CRYSTAL LAKE – When Barbara Thorsen first sat behind an organ at First Congregational Church she barely knew how to turn it on let alone play it.
Sixty years later, she is being celebrated by the Crystal Lake congregation for the original arrangements and mastery of hymns she continues to produce for the church to this day. The longtime organist will be celebrated with concerts on Saturday and Sunday – both starting at 4 p.m. – that feature performances by church choirs, professional and amateur soloists and Thorsen.
Before she sat behind the keys for the first time in 1953 at the church, Thorsen earned a degree in piano performance and composition from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. She used those skills in Chicago jazz bands and dance schools before starting a family inspired her to slow down and give a church organ a try.
"The keyboard looks the same, but the touch, the feel, is much different," Thorsen said of first switching to organ. "When I look back and think of how I used to play at the beginning, they've put up with a lot."
Those listening in the congregation only know Thorsen has given a lot, contributing to more than 150 productions, concerts and cantatas and pulling double duty nearly every Sunday to cover both services.
She has become one of the church's most influential figures, forming the sound and songs that have connected congregations through the decades that included seven different pastors.
Ann Tucker knows the influence and importance of Thorsen's work well. Thorsen was the organist at Tucker's baptism in 1971, and now the two work closely with each other as Tucker took charge as the church's music director in 2006.
Tucker said Thorsen is as sharp as ever and still practices two to three hours a day in preparation for concerts, even if she has played the tunes before.
"I went through all the choir programs here starting when I was 4, so she's been Mrs. Thorsen to me for a long time," Tucker said of the transition to a working relationship with her teacher. "She has so much experience and knowledge and her resilience and dedication is inspiring."
Both women said selecting songs for the celebration concerts this weekend has been one of their most enjoyable collaborations. An especially meaningful song to Thorsen that will be performed is "Ever Journeying Friend." The hymn was composed by her daughter – a professional composer in New York – for the church in 1992 and has become a congregation staple.
While the concerts will be a welcomed change for Thorsen, she has no plans of leaving the bench in the coming Sundays thanks in part to the motivation to challenge herself and expand that former music director Eva Wedel and now Tucker have provided, Thorsen said.
"Well I don't know if you want to write this but my plan is to keel over these keys," Thorsen said with a laugh. "I feel very fortunate that at my age I feel as good as I do. I don't feel old at all."
The concerts are open and free to the public. Organizes encourage people to arrive early as they expect standing room-only crowds.