Tag Archive | organist

Jean: One of My Heroes

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Jean Gunnulson (8/16/35 – 11/25/16)

I met Jean Gunnulson 17 years ago. I had just agreed to be a substitute organist at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, and we were having our first music planning meeting. Four of us gathered together at 9:00 one morning in the church office – Pastor Dave, Cathy, Jean and myself.

The first thing I learned is that I wasn’t really a substitute. I was considered one of the regular organists. The first item on the agenda was to determine which Sundays Cathy, Jean, and I would each play over the next couple months. That was the easy part. Jean always played the first Sunday of the month which was the only Sunday communion was served. Cathy liked to play about once every 6 weeks. Jean and I divvied up the rest of the Sundays based on our personal schedules.

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThe next item on the agenda was to select the hymns for the congregation to sing, week by week, for the next couple of months or the upcoming liturgical season, such as Advent and Christmas. For the first Sunday in our planning window, Pastor Dave summarized the scripture readings from the revised common lectionary, and guessed at the theme he was likely to preach on. Jean came prepared with the current year’s edition of Prepare, a multi-denominational book that listed hymns that would be appropriate for each scripture reading. Jean then identified the hymns that the congregation knew and liked (or disliked) from the Prepare lists, and also which ones she had “recorded” on the organ’s midi system. Pastor Dave might suggest a new hymn the congregation could learn, and I watched Cathy and Jean debate the merits of that choice. Eventually, we all agreed upon the four or five hymns needed for a Sunday, and then we moved on to the next Sunday to plan.

In my first meeting, I was amazed at how heated this discussion became, and how long the meeting lasted. By noon, after three hours, we were all ready to go home for lunch, even though we were only half finished planning the hymns. We scheduled a follow-up meeting a couple weeks out to plan the rest of the hymns for that season. Jean may have come across as a bit crotchety in that first meeting, but she certainly was prepared, and it was obvious that she was committed to ensuring that good, appropriate music would be played at each service.

fullsizeoutput_1fc3Over the eight years that Jean, Cathy, and I shared the organist role for the church, I grew in my appreciation and love for Jean. She was a person with arthritis that was so severe that playing the organ was becoming almost impossible for her. But she was amazing at learning to adapt. Several years before I became involved, the church had invested in a new Allen digital organ. This organ was equipped with a midi device that enabled Jean to create a data file for each hymn that included an introduction and the correct number of verses. She could “record” and “re-record” the hymn as many times as necessary until it was “perfect” to her standards. If necessary, she could play and record the hymn very slowly, at the pace her arthritic fingers would tolerate. Then she could speed up the tempo when she played it back for the congregation to sing. Over the years, Jean created a library of dozens of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks that included hundreds of hymns.

One of the big challenges that Jean faced during the years that we worked together was the addition of a new hymnal supplement called Sing the Faith. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a huge burst of new style church music charging across the country – contemporary hymns, praise music, and even Christian Rock. Many denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, came out with hymnal supplements to incorporate some of the best of this new music. Pastor Dave really wanted to begin to use some of this music in Cambridge. The church raised money to purchase the hymnal supplement. I had assumed that we would only use songs from the supplement on Sundays that either Cathy or I played. But Jean wasn’t willing to impose that restriction on our hymn selection for any Sunday. She spent many, many hours learning and then creating midi files for many of these new hymns. Some of them even became her new favorites – like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

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Jean really impressed me by her determination to provide organ music for congregational singing as well as preludes, offertories, postludes, and background service music, despite her physical limitations. But she impressed me even more by her commitment to providing quality children’s books for the church children’s library – both in Cambridge where she played a couple Sundays a month, and a Lutheran Church in Madison where she held membership. She was constantly on the lookout for good Christian books at all reading levels. She would scour resale stores in Madison and all the surrounding towns to find good books inexpensively to buy and donate to these church libraries. (Jean had been a teacher earlier in her life.)

But what impressed me most of all about Jean was her commitment to sending boxes and boxes of children’s clothing to Indian reservations in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. She kept track of when each resale shop in the area had special sales for children’s clothing – especially the days when shoppers could fill a whole bag for a dollar or two. She would pick out warm and beautiful clothes to fill bags and bags for the children in these reservations. Then she and her husband David would box them up and ship them to the Indian reservations. Typically, they would spend more money on shipping costs than on the clothes.

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Jean’s health had been failing over the past couple years, and she passed away just before Thanksgiving. David asked me to play the piano at the funeral home for her visitation and funeral. He especially wanted me to play “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

David also told me that there’s a bag of children’s clothing sitting on the floor in the corner in their house. He plans to box that up and ship it to the Indian reservation as soon as he can. Jean had shopped for these children as long as she could.

fullsizeoutput_1fc4Praise the Lord!
How joyful are those who fear the Lord
and delight in obeying his commands…
They share freely and give generously to those in need.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.
[Psalm 112:1, 9]

Thanks, Jean, for all you have done, and for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being one of my heroes.

