From the moment she arrived on the bench, the diminutive octogenarian was in complete command of the instrument. As a way to celebrate her 80th birthday, world-renowned organist, educator, composer, arranger, conductor and Emerita, dazzled the full house on March 8, 2009. The stories of her life accomplishments could fill many volumes, but the behind the scenes story is the one which will inspire many of us for the rest of our lives.
As a young freshman organ and choral major at The University of Tennessee, I witnessed the buzz around the music department when Wilma Jensen was coming to do a master class. At that time I didn’t recognize her name, but the anxiety and over-functioning of the many professors foreshadowed the coming of someone special. Once I experienced her professional skills, her depth of knowledge and her extraordinary techniques, I better understood their awe.
Now, 35 years later, I once again sit in awe. Although I have grown used to her special talents over the years since I was able to be a part of her music ministry, I was now honored to witness such an amazing part of her personal history.
In 2000, Dr. Wilma Jensen retired from her life passion. As a long-time organ teacher, former tenured professor of music at Indiana University, Oklahoma City University, Scarritt-Bennett Graduate School and Choirmaster Emerita at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN, complicated health issues made it impossible for her to continue the demanding schedule she had kept for decades, particularly at the level of excellence she required of herself and anyone who was fortunate enough to work or study with her.
At that time, Dr. Jensen had to sell her home, move into an assisted living facility and was going through a very difficult regimen of treatment when she took a terrible fall and broke her back, pelvis and two hips. On top of her already difficult health situation, two surgeries were completed, all but assuring she would never be able to return to the life she had once known. Jensen described this time as very difficult and what the heroic journey might identify as the “dark night of the soul”.
Those of us who had known her were nearly inconsolable as we saw the professional life of such a talented musician come to such a sudden and tragic end. It wasn’t difficult to see ourselves in her story. “What happens
to me when I can no longer do what I love?” Many of her followers had given her up for dead, not necessarily because of the health issues, but worried about the death of her spirit in no longer being able to make music. When “Wilma” was not able to find her own spark, some loving admirers were determined to keep her going. She had clearly hit a Belly of the Whale period, which we will all experience in some form or fashion. It is a place of surrendering, sometimes to those things we hold most dear. Once we face our greatest fears and find the deepest wells of courage, we also find the will to keep going.
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1
While recoverying from surgery, friends, students and other musicians came to her side to give support. One, in particular, asked if Dr. Jensen would help her. As Jensen was comfortable doing, being a teacher and mentor, she began to meet with the young musician once a week. This act of helping another was the very thing which began to give life back to the natural educator. When asked what kept her going, she reflected that the musical discipline she developed by the age of 12, helped her to keep going in the face of the this new challenge.
She stated she always had a sense of where she needed to grow, and would methodically tackle her weaker skills. This played out in every area of her life.
There were people among her many admirers who valiantly searched for new doctors who might bring a glimmer of hope, not only to Dr. Jensen, but to her community. Even if she was ready to accept the next stage of her life, the community wasn’t. Many clearly understood the importance to Jensen’s ability to worship life through her ability to make music. It was integral part of her life spirit.
As she worked, weekly, with her new student, she began to get the emotional and physical energy to practice her music. Soon, she began to have people drive her to the church where she was now Emerita status, and then she began to drive herself. Nine years later, Dr. Jensen is playing a recital to commemorate her 80th birthday and an extraordinary journey. Without conscious intention, her program on that special day represented the music of the heroic journey. She opened the program with a familiar CALL TO ADVENTURE, something most people recognize: Toccata and Fugue in d Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. There were many complex and appropriate heroic works, such as Caesar Franck’s Piece Heroique. In the middle of the program, she dedicated Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, the piece first played at the announcement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s passing. The audience was asked to take a moment of silence in memory of those whom we had lost. Considering her story, perhaps it represented the mourning of unlived dreams she experienced when she thought her life of musical service was over. Then, The Fountain – by Eric Delamarter – which announced an awakening of spirit, much like her own. Following was a reclaiming joy and power piece, Meditation a Ste. Clotilde by Nashvillian composer Philip James and she ended with the triumphant Widor Symphony. As if the celebration wasn’t enough at this point, her encore was Gabriel’s Oboe from the movie, “The Mission” an exquisite piece that has always been personally symbolic to me of the sound the heart makes when breaking open with pure joy or pain. Which pain and joy collide, the breaking open creates transformation. On this very special day, we were all witnessing a transformation of someone held in such high regard. Dr. Jensen was showered by the love and admiration though a standing ovation, sobs and shredded Kleenexes around the large sanctuary. We had been changed forever by the 80 year old powerhouse.
Heroes return to life with a wisdom and depth which simply cannot be read in a book, rather an experience to be lived. In the process of returning, the hero returns with a profound message about our life. Whether the lessons are to not give up, to fight for what we hold dear or to accept the next step with grace and gratitude, there is always the opportunity for transformation. Although all able to come back from the belly of the whale period to reclaim their life passion, there is always an impact. Wilma’s increased ease, humor and playfulness when speaking to the audience showed a wisdom which was not apparent before 2000, when the undertow of her work was tinged with anxiety and perfectionism. She has moved from a driven professional to a passionate disciple and seemed more at peace than I had ever witnessed.
The heroic journey is not limited by age or great health. At the age of nearly 80 and a half, she has new goals and dreams. She is now planning on making teaching DVDs, has many more concerts to give and students to inspire. After being moved by a book about Tiger Woods called, In Every Kid There Lurks a Tiger, Jensen wishes to continue teaching in order to enable to “release their soul into music.” Dr. Jensen is continuing to do master classes at Eastman School of Music, Julliard, Curtis, Westminster Choir College and recitals in Paris and Germany. On September 29, 2009, she plays a recital at Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, MN, for which she stated, “For this I was born.”
For more information and discography about Dr. Wilma Jensen, please go to www.wilmajensen.com
Footnote: Dr. Jensen will be turning 85 years old in March 2014 and is still touring, teaching master classes and performing concerts. She now has a DVD out. Check out her website above and see if she is coming to your area. You will hold your breath in awe at her talent (and inspiration). If you are not in the Nashville area on March 2, 2014, you may tune into the live stream at 4:00 pm (Central) at www.stgeorgesnashville.org You won't regret it!