Music Biography

by | Nov 15, 2011

Organist Robert Reilly

Quick Links:

1965 – 1973     Alexander McCurdy
1969 – 1973     Curtis Institute of Music – Philadelphia, PA
1974 – 1975     Peabody Institute – Johns Hopkins – Baltimore, MD
1974 – 1984     Mt Vernon Place United Methodist Church – Baltimore, MD
1984 – 1990     Grace Lutheran Church – Westminster, MD
1990 – 1994     Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal) – Paoli, PA
1994 – 1995     Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church – Raleigh, NC
1995 – 1999     First United Methodist Church – Cary, NC
1997 – 2012     Reilly Real Estate
2012 – 2013     Latest News

Early Years

At age four I asked for a piano for Christmas and a little toy piano, like the one Peanuts’ Schroeder plays, appeared under the tree. Shortly thereafter I announced that I wanted a real piano, which arrived by age five and piano lessons commenced.

Voice and Organ

By age 10 I began studying piano with local church organist Joseph Parsells, who detected and began cultivating some singing talent which lead to an active schedule of solo performances including Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Britten’s Saint Nicholas. I had always been fascinated by the organ, and by age 12 organ lessons began.

The McCurdy Years

While I was growing up, Alexander McCurdy was a legend in the world of organ and church music. It seemed that nearly every prominent organist in the country had studied with Dr. McCurdy at Curtis Institute or Westminster Choir College. I was first introduced to Dr. McCurdy in 1965 when I was engaged to perform the part of the boy Nicholas for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicholas under his direction at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Having never been exposed to such inspiring music performed so beautifully, I was blown away and permanently inspired by the experience.

A couple years later my organ teacher arranged an informal meeting with Dr. McCurdy at First Presbyterian, where I played a little something on that big church organ. Shortly thereafter Dr. McCurdy asked me if I would like to study organ with him. I was stunned and thrilled, and the journey began with lessons every week.

At age 15 I accepted my first church position as Organist and Choirmaster of the Heidelberg Reformed Church in North Philadelphia, where, a year later, another life-changing event occurred during an organ lesson with Dr. McCurdy. I was playing an accompaniment of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in preparation for a performance with the Friends Select School Choir and expressing frustration with some difficulty I was having with it when Dr. McCurdy suggested: “Well, Mr. Reilly, maybe you’re just not cut out for this sort of thing? Maybe you’d be better off becoming a brick-layer, or something like that.” It was at the conclusion of that organ lesson that he explained that Curtis Institute of Music had reinstated admissions for younger students and asked me if I’d like to study with him at the legendary school. While I had always hoped to audition for Curtis after high school, this was a total shock, like winning the lottery without ever having purchased a ticket!

No one I’ve ever know has had a greater influence in my life than Alexander McCurdy. I could fill many pages describing the unwavering kindness and support he extended to me. He seemed to take great pleasure in my every accomplishment and never asked for anything in return except for me to do my very best in every endeavor.

Curtis Institute of Music – Philadelphia 1969 – 1973

Curtis Institute was as renowned as Alexander McCurdy, particularly for the caliber of organists who attended the school. My experience there was extraordinary in every respect and an education in ways I never anticipated, and could never have been fully prepared for. I suddenly found myself in the major league of music, surrounded by the amazing talent of famous virtuoso teachers and gifted fellow students. In addition to my studies at Curtis, I held demanding church positions, and at the ripe old age of 18 married fellow student Mary June Nestler. Everything was new. It was a time filled with intense, continuous learning and lots of superb music- an opportunity of a lifetime!

The Maryland Years

Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University – Baltimore 1974 – 1975

In 1974, an opportunity to continue my organ study with Cherry Rhodes (another famous McCurdy student) brought me to Baltimore and the Peabody Institute. Ms. Rhodes was an inspiring teacher who taught me how to use phrasing and articulation in ways that improved and changed my organ playing forever.

