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On a recent Saturday morning more than 150 organists from 20 stakes converged in the Washington, D.C. Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kensington, Maryland, for the 40th Organ Training Workshop.
Hosted by the Brigham Young University Organ Department and funded by the Volkel Endowment Fund, the workshops have trained more than 5,000 LDS organists in more than 750 stakes in the United States and Canada since 2013.
The workshops were founded by Marjorie Volkel, an 87-year-old musician from the Mount Vernon Virginia Stake, as a way to make ward and stake organists more proficient. She feared that if musicians played organs the way they played piano, much of the sacred richness of sacrament meeting worship would be lost. She was concerned that knowledgeable organists were diminishing and that newly called organists in stakes and wards were often overwhelmed with the immensity of the instrument.
“It takes training,” she explained. “There was a time when the Church sent out organist trainers. But, the Church got too big to sustain that. I thought it was important to bring professional training closer to home.”
Volkel was 50 years old when she was first called as stake music chair. A violinist, she had never played the organ.
“I asked the stake organist to train the ward organists,” said Volkel. “The stake organist said she had never been trained herself and wasn’t qualified to train anyone else. I quickly realized that many of the church organists were pianists who had never been trained to play the organ.”
Seeking a solution, she enrolled in her first private organ lessons. She learned that there was little instruction available to help the piano players convert to the complexities of the organ.
In 2009 Felipe Dominguez moved into her ward. A trainer for the recent workshop, Dominguez was formally trained in organ performance in both the United States and Europe. He has performed professionally in Chile, Argentina, Europe and the US. “I realized there are members of the Church who can do this training,” Volkel said.
It was then she reached out to the BYU Organ Department about conducting workshops. “They told me it would take money,” she said. “I said would twenty-five-thousand dollars help? They said it was a start.”
An early workshop participant was 13 year–old Grace McConkie, who had recently been called as a ward organist when she attended the first workshop in 2013 in the Mount Vernon Virginia Stake. At the time, she had had very little organ playing experience. Now a 19-year-old senior at Goldey-Beacon College in Wilmington, Delaware, she credits that workshop with providing a unique perspective into sacrament meeting worship.
“Some techniques are LDS specific,” she said. “Such as, looking at a hymn and determining how the Spirit teaches through the music and text. It was an inspiration to learn how to play the hymn in a manner that allows the Spirit to teach.
The June workshop was led by Dr. Don Cook, associate professor of organ at BYU, along with a staff of highly qualified Mormon organists.
“I was once playing the great hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’ in a large Methodist Church,” Cook explained to workshop participants. “I thought the music sounded dark and dismal. But when I got to a certain part of the text in the third verse, I realized how the music drew attention to the words,” he said.
“The music should not draw undue attention to itself,” Cook said. “It should draw attention to the message of the hymn.”
Even for experienced organists the workshops are valuable. Rebecca Green of the Washington, D.C. Stake was the local workshop coordinator. She taught herself to play the organ in the Methodist Church where her father was the minister when she was 12-years old. She has since had years of formal organ training by renowned organists and in the 1990’s she passed the American Guild of Organists Basic-Service Playing exam. Green has served as ward organist in at least six wards.
“I asked ahead of time if they would cover a specific skill in the Beyond the Basics track, and they did a whole session on it,” said Green. “I got confirmation on the approaches I had taken to this task in the past.”
“I’m looking forward to checking out the techniques demonstrated at the concert the night before the workshop,” she said. “I heard sounds coming from the organ that I wouldn’t know how to replicate, even though it’s the organ I play regularly.”
“The Church is putting quality organs in our Church buildings,” said Volkel. “Electronic advances in the instrument have given us the capability of a two-million-dollar pipe organ at a much lower cost. It’s a wonderful time to be an organist in the Church. But, organists need to know what to do with it. They need to know how to use the registers. They need to feel confident so that they can concentrate on the experience—to analyze and be thoughtful—so that the music can sing to our spirits,” Volkel concluded.