September 2, 2018


Studying the Organ Abroad

September 2, 2018


Studying the Organ Abroad

Vox Humana Editorial Board members Christopher Holman, Katelyn Emerson, and Guy Whatley present and discuss the major grants with which American organists can study abroad, and give general information about everyday life and jobs in a foreign country. While the information about grants is aimed toward U.S. Citizens/Permanent Residents wanting to study in Europe, the principles are generally the same for anyone wanting to study in the Americas, and Guy Whatley will specifically discuss studying abroad in the United States toward the end of the article.



Christopher Holman: As the famous collection of articles The Organ as a Mirror of Its Time suggests, our instrument indeed reflects the technological, aesthetic, and cultural advances of societies. However, organs also mirror the culture and people who built them; German and Dutch organs are marvels of engineering, the vocal principals of Italian organs speak crisply with many different vowel shapes, and the rich reeds and sparkling cornets of French organs reflect the fiery passion that inspired their great revolution. In the Americas, most organs, especially old ones, are extraordinarily different from those in Europe. And some of the best modern organ building being done today, especially that which is historically informed, comes from North America.

The question I always asked myself as an undergraduate student before ever going to Europe was, "how close are such instruments to those after which they are modeled?" After years of studying specifications, tonal descriptions, and listening to recordings, I finally got the chance to go to Europe, and found the world of historic organs to be something entirely different from what I had read in books. There are many reasons for Americans in all disciplines to study abroad, but for organists, most of our instruments and repertoire are intrinsically tied to European instruments, language, history, and culture. Understanding, or at least having a glimpse into these things can open a world of musical possibilities, tenfold (not to mention the career benefits). My colleagues on Vox Humana's Editorial Board and I hope that this article will be beneficial for organists wishing to study abroad; since most deadlines for grants are in mid-October, it seems like now is a good time to talk about what is involved.

Choosing a Program

How can one objectively say that one study program is better than another? Despite statistics and analytics, it comes down to a personal choice. The most important factors come down to your present situation as an organist. For many young organists, a key factor is the teacher, especially if you are planning to focus on a particular repertoire. Keep in mind, too, that a teacher can provide professional opportunities, such as recital recommendations and access to important instruments. However, if you already have a master's degree and have performed widely, then a teacher may not be the most important factor — you may wish instead to choose to study at a widely-recognized institution, especially if you are planning to become a specialist or are pursuing doctoral research. Location is also important; for instance, historic organs abound in Italy, but as Edoardo Bellotti pointed out in an earlier interview on Vox Humana, there are very few Italian conservatories that offer full-time organ study.

Also keep in mind that, while historic organs are veritable treasure troves of information, a modern restoration can either renew the character of old instruments or utterly destroy them. Just because an organ was built by Cavaillé-Coll doesn't mean that it retains anything of its original character today — it depends almost entirely on restorations, and so looking at the restorers is just as important as consulting a catalogue of old instruments in the region. Ask prospective professors about the instruments, and then listen to recordings to decide for yourself. Also ask about the practice situation; in some places you will have tons of time on famous historic organs, in others, almost none. Most European organ programs also take study trips, which are often funded by the school, and can be both fun and enlightening.

Visas and Funding

In general, if you have enough money to study abroad, can prove it through bank statements, and are accepted to a European conservatory, you will most likely be granted a visa. However, if you're not in that very lucky group, there are other options.

In the United States, many students fund much of their study by playing at churches. For Americans, it is possible to get a church position in European countries, but it can be difficult, as employers are required to prove that they actively tried to hire a European and could not do so. That being said, churches can get around that if they would rather hire an American, but don't count on that. Another difficulty is that some countries (like Italy and France) have basically no paid church positions for students (or they don't pay enough to get you much more than a happy meal at the local McDonald's, which yes, are everywhere). Others, like Germany and England, have established church music training systems that almost everyone must go through before even being eligible for employment (although, there are always exceptions). Talking with your prospective professor will clear up those questions pretty quickly, though they may not be aware of the aforementioned difficulties for employing Americans.

Short of stumbling into the right combination of circumstances, the best way to fund studying abroad is through a grant, which not only will cover your finances, but also assures both European universities and migration departments that you are a safe bet for acceptance and a visa.


