By Lauren Klees
Of all the weddings for which Barbara Rockwood played the organ during the past six decades, one stands out in particular. It was the service at Heritage Congregational Church when, during her playing of "The Lord's Prayer," the minister's robe was set on fire by a candle. One of the guests was a former fire chief in that community, who had the training and presence of mind to rip the flaming garment off the bewildered clergyman, stomped out the flames, and saved the minister from injury.
"The whole wedding party stood paralyzed as embers landed on their dresses. It was a scary situation," says Rockwood. Once the fire was put out, Rockwood and the soloist finished the last part of "The Lord's Prayer."
While hardly typical of her career as an organist, this incident is one of the countless memories she has of a life filled with music. Many people come to understand their life's purpose in adulthood, but few are blessed to learn their calling during their youth. Now age 79, Barbara Rockwood, a Whitworth student from 1946 to 1948, discovered her gift as an organist when she was a child.
What has made her career rich has been her college education, traveling throughout the United States, and having the privilege of playing in churches and teaching the organ.
Rockwood grew up in a musical home, and became interested in music at an early age. "I was born wanting to play," Rockwood says. Growing up, she witnessed the joy her family experienced while performing music.
Rockwood became captivated with the organ because she loved the way it sounded in church. While her father, a Presbyterian minister, taught her the value of words in relation to music, Rockwood's mother, a church organist, began to train her daughter how to play the piano at age 3. Then, when she was 12, Rockwood started organ lessons. "I was surrounded by good musicians my whole life," says Rockwood.
Rockwood's calling began to unfold when her father took her to the General Assembly in Seattle. "As I heard 1,000 men singing beautiful hymns in full voice, in the huge Presbyterian Church, I was filled with awe at the majesty and power of music. That experience solidified my desire to become a church musician," says Rockwood.
Rockwood continued to play the organ in her teenage years. When in high school, Rockwood played the organ at Manito Presbyterian Church in Spokane. Her salary was $40 a month.
On one particular day at Manito, when Rockwood was a teenager, her mother played a hymn for a Sunday service. As the two women set their hands to the organ, they began playing in two different keys. Rockwood remembers her father yelling, "Stop the music!" Though she might have been embarrassed at the time, Rockwood laughs today.
While working at Manito Presbyterian Church in her early 30s, Rockwood recalls the time a custodian had put too much polish on the organ bench. When she sat down to play during the Sunday morning service, she slid off the side of the bench, barely avoiding falling on the floor.
After high school, Rockwood knew she wanted to flourish as an organist, so in 1946 she enrolled in music classes at Whitworth College. Music Professor Anna Jean Carrell encouraged Rockwood's love of the organ.
"She emphasized our strong points and challenged us to improve," says Rockwood. "She exuded a love for music. She was supportive of all her students, encouraged us, took care of us and nurtured us," adds Rockwood.
Rockwood says Carrell, who had traveled extensively, brought a strong liberal arts perspective to her music classes. She made the curriculum dramatic and exciting, Rockwood recalls, integrating music, architecture, art and sculpture into her teaching. "We had no TV or computers," says Rockwood, yet Carrell took pains to emphasize visual connections to music. "She gave us a wonderful vision of art in general," she adds. Though she enjoyed her time at Whitworth, Rockwood found it was time to move on.
In 1948, Rockwood transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle because of its renowned organ department. While attending the university, she gained more experience as an organist at Green Lake Lutheran and Sand Point Community Methodist Church. She also was the minister of music at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst, Wash., where she was organist and conductor of the church's three choirs. Rockwood graduated with her bachelor of music degree in 1951.
She then pursued another degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester New York where she received her master's degree in 1952. She chose Eastman because she had heard it was the finest university in the country.
In l952 Rockwood was recommended by Eastman School of Music for the combined position of minister of music and director of Christian education at the request of First Presbyterian Church in East Aurora New York. She accepted the position that fall. She says, "My classes in Bible and Christian education at Whitworth gave me the background I needed." She planned and played for the worship services, directed the choral programs, and gave recitals. She got involved in the church by leading Bible studies and young adult fellowship groups.
In the 1970s, Rockwood was honored to perform the Organ Concerto, by Poulenc, a French composer, with the Eastern Washington University orchestra.
Most recently, Rockwood filled in at Manito Presbyterian and at First Presbyterian Church in 2000. Rockwood soon accepted a position at Saint David's Episcopal Church where she played until December 2007.
Rockwood recently retired because of her painful arthritis and no longer plays the organ regularly. But she continues to witness the fruits of her decades of teaching piano and pipe organ to students who now serve as church musicians all over the country. "The knowledge gained and the strong Christian beliefs given to me by the exceptional professors at Whitworth College continue down through the years," says Rockwood. "Those musicians are now passing on the wonderful message of Christian faith in music."