14 June, 2008


Meet a giant of the organ music world: Marilyn Keiser.

My first organ teacher in a little college in California formed the foundation of my attitudes about the purpose of church music, the role of the musicians, and the standards to which I should hold myself. But Marilyn Keiser was the model, the dean of church music in America. She was always the headliner for the concert artists talent agency that seemed to have a lock on the back cover ads of the professional magazines, spoken of in nearly hushed tones, someone I could only hope to meet if she passed through our local American Guild of Organists chapter for a workshop... or maybe I could someday go to a national convention and shake her hand.

But only a few years after beginning to learn the instrument, I found myself sitting at an organ bench with her at my side. A more gentle, gracious, kind and talented woman I doubt you could find. And brilliant, detail-oriented and dedicated. Not only did I sit in her classes about choral conducting from the keyboard and attend her performance masterclasses, but for one glorious semester I had her for "independent study" in church music--just the two of us each week discussing books, philosophy, and the technical details of leading congregations in music... holding our own one-on-one performance masterclasses in all things church music. She recommended me for my first professional organist and assistant choral conductor's position, and with a recommendation from Marilyn Keiser in Bloomington, you don't really need anything else.

I just found out she's retiring this year. I almost wrote her a note to tell her again how much I appreciated her kindness, how much I learned from her, and how much her support and encouragement had meant to me (she's the kind of lady one writes to by U.S. mail on elegant stationery). But knowing her, she'd write back and want to know what I'm up to... and how do you tell Dr. Keiser you haven't touched an organ in three years? That you don't appear to be using all the knowledge and spirit she poured into you? And how to explain that even though that's true, it doesn't change how much what you learned back then is still a part of you today?

And why should writing this make my eyeballs start to sweat? I'm glad I'm not a music teacher right now; I don't want to go back to that crazy-making job. But now that everything else is going so well, maybe I need to go find the inner musician I left by the wayside a couple years ago--apparently she's still alive.

Photo courtesy of Indiana University