Organ Improvisation Institute at WWC

Yale University professor of improvisation gives workshop to WWC organ students

By: Becky Beddoe

Jeffrey Brillhart

Jeffrey Brillhart is a professor, a director, a musician, a teacher, and an improviser.  He currently teaches at Yale University, serves as director of music for a large Presbyterian church, and held his first church organist position at age 11.  And until June 14, he will be on the campus of Walla Walla College, inspiring young musicians and sharing what years of experience have taught him.

“I view the act of improvising as an unleashing of one’s inner musical self, which can lead to the harnessing of one’s inner spiritual force,” says Brillhart.

Brillhart has taken his talents around the world, demonstrating his passion to music-lovers throughout Europe, South America, and North America.  He was also asked to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony in one of the inaugural concerts of the new Dobson Organ in Kimmel Center in Pittsburgh, and in 1994 won first place in the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation. 

In 1993, Brillhart spent five months studying in Paris, France, where he studied not only organ improvisation, but also the organ symphonies of Louis Vierne and the music of Maurice Durufle.  During this time, he became one of the first Americans to play a recital on the newly restored organ at Notre Dame Cathedral.

Brillhart has a bachelor’s degree in church music from Drake University and a master’s of performance and literature from Eastman School of Music.  He has also trained in piano, harpsichord, conducting, and voice. 

In his article entitled “Improvisation – The Art of Illusion,” written for Yale’s “PRISM” magazine in 2005, Brillhart defines improvisation as “the art of making up something on the spot.”  He also believes that although improvising can come easier to some, anyone can be taught the skills needed to improvise well.

It is that belief that brings Brillhart to Walla Walla College this year.  It is a belief he shares with Kraig Scott, professor of music at WWC. 

“I have an intention that all of my students should become acquainted with, if not actually proficient in, the ancient art of improvisation,” says Scott.  “To that end I decided this year I would bring in a big name improviser/recitalist to do an entire week-long intensive institute on improvisation.”

The Organ Improvisation Institute is not a “sit-back-and-watch” kind of event.  Rather, it is a hands-on, once-in-a-lifetime educational experience.  During the Organ Improvisation Institute, students will not only listen to lectures and examples from Brillhart, but they will also learn how to hear and act on improvisations as they play.

On Tuesday, June 12, Brillhart will take themes presented to him by the students and give an improvisation recital using said themes.  On Thursday, June 14, in culmination of their five intensive days of learning, the students themselves will present an improvisation recital, showcasing all they have learned, both from Scott during their time here at WWC, and from Brillhart during the institute. 

“With enough self-motivation, enough discipline and study, and with a willing and open attitude, I believe anyone can experience the art of improvisation and do so in an authentic and musical way,” says Brillhart.

Both concerts are at 8 p.m. in the College Church, and are free and open to the public.  For more information on the WWC Organ Improvisation Institute and the two resulting concerts, contact Kraig Scott at 509-527-2571 or

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