St. Olaf College | News

The organ is alive and well at St. Olaf College

For students looking to pursue more specialized studies, finding a higher-education institution can often be a daunting task. This was the case for Abbey Kelley-Lanser ‘23, who was searching for a place where she could not only practice her faith, but also practice the organ. 

“During my college search, I had decided that I wanted to attend not only a school that had an organ major, but also a Lutheran school in which I would be supported in my faith,” says Kelley-Lanser. “Funnily enough, St. Olaf was the first Lutheran college I found.”

As one of the largest undergraduate programs of its kind in the country, the Organ and Church Music program at St. Olaf College brings in students of all musical disciplines who are interested in playing and learning more about the organ. Whether their interest leads to majoring in Organ and Church Music or just being a part of the lesson studio, students learn about the modern-day application of the organ as well as its connections to religious traditions from the past.

The Organ and Church Music program has two full-time professional organists on staff, a rarity for undergraduate schools. In addition to her full-time teaching duties as artist in residence at St. Olaf, faculty member Catherine Rodland is the organist at the Colonial Church of Edina and tours around the country. Associate Professor of Music James Bobb also teaches a full organ studio, serves as the college’s cantor, and conducts St. Olaf Cantorei, a choral ensemble on campus dedicated to leading worship through musical and spiritual experiences.

Rodland instructs 12 students in her studio and Bobb leads five, making it a total of 17 students who study the organ at St. Olaf. According to Rodland, this is a very high number, as most undergraduate organ programs have only four or five students.

The organ studio is composed of students who have a wide range of organ experience before they come to St. Olaf. “We have some [students] who arrive with lots of experience and are playing at nearly a graduate level already, some who are just beginning their organ study after many years of piano, and some who are majoring in other areas who just want to learn some organ,” says Rodland.

We have some [students] who arrive with lots of experience and are playing at nearly a graduate level already, some who are just beginning their organ study after many years of piano, and some who are majoring in other areas who just want to learn some organ. Catherine Rodland, Organ Faculty Member

Members of the studio enrich their knowledge of the organ and church music through an abundance of unique opportunities that are interesting for both organists and members of the St. Olaf community as a whole. Each year, the organ studio hosts a concert event entitled PipeScreams, a Halloween-themed event in which Boe Chapel is filled with seasonal decorations, performers dressed up in costumes, and organists who play spooky sounding music to entertain students.

In addition to themed events, organ students are also involved in the Lutheran tradition of St. Olaf College. Due to the organ’s important role in the chapel, students often play during services as well as accompany performing choral ensembles. Kelley-Lanser says, “My goal is to feel like I am serving people through music to help them worship and experience God.”

Although many students feel this connection between their musical practice and their own faith, performing for chapel services also allows others to expand their organ repertoire and gain experience performing for large groups of people.

The members of the organ studio itself are described by Kelley-Lanser as being “one big quirky family with a lot of diversity and humor — and we never hesitate to give moral support.” 

Being members of one of the more specialized majors on campus, students of the Organ and Church Music program tend to bond quickly with one another. One of the ways in which organ students get to know each other is through their time frequenting Skifter Hall. Located adjacent to Christiansen Hall of Music, Skifter Hall, like most buildings on campus, falls into the iconic limestone tradition and aesthetic at St. Olaf. Despite being so close to the other music buildings on campus, most non-organ majors have never set foot inside of Skifter Hall, and may not even know what it is.

“I love being able to head to Skifter, St. Olaf’s organ practice room building, and run into people in the common space before and after practicing,” says Kelley-Lanser. 

Located adjacent to Christiansen Hall of Music, Skifter Hall is an often overlooked, yet vital part of the St. Olaf Campus.

Skifter Hall houses seven organs for students to practice on, and each individual room has been engineered to provide the most acoustically satisfying sound to allow for the best practice sessions. The students make good use of this space, as the complexity of the instrument requires that “one really has to be dedicated to seek it out and study it”, according to Rodland. In addition to practice rooms and studios, Skifter Hall also houses the Broadcast/Media Services Office of the College as well as an additional recital hall with yet another organ. 

Students also gain experience playing on different organs in spaces with varying acoustics during another unique opportunity offered through the Organ and Church Music program: organ tours.

Organ tours are educational performances that allow students to play for new audiences that focus on learning about geographical differences between organs and styles of playing. For example, the organ studio has toured cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, and Washington, D.C. At the Washington Cathedral, students played on more modern instruments, which influenced the repertoire selections to focus on Romantic and modern French music. In Seattle, however, students played mostly on baroque tracker organs, which drove them to focus on repertoire by Johann Sebastian Bach.

While preparing for each tour, Rodland and Bobb work with the students to select a piece that they can play well and can also quickly adapt to the tendencies and characteristics of different instruments. These tours also give students a chance to continue bonding with one another. 

Kelley-Lanser says of going on tour, “It’s honestly amazing how quickly my friends and I, as freshmen organ majors, had already bonded with the rest of the upperclassmen organists.” 

St. Olaf faculty member Catherine Rodland (seated) with current and former organ students on tour in the Fall of 2019.

The Organ and Church Music program continues to expand past its already impressive amount of connections and opportunities for students wanting to learn organ. Recently, the program was given a new fund, the John R. Rodland Enrichment Fund, which allows for more international travel and brings knowledgeable professional organists and teachers to campus. In 2018 the organ studio traveled to Germany, and in 2022 the studio will be traveling to Paris in order to learn more about performance practices as well as music history as it applies to the organ and church music.

With daily chapel services in Boe Memorial Chapel, organ students have numerous opportunities to learn to play concert repertoire. Students are able to take advantage of the Holtkamp organ, installed in the Chapel in 2006 during the space’s complete renovation. According to Bobb, this acts as a “laboratory” experience that challenges students to play effectively in an acoustically challenging environment.

“The wonderful, resonant acoustic of the chapel, along with the size of the pipe organ, creates an exciting challenge for learning to lead hymns effectively from the organ,” says Bobb. “Students must learn to play rhythmically, yet sensitively, while dealing with a significant delay in hearing the sound of the congregation. If you can play well in Boe Chapel, most other acoustical challenges will seem easy to conquer.” 

Abbey Kelley-Lanser ‘23 practices on the organ in Boe Memorial Chapel earlier this fall semester.

The Organ and Church Music program also expands on the capabilities of the choral ensembles on campus. Student organists accompany choral works in concerts and chapel performance, expanding the repertoire possible for these ensembles. 

Organ students can also accompany Rodland and Bobb when they perform with the St. Olaf Choir on tour. These experiences, which often include 12-15 performances in a two-week span, offer additional opportunities for students to learn how organists need to adapt to different organs and acoustical environments, often with little practice time at each new venue. Bobb, who has toured with the St. Olaf Choir in past years, describes the experience as a delightful challenge. When preparing for a performance, an organist must prepare each instrument individually based on the space and its acoustic tendencies. 

“The primary challenges arise from the uncertainty of knowing how much time you will have to prepare the registrations before the choir arrives to rehearse,” says Bobb. “This includes whether the sounds that work well to your ear at the organ console will actually balance well with the choir in the hall or church, whether the instrument will actually be in good working order, whether you will be able to see the conductor clearly or if you are using a screen monitor that has a delay, and sometimes, how long it will take to figure out how to turn the organ on!”

Considering the numerous experiences and opportunities available in the Organ and Church Music program, students are constantly searching for and being provided with new ways to not only expand their knowledge of the organ, but find meaningful ways to make music together.

Making music with and for people is so much more meaningful than simply performing.Abbey Kelley-Lanser ’23