Most study abroad grants require some sort of yearlong project, and, in our experience, the projects that receive funding are ones that can only be done abroad. That's great for organists, since the instruments themselves are usually our main reason for going. However, "playing old organs" for a year or two usually isn't enough to win a grant; it's best to affiliate with some sort of institution, and specifically, you will want to try to integrate that with studying a particular repertoire with a specialist teacher on such instruments. You will need to also demonstrate that your teacher/institution or connections are enough to actually get you access to instruments.

Alternatively, if you want to pursue independent or doctoral-related research on a European topic and need access to primary sources, or most of the important secondary sources are published in a foreign language, using an important library is also a compelling reason to study abroad.

Whatever route you choose, the most important part of your application (as important as recordings, if not more so) will be the project statement/description; we strongly recommend that you work on this with several trusted advisors. Some American universities have entire departments dedicated to helping students apply for major grants (many such departments will also help alumni if it's within a year or two after graduation), but don't hesitate to ask specialists in various fields to read your application. Often, there will be organists and early music professors on scholarship selection boards.

Study abroad grants will almost always fund degree study, but most are guaranteed for only one year (though some have the possibility of renewal). There are no major grants for studying abroad that are dedicated solely for organists, so you will always be competing across multiple disciplines in at least music (i.e. voice, trombone, musicology, etc.), if not in all fields. However, here are some major grants that historically have funded organists studying abroad:

Katelyn Emerson: The most famous such grant is the Fulbright Program, which offers scholarships on a number of academic levels from those for recent Bachelors degree recipients hoping to pursue a year of studies abroad to grants for professors looking to do further international research. All Fubright Awards share the goal of improving “intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between the people of the United States and other countries.” An applicant must be a Citizen of the United States and hold a bachelor’s degree by the grant’s start date (for creative and performing arts applicants, four years of professional training/experience often meets this eligibility requirement).

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is specifically for recent graduates and young professionals who want to do research and study anywhere outside of the U.S. The funding comes from a combination of the U.S. government and the government of intended country, which results in a varied number and style of grants offered from each country. Currently, for example, France offers 18 Study/Research Awards while the U.K. has 51 and Germany has 65. There is no grant specifically for musicians, and musical applicants must compete with those from all arts and science disciplines.

The award is paid in monthly deposits to the recipient’s international bank account (opened by the recipient upon arrival in the host country — see below for more on that) for the nine months of the grant period. The amount of these installments is contingent upon the funds available that year, but is typically a little more money than what would be needed for comfortable living anywhere in the country, plus an amount that approximates round trip airfare to and from the host country.

The online application is quite exhaustive, asking for biographical data, a summary of one’s CV, and academic qualifications (including transcripts). In addition, as of September 1, 2018, the application also requires the following:

1) “Statement of Grant Purpose,” which can range in style from a personal testimony to an objective description of why it is essential that one study in this place at this time with this particular person. Ideally, it should somehow encompass both, which is difficult as the maximum length is two pages.

2) “Affiliation Letter,” where the intended teacher/supervisor must write a letter expressing his/her support of the project and the student’s studies.

3) “Personal Statement” showing the committee why this study/research is essential for the student on a more personal level, and how this student will represent themselves and, by extension, their country (this is a government grant, after all). As the maximum is one page, it's important to be concise.

4) Foreign Language Forms (depending on the country’s requirements), proving that one has the language skills to complete the proposed project, or will acquire them before beginning.

5) Three recommendation letters

6) Supplementary Materials, or “examples of artistic work” (recordings – audio or video, depending on the application), description of the organ(s) played, and photograph(s) of the instrument(s) played.

The first round of application review is done by the National Screening Committee of the Institute of International Education (IIE). If accepted through this round, the applicant receives an email in mid-January that the application will go to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FFSB). This Board makes the final decision on Fulbright awards. Typically, the National Screening Committee recommends about double the number of candidates to the FFSB that each country has available awards.

The applicant can receive the final results anytime between February and June, with three possible responses: Principal, Alternate, or Not Selected. Principal implies grant receipt and Alternate implies a kind of “runner-up” status and that that applicant may become Principal if another applicant turns down the grant. The Fulbright Award is often non-renewable (but it depends on the country), and sometimes stipulates that the grantee return to his/her home country for two years following the grant’s completion to share his/her experiences. For the Study/Research grant in 2017, France received 126 applications for 23 awards, Germany 334 applications for 70, and the U.K. 823 for 29.