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church – Baltimore 1974 – 1984

Also in 1974, I accepted the position of Organist and Music Director of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, conveniently right across the square from Peabody. This big, Victorian gothic church, with excellent acoustics, a fine 40-rank Möller organ, and a choir of talented volunteer and professional singers, provided an opportunity over the next 10 years for me to learn and perform nearly every significant sacred choral work in a nearly perfect environment, and to participate in frequent performances with Baltimore Symphony and Peabody Institute musicians. I was like a kid in a candy store, and I sampled every flavor! Under the enthusiastic leadership of Pastors James Cain and Kenneth Jones, music played an important role in the church’s outreach to the community through weekly radio broadcasts over station WBAL, concerts featuring the church’s choir, known as The Mount Vernon Place Singers, and musicians from throughout the city. During my years at Mount Vernon Place Church I had the luxury and pleasure of participating in music that was truly inspiring.

Grace Lutheran Church – Westminster 1984 – 1990

Grace Lutheran is a large, family oriented parish in beautiful Carroll County, MD, just minutes from Baltimore, historic Gettysburg, PA, the Catoctin Mountains (home to Camp David), and Washington, D.C. After 10 years in a city parish with a predominantly adult music ministry, Grace Lutheran provided a welcomed change to a very different environment, with the opportunity to once again work with children and youth. The Lutheran service music was new to me, and I loved it- they sing everything! My experience at Grace Lutheran nurtured me both professionally and personally. I will never forget the great kindness that was shown to me by choir members, organ students, clergy, staff and congregation, and the enduring friendships that were formed at this wonderful parish.

Back to Philadelphia

Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal) – Paoli 1990 – 1994

Contemplating a new position that would take me away from my beloved friends in Westminster, MD was a somber task, and considering the loving, supportive environment I enjoyed there, my decision to accept the position of Organist and Choirmaster at Good Samaritan can be described as a terrible mistake that resulted in tremendous blessings. My view at the time was that the limited resources at Grace Lutheran were keeping me from making full use of my abilities. In retrospect, I may have been wrong. But that was the plan- to move on to bigger and better things.

A trusted colleague in Philadelphia informed me of the opening at Good Samaritan along with some background: that relationships between the church’s previous Organists, including my immediate predecessor, internationally renowned Todd Wilson, and the church’s Rector, Daniel Sullivan, had been strained, at best. But my friend convinced me that it was worth looking into, and that I might have the right temperament for the job. So, seduced by flattery and the opportunity to work in a more sophisticated musical environment loaded with excellent resources, including a generous salary, I interviewed, auditioned for, and was offered the position. This was a plumb of a job that had been sought after by colleagues with more impressive résumés than mine, but I was the “lucky” winner.

There were warning signs that I failed to heed. The church’s once ambitious music program, built up over the preceding years by Bill Evans and Kerry Beaumont, was in total shambles, more so after a year of neglect without a permanent Music Director. Father Sullivan was an ardent supporter of excellent music in the parish, and urgently wanted to see the program restored to its former glory, but when I asked him how we should go about the rebuilding process, he seemed to think it would be a simple undertaking, and nothing could have been further from the truth. His response was “just do it”. And that’s exactly what I tried to do.

My four years at Good Sam were as difficult as they were rewarding. It was a crash course in Episcopal liturgy, Boys Choirs, The RSCM training system, new repertoire, hiring an assistant organist and staff, all the while working to rebuild a program from the ashes in the shadow of a very impatient Boss. Each year things got better, and by the fourth year the components of the program were coming together to produce splendid musical offerings with excellent musicians, including colleagues from my days at Curtis Institute. It was an absolute joy to see the boys and girls performing music every bit as challenging as the adults, and taking such pride in their accomplishments. Ultimately, the same conditions that caused my esteemed predecessors to leave Good Sam made it necessary for me to move on as well. Nonetheless, it was a time of extremely positive, life-changing events made possible by wonderful people who remain an important part of my life to this day.

On to North Carolina

Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church – Raleigh 1994 – 1995

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Michael’s is a large, family oriented parish situated on a beautiful campus in the heart of one of Raleigh’s most lovely neighborhoods. The attractive, modern sanctuary housed a Möller organ of approximately 40 ranks and unfortunately poor tonal composition, redeemed to some extent by a good acoustical environment.

