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At 86, 'Retired' Organist Wilma Jensen Is Busier Than Ever

Nathan Cone
Wilma Jensen, choir director and organist.

The public radio program Pipedreams once called her Wonder Woman Wilma, and at 86, she lives up to that moniker. “I’m pretty busy, even at this age!” she says with a smile. Retired from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Wilma Jensen still travels the country for performance and instruction, and is in San Antonio this week, working with St. Mark’s Episcopal Church’s choir. On Sunday, March 6 at 5 p.m., Jensen will conduct the choir in as they sing music by Kenneth Leighton, Herbert Howells, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Jensen will also play the “Hymn to the Sun” by Louis Vierne and music by Philip James. I spoke with Jensen this week about her career, teaching, and organ performance.

Nathan Cone: So, you have quite the post-retirement career!

Wilma Jensen: Yes, I do! It is fun to share a lot of things that I’ve learned with other people, especially the practical things.

I was going to ask you about that, about sharing the information you’ve learned over the years. You’ve built up a repertoire in performance and experience, obviously you’ve been teaching for some time as well, but when was it in your life that you realized, “I really enjoy teaching?”

I think I’ve always enjoyed teaching. My career and musical path has always been in three directions: church, teaching and performance. I’ve kept learning through the years. When I started at St. George’s I was interim, and I didn’t know much about the choir; I was an organist. But I finally decided I would try [to conduct the choir] myself since sometimes the conductors didn’t always fix the things that I thought should be fixed! So after I moved to Nashville I studied conducting and diction, which helped me a lot in dealing with vowels with choirs. I think each of those paths has led me to improve in those areas. When I was much younger, I had gotten into some technical difficulties at the organ, and I studied piano for a while with a really fine pianist. She assigned me many sources to read about building a natural technique. Now that’s what I’m doing when I’m teaching organ—helping to assist students with physical problems. We have a lot to learn from pianists, and they’ve written so many wonderful suggestions about what is natural that apply to both instruments.

What were those technical difficulties that you ran into as an organist, and what was it about going back to piano that helped you?

Well sometimes when you play a tracker organ, for instance, the touch gets very heavy because there’s a thin piece of wood that goes all the way from the bottom of the key to open the palate at the bottom of the pipe. So the touch gets heavier and heavier, the more sound you have, the heavier the touch. If the person physically is pressing down, the wrist and fingers are going to get tight. Whereas if you add arm weight and put it forward, it moves through a relaxed wrist, and the wrist actually moves up, and that then allows the fingers to be able to swing to the notes naturally, rather than having a tight wrist. I had a lot of good help. Reading so many of the sources made a difference for me, so I could correct my own problems, and then start helping others.

In choral performance—you mentioned diction a moment ago. Is that the most common problem that you come across when working with choirs?

Well the quality of your choir’s sound comes through the vowels. And the quality of that sound can affect the pitch, and I decided when I needed to learn how to direct a choir better, that I needed to build good habits with every single person in the choir. Not only the staff singers, but the volunteers as well. I don’t believe in having a few wonderful singers dragging the volunteers along. Everybody needs to develop good habits. It’s surprising how well they can do with the right instruction.

You know, there’s something I’ve always wondered about organ performance—I’m not an organist, I play a little piano… I play saxophone and guitar, so I carry my instruments with me, but much like piano, there are so many different organs throughout the country… when you’re dropped in a different city and you’re going to give a recital, what are the things you do to familiarize yourself with the instrument?

Well every organ is completely different. If you play a lot of the literature, there are so many things you need to learn about different styles and different types of instruments. Most of us have been to Europe and played instruments in different countries, and the style and the sounds are so different. And of course the acoustical environments are different. All those things you learn over the years help each place you go to. But you have to spend a lot of long hours deciding what you should use for specific passages of the piece. Many modern instruments have pistons that you can set on a certain number for the sound you want. So in the course of the music, you can change the sounds. Some of the copies of baroque instruments, some of them don’t have those pistons, and in that case you need registrants, or people who help pull the stops. I played in Europe, we had two registrants, one on each side. We had tiny post-it notes [instructing them when to pull stops]. We spent hours putting all these little post-it notes on the instrument to pull the stops at the right time! It’s a time-consuming job, but it’s exciting.

How much of that is noted in the score?

General concepts are. For instance, Cesar Franck is pretty specific. So you know that first he wants to add the swell reeds, then he wants the great reeds, then you add the pedal reeds… he sort of says that [in his score]. You’re supposed to know the mixtures … on say a French organ are different than on a German organ. There’s a lot of learning that goes into the process.

It’s an endless fount of fascination, then…

It is! The first time I went to Europe, my daughter went with me. She was in junior high, and thought it was going to be a glamorous trip. It wasn’t so glamorous! We played on some smaller instruments in Holland. She pulled stops for me.

I saw on the Pipedreams website that they named a show after you, “Wonder Woman Wilma.” Do you have super powers?

[Laughs] No, but I tell you, at 86, I’m still traveling and I work pretty hard. Some things maybe I don’t play as well as I used to, but I am working at it. All the reading I did about technique helps me fight the aging process, because you lose some of your reach in aging just as you lose height. I have to learn as fast to keep up with aging.

What is your first musical memory?

My father was a Methodist minister, and I begged to go see the organ. We were in a church where nobody but the organist could touch it. My mother never did anything that was questionable, but when the janitor would leave on Sunday afternoon, we would sneak in there and I would play the organ. The sound fascinated me.

Later in life I got to play Notre Dame. One of the best experiences of my whole life was when I took St. George’s choir to Europe on a tour, and we sang the Vierne “Messe Solenelle” at Notre Dame. Louis Vierne was the organist at Notre Dame, and composed that mass for the church. [Notre Dame’s] large, grand organ is in the back balcony, and there’s a small organ in the very front. Usually the choir is in the front, too. So he composed this so that the choir sings in the front, and I took a student to play the front organ, and one of Notre Dame’s organists played the back organ, where the sounds come after the beat [because of the large space]. In order to keep together, there was a signal light on the organ, so their choir organist pressed the signal light so we could keep the two organs together. Singing the “Kyrie” with my choir was the thrill of a lifetime.

Wilma Jensen's concert with St. Mark's Choir takes place on Sunday, March 6 at 5 p.m. It is free and open to the public. For more information, call 226-2426. The concert will be recorded by St. Mark's and broadcast on an upcoming "Performance Saturday" on KPAC and KTXI.