For those from abroad wishing to study in the United States, the Fulbright Program offers grants for study at programs in the U.S. More information is available here.

Christopher Holman: The privately-funded equivalent of a Fulbright for United States residents (not necessarily Citizens) is the Boston-based Frank Huntington Beebe Fund for Musicians, though it is intended to support grantees' first extended period of study abroad. Recipients can study anywhere in the world, and the award is currently $22,000, paid quarterly, which goes far in even the most expensive European countries (Norway and Switzerland). In addition to the written materials required by Fulbright (though no Personal Statement is required), ten finalists must audition and interview in Boston in March. In recent years, these have taken place on the organ at Boston Symphony Hall, but if the project is based in early music (as was my case), the organizers will move the audition to a more appropriate venue. In the past three years, three candidates have received awards, and before that, it has ranged from one to five; this grant is non-renewable, and is only available to musicians.

Katelyn Emerson: The DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst; German Academic Exchange Scholarship) funds study at the postgraduate level at German universities. This is for those who have already completed an undergraduate degree in any musical field. Applicants can be from anywhere in the world outside of Germany, but must not have resided in Germany for longer than one year. Recipients can pursue a Masters degree or another postgraduate degree (Concert Examination, CAS [Certificate of Advanced Studies], PhD, etc) at any music school in the country. The funding lasts from 10–24 months (contingent on the program’s duration), and gives a monthly stipend for living expenses, a small travel allowance, study allowance, and health insurance. Additional funds can be made available in unique cases.

In addition to the online application form and transcripts, as of September 1, 2018, the application consists of:

1) CV in tabular form

2) Statement about academic and personal reasons for planned study (1-3 pages)

3) If possible, letter of acceptance from the University and/or letter of support from intended teacher.

4) Proof of knowledge of language of instruction (contingent upon university requirements — often Masters degrees require either English or German)

5) Audio or video recordings

6) One recommendation letter

In addition to the DAAD Study Scholarships for Foreign Graduates in the Field of Music, there is also a German Studies Research Grant (general applicants), Study Scholarship for Foreign Graduates in the Field of the Performing Arts, and Study Scholarships for Foreign Graduates in the Fields of Fine Art, Design, Visual Communication, and Film. In May 2018, 79 grants were given to graduate students in the fields of arts, music, design, and film.

Christopher Holman: Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships (SGES) are the equivalent of DAAD in Switzerland. Competition is particularly tough, though, as there are many technical universities in Switzerland that in general have higher priority than the arts; additionally, the Fulbright funding comes from the SGES pool, so only a few are available.

The Harriet Hale Woolley Scholarship from the Fondation des États-Unis funds study at any institute in Paris and even gives you a nice place to live. Decent French is expected before you begin your studies, and there are between three and five recipients per year in multiple arts disciplines plus medicine; the grant is non-renewable. The application is similar to the aforementioned grants, but no personal statement nor project description are required.

Other grants that will fund Americans studying abroad are country or institution-specific. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship gives a full ride to Americans who pursue graduate study at Cambridge University in the U.K., and the undergraduate equivalent at Oxford is the Rhodes Scholarship, 32 of which are allocated for Americans across all disciplines. The requirements vary depending on the program within each university.

To summarize, here is a list of the aforementioned grants and deadlines for the 2019–2020 academic year:

Grant Due Valid Award Age Limit
Fulbright October 9, 2018 Worldwide Living expenses and other assistance None
Beebe December 18, 2018 Worldwide $22000 Under 30
DAAD October 15, 2018 Germany Living expenses and other assistance Program-dependent
Wooley January 31, 2019 Paris €10000, plus housing 21–29
Gates October 10, 2018 Cambridge, U.K. Full None
Rhodes October 3, 2018 Oxford, U.K. Full 19–25


Almost everyone in western Europe can at least understand a little English (even if they can't speak it), and in principle, most people under 30 are quite proficient. That being said, you should not expect to speak only English unless you are studying in U.K., certain places in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, Iceland, Gibraltar, Malta, or an institute where the vast majority of the students are foreign and English is the only common language (e.g. the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis). Most countries have language requirements for students studying abroad. Sometimes this takes the form of a test for admission to the school or even for a visa to be granted, but often they simply expect that you have basic proficiency before you arrive.

