January 17, 2021


Recollections of My Time as Organist of Spelman College

January 17, 2021


Recollections of My Time as Organist of Spelman College


In this interview with Vox Humana Associate Editor Kirk Rich, Joyce Johnson discusses her time as Organist of Spelman College, a historically black women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, including playing as the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was lying in repose in the College's Sisters Chapel for 48 hours.


Dr. Johnson, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you talk about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ, and what attracted you to it?

From an early age, I was exposed to music because both my parents loved music. My father played the cornet, and my mother, a church musician and schoolteacher, maintained a small cadre of piano students whom she taught in the afternoons in our home. It was through watching her teach other children that I learned the basics of music. As my sight-reading rapidly progressed, I was completely drawn by music, and it consumed all of my time. Having learned to play hymns at an early age, my service as a church musician began at the age of seven as pianist for Sunday School; at age nine, I was pianist for a Christian Science Church (held in a mansion); and age eleven, as pianist for a country Baptist church, where I was required to play mostly by ear (although I was also playing jazz and "boogie-woogie" captured by ear, I had no idea how important these experiences were). I gave my first piano recital at age eleven, although I never formally studied piano until my undergraduate degree at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

It was there that I began organ study with Arthur Croley, the University Organist (who had trained at Oberlin). His weekly organ recitals and the exposure to the instrument's great literature stimulated my interest in organ study. During graduate school I studied with several organ teachers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois — Richard Enright, Theodore Lams, and Karel Paukert — however, piano was still my primary instrument of study (for which I received two graduate degrees).

During graduate school, I was already employed as a Spelman music faculty member, teaching piano and music theory; the long-time Spelman College Organist retired in 1955, and I was asked to additionally fill that position. It became urgent for me to seriously pursue organ study, more than ever.

Who were the greatest musical influences in your life, and why?

Influences on and contributors to my musical growth were mostly people who were “chief encouragers,” from parents who permitted me to spend most of my youth at the piano, to Professor Beryl Rubinstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. In my early adult years, he made it clear that “talent alone was not sufficient for success,” and that “only consistent, diligent, meticulous study would be enabling.” When I had doubts about my musical ability, there was much encouragement from both piano and organ teachers at the Eastman School of Music (José Echániz and David Craighead), and Northwestern University (Gui Mombaerts and Karel Paukert). Beyond encouragement, each teacher gave me ample instruction on technique, registration, and stylistic interpretation. This laid a solid foundation upon which I was able to build, and for which I am eternally grateful.

You have had a long and distinguished teaching career. Could you talk a bit about serving on the faculty of a historically black women’s college, especially in the 1950s and 60s? What were the challenges?

Spelman College, a historical black college for women, has always had exceptional students, extremely dedicated faculty, strong administrative leadership, and good external financial support. It has been and is a place where both students and faculty are given every opportunity to develop skills for leadership and service to the community. It has been and continues to be an institution that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness. Given these characteristics, it has been a rewarding place to work, grow, and serve. This does not mean that there have been no challenges. Because of the location of the college in the heart of the “deep South” prior to the Civil Rights Movement, there were oppressive limitations on all African Americans and other minority groups due to the segregation laws of the land. Although the quality of education was always exceptional at Spelman College, it was challenging to provide the complementary rich, cultural experiences expected for a well-rounded higher education. These experiences were denied to people of color in Atlanta at that time. However, with the help of various organizations and foundations, the college met the challenge by bringing to the campus innumerable great personages — artists, performers, lecturers, theologians, and distinguished educators who provided enriching experiences for the students and the community. These experiences (concerts, plays, lectures, dance, etc.) were available to all people, without segregated seating in our Sisters Chapel or other campus venues, thus providing opportunities for socialization between people of different races.

