There are many different paths a person can take in order to become an organist, or any other professional musician for that matter. Many professional organists begin by enrolling in traditional music lessons during childhood. Although the first instrument a keyboardist learns to play is often a piano or synthesizer keyboard, the same basic principles of music theory and keyboard techniques can still be applied to the organ at a later date. Some keyboard students find it easier to learn the instrument and music theory through organized lessons, while others may teach themselves the essentials through self-study and experimentation. During the formative years of a musician, it is often considered more important to learn music theory and appreciation than to become technically proficient on any particular musical instrument.
Once a potential organist has learned the basic principles of musicianship, he or she may decide to concentrate on a particular type of keyboard instrument. While organs and pianos are both considered to be keyboard instruments, the techniques for performing on either one can differ significantly. A pianist may wish to become an organist at some point, or an organist may want to become a pianist, but they must both learn a new language of performance technique. A piano is essentially a percussion instrument, while an organ is closer in performance and tonality to a woodwind instrument. To become an organist, a musical student should enroll in specific courses geared towards organ performance while pursuing a college degree in music. Many organ performance programs require applicants to demonstrate an interest and aptitude for the instrument.
Some keyboardists with natural aptitudes for the organ can learn to play well enough to work as church accompanists without the need for further collegiate study. A skilled organist or keyboardist could also become an organist for local sports venues, skating rinks or funeral homes. Freelance keyboardists who can perform on various types of organs could also be hired for wedding ceremonies and private funerals or memorial services. Local orchestras or musical ensembles may also hire a professional organist to enhance a performance, since the instrument can provide an unobtrusive background accompaniment.
An experienced pianist or keyboardist could also learn to become an organist through experimentation and practice. Learning how to perform on several different "ranks" or keyboard rows simultaneously can be very challenging, as is coordinating the foot-operated pedal keyboard and swell pedal. Organs also contain numerous switches called stops which select the various instrumental voices. A professional organist performing on a full pipe organ must learn to switch stops for several keyboard ranks, perform challenging musical passages, use their feet for additional bass support and control the dynamics through several different foot pedals, and all at essentially the same time. This is one reason why a young keyboardist needs to consider the demands of the instrument before deciding whether or not to become an organist.