St. Olaf student musicians win organ competition
Sarah Palmer ’22 and Katie Gunn ’23 have been named winners of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) 2021 Quimby Regional Competition for Young Organists.
To enter the competition, participants compete at a regional level before moving up to further rounds. Palmer and Gunn competed in the Twin Cities American Guild of Organists (TCAGO) chapter competition, one of 12 chapter-level contests across the country. The Twin Cities chapter competition is also part of the Schubert Club Student Scholarship Competition that sponsors contests for all instruments and vocalists each year.
Palmer received the first place prize of $2,000 in the chapter competition and went on to compete in and win the North Central regional competition. She was named a “Rising Star” and will perform at the American Guild of Organists (AGO) national convention in 2022. Gunn placed second in the chapter competition, receiving $1,000.
Palmer and Gunn benefit from the resources of St. Olaf’s organ program, one of the largest undergraduate organ departments in the country. Skifter Hall, adjacent to Christiansen Hall of Music, houses seven practice organs — four mechanical and three electro-pneumatic by Dobson, Wilhelm, Holtkamp, and Schliker. In the fall of 2006, a new Holtkamp organ was installed in Boe Memorial Chapel. The chapel serves as a laboratory for church music majors as well as a locus for organ study and performance.
St. Olaf organ faculty member Catherine Rodland ’87 teaches both Palmer and Gunn, and is pleased that the prize money will further support their organ studies. “They both grew as they prepared for the competition, as they had to learn a required piece and then record three pieces and a hymn,” Rodland says. “The recording had to be done in one continuous take. Normally, this competition is live at a church in the cities, so this was unusual. It was good training for recording for graduate schools, summer institutes, and future competitions.”
Palmer is pursuing her bachelor’s of music in organ performance at St. Olaf and has been playing the organ for two years. She enjoys playing works by Bach, Wagner, and Percy Grainger.
“My favorite thing about the organ is its timbral variety, which allows me to replicate the sound of an orchestra or band,” Palmer says.
Palmer’s wins in the chapter and regional competitions will support her studies and playing going forward.
“Sarah has been a very inspiring student. She only began her organ studies two years ago — on her own at first — and now she performs at a graduate school level,” Rodland says. “She also transcribes orchestra and band music for organ, which is a very unusual skill.”
They both grew as they prepared for the competition, as they had to learn a required piece and then record three pieces and a hymn. The recording had to be done in one continuous take. Normally, this competition is live at a church in the cities, so this was unusual. It was good training for recording for graduate schools, summer institutes, and future competitions.organ faculty member Catherine Rodland ’87
Palmer began her college career at Carleton College. She decided to transfer to St. Olaf in the spring of 2020 to further her organ studies through the college’s music program. “St. Olaf has given me a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Palmer says.
Gunn, who is studying to receive her bachelor’s of music in church music and organ, has been playing piano since she was 8 and organ since she was 16. “I didn’t take it very seriously until just before I started college, but I’ve been practicing hard ever since then. I really enjoy the rich variety of sounds that you can create,” Gunn says. Her favorite composers for organ are Bach, Vierne, and Brahms. On campus, she also sings in St. Olaf Cantorei.
For Gunn, the application process for the competition started in January, in which she submitted the names of the pieces she would be performing. She recorded her pieces — a hymn, a work by Bach, a piece to contrast with the Bach, and an assigned piece — later in the spring in Boe Chapel with the help of St. Olaf Broadcast/Media Services.
“St. Olaf has helped me become a much better organist. Dr. Rodland’s guidance is invaluable,” Gunn says. “The organ studio pushes me to become a better musician in a non-competitive way, and the environment is so warm and welcoming.”
Following graduation, Gunn plans to attend graduate school to pursue a master’s of music in organ performance and potentially a doctorate degree. She hopes to be an organist and choir director at a large church.
“Katie is a very hard worker and has grown so much in her two years at St. Olaf. She has been my assistant organist at the Colonial Church of Edina and is a joy to teach,” Rodland says.
Palmer and Gunn continue to contribute to a historically strong organ program at St. Olaf, with several past students performing well in the Quimby competition. Recently, Michael Caraher ’20 was the winner and eventual Rising Star in 2019 and Ben Kerswell ’18 was the winner and eventual Rising Star in 2017. Isaac Drewes ’17 took second in the 2017 competition. In 2015, David H. Anderson ’15 won the Twin Cities round and took second in the regional round.