Four Funerals and a Wedding:
My Career as a Church Organist
In Bristol, NH, Gladys Lydston who was my piano teacher from third through eighth grade, was also an organist. Thus, as my first organ teacher, she introduced me to the little pipe organ at the Congregational Church on the hill near her house on Church Street.
Uncle Lloyd Cummings had suggested to my father, his brother Gaylord, that he give me piano lessons beginning in third grade. I was inspired by his two daughters, Ruth and Audrey. They were both active church organists at the Baptist Church in Newport, NH at an early age. My Grandma Cummings took great pride. At our weekly Sunday visits, she would tell us about this. I wanted to be similarly appreciated. Thus began my organ studies.
Mrs. Lydston had connections at the local church and was able to get me practice time there. As soon as I was able, I was invited to play hymns for evening services at the Bristol Baptist church. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Greta Taylor played piano along with me for the early hymn singing. This brought me up to speed from the beginning.
The next year I was able to play professionally in my own church for a dollar a Sunday for a year. It went up to two while I played services for a total of three years before I went to Middlebury.
I dropped my intended Organ major at college because my instructor gave no assignments the first semester but eight-bar exercises. However, I served as volunteer organist at several little country churches as needed.
Several months after graduation, I returned to New Hampshire when a Middlebury College friend, T. Holmes (Bud) Moore, recommended me for a secretarial position at the New Hampton School, and accompanist for Glee Club. That opportunity soon led to my playing the organ regularly at the New Hampton Community Church where he was the choir director. Then I married Bud’s best baritone in the choir, Everett Nordstrom. Ev and I lived in New Hampton for a short time. He was a teacher/coach at the New Hampton School, then at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. I spent my time pushing a baby carriage past the church in Dudley, wishing they needed me.
Ev’s career path took us to New Jersey, where we attended the First Presbyterian Church in Caldwell. I was grateful to be able to practice the pipe organ there and volunteered to play interludes between the Sunday morning services. I absorbed a great deal of knowledge from the regular organist, David Gehrenbeck, that became very useful in my later career.
Years later we returned to New Hampshire, where Bud Moore recommended me to the Chocorua Island Chapel Association. I played the Episcopal service on Church Island on Squam Lake for nine plus two later summer seasons.
The organ on Chocorua Island had not been converted to electricity. It required someone to crank it throughout the service. This usually fell to some young churchgoer as a special privilege.
I remember playing for one wedding in particular. The wedding prelude had been planned for ten minutes because no one intended to come early. Guests arrived on time, but the bride was not ready. So, I opened another organ music collection and played on. And on, and on! The boat finally arrived forty-five minutes late. I had given a virtual organ recital. I wish I could remember the courageous young person who kept cranking all that time!
It was from a Church Island contact, after playing for the wedding of a Holderness School trustee, that I got my Holderness Chapel organist/director job, 1966-70. The Headmaster, the late Donald Hagerman, happened to ride back in the same boat with me after the wedding. He said if I could make the island organ sound that good then they needed me at Holderness School.
The Holderness pipe organ had seen previous service at Castle-in-the-clouds and was not very good to begin with. I soon refused to play it and persuaded Don Hagerman to rent a temporary two-manual electronic Gulbranssen. I would be happier with that while they raised money for a satisfactory pipe organ.
For four years with two of the least desirable chapel organs, I enjoyed the most satisfying organist, choir and glee club director job of my lifetime.
My boys sang in a Dartmouth Prep Sing that the college sponsored as a public relations pitch. Soon after, Ed LeBlanc, who was music director at St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains, then a girls’ school attended at the time by one if my daughters, agreed to conduct our combined boys’ and girls’ choirs in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I accompanied on organ. We rehearsed on Wednesdays. I arranged bus schedules. Our collaboration was such a success that we continued with performances of Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio and Haydn’s Creation.
It was with mixed emotions that I followed our family breadwinner to eventually settle in North Carolina. The NC organist expectations were on a scholarly level more rigorous than my New Hampshire requirements that had been based on performance rather than educational preparation. My uppermost music experience in North Carolina was the opportunity to work for six months as Assistant for Public Relations to Margaret Leinbach Kolb at the Moravian Music Foundation.
For a short time, perhaps a year, I had an organist job at a Moravian church in Clemmons, next to Winston-Salem. It was probably one of the AGO Substitute list opportunities upon which I depended due to moving wherever Everett’s career took him. I had joined the American Guild of Organists in 1966, when I was employed at Holderness School. The AGO list was the source of many short-term positions over the years. In the Winston-Salem AGO I became Sub Dean to enjoy that position’s duty of selecting and arranging for the monthly music programs of the Winston-Salem Chapter AGO.
Handel On Hunger
While living in North Carolina I acquired the habitual joy of singing Handel’s “Messiah” annually in Winston-Salem. During this annual experience I often sang tenor to help balance the number of voices in the four parts. Each fall season, Nancy Ann Harris Greenfield gathered a chorus to rehearse at the high school to prepare for a city performance on the first Sunday of December.
After my husband and I moved to Pinehurst, there being no annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah in the Sandhills of North Carolina, I prayed for an idea of how to find a local sponsor. I had completed a brief one-year organist-music director contract at a nearby community. On a cold January day, I sat with coffee in front of our beautiful red brick fireplace, praying for the way to open for us to sing it.
The answer came silently; it soared through my head sounding like a cello melody: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd," from Handel's Messiah. My immediate thought was that its local sponsor solution would naturally be the Sandhills Food Bank. I talked with the manager. He said they could not risk the money to furnish necessary musicians. However, he assured me, as a former pastor, that this specific answer to prayer had been a call!
Taking the call seriously, I created an event called Handel On Hunger. Messiah Singalongs are popular annual events in many locations, sometimes sponsored by a local orchestra and sometimes with only piano accompaniment. Volunteer orchestral and vocal musicians were recruited including a conductor, Paul Chandley. All were willing and actually eager to donate services to benefit the hungry.
Choral participants in the singalong were invited and required to make a donation for the hungry. Money that was collected was sent to the Sandhills Food Bank.
This became an annual event at the high school auditorium in Southern Pines, NC. It was repeated there under my complimentary event management for three years. No longer able to use the high school auditorium, it was moved for its fourth year to The Village Chapel, which was my church home in Pinehurst, NC.
Return to New England
In 2002, Everett suffered a stroke. We decided to move to New England, where four of our five children lived. I gained employment as organist and choir director for the Congregational Church at Wells. Maine. We settled in Kennebunk. After this assignment, I served as organist and choir director for St. George’s Episcopal Church in Sanford, Maine. This was my last fulltime position. I remained on the AGO substitute organist list, and played at several summer churches in the area, and at our home church, Union Church in Biddeford Pool.
Long after retiring, I was committed to a celebratory birthday recital, and so…
From the American Guild of Organists, Portland (Maine) Chapter’s December 2018 issue of VOX HUMANA: