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Musicfest Northwest 2017 inspires effort to instill love for playing organ

Katie Close performs on the organ at First Presbyterian Church while the students watch.

With only five organists performing among 700 musicians participating in Musicfest Northwest 2017, Raney Close was concerned that Musicfest would have to discontinue the organ division and her daughter might lose the opportunity to compete on the organ at future Musicfests.

In August, Raney contacted the Spokane Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and proposed the Winter Organ Academy, a short-term, low-priced series of organ lessons for young piano students to instill a love of the organ and prepare them to enter Musicfest 2018.

Eight junior high and high school students signed up.  The first gathering was on Feb. 10 at First Presbyterian Church, where they learned about the organ and tried playing it.

For the Winter Organ Academy, the AGO recruited teachers from among its members, found locations for teaching and arranged for Saturday group practice sessions during March and April in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene churches.

As a result, 14 organists—including six of the eight Organ Academy students—signed up for Musicfest Northwest, which will be held May 13 to 18 on the campus of Gonzaga University.

The Musicfest organ performances are on Tuesday, May 15, at the Cathedral of St. John, 127 E. 12th Ave.

Musicfest Northwest, which is in its 73rd year, brings together first grade through graduate school students for more than 1,000 performances.

The divisions are voice, piano, string, reed, brass, organ, flute and ballet.

“Musicfest brings in top adjudicators to evaluate and encourage music and ballet performers, award medals and choose the division winners for the Young Artist Concert with the Spokane Symphony at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 16, at the Fox,” said Raney, a Musicfest board member.  She has been involved in the program for the three years that her daughter, Katie, has competed on piano and organ.

As a member at First Presbyterian Church, Raney appreciates what organ music adds to worship.

“I want organ playing to flourish,” said Raney, who played piano as a child and sings.

AGO member Janet Ahrend helped Raney organize the Organ Academy, recruiting teachers and the students—five boys and three girls.  Most are 16.  They are from Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Spokane.

Nationally, the AGO has a one-week organ camp, but Janet and Raney decided the students needed more than one week. 

In the academy, the students had eight lessons for $75 total and an anonymous donor gave $50 more to each teacher.  With the lessons spread out, the students had time to practice between lessons.

The five organists who taught the students were Byrl Cinnamon, who is the carillonneur at St. John’s and dean of the Spokane AGO; Rose Dempsey, organist at Trinity Lutheran in Coeur d’Alene; David Matney of Colbert; Helen Byrne, the organist at Manito Presbyterian, and Janet, who was organist for 17 years at St. John’s and continues teaching organ at Gonzaga University, Whitworth University and Eastern Washington University.

The students are Protestant, Catholic and from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The goal was to enter them as a beginner class at Musicfest Northwest where they would meet each other as colleagues playing the organ,” said Raney, who sent a promotional poster to piano teachers, churches, music groups, homeschool groups and more.

In the Saturday group lessons at different churches, they had the opportunity to try different organs, ask the organists questions, practice their performance pieces and, in some cases, tour the organ pipes.  They also built relationships with each other.

On March 3, they met Helen, organist at Manito Presbyterian.  They met with Ed Hurd March 10 at Opportunity Presbyterian and March 17 at New Community Church. On March 24, they were with Bryce La Motte at First Presbyterian; April 7, with Debby McConnell at Whitworth Presbyterian; April 21, with John Terris at St. Thomas Catholic in Coeur d’Alene, and April 28, with Byrl Cinnamon at St. John’s Cathedral.

“One student’s great-grandmother was my Sunday school teacher at Manito Presbyterian,” noted Janet, who grew up in Spokane.

Her first organ teacher was Barbara Top Rockwood at Manito Presbyterian.  Janet played piano, violin and organ at Musicfest in high school.

Her first job as organist was in the summer at Westview United Church of Christ.  Janet played organ at the Methodist Church in Moscow during her junior and senior years in college. She also was organist at St. Aloysius, Heritage Congregational and a substitute in many churches.  Janet earned a doctoral degree in music at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Today, there are fewer organists, and fewer churches use organs.  Many have gone to drums and guitars, but I believe the organ is still a viable instrument for worship,” Janet said.  “Churches can use both.”

Raney said that First Presbyterian has two services. One is exclusively organ, and the other is contemporary.

“You can’t go to the phone book and look up organ teachers, as you can find piano teachers,” she said. “Most piano students could not pay the full price for organ lessons on top of piano lessons.

The Organ Academy made lessons affordable.

“All the students are musical,” Raney said.  “Organ is a third instrument for many, along with piano, and flute or violin.

“I hope many will continue with private lessons,” said Janet. “I’m excited to see the young students playing. We encouraged them to learn to play hymns, which is harder than other pieces.”

Now they know who the teachers are, how organs work, where the organs are and churches that are open to having them practice.

Raney said that they are receiving inquiries about next year, so the AGO will discuss offering the Organ Academy next year. 

“We will add more teachers,” she said.

The academy students were preparing not only for the Musicfest but also for an Organ Academy Recital at 2 p.m., Saturday, May 12, at St. John’s Cathedral, 127 E. 12th Ave.  John Bodinger, organist at St. John, will also play a piece.

“I want young people to know that playing the organ is an exciting way to serve the Lord, and that organists can find jobs, because they are in great demand,” Raney said.

“To serve the Lord by playing organ is a great life,” said Janet.  “I know, I did it.” 

For her, another plus to playing organ is that people can continue to play it as they grow older.

“Organists don’t really retire,” said Janet, speaking from experience.

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Copyright © May 2018 - The Fig Tree