Young organist learns from teachers

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A piano at his grandmother’s house was the catalyst for Austin Crabtree’ musical calling.

At the tender age of five, he began picking out melodies on the keyboard with his right hand. His grandmother, Billie Crabtree, was impressed and encouraged him to take piano lessons.

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Fast-forward to today — the 21-year-old now serves as the organist for First Baptist Church in Vicksburg.

Crabtree’s first piano instructor was Betty Lou Nielson, he said.

He took lessons from her for three years. He then began taking piano lessons from Jennifer Tillotson.

“I called Jennifer and she was wiling to teach men and I took from her for 12 years,” Crabtree said, adding, “Betty Lou had given me the basics and Jennifer was the one who pushed me to the next level.”

Tillotson also served as Crabtree’s first organ instructor for a time.

“I took from her for about six months and that was about all she could teach me because I had picked it up so fast,” he said.

What Crabtree said he likes most about playing the organ is the challenge.

“I think the best thing is the challenge of integrating more than one keyboard with the pedals — the feet — and how to do all of those and still make a beautiful sound,” he said.

Crabtree has been the organist at First Baptist for about a year and a half.

He has also served at Central United Methodist Church in Meridian, where his brother and sister-in-law are clergy and at 12-years-old he was the organist at Westminster Presbyterian Church, here in Vicksburg.

Crabtree will graduate from Mississippi College in May, where he is majoring in mathematics, while also pursuing a minor in piano, organ and voice performance.

He feels the combination have served him well.

“In my opinion, coming from the math side, I feel music is math and math is music. I enjoy being able to take that and apply and use the critical thinking skills to — how can I make this better or how can I do a melody with my foot to a melody in my hand while my foot does something different with my hand.”

In addition to studying under Neilson and Tillotson, Crabtree’s instructors also include Jane Joseph, Angie Willoughby from Mississippi College and Bob Knupp for organ instruction.

“All my teachers have been outstanding, but Jennifer (Tillotson) holds a special place in my heart. I was her only student. She did not teach anybody else and that means a lot to me that she took the time once a week just for one person,” he said.

And now teacher and student are back together since, Tillotson serves as the pianist at First Baptist.

“It is a miracle and a blessing, to be working with Jennifer,” Crabtree said.

“And playing here now, makes me appreciate that she taught me and everything we do together seems like we are always on the same page,” he said.

“If something goes wrong and she plays a song in a different key, I am right there with her and if I do something wrong she is right there with me. It seems like we have that connection.”

And on the rare occasion the pair may disagree, Crabtree said he sees this as a positive.

“For musicians, disagreeing means we come to a better conclusion.”

In addition to Tillotson serving as Crabtree’s piano instructor through the years, he said he also feels she has been a mentor.

“Jennifer has meant a lot to me, not only with my music, but also to my personal life as well. She helped me through my love of music to grow me personally,” he said.

Crabtree serves as a P.A. announcer at Porters Chapel where he graduated from high school and at Mississippi College events, something he said he could not have done without Tillotson’s encouragement.

“She has been a good friend to me over the years and now I get to be a sister in Christ and be under the same church house with her and it is just wonderful,” he said.

About Terri Cowart Frazier

Terri Frazier was born in Cleveland. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Vicksburg. She is a part-time reporter at The Vicksburg Post and is the editor of the Vicksburg Living Magazine, which has been awarded First Place by the Mississippi Press Association. She has also been the recipient of a First Place award in the MPA’s Better Newspaper Contest’s editorial division for the “Best Feature Story.”

Terri graduated from Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University where she received a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations.

Prior to coming to work at The Post a little more than 10 years ago, she did some freelancing at the Jackson Free Press. But for most of her life, she enjoyed being a full-time stay at home mom.

Terri is a member of the Crawford Street United Methodist Church. She is a lifetime member of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and is a past member of the Sampler Antique Club and Town and Country Garden Club. She is married to Dr. Walter Frazier.

“From staying informed with local governmental issues to hearing the stories of its people, a hometown newspaper is vital to a community. I have felt privileged to be part of a dedicated team at The Post throughout my tenure and hope that with theirs and with local support, I will be able to continue to grow and hone in on my skills as I help share the stories in Vicksburg. When asked what I like most about my job, my answer is always ‘the people.’

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