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Travelling Clinician Sarah Svendsen sparks students’ interest in the King of Instruments

By Sam Balden

This writer attended the second of two RCCO-sponsored music events, featuring the pipe organ in a program specifically designed for school students.  The sessions were held at St. John’s Shaughnessy Church, 1490 Nanton Avenue in Vancouver, on February 6 at 11 a.m. and February 8, 1:30 p.m.  The organ, a sizeable 1968 Hallman of 4 manuals, comprises 71 stops (69 ranks), and features chambers in the left transept and rear gallery (which includes a state trumpet).


 The Friday event boasted a large and enthusiastic audience, made up of over 300 attendees, being students from Shaughnessy Elementary (9 classes, grades 3-7), York House School (4 classes, grades 1-2), along with teachers, and a few parents and members of the RCCO and St. John’s.  I am advised that most of the children at the event had participated in the assembly and playing of the RCCO OrgelKidsCAN kit, coordinated by Michael Dirk, who also arranged viewings of pipe organ instructional videos and a slideshow of the church’s Hallman organ.


Our presenter, Sarah Svendsen, a native of Nova Scotia, is a graduate of the Yale School of Music and co-founder and performer in the “Organized Crime Duo”. Sarah specializes in the performance of Canadian organ works and has performed in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.  Her biography indicates that she is also well-known for giving child-friendly educational organ outreach concerts and workshops, but I believe this has, up until now, only involved groups of up to 30, as opposed to this event’s over 300.  So it was up to Sarah to capture and hold the attention of this audience for about one hour, an otherwise formidable task.

After an introduction by Michael, Sarah came ‘on stage’, resplendent in a red gown, and after greeting the crowd began by playing the inimitable Bach Toccata in D Minor.  She then moved to the Fugue, introduced by having the students sing “Row, row, row your boat” in canon form, then playing the bare fugue subject, and then having them tap their own shoulder anytime they heard the fugue subject whenever she played it.  Her subsequent musical examples were from classical repertoire, including Morning and In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Final from Langlais First Symphony, which piece was preceded by her own made-up story, which used themes from the piece as themes for the characters and events in the story.


By using different divisions of the organ, Sarah was able to help the students recognize that music was coming from different directions in the church.  Amongst the tools in her grab bag of school student material, Sarah had the students standing, moving about, and responding with different types of body movements to different colour indications from her.  Keeping the attention of younger students for a whole hour would not have succeeded with organ music alone, and the audience break techniques and games provided by Sarah kept the whole event from falling apart at the seams!

Near the end of the hour, Sarah had the children standing and gyrating to her music (which included both Harry Potter and Star Wars themes), which she would occasionally stop playing (similar to ‘musical chairs’) and they had to freeze and only start up when she continued to play.  Another part of her program had a small number of students ‘play’ the organ  – one ‘improvising’ on keyboard black notes only, with another playing two pedal notes.  These two were shunted sideways (to the right) with a new person playing the pedal notes, the previous pedal person moving to keyboard black note improvisation, and the previous keyboard person being ‘kicked off’ the bench.  Great fun – you had to be there to appreciate this manoeuvre.


Needless to say, all of the preparatory work by Michael, the commentary and organ playing by Sarah, the storytelling and intermittent physical activities made for a fantastic program, and Sarah received a well deserved and enthusiastic round of applause from the assembled throng.

Thanks are especially due to two RCCO stalwarts who did an incredible amount of work behind the scenes in the planning and execution of the two programs, as well as the shepherding and care of Sarah.  The two persons are Michael Dirk, our Centre’s VP/Education Officer and the Director of Music and Organist at St. John’s (as well as music teacher at Shaughnessy Elementary), and Rachel Alflatt, Past President, member of the Centre Executive and page turner extraordinaire.  I am privy to some of the amount of time taken by Michael and Rachel to carry off the whole project, and can assure you that it was considerable.

All in all, a new type of venture for the Vancouver Centre, and a huge inroad into the education of school students about the King of Instruments.  I believe the students who attended went away with much information and maybe some organ music resounding in their heads, thanks to Sarah’s presentation.  For Sarah, she undoubtedly profited from the experience of presenting to such a large, and young, audience.  The Vancouver Centre very much appreciates the provision to us by our National Office of Sarah as a travelling clinician, and appreciates that she participated in a different way from the normal travelling clinician routine.