The Misfit Funeral Organist – Part 2

“When in doubt, leave it out.” That was the advice of the soloist for the funeral last week. She teaches music at some college in Minnesota. I took her advice to heart.

For her solo, Mendelssohn’s “O Rest in the Lord,” I learned the piano accompaniment just fine, and I didn’t need to leave anything out.

fingers stretching on piano 3But I was glad to wholeheartedly heed her advice for the violin solo, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The violinist almost always had the melody, so I took the liberty of leaving out lots of the extra notes I was supposed to play on the piano. I figured it was better to keep up with him than to slow us both down by trying to stretch my short fingers into awkward contortions just to plunk out all the “right” notes. I always played at least one note with him, just not all the notes on the page. We started and ended together, and in between, I supported the melody with enough notes that the piece still sounded like Bach.

I used the same principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – for selecting pre-service music for the funeral.

Oakwood Organ - full viewThe day before the funeral, I went to the nursing home chapel to acquaint myself with the pipe organ. It was a small tracker organ, apparently modeled after the organ Martin Luther himself played. It had two manuals and a standard pedal board. It had vertical rows of three stops for each manual, one pedal stop, and three couplers. It looked like a nice little organ that would be fun to play.

Except for one thing, which I discovered when I climbed up on the bench to start playing. There was no expression pedal. That wouldn’t seem like a major omission, but for me, it was. I’m short. When I stand up straight, I’m almost five feet tall. When I sit perched on an organ bench with my feet dangling, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. To keep my balance, I rest my right foot on the expression pedal whenever I’m not using that foot to play a pedal on the pedal board. With no expression pedal, I had no foot rest to help me keep my balance. I had to try to sit very still. Even reaching to the far right or the far left with my right or left hand to pull out a stop threatened my equilibrium.

Hymns - portraitThat made it easy for me to make a decision about what kind of music to play for the prelude and postlude. I wasn’t about to challenge myself with any fancy arrangements or classical music that would put me at risk of losing my balance and falling off the bench. I quickly decided to go with a selection of hymns. I asked the violinist (the grandson of the deceased) about Hazel’s ethnic and religious background to try to identify what types of hymns might have been some of her favorites, as well as the favorites of the people who would be at the funeral. Since she was Swedish, I started with “Children of the Heavenly Father” and played for about 15 minutes, progressing through a dozen hymns, ending with “Beautiful Savior.”

As I was selecting the hymns to include in my sequence, I tried to line up hymns in related keys so that there would be a natural progression to each hymn. As I was looking for a classic hymn in the key of G, I came across “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” First I included it, but then I took it out because I thought it might sound too “joyful” for a funeral. I followed the principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – so I removed it from the sequence. If I were selecting the hymns today, I would make a different decision. As part of my daily devotional reading this year I’m going through a new hymnal, mentally singing one or two hymns each morning. Today my hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The words of the first verse are:

bird singing 1Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.

How appropriate those words are for a funeral!

For the postlude I played “Go, My Children, with My Blessing” and a confident, fancy (but NO PEDAL) arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” – something I often play for funeral postludes.

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That’s me, sitting much more comfortably on my home church’s organ bench.

Despite the challenges for me in playing for the funeral last week, I guess I can take out the word “misfit” from my role as funeral organist. I need to thank the soloist for giving me the license to “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Even with simplifications, God’s gift of music always gives comfort.

And since I didn’t fall off the organ bench, I still really like to play for funerals. But I definitely prefer organs with a foot rest – like Messiah’s. Or, a nice piano.

 

 

 

Funerals and the Misfit Organist

That’s me. The misfit funeral organist. I’m not sure which order the words should be in. They’re all nouns linked together to convey one image – me as an organist who likes to play for funerals, even though I shouldn’t. I’m a misfit. I should avoid funerals, at all cost, just like my mom did.

Mom-Dad on stump

Mom & Dad never agreed on funerals.

In all my growing up years, I attended only two funerals – my Grandma’s when I was in high school, and my Uncle Art’s when I was in college. For all the other family friends and relatives that died during those years, my dad went to the funerals, my mom didn’t. She hated funerals. I think the main reason for this was that she always cried – even if the deceased wasn’t someone close to her, and that embarrassed her.

I can remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and dad about going to someone’s funeral. My dad thought they both should go to it. My mom was adamant that she was not going to go. My dad said, “When you die, probably no one will show up for your funeral.” My mom replied, “I don’t care. I won’t be there either.” So, my dad went to all the funerals by himself. Hence, I didn’t grow up going to many funerals.

Gary Kenseth grave stoneThe first funeral I was asked to be the organist for was my cousin Gary’s. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago. I was pretty nervous. I had very little experience as an observer of what organists played for funerals. Furthermore, I was afraid that I would cry so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the music. I even asked my doctor for some pills to keep me calm. I took one of the pills the day before the funeral to test its effect on me, and I decided the pill relaxed me too much. I concluded that if I took a pill before the funeral I’d probably play lots of wrong notes and I’d play them very slowly.

Instead, my Aunt Edith (Gary’s mother and the gospel pianist and organist I’ve written about before on this blog) helped me by giving me a long list of music to play as pre-service music. That got my attention focused on the music. She had listed lots of old hymns and gospel songs. For the recessional, she wanted me to play a spiritual that Gary had really enjoyed singing when he was still in school, “Do Lord.”

I learned a lot about the role of music in funerals from this first experience as a funeral organist. Pre-service music does more than just cover up the silence (or the conversation) while people wait for the service to begin. The music can bring back memories. It can draw attention to how much God loves us. It can comfort us. The hymns we sing together as a congregation remind us that we are a family, sharing the loss of someone we love, but sharing our memories and our hopes, as well. The special music often sung or played by family members or close friends is a gift for everyone present, a glimpse into the music the loved one liked best. The recessional moves us on with life, knowing that God is still with us and will never leave us.

Marian at Messiah organ 4Over the next several years, I put that lesson to good use. I became the organist of a small, aging congregation in Cambridge, and played for many funerals every year – once even three funerals in one week. My mom would have never understood how I could play for all those funerals. I’ll admit that sometimes I get a little teary, but a quick wipe with a Kleenex clears up my eyes enough to see the music.

I’ve learned to really enjoy playing for funerals. Music can be an incredible comfort to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I feel privileged to help provide that sense of peacefulness.

So why am I a “misfit funeral organist”? And why am I writing about it now?

This week I’m having second thoughts about everything I’ve learned about playing for funerals. I’ve been asked to play for a funeral for someone I don’t know, in a nursing home chapel where I’ve never even seen the organ. I’ll have to accompany both a concert violinist and a vocalist who teaches music at a college in Minnesota. I guess I feel a bit intimidated.

I wish Aunt Edith were here right now to make up the list of what to play for pre-service music.  I spent all afternoon on Sunday thinking about that, paging through books and books of classical music as well as hymnals. I even asked the pastor if I was a misfit for this funeral. He said I wasn’t, but I think he might have said that because he didn’t want to find another organist.

Well, I’ve finally come around to my last resort – where I should have started. I’m praying for God’s help in selecting and preparing the music. And I’m beginning to remember what I’ve learned about the role of music in funerals – comfort. Now I’m focused again on the gift of music God has given us.

Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life
bringing peace, abolishing strife.
     [Khalil Gibran]

 

 

 

My Mom’s Wedding Ring

My mom's wedding ring is a simple gold band with seven tiny diamond chips set in the top quarter of the band.

My mom’s wedding ring is a simple gold band with seven tiny diamond chips set in the top quarter of the band.

I wore my mom’s wedding ring to church on Sunday. I sometimes wear the ring when I want to feel that Mom is especially close to me. Often that’s when I’m planning to play some extra special music on the piano or organ at church, and I know Mom would really enjoy listening to it. I usually wear it to church on Christmas Eve when I play lots of Christmas music on both the piano and organ, and lead the congregation in singing Christmas carols.

I wore the ring last Sunday because it was my last Sunday of being an organist of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I’ve been half-time organist there for exactly one year to the day. I may still play at East occasionally as a substitute, but I’ve decided to stop playing there regularly, and will be playing more often at my home church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

East Koshkonong Lutheran Church is a beautiful old country church about 5 miles southwest of Cambridge.

East Koshkonong Lutheran Church is a beautiful old country church about 5 miles southwest of Cambridge. The sanctuary has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen. The organ and piano are in the balcony.

For my last regular Sunday at East, I played an extended prelude, about fifteen minutes. First I played two arrangements of my mom’s favorite gospel songs on the piano – “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “In the Garden.” Then I played one of my favorite piano arrangements that weaves together two hymns – “It Is Well with My Soul” and “Be Still My Soul.” Then I moved to the organ and played a transcription of “Finlandia” – the original source of the tune for the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” I’m pretty sure my mom was listening.

After church I was honored with a special coffee hour. I was a little uncomfortable with being the center of attention. (I got that trait from my mom. My dad would have loved the attention.) But it really was nice to have so many people come up to me to tell me how much they had enjoyed my playing over the past year. Some of them have become good friends and I’ll miss seeing them regularly. Others I had not met previously, but it was nice to know they had enjoyed my music and they wanted me to know that.

I’m very thankful for the experience I’ve had over the past year of becoming a part of the church family that worships together at East. I guess I’ll still consider the people at East to be part of my “extended church family,” and I’ll look forward to subbing there occasionally to be able to worship together again.

That reminds me of a song written by Bill Gaither. It was a favorite of one of our assisted living residents, Mary Borgerud, and we used to sing it together frequently when she lived with us.

I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God –
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod;
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.

My mom liked that song, too. Maybe I should wear her ring more often to be reminded that we’re always in the company of a really big extended family, the family of God.

Moms Ring on hand playing piano cropped