The 1950s and 60s were years of upheaval, with the Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum and strongly impacting both the academy and the community. Spelman students were at the center of activism in Atlanta, juggling their studies with participation in citywide civil rights events. Faculty members supported students and made concessions by rearranging classes or assignments; some marched and demonstrated with the students. A key manifesto was written by a student group led by Spelman women. I was not involved in demonstrative civil rights activities at that time, as my focus was largely on my teaching, graduate study, and family. Personally, I have always believed that we musicians “do” civil rights differently, i.e., by our interactions and collaborations with people (choirs, ensembles, orchestras, et al.), as well as through the beauty of spirit that we share through our music.

It must be noted that a by-product of the Civil Rights Movement was the impetus for women at Spelman to start a campus movement to hire the first female African American president of the college, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole.

Now, a word about the music program during those years. Talent was abundant. These were years when many students, if not most, had been exposed to a wide variety of musical styles, primarily in their homes, and it was a status symbol for African American families to have a piano in the home and for their children to have piano lessons. Consequently, the Spelman Music Department received innumerable talented young people who studied music in preparation for a career or as an avocation. The music faculty and the academic program were strong, such that Spelman was one of the first group of African American institutions to have its music department accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music in 1975. A big challenge, however, was a lack of music scholarships for students, a challenge that still persists.

Your performing career has taken you many places, as both pianist and organist. Are there particular performances that remain especially meaningful to you today?

My life’s work has been mainly in academia, with multiple duties simultaneously — a college professor, department chair, accompanist, college organist, music collaborator, and advisor to students and organizations, to name a few. Being in academia precludes extensive travel as a performing artist because of a necessary commitment to students. Also, innumerable performance opportunities (even competitions) simply were not offered to people of color. It is not widely known that African Americans were not even permitted to enter Southern universities for graduate study; students of color were sent out of state, including to major institutions, with all expenses paid by the respective Southern states. That accounts for my graduate study at Northwestern University in Illinois, from which I earned the Master of Music and the Doctor of Music degrees, both in piano.

As both a solo performer and a collaborative performer, I have had the good fortune to perform at churches, colleges, and universities in many states, mainly in the Midwest and the Southeast, and in other parts of the world. I cherish many meaningful experiences for a variety of reasons, some of which are non-musical. Perhaps most importantly, I had the opportunity to improve human relations in communities which had not been exposed to African Americans, and certainly not to African American artists performing classical music — communities in Minnesota, Texas, Kentucky, Iowa, et al. Having collaborated with many beautiful singers, including Shirley Verret, William Warfield, Hilda Harris, Simon Estes, Marietta Simpson, Laura English-Robinson, and many instrumentalists, most enjoyable were concerts with the Metropolitan Opera coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, one of Spelman College’s most celebrated alumnae. In addition to many concerts at U.S. colleges and universities, we gave very memorable solo and collaborative concerts in Haiti, Trinidad, and Barbados for arts festivals.

Innumerable solo piano performances have special meaning for me, a few of which include piano concerti by Liszt, Rubinstein, Beethoven, Mozart, et al. with symphony orchestras under various conductors; performances of atonal works by Elliot Carter and Leon Kirchner that demanded all of my mental and musical capacities; the premiere of a completely improvisatory aleatoric work for two pianos by the Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton, and with an Atlantan pianist Portia Hawkins; and concerts in Brazil sponsored by the Georgia Partners of the Americas in São Paulo and in the state of Pernambuco where I had a residency.

As organist, a few especially memorable events involving me as organist include the Atlanta church service uniting the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches after a century of separation due to conflicting views on segregation; Church Women United National Conventions; playing “Mighty Mo,” the Moller theater organ with all the bells, whistles, and fog horns at the Fox Theater for one of Spelman College’s Commencements; the Region VIII American Guild of Organists Convention in Montana, where I performed an organ recital and was organist for a hymn festival; the 2020 livestreamed American Guild of Organists Organ Fest where, upon the receipt of an Edward Hansen Leadership Award, I performed a small, hymn- based work by Janet Linker (that performance is available here); in Lyon, France, the performance of Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-François-des-Sales where Charles-Marie Widor gave the first performance of his fifth symphony; and, while attending a Sunday Mass at the Basilique Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France (and sitting in the gallery to learn through observing), I was shocked to be asked by the organist if I would like to improvise the offertory, to which I quietly but nervously answered “yes,” and did.