The parish had enjoyed a lively music ministry under the leadership of Organist and Choirmaster James Goode, in the typical American model, with children and youth choirs that participated in worship on an occasional basis, whereas the format I was familiar with at Good Samaritan was based on the RSCM (Royal School of Church Music) system, enabling young people to receive valuable training and participate more fully, along with adults, in the worship and great music of the church. I had been so impressed with this this latter system, that in my interviews with St. Michael’s Search Committee and Rector, I asked if this might be something they would like to try. Their response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”, and we proceeded to introduce the new system, with significant changes for both children and adults, at the start of the choir season.

I honestly don’t know how any of us could have thought that we could suddenly, and with little preparation, turn everything these choristers were familiar with upside down without causing a flood of anger and unhappiness. To make matters worse, the parish was already wounded and divided over issues related to the Rector, who resigned within the year. It took far too long for some of us, myself included, to realize that the last thing these folks needed was another sudden and dramatic change, no matter how meritorious. Even as we set out to repair and restore, it became apparent that many were still very angry, and while some, including the Interim Rector, behaved badly, I will never forget those many saints of patience, tolerance and love who were unfaltering in their efforts to bring harmony and reconciliation throughout this unfortunate experiment. That spirit is evident in this kind letter from a devoted choir and music committee member.

My memories of my year at St. Michael’s will always be colored with some with sadness and regret, yet in the midst of that tumultuous year there were many blessings of beautiful music from the church’s talented musicians, as well as personal rewards, such as the young chorister in our fledgling Boys Choir who found his voice and went on to join the Raleigh Boychoir. After I left St. Michael’s, my predecessor, James Goode, returned for a while, and surely provided a time of healing. The church’s current Organist and Choirmaster, Kevin Kerstetter, has been doing wonderful things there since 1998, and this year the parish will install a new organ built by Nichols & Simpson, with an English style tonal scheme, that promises to be a stunning addition to the church’s music ministry. I will be forever in debt to the people of St. Michael’s for bringing me to Raleigh, which has become my happy home and the source of many blessings.

First United Methodist Church – Cary 1995 – 1999

First Methodist in Cary was a welcomed refuge following the previous tumultuous year at St. Michael’s. These folks welcomed me with open arms and I enjoyed my time there tremendously. This was my first position as Organist only, though with the many choirs and services, they kept me pretty busy over there, and not having responsibility for choirs and administration was a refreshing change. All I had to do was practice, suit up, show up and play! Music Director David Marlette is an absolute genius at inspiring the most beautiful choral sounds from the church’s talented singers, and it was a pleasure to accompany them.

When I first arrived there, the church had just signed a contract for a new Zimmer organ, the specifications for which only included the bare basics. I suggested that the tonal scheme needed to be expanded somewhat in order to better accompany the large variety of music performed by the choirs, and the church generously increased the project’s budget to enable us to add a few more “bells and whistles” which expanded the capabilities of the instrument considerably.

During my time at First Methodist I began buying and selling residential real estate in my spare time, and by the end of my forth year it was quickly becoming a full-time enterprise, demanding more of my time. So after 30 years as a church musician, I decided to take a break to devote more time to my Real Estate business.

Missing The Music 1999 – present

While my Real Estate business was rewarding, there is absolutely no comparison between the uplifting inspiration of participating in beautiful music and selling a house. I don’t particularly miss getting up at 6 A.M. on Sunday mornings, but I do miss the music. So after too long of a hiatus, I’m taking steps to dust off my organ playing shoes and see where it leads. I had an opportunity to do some playing a year ago, and fully expected to find my skills in bad condition, but was delightfully surprised to find that it was all still there- it just hurt a little bit at first!

So if you know of a church that will allow me to do a little practicing or that might be interested in an experienced organist who still has a fair amount of mileage left, let me know!

2012 – 2013 Latest News

Since posting this biography early in 2012, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful opportunities to cultivate my organ playing and conducting skills through rewarding engagements as guest organist, choirmaster and pianist at various churches. I’m currently serving as Music Director and Organist at Wendell Christian Church.