Moorhead woman celebrates 60 years at pipe organ with free concerts
By Natalie Denz
When it comes to music, few are as devoted and passionate as Susan Clambey of Moorhead. In addition to her musical gifts, she is incredibly kind and compassionate, using the talents that she has to give back to her community, youth, and the world. This year, Susan gave back by offering free concerts, marking her 60th year playing the pipe organ.
Susan first played the pipe organ at age 16. Since then, she has honed and developed her skills, playing in churches across the country. She considers her time spent at the organ “playing praise,” and she uses her playing to create deeper and more meaningful connections to church services, scripture, and music for others as well as herself.
“I try to match my music to the liturgical year, the seasons of the church, or if there are special occasions within the church, I’m trying to add to the worship experience so that it is unified and harmonious,” said Susan.
In addition to church services, Susan finds emotional and meaningful feelings simply through practicing the organ. “Even when I’m practicing it seems like a devotional experience, when I am playing it feels as though I am praising with every instrument on the organ.”
Playing the pipe organ for 60 years has led Susan to many different places. She has played in many churches, and on more than 60 different organs in seven different states including Minnesota, North Dakota, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, California, and Wisconsin. Her talents for the organ are in especially high demand in the Fargo-Moorhead area, where she is well known.
Susan is a member of the American Guild of Organists, Fargo-Moorhead Area Music Club, the Fargo-Moorhead Music Teachers Association, and The American Composer’s Forum. She was also the commissioned composer for the North Dakota Music Teachers Association in 2017.
Yet her proudest accomplishments have been the benefit concerts she has offered over the years. She gave a few concerts for her 50th anniversary of playing the organ, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, the World Hunger Fund, and local food pantries.
This year she conducted three benefit concerts, one in February benefiting the Alameda County food bank in California, one in March benefiting the Fargo-Moorhead Emergency Food Pantry, and the other in April benefiting Ukrainian relief efforts.
“I was really, really happy to be able to do something for Ukraine,” she said, “I just feel so devastated that there’s war going on in the world.”
Susan was able to raise more than $650 during her concert, and the First Lutheran Church of Fergus Falls matched her contribution. The money was given to Lutheran Disaster Response, where it will go directly to aiding the people of Ukraine.
Susan is as humble as she is talented, taking pride in simply giving back to her community through music. “Though it’s nice to hear that people think I’m playing beautifully and think that, it’s more for me about inspiring others and being inspired myself,” she said.
Susan got her start on the pipe organ thanks to Shirley Lee Sevig, a pipe organist in Fergus Falls with a degree from Julliard School of Music. “Every day after school, I would walk or get a ride to the church where I would practice for an hour and 45 minutes or two hours,” she said.
Her dedication paid off, and after about a year of playing the organ, Susan was able to give multiple performances in local churches. Before learning the pipe organ, Susan had already developed a deep appreciation for music.
“When I was young, I used to sit under the piano while my grandmother was playing, and I would sing,” she said. She considers her singing voice to be the first instrument she ever learned. As a child she was always singing, and by the time she reached third grade she was singing solos in the children’s choir. In second grade, Susan began taking piano lessons. She took piano lessons until tenth grade, then began playing the organ.
Beyond childhood, Susan continued to devote her life to music, majoring in Music Education at Concordia College in Moorhead. While at Concordia, she continued to study and practice the organ, as well as her vocal skills. She joined the Concordia Concert Choir, which had been a dream of hers since she first saw them perform in sixth grade. She was able to go on tour with the choir, where she got the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall.
After her time at Concordia, Susan taught music in various ways. She gave piano lessons for over 48 years, and taught music in public schools. During her time as a teacher, she made arrangements with the schools for small field trips. On those field trips she would take kids to a local church with a pipe organ and show them the pipes, explain how it worked, and demonstrate how it sounded. Susan did these demonstrations yearly for 20 years.
“I think that maybe somebody decided to like music because of the demonstrations, or maybe somebody decided if they ever had a chance they would want to try to learn the piano or the organ, so it was like an eye and an ear opener for them,” she said.
Given that her life was filled with music, Susan found it only natural that she begin composing music. She composed her first piece of music in high school. It featured a flute, piano, and singing. The combination of the three continues to be one of her favorite combinations of instruments, and she has composed many pieces with the trio of flute, piano, and vocals.
In addition, Susan has written about 70 original compositions since 1965 for a wide variety of instruments. A majority of her compositions are organ hymn tune settings, in which she reimagines current hymns and adjusts them for the organ and for certain moods and occasions.
Many of her compositions are vocal works, including eight pieces for children’s choir, six other choral anthems, and four praise songs for solo vocalists with accompaniment. For 40 years,
Susan has been a part of a women’s choir called “The Noteables” in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The Noteables have commissioned Susan four times to compose for chorus, piano, and flute. Susan has had other works commissioned, such as a piece commissioned for the 125th anniversary of Grace United Methodist Church in Moorhead. This piece, Come and Sing, Sing unto the Lord, was composed for a vocal choir, a handbell choir, and a pipe organ.
Her most recent composition is a flute quartet titled Peace and Joy, which was performed by a professional flute quartet called the Silver Winds, and had its world premiere last November.
What does she enjoys most about music? “Sharing my music has always been a way to spread some peaceful harmony in the world, whether 60 years ago, 30 years ago or today. I realize I’ve been blessed to have a musical gift, opportunities to develop and grow, reasonably good health, and some longevity. It has been easy to make decisions to share with the community. Sharing music brings me joy, while it also brings joy to others.”