As a friend once told me, "learning by immersion is about as fun as being thrown in the middle of the Rhine with no swimming lessons," so we recommend at least A2 proficiency before you begin classes (A1 is one college semester/one year of high school, A2 is the next level up, and B1 is the lowest recommended level for employment — C2 is completey fluent). Practically all college courses and language schools prepare you for the standardized version of the language; in the case of German, classes are usually taught in Standard German (Hochdeutsch), but the local spoken language is often a dialect. In the case of Hannover, for instance, there's almost no difference, but Swiss German, for example, is practically an entirely different language.

For people from the United States, where English is practically the only language spoken and there are not many regional dialects, this is all very intimidating. However, realize that for most of the rest of the world, dealing with these language issues is an everyday problem, so don't worry— just study it and do your best. In my experience, many Europeans honestly appreciate that you're even trying (many English speakers visiting from abroad don't!).

Housing and Transportation

As mentioned, some grants will provide housing. If not, one good option is to find a shared apartment; many universities have online boards where other students can advertise vacancies. Almost all young people speak some English, so just ask around. If you want your own place, European apartments generally require anywhere between one and three months' rent as deposit (estimate high, since you will have no credit in another country). In general, you will not need a car in Europe, as public transportation is affordable and goes almost everywhere at least every hour. If you rent one, though, be warned that the default is manual transmission (unfortunately, I only drive automatic, so when I've rented what was supposed to be a normal compact car, I've either gotten a family-size van or a sports car!).


Countries vary on requirements; some, like Switzerland, require everyone to have insurance with absolutely no exceptions. Most universities will offer some kind of very affordable healthcare, which in western Europe is often just as good as the U.S. (if not better), and is always less expensive. Your school's international student office can help you there.

Currency, Banks, and Taxes

Exchange rates for currency are constantly in flux, and it's important to check them regularly. Europeans accept credit cards for everyday purchases, but not for things like electricity and insurance bills. American checks are not usable in the European system — they use direct bank transfers, which are done using your bank's website. You can wire the money from your U.S. bank account, but there's generally at least a $30 fee involved. Most student bank accounts are free, though often it's only the large banks that will want to process American accounts (if you are a U.S. citizen and earn money abroad, you have to file both local and U.S. taxes, and foreign banks are required to report your income to the IRS). If you want to get a credit card, either get one from your European bank, or one without a foreign transaction fee. If you use an American card, be sure it has a chip, as most international machines do not have the option to swipe; some machines will also ask for a pin code (even for a credit card), and sometimes American credit cards can provide such a code if you ask. One last hint: Charles Schwab offers a free checking account that gives you free ATM withdrawals worldwide without foreign transaction fees.

Studying in the United States

Guy Whatley: There are important advantages to studying organ in the United States. There are many excellent university organ programs with many fine instruments and outstanding libraries. The U.S. has an unusually large number of churches with professional music programs and a professional education and degree structure for organ music. There are fine instruments in a wide range of styles, and travel across the country is extremely easy and affordable. The choral scene in the U.S. is vibrant, ranging from high school to professional ensembles, attracting youthful and new audiences to the arts. The U.S. is a place where fundraising and entrepreneurship in the arts can really pay off, and many communities across the country have outstanding music ensembles with healthy fundraising and community building efforts. If you are good at raising money and communicating with audiences, this can be a wonderful place to build a diverse career as a musician.

It is important to choose the right school and professor from among the many superb organ programs in the U.S. Some specialize in performance practice and have a wide variety of instruments. Some are more focused on sacred music, some on performance, others on research, etc. This healthy variety of styles and approaches to the organ characterizes music making in the United States, but it increases the importance of finding the right program for your interests. Some schools offer a performance certificate, but most students pursue either a Masters or Doctoral degree. These degrees will include a considerable amount of coursework in addition to your organ studies, and sometimes this can become burdensome. It is worth investigating requirements of the program before starting a degree. There will be a large amount of bureaucracy and administration. If English is not your first language you will be required to take a proficiency test; note that most Americans do not speak another language fluently.