In April of 1968, you were given the awesome responsibility of playing the organ as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s body was lying in repose at Spelman College. You have also served for many years as organist for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Ecumenical Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Has this long association with Dr. King influenced your musicianship or sense of vocation?

This question can be answered with one word which is “no.” However, I will share a little information about my association with the King family. It was an honor to provide music for the somber cortege of viewers paying their respect to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose body lay in repose in Sisters Chapel at Spelman College following his assassination in April of 1968. That I was given this opportunity was not because of any special relationship I had with the King family at that time, nor had I been involved in Atlanta civil rights activities that might have brought me in direct contact with Dr. King or his family. I knew members of the family who were alumnae of the college, and both Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been guest speakers for the college’s convocations and worship services.

The 1967 Holtkamp organ in the Sisters Chapel of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Once the Chapel was the chosen location, the College Organist was asked to provide quiet, solemn music on the newly installed Holtkamp organ, the first use of the organ.

The 1967 Holtkamp organ in the Sisters Chapel of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

For decades, it has also been an honor and joy to be one of the organists associated with the annual Ecumenical Service celebrating the birthday of Dr. King at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. For performing musicians, all performance opportunities contribute in some way to musical growth. These opportunities certainly increased my musical capabilities in terms of choosing appropriate repertoire, adjusting to and preparing different organs (from the Hammond to the large pipe organ), accompanying various styles of choral music (from anthems to ultra contemporary gospel), and improvising. The services have always been inspiring, as have been the globally impactful lives of Dr. King, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, and the King family.

Many organists today are specializing in a particular repertoire, perhaps music before 1750, French Romantic music, or orchestral transcriptions. Have you ever considered yourself a specialist in a particular area of the organ repertoire? Are there composers or particular pieces you feel should be better known?

No, I do not consider myself a specialist in any particular area of organ repertoire. The instrument with which I have been most closely associated is our Sisters Chapel organ, a medium-size, Neo-Baroque instrument designed by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Designed for pre-Baroque and Baroque music, the organ lends itself well to music of other periods, permitting sensitivity and expression. Although this Holtkamp instrument does not have the keyboard order (or reversibility), the full complement of foundation stops, or a rich battery of reeds as that of the late nineteenth-century French symphonic organs, I have not been deterred from playing music by French composers — Franck, Widor, Mulet, Dupré, Vierne, Pierné, Alain, Litaize, et al. As with piano music, I have also always had a penchant for studying organ works by lesser known or lesser heard composers such as Olivier Alain, Ermend Bonnal, Jacques Charpentier, Arthur Honegger, Eugène Reuchsel, Malingreau, and many others. I am truly a lover of French music. I have taken numerous workshops and European study tours in order to learn of the diverse European organ traditions (North German, French, German, and Italian) and builders (Schnitger, Silbermann, Clicquot, and Cavaillé-Coll), and to inform my performance practice of a variety of music... but no, never a specialist!

Second to my interest in French music is my interest and knowledge of keyboard music (including organ music) by African American composers.

Not many organists have found themselves on the International Roster of Steinway Artists. Some organ teachers and modern methods promote starting the organ before establishing a solid technical foundation at the piano. What is your teaching philosophy in this regard? Do you find your piano playing influences your organ playing?

After extensive evaluation of my professional career, my election to the International Roster of Steinway Artists was because of my career as a pianist and not for my organ playing. Being on the Roster gave to me innumerable opportunities and resources that I would not have had otherwise. (Regarding your question about the relationship of organ playing to piano playing, I strongly believe that organ study can greatly enhance one’s piano artistry.)

