The pipe organ is, dare he say it, “almost trendy.”
No, really, Cunningham said. He has proof.
His instrument of choice is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in younger generations.
Cunningham himself teaches lessons to local high school students on Reid’s 3,000-pipe Schantz-built organ.
Students at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School helped install a pipe organ in one of the practice rooms this summer.
Augusta State University now has four organ students studying with Jim Nord, Cunningham said.
And perhaps most exciting, the young organists are looking forward to an upcoming concert with Christopher Houlihan, hailed as one of America’s premiere young organists, and a bright star lighting the path for countless other young musicians embracing the organ.
Houlihan, 25, will present a concert at Reid on Thursday.
The front row seats won’t be pews, but bean bags. They’re meant for children ages 8 to 12, who will be allowed to sit just feet from the organ for a better view of Houlihan’s footwork.
“What cooler instrument is there, with all of the sounds and pedals?” Houlihan said by phone this week.
The concert is part of the Schaeffer Organ Concert Series, named for John Gerhardt Schaeffer, a former Reid organist and Augusta State University music professor.
Four years ago, Houlihan was just starting his senior year of college.
He recorded his first two CDs while still in college, prompting classmates to form the “Houli Fans.” The fan group, which has its own Facebook page, not only claps at concerts, but cheers.
This past summer, Houlihan attracted national attention by performing the six organ symphonies of Louis Vierne in marathon sessions in six cities across the U.S.
He’ll play one in Augusta on Thursday.
“It’s a whole symphony for solo organ,” he said. “I’ve got a whole symphony under my fingertips.”
The diversity of sounds that come out of an organ fascinate kids, he said.
“It’s so colorful and exciting and really explores all of the sounds an organ has,” he said. “It’s loud and frightening, delicate, sensual, exotic and everything in between.”
Houlihan first discovered the organ in church as a child.
“The sound of it could just rip your face off,” he said.
Needless to say, Houlihan was impressed. He started lessons at age 12 with John Rose and went on to study at Trinity College in Connecticut and The Juilliard School in New York.
Grovetown High School student Nick Lowery picked up the organ two years ago, at 15.
The now 17-year-old studies with Cunningham.
“One of the different things that has fascinated me is all the different sounds you can get out of it,” he said.
Nate Thompson agreed.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Thompson, a 14-year-old freshman at Davidson.
Both say they’re planning to attend Houlihan’s performance in Augusta.
“Old is new,” Cunningham said. “Young people are returning to the organ.”
He thinks he might be able to explain it.
“In the mid-1970s, we had a moment in the American church,” he said. Worship took a turn toward contemporary, and now there’s an entire generation of kids who have grown up without organ music.
“They’ve never heard anything like this before,” Cunningham said. “It’s a different kind of instrument.”
Organists such as Houlihan help their cause.
“He’s a great representative for the organ,” he said. “He gets rid of the rules. He’s doing things differently. He’s going, ‘Why not have fun with the pipe organ?’ ”