Course beckons budding organists

Robert Cundick, retired Salt Lake Tabernacle organist, looks back with fondness on his formative years as a musician under the tutelage of Tracy Y. Cannon, former chairman of the General Church Music Committee.

The composer of seven hymns in the current Church hymnal, Brother Cannon as much as anyone else influenced Brother Cundick's illustrious career.

And it is such a memory that prompted Brother Cundick to be a self-described "activist" in promoting a new organ course and certification program for church organists and others that is to begin after the first of the year at the University of Utah.

Modeled after Don Cook's highly successful group-instruction course at BYU, the new offering will be directed toward students with intermediate-level piano proficiency "who would like to upgrade their skills and come up to a certified level of achievement as an organist," said Roger Miller of the University of Utah music faculty. Students need not be enrolled at the university to take the course.

"Our hope is that we could reach out to individuals, and also that bishops and stake presidents would be aggressive in asking people to become certified so that they could be qualified to serve as organists in the stakes and wards," he added.

"This is something I've hoped for for 50 years," Brother Cundick said. "The introduction I had to playing the organ was taking such a course."

Beginning in the 1930s, the Church offered a course for beginning organists under the direction of the General Music Committee. Members of the committee would serve as field representatives providing instruction in stakes and wards where interest was expressed.

Don Cook (back) listens to Jill Neilsen (front) play a song on the organ in the BYU Music 115 "Basic Organ Skills" class Dec. 2, 2002. PHOTO BY STUART JOHNSON. (Submission date: 12/02/2002)
Don Cook (back) listens to Jill Neilsen (front) play a song on the organ in the BYU Music 115 “Basic Organ Skills” class Dec. 2, 2002. PHOTO BY STUART JOHNSON. (Submission date: 12/02/2002) Credit: Photo by Stuart Johnson

Dr. Miller, himself a former music committee member, served as such a field representative. He said the program lasted until the 1960s and was then discontinued, a victim of the internationalization of the Church and the belief that a program ought not to be offered if it could not be widespread.

He feels that as a consequence the level of organ performance and hymn singing has lagged in the Church. "Good organists who knows what they are doing can give the kind of support and encouragement to congregational singing that make a difference," he said.

The idea for the course is an outgrowth of the construction of the Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the university, Dr. Miller said. Her husband, David Gardner, for whom the building is named that houses the school of music, himself an accomplished organist, suggested that an organ be placed in the new concert hall. But he stipulated that there be a comprehensive organ program at the university if such an instrument were to be included in the new hall. At that point, Dr. Cundick became involved, and further discussions led to the planning of an outreach organ course. Preliminary investigation showed great potential interest not just among Latter-day Saints but in congregations of various faiths along Utah's Wasatch Front.

The family of the late Alexander Schreiner, legendary Tabernacle organist, provided funding for the course as did friends of Dr. Schreiner.

BYU's Dr. Cook agreed to provide his computer program at cost for use in the University of Utah course. Thus, like the BYU course, the new program combines computer-aided self study along with class instruction.

"It will be for an entire semester, approximately 15 weeks," Dr. Miller said. "The students will meet in groups of six, because we have six instruments in our organ lab. And there will be a certified instructor for each of them."

Coordinating the instruction will be Linda Margetts, Temple Square organist, who is completing a doctoral program at the university. Sister Margetts approaches her role with some experience and empathy for the students. "I played the organ for our little ward back in Michigan while I was growing up, a little Conn electronic organ," she recalled. "Not until I went to BYU and took lessons from Dr. Parley Belnap did I have any formal instruction." Thus she has the experience of receiving proper organ instruction as an adult, getting used to the pedals and distinctive keyboard technique that organ playing requires.

Screen shot from Don Cook's "organtutor" class to be taught at U of U. The U of U course is being modeled after Don Cook's highly successful course at BYU.
Screen shot from Don Cook’s “organtutor” class to be taught at U of U. The U of U course is being modeled after Don Cook’s highly successful course at BYU.

Sister Margetts sees the course as the university's chance "to contribute to the community and be of service to the community."

And if the BYU course is any indication, the community will be receptive, though the BYU program differs in that it is not a certification course, as the program will be at the University of Utah.

"Our program has been a huge hit here," Dr. Cook said. "We have 115 students enrolled this semester. We see a lot of interest in this level of organ study. And students cite two reasons: one, to be able to serve the Church better, and, two, for their own enjoyment. That seems to be a consistent thread among the students — the service goal and the self-enrichment goal."

Tuition for the University of Utah program will be $150 plus $25 for textbooks. That buys one group lesson per week plus at least an hour a day of practice time. Each student will have access in the teaching lab to a new Allen church-model electronic organ with two manuals and a pedal.

Interested persons may register by telephone at the University of Utah School of Music, 801-581-6762, or call Linda Margetts at 801-451-2994. She may be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] .

More information on Dr. Cook's computer program may be obtained on the Internet site

E-mail: [email protected]