Walking into Grace and Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, one is struck by its dark wood, high ceilings, and glittering stained glass windows. But almost immediately, the pipe organ captures your attention.
At first, the sound is soft and quiet, but the music quickly swells and becomes so powerful you can feel it in your bones. The man behind the keyboard making the pipe organ sing? Jordan Prescott, a teaching associate for music theory at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
"I've operated my whole life with the blind belief that people are interested in the organ," says Prescott, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in music after earning his master's degree from Peabody in 2019. He explains that once his students find out he is an organist and choirmaster, their questions about music theory go by the wayside. "They'd have more questions about the organ than they had about whatever I was trying to teach them [regarding] basic theory."
Prescott wanted to share the joy of the organ with Johns Hopkins students but realized he couldn't bring an organ into the classroom. "It's just completely impossible," he says. "And it's hard to schedule a class where students can leave campus for an hour, three times a week, every week for a whole semester."
But Intersession—held during the break between the fall and spring semester—presented a prime opportunity.
Each January, Intersession offers JHU students a chance to participate in a diverse set of one-, two-, or three-week courses not typically offered during the academic year. Prescott thought that Intersession would be the perfect time for a class called Baltimore's Historic Pipe Organs: A Survey and Tour, to introduce students to the instruments hidden within the community, most of them just blocks away from the Peabody Institute.
While there are plenty of cities throughout the nation that have interesting and historical pipe organs, Prescott believes that Baltimore is unique because there are so many good pipe organs in such close proximity to one another.
"I would put the four-block radius we've been in this week up against any four-block radius in the entire country in terms of finding the most representative organs of their time and organs that are so well maintained and used so frequently," Prescott said during class. "In that way, Baltimore—and Mount Vernon in particular—is really, really special."
Students walked to different churches featured throughout the week, including First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, Grace and Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, and First & Franklin Presbyterian Church. One day, students took city buses to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Roland Park. Getting outside of the classroom and into the community was a treat, they said.
"It's like taking a field trip with my friends every single day," said Yara Changyit-Levin, a Krieger School sophomore majoring in public health studies and anthropology.
"It's a unique opportunity, and you get to learn more about your neighborhood," said Bailey Liu, a Krieger School senior majoring in biophysics and saxophone performance at Peabody. Getting to explore other parts of Baltimore allowed him to "appreciate what this city has to offer," he says.
It was a hands-on course that encouraged students to listen, examine, and play these sometimes century-old instruments, discovering the power of the pipe organ. While students pressed the keys, pulled knobs, and stepped on pedals, they also got to explore a pipe organ's inner workings, discovering thousands of pipes of varying sizes working in tandem to create incredible sounds that can captivate an audience. They were able to see how the organ breathes.
Sharing a little bit of history, music, and Baltimore with students during Intersession was a joy, Prescott says.
"It's been the most fun class to be a part of because I get to talk about what I love the most in the whole world and get to talk to people who are genuinely interested and who have taken time out of their winter term break to come and hang out and spend three hours a day looking at pipe organs," he says. "That's really special."