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Organ Scholar program offers liturgical experience for youth

By Apolline Lucyk


Over the past 10 years, the Organ Scholar program at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina has become an essential part of the cathedral’s music ministry, and brought forth a new generation of organists in Regina. The program was begun by Robin Swales and Valerie Hall — the cathedral’s director of music and organist at the time — in the hopes of bringing more youth to the organ, and is sponsored by Donald and Claire Kramer.

The scholarship, which students can hold for up to three years, grants scholars weekly lessons with the director of music and organist Valerie Hall, access to practice on the McGuigan pipe organ, a monthly honorarium, and the opportunity to cultivate their leadership skills in a liturgical setting. As a scholar, musicians are expected to accompany the cathedral choir at weekly choir practices, play at Sunday morning masses, and cover for the organist when she is away.

Organ Scholar programs have a rich history, particularly in England, where many of the country’s most accomplished organists began as organ scholars in churches and cathedrals. Although there are a number of other Organ Scholar programs across Canada, Holy Rosary’s program is unique in that it targets youth and high school students.

Hall’s two current organ scholars, Mars Zhao and Tatiana Orlowski, will be moving away for university next year, but Orlowski says the experience has been invaluable. “I’ve gained, not only organ experience and playing experience, but also more sense of responsibility and involvement with the community,” she says. “Beyond taking lessons and doing recitals, I am involved in a program that a lot of people help out with. I’ve got to meet a lot of people, and gotten to work with a lot of people.”

Indeed, a particularly valuable aspect of the program is the sense of responsibility it gives the students. Hall reflects that while she initially expected students to think of the program as primarily an opportunity to learn the organ, she found over the years that students appreciated the sense of responsibility and the leadership skills that the program offered them as much as the musical tutelage.
“So now I think of the program as a tool to teach those skills — to give them confidence, to give them responsibility, to set them up to succeed in an environment that will allow them to do that,” Hall says.

Zhao says one of his favourite aspects of the program has been the opportunity to play and practice on the McGuigan organ. “There’s really no other instrument that can deliver as much power as the organ,” he says. “There’s so many colours you can give to the pieces you’re playing. Depending on your registration, a piece sounds completely different, so you never really get tired of playing one thing.”

One of the most important liturgical instruments in Western Canada, the McGuigan pipe organ was built in 1930, and completely rebuilt by the Quebec organ builder, Casavant Frères, in 1992-1993. It has three manuals as well as a full range of pedals, comprising a total of 3,114 pipes.

Many students have participated in the program over the years, including Josephine and Emily Craig Penner, Jesse McLeod, Apolline and Janelle Lucyk, Barbara Zerr, and Gwyneth Bergman, and graduates of the program have taken on work at various parishes throughout the city. Most recently, Josephine Craig Penner accepted a position as an organist for Blessed Sacrament Parish in Regina, where she plays for masses regularly, as well as special services and events. Another organ scholar graduate, Bergman, went on to complete a bachelor of music in organ performance at McGill University, as well. Scholars have also played for services and events at many other churches around the city, including St Luke’s Anglican, First Presbyterian, St Mary the Virgin, Lakeview United, St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Campion College Chapel, the RCMP Chapel, and Trinity Lutheran.

As Swales has noted, the program is valuable to students whether or not they are interested in pursuing music professionally. “The whole point of a lot of musical education is that it is part of one’s general cultural life,” Swales relates. “And so creating an organ scholar program seemed to be an essential way of giving persons who might go on to entirely different professions an opportunity to have an interest which they can use in their future lives.” Past organ scholars have gone on to pursue a variety of degrees and careers, including nursing, education, music, and business.

Next year, Jonathan Craig Penner will be joining the program, and Hall is still accepting applications for the second scholar position. It will be exciting to see these new scholars begin the program, and watch them grow as liturgical musicians in coming years.

Lucyk is a freelance writer and former organ scholar from Regina: she completed her MA in English at the University of Regina in 2014, and is currently pursuing a bachelor of education at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. When in Regina, she is active in the music ministries at Holy Rosary Cathedral, and Christ the King Parish.