Don't mess with a soprano  

An unsung hero of music

Gladys Olson Klonteig and the organ have things in common. They make beautiful music weekly, and they have been around for a long time.

Gladys has been playing the organ for 72 of her 84 years.

OK, organs have been around slightly longer – since the third century BC.  Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria made the first organ called the Hydraulis. These were used throughout the Roman Empire as background music when gladiators fought and died for the amusement of the crowd.

Gladys’ love of this instrument started early. She was one of seven children who grew up on a grain-and-cattle farm outside Camrose, Alta. 

The four girls all studied the piano and organ; the three boys played guitars. There was always music around, but Gladys was the only one who continued a life-long dedication to music.

Her family owned a 1904 Estey Co. pump organ, a type of free-reed organ that generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame — called a reed. The organist needs to pump pedals to make sound.

“Why do you love the organ so much?” I asked. 

“I found that I could play everything that I learned on the piano, but it just sounded so much better, more exciting on the organ. I just loved the sound.”

This instrument was the centre of the family’s evening entertainment. On the farm, inspiration came from a farm publication, Western Producer. Each publication contained lyrics to the most popular songs, and the family would sing these songs while accompanied by the organ.

Gladys is known today for her classical playing, but in those days she learned to “play by ear” — an ability to hear music and be able to replicate it without any written music.

Her mom tried to teach her. “I was a bad student,” said Gladys with a wicked smile. “Mom quickly caught on to my bad ways.” 

She started formal lessons at eight. Mr. Schultzy would arrive at the farm by horse and carriage each week. He charged $8 a month, but most of the time he took his payment in milk and cream.

“I would hear the music and play it for my teacher not by reading what was written.” 

Today, she is still “naughty.” Members of Christ Lutheran Church love to listen to the same hymns that never sound exactly the same because she “knoodles” around. 

In the 1940s, every church had an organ. Organs, not pipe organs, were less expensive, took less room than a big upright piano, and were easier to move around. Their popularity helped Gladys become more proficient with her playing and accompanying.

Music, church, and family have made up the majority of her life. At 14, Gladys was the accompanist for the Skandia Lutheran Church in Armena, Alta. 

Gladys’