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Queen of the King of Instruments

July 2014

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Marjorie Volkel was eager to participate in any activity that organizers had planned during her two-day tour of BYU - as long as it wasn’t climbing Y Mountain. Marj was raised in Utah and was well aware of the school but had never set foot on campus. Now, after many years of living on the East Coast, she was being invited to visit the organ department of the School of Music, where she’d donated her estate in a planned gift.

Organizers were secretive about plans, but she quickly connected the dots as soon as she stepped into the Madsen Recital Hall and beheld the grand concert organ with its impressive rank of 52 overhead pipes. She knew the moment was hers.

An empty organ bench was all the invitation she needed. She rummaged through her shoulder bag to pull out two white, pointed-toe organ shoes.

Feeling the same rush she had experienced several weeks earlier while running the rapids of the Colorado River, she bounded up the stairs and onto the stage. She laid a dog-eared packet of music on the bench and carefully drew out four sheets of music - music that she felt captured the moment.

Now 82 years old, Marj has had a lifelong love affair with the organ. To her the organ is just as Mozart said, “the king of instruments.”

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The piano also has its place, she feels. But for the sheer power of harmonies that exalt feelings and awaken the soul, she contends the organ is without equal.

For many, the piano and organ appear similar since each makes sound when a musician strikes black and white keys. But that’s where the similarity ends, she contends.

“Pianists are not necessarily organists,” she said. “Because someone can play the piano doesn’t mean they can sit down at the organ and bring out its beauty.”

She fears that if musicians continue to play organs the way they play pianos, much of the sacred richness of sacrament meeting worship will fade away.

Marj, who resides in the Mount Vernon Ward, Mt. Vernon Virginia Stake, began her music training in the third grade, when she started taking violin lessons. Years later in high school, after her mother challenged her to practice more earnestly, the young Marjorie practiced to the point that her mother recanted her challenge.

At age 16 she led a high school choir of seminary students from four stakes in a performance at Jordan High School in Salt Lake City. She’s been involved in ward and stake music ever since.

Over the years she grew concerned that the number of knowledgeable organists who can play with sensitivity and competence was diminishing and that newly called organists in wards and stakes were often overwhelmed with the immensity of the instrument, leaving the music of the sacrament worship service to fall flat.

Seeking a solution, she enrolled in her first private organ lessons at age 50. She soon learned that there was little instruction available to help the piano player convert to the complexities of the organ.

Organists simply need better training, she felt - not the training that comes of a Saturday morning introductory course, but training that dusted off the pipes and left an impression.

She told herself that some day - when she had the time and means - she would do something to promote and preserve the magnificence of the organ.

Now, at age 82, she figured the time was right.

Ruminating with a friend and professor in the BYU School of Music, they concluded that the best way to improve organ playing was to send out some of the finest organists in the Church to visit stakes and conduct one- or two-day workshops.

The first workshop was organized in her Mt. Vernon stake in August 2013, and more than 170 people from eight stakes attended, including two sisters who drove four hours each way, she said.

She was encouraged by the enthusiasm of so many participants and decided to donate some of the resources she and her late husband, Victor, had acquired to BYU to fund other outreach training ventures with stakes around the country.

marjorie-volkel


To see firsthand what BYU was doing to train organists, Marj was invited to tour the campus in November 2013. On a warm, sunny day, after visiting what remains of her family farm in West Jordan, Utah, she was directed from room to room in the Harris Fine Arts Center to watch as students practiced on the 12 organs in the practice lab, the seven teaching organs, and the two studio organs.

“I noticed the eagerness of the students,” she said. “I envy them as they pursue their heart’s desire to play the organ. They are serious students who have a love and joy for what they are doing. You don’t see many students with that same attitude.”

Marj found particular affinity with a married mother of grown children who had returned to school to fulfill her long-held dream of playing the organ.

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The crowning moment of the tour came during her half-hour of fame playing the Tabernacle organ on Temple Square. In the company of several Tabernacle organists, she played a variety of organ music and thrilled at the massive sound that reverberated around the hall.

“Playing that iconic organ is a transforming experience,” she said. “Once you’ve felt of its grand power to shake the earth, or its ethereal tones that pierce the soul, you are never the same.”

“Marj’s generosity to the School of Music is simply overwhelming,” said Kory Katseanes, chairman of the School of Music. “It will mean so much to our organ students and will provide opportunities in organ outreach and distance learning that we could only dream of before.

“It’s not just the gift that makes me grateful, however,” he said. “It’s the opportunity to become acquainted with Marj herself. She’s a powerhouse of a person, an example of dedication and sacrifice. She makes me want to do more with what I have. We will use the gift - in a ‘Marj’ way - to bless the world.”

Since the initial workshop in the Mt. Vernon Virginia Stake, plus the three subsequent workshops, a total of 470 participants from 75 stakes have received organ training.

The three latest workshops include 50 organists from the 16 stakes in the Granger area of Salt Lake City who received training in a two-day workshop held in October 2013.

Participants from Pennsylvania to Delaware attended a second workshop in the Washington D.C Stake Center in April 2014, where 190 people from 29 stakes participated; ages ranged from 8 to 79 years old.

A third workshop included 60 students from eight stakes hosted by the Bloomfield Hills Michigan Stake located near Detroit.

Response to the workshops has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Don Cook, associate professor of music in the BYU School of Music. “The workshops,” he said, “provide many opportunities for students to mingle with experts and ask plenty of questions. The participants were encouraged to continue training in private and group settings after the workshop to improve their organ skills.

“Inspirational music,” he emphasized, “is an essential part of inspirational meetings.”

Stakes wishing to receive specialized organ training can contact Don Cook, professor of music at BYU, by emailing doncook@byu.edu.

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