Regarding the teaching of beginning organ students, it is most desirable that students are able to sightread and have some fluency in playing keyboard music, i.e., scales, arpeggios, etc., and have some capability of playing repertoire of a certain level. Digital dexterity and good sight-reading skills offer some promise of success for a beginning organ student and pleasure for the teacher. Interestingly, however, I recently have had the pleasure of teaching organ students with minimal skills in both areas. Where students have a good work ethic, teaching at this level (with much patience from the teacher) can be rewarding. Often, such beginning students are intrigued by the instrument and simply want a closeup look at it, more from a historical perspective — its components, registrational procedures, regional styles, and performance practices. Often these organ students do not aspire to become performers.

You gave the Atlanta premiere performance of John La Montaine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (1949) Piano Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Shaw. Could you tell us about the experience?

It was not until 1975 that I became acquainted with the work. When I heard it, I knew immediately that this was a work I urgently wanted to perform. Having had a successful performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, I requested an opportunity to play for Maestro Robert Shaw. He graciously invited me for an audition, at which time I performed some Chopin pieces and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. When I finished, he asked, “Joyce, what do you have on the back burner?” I immediately said, “John La Montaine’s Concerto” for which, at that time, I had not even seen the score! Mr. Shaw indicated that he wanted to hear it after a few months. His interest, encouragement, and kindness propelled me to work speedily to learn the piece. Months later, he heard some of each movement and scheduled the performance with the ASO for March of 1977. Maestro Shaw had a reputation for being a very stern disciplinarian and demanding taskmaster, qualities that contributed to the inimitable, excellent quality of music he produced with both the orchestra and chorus.

If you weren’t an organist and professor, what career might you have pursued instead?

Had I not been destined for a career in music, with all I know now about the world, its peoples, and the myriad of attending problems, the career I might have chosen would have been one to facilitate the growth of self-esteem in children. Much of the mental illness in adults stems from a sense of unworthiness instilled during their childhood. Music may have been one of many therapeutic tools I would have used.

Do you have any advice for young people considering a career in organ or church music?

My advice to young people choosing any career is the following: choose a career for which you have talent, extreme interest, preparation, qualifications, interest in life-long learning, and one for which you have a passion. Do not be afraid to fail. Success does not come in a straight line. There are “bumps in the road” and “lifequakes” (as Bruce Feiler describes in a recent publication) that contribute to personal growth.

Regarding a career as a concert organist, or a career in organ and church music, it is important that young people realize that, to be successful, they must have “people skills” to accompany their performance skills. Church musicians have to work closely with a ministerial staff and parishioners, as well as with other musicians. Performing organists have to work with agents, presenters, institutions, and audiences. A young church musician must be aware of the fact that churches have changed; goals, constituencies, values, and theology have changed, and, in so doing, worship styles have also changed. That young person will need to be sensitive to the increasing diversity in worship styles and the need for breadth of repertoire to offer appropriate choices of music for the religious services.


Joyce Finch Johnson is Professor Emerita of Music and currently College Organist at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a position she has held since 1955. She has had an active career as a college teacher, music department chair, and as a performing artist giving solo recitals, accompanying a variety of distinguished artists, playing chamber music concerts, and performing piano concertos with various symphony orchestras.

She has been heralded as “pianist extraordinaire, astounding and thrilling audiences with her consummate artistry, formidable bravura technique, great sensitivity and impeccable artistry.” She is on the International Roster of Steinway Artists. While pursuing graduate degrees in piano performance at Northwestern University, her primary teachers were Gui Mombaerts and Louis Crowder. She studied organ there and at other institutions with distinguished teachers including Richard Enright, Karel Paukert, and David Craighead.

Dr. Johnson has concertized in Bermuda, Haiti, the West Indies, and Brazil, performed in the Festival de Musique Baroque in Souvigny, France and in Lyon as part of a summer institute on French organ music. She has been a recitalist and workshop presenter for AGO chapters, regional conventions, music festivals, national conventions, and a number of colleges and universities. For decades she has been the organist for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Ecumenical Service at the historic Ebenezer Church in Atlanta.

Innumerable awards and honors received by Dr. Johnson include being designated Member Laureate of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

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