The best way to navigate the administrative, funding, and visa aspects of study here is to build a great relationship with the professor with whom you wish to study ahead of time. Most university programs here are committed to aggressive recruitment, and most of the professors teach at summer schools and masterclasses across the country and internationally. These organ professors know more about navigating the issues involved in applying for, and completing their organ programs, and are generally very happy to help.

Many organ programs have good scholarships available. There is also often a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Research Assistant (RA) position available where you are able to get valuable work experience in exchange for a reduction in fees and income. If you have a student visa you are not allowed to work outside your university. It is, however, sometimes possible to create a work placement that is appropriate to the field in which you study, i.e. a job at a local church but there is a heavy burden of paperwork involved. Your organ professor will probably have built relationships with various local church programs to help accommodate this. It is also not unheard of for churches to provide scholarships to the university in exchange for a student playing at the church. Additionally, there are various international grants that students can apply for study in the U.S. The most famous is the competitive Fulbright program which serves as a cultural exchange for many students.

The visa and administrative issues of studying in the United States can be daunting. Most students come on a student visa, although some find church employment on a religious visa which allows them to also study at the university. This can be dangerous because if you terminate your employment, you are out of status and need to leave the United States. Note that any change in visa statues will require you to return to your home country to process (personally, I lost a semester of study in having to return to the U.K. to process a change from religious visa to student visa). After completing your degree, it is possible to get a work visa that will allow you to hold a church or a teaching position. After holding that visa for about five years it is possible to apply for a “Green Card” which will allow you to hold any employment in the United States. Each of these steps is difficult and intimidating; immigration to the United States is highly politicized, and the rules are changing often. Professional legal advice is highly recommended, but most universities will also have an international students office that is able to help somewhat with these issues. You will be required to complete both a state and federal tax form every year, which are due in the middle of April. Most universities will have a pro bono program where law students will assist international students with taxes. It is very important to get help (at least the first time) as the U.S. tax system is bewildering at first.

There are countless opportunities to earn money working as an organist in the United States. Teaching and concert playing (solo and ensemble) opportunities are widely available, and there are many churches in a baffling number of denominations. At one point while completing my doctorate I worked for Lutherans, Catholics (with Latin Mass), a synagogue, and Christian Scientists all at the same time because their services and rehearsals were all on different days and times. It is important to be able to adapt to the many different styles of music required by this variety of religious expression.

There are many unexpected expenses at the start of living in the United States. First, you will have no credit history, so all utilities, cell phone, and housing will require a large deposit in order to sign up. Some important services are much more expensive here. These include car insurance, utilities, cell phone, internet. etc. There is a lack of regulation and competition in many of these markets which has led to exorbitant prices and low-quality service. There is no national health care system in the United States, but many universities have their own system that you can pay per semester to use; as the health care market is so complex and unapproachable, I recommend that you limit your search to universities that offer this service. Tipping at least 20% is expected at most places where you receive services. Also, the advertised prices of goods do not include any applicable sales tax and fees (which vary depending on locality). Many parts of the country have little or no public transportation, so a car will almost certainly be a necessity.

Although there are some administrative challenges to studying in the United States, there are many tangible rewards. There is a vibrant and thrilling organ culture in the U.S. that is steeped in great performance, research and fabulous instruments.

Final Thoughts

Katelyn Emerson: Although the application process for any grant may seem intimidating (especially since this application is in addition to the actual application to the university or conservatory!), studying abroad is well worth the tiny details and drafts of proofreading. Music never happens in a void, so being able to get a little closer to the instruments and places with which composers and musicians were familiar can offer insight into the quirks and character of the repertoire, as well as opportunities for self-discovery.

The support offered by each grant for arriving and getting settled in the new country also makes the work worthwhile, since the visa applications, housing, and university admission can be smoothened through a grant’s resources.

Even beyond the grant period, most of these programs also offer groups that support alumni through networking opportunities and even other grants. The Fulbright and DAAD networks, for instance, tie together musicians and professionals from numerous disciplines to offer further awards, conventions, and opportunities to meet other alumni.

There are endless resources available to assist anybody with applying for a scholarship or for a program abroad. Don’t hesitate to reach out to those who have received such awards for assistance, since their experience can be indispensable for the application — and for tackling the worthy challenge of moving to a new country!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.