Rice business student serves as Woodlands congregation’s organist

Every Sunday, Bruce Xu hits the road and drives north. Then, the 19-year-old business major at Rice University takes his place at the organ at The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church.

His first performance at the congregation was in the spring of 2020, and he has since become a permanent feature. 

Xu has won 20 awards at international and national organist competitions, including four this past year. For Xu, serving The Woodlands Community Presbyterian on Sundays, has been a most rewarding experience. 

“He’s a true gift,” Pastor David Jones said. “As long as we have him, we’re blessed.”

The church’s director of music Jonathan Aigner discovered Xu when searching for a substitute for their organist. “We were looking for someone to fill in,” he said. 

And he knew exactly where to go, Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. “Rice has a leading organ program,” Aigner said. 

He reached out to renowned organ professor Ken Cowan, who recommended that Xu audition. 

“Bruce came out and played, and it was fantastic,” Aigner said. “I was expecting a really good freshman organist.”What he found instead was a musician who played “way beyond his years.”

“He knew what he was doing,” Aigner said. “He has skills and sensitivity.”

And it wasn’t just musically, but liturgically as well, the music director said. 

Xu has been playing organ in a church setting since childhood. Growing up in New York state, he began taking piano lessons at age 3. 

“It was a great head start,” he said. “But I was not very passionate about it. I couldn’t practice more than 15 minutes a day.”

Everything changed when he discovered the organ. 

He was 9-years old when his family attended a Sunday service at their local United Methodist Church, and he noticed what appeared to be a double-decker piano. 

After worship, the pastor invited Xu to give the instrument a try. He remembered a Bach prelude from his piano lessons. Xu described it as “love at first sight.”

The pastor invited him to return to play the organ during Sunday services, and Xu accepted. Having the regular engagement at the congregation helped him hone his skills and motivated him to practice more. 

“It was almost like a weekly performance,” Xu said. 

Before long, he was playing solo concerts, attending organ conventions and summer camps and competing across the country.

For his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Xu attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. While there, he had a two-year internship at another church. 

“I learned all the skills an organist needs to be a professional,” he said. “That was a great experience, and I am grateful.”

Back in New York for his last two years of high school, he studied weekends at the Juilliard School.

Xu admires The Woodlands congregation for its dedication to outreach, inclusivity and welcoming presence in the community. 

“It’s a really great opportunity for me to maintain my musical skills and work with a wonderful music director, pastor and congregation,” he said. 

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