include playing literature, hymns, and accompaniments. Depending on the certification, one may also be tested on transposition, sight reading, harmonization, and improvisation. An AGO certification reflects a level or standard of playing that many other organists recognize. More importantly, ALL of these skills are essential for being a well-rounded organist and having a successful career.

Transposition. Whether transposing the last stanza of a hymn or taking a Psalm up or down a step, transposition is extremely useful. Plus, it helps your improvising. When preparing for this section of the test, I recommend spending a bit of time each day practicing your transposition skills on the four-part chorales from the 371 Chorales of J.S. Bach (edited by Albert Riemenschneider).
Sight-reading. Oftentimes, organists don’t have the luxury of time to prepare a piece. Upon the first play-through, sight-reading allows one to get a broader sense of a piece or work in rehearsal.

Improvisation. Be creative! Improvisation is a chance to let your musical ideas be heard. There are many times in church services or masses that improvisation is necessary to maintain the flow of the service with silence. Also, why not end a recital with an improvisation on a submitted theme?
Anthem accompanying. Being able to accompany a choir on the organ is a very valuable skill. Additionally, adapting piano scores for the organ is an art form.

. When playing hymns, remember that the written harmonizations in the hymnal are merely a sketch or starting point. Oftentimes, one may decide not to deviate from the harmonizations of a hymnal. However, with good taste and discretion, creating your own harmonizations may help to enhance the text and congregation singing of a hymn.

Repertoire. Many of the AGO exams have repertoire requirements. This is another opportunity to learn new pieces and explore new works.

AGO certification exams

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