Back in the 1960s, while a student at Oak Bay High, Kathleen Edge rose early Saturday mornings to work at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. For a natural late-riser whose lively time is evening, that was tough. Yet Kathleen persisted for years, paying her way through university, and the ethic of hard work has never left her: it was only this year that she retired from one career with the provincial public service to concentrate on her other one, as organist at St. Andrew's Cathedral.
Kathleen began her music career as a singer, performing in musicals and taking organ lessons while singing in the choir at Metropolitan United Church in Victoria. Meanwhile, she became qualified as an office secretary, obtained a BA with a double major in Geography and Psychology and topped that off with a Teaching Certificate. All this put her in good stead to teach Music and Social Studies to junior high students, and she also found time to become a licensed realtor. But through all this, her first love was music.
"Actually I came late to music," says Kathleen. "I took up an instrument as an adult - but it's never too late. To me, music is a calling."
Although Kathleen began with singing, the loudest call came from the pipe organ, named by Mozart the "king of instruments." First used in 14th century Catholic services, a church organ may have over 10,000 pipes and three or four keyboards, or manuals, with five octaves (61 notes) each, and a two-and-a-half octave (32-note) pedal board. It helps to have played piano, but learning the organ is much more demanding.
"Your eyes span a bigger range of notation on the page," she says, “and your feet are dancing on the pedals, hands and feet all working independently," which is a real workout for the back and legs.
"You've got an orchestra at your fingertips," says Kathleen, which the organist activates by deciding on the registration, meaning choosing what stops to pull out to bring the air into the pipes (hence the familiar term "pulling out all the stops.")
Kathleen earned her master's degree in music from UBC in 1986, at the same time, acting as organist at St. Catherine's Anglican Church in Vancouver and commuting to her government job in Victoria. For her bachelor of music degree at UVIC, she had already produced a thesis on historic pipe organs in B.C. In 1983, she received a Canada Council Grant to research organs across Canada, making her a national expert.
Meanwhile, she spent 28 years with the provincial government, the majority as Co-ordinator of Adjudications in the Ministry of Education. The travelling involved with her job dovetailed detours to historic organs throughout Eastern Canada and the U.S.
About six years ago, Kathleen began as organist at St. Andrew's Cathedral, after 18 years at First Baptist. "The hiring process was more demanding than for any of my government or teaching jobs," she says. And the demands remain: co-ordinating with clergy and choir to create a program that follows the liturgical year, accompanying soloists and mastering compositions required for weddings, funerals and special festivals.
"At the moment, it's the Crown Imperial March by William Walton," she laughs nervously. Since it was played at Will and Kate's royal wedding, this is everybody's new request. From spring to fall, there is often a wedding or two per weekend at St. Andrew's.
There are about 12 pipe organs in Victoria, mostly played by men. "It used to be a man's instrument," says Kathleen, although more women play now. It is not attracting many young musicians, however. "It's a hard sell for recitals. We've been trying to get young people at the Conservatory of Music to choose organ, but where are they going to practise?"
Churches closely guard their organs – they’re expensive instruments. Sensitive to heat and cold, they require tuning about four times a year. Kathleen's opportunity to learn the organ came up unexpectedly, but she grabbed it and has never looked back - except by rear view mirror. The organist faces away from the congregation and uses mirrors to follow the service, while simultaneously keyboarding, pedal pumping and pulling stops. The results sound stirring or ethereal to the listener, but the organist produces them through plain non-ethereal hard labour - and, of course, skill.
Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to make a first love one's career. Kathleen Edge decided, as the age of 60 hove into view, now was the time to focus on the career that mattered most. For someone who has habitually done several, it is a novelty. She still has to wake early on weekends, but she has climbed to where she wants to be - literally: each day she ascends the long winding historic staircase into the roof at the back of St. Andrew's to unleash the soaring harmonies of Bach, Handel and the moderns.
"It's like riding a powerful motorcycle (something else Kathleen used to do) on a wide open stretch of road with no one else around. You let out the throttle and feel that thrilling build-up of power and speed - that's what playing the organ is like, there's no feeling like it." Not a comparison that would come immediately to mind, yet it makes sense: the crescendo of sound, the complex soaring power unleashed by hands and feet. No doubt Mozart, were he still alive in the age of machines, would understand.
Advent Carol Service,St. Andrew's Cathedral,Blanshard and View,Friday, December 9th, 7:30 p.m.
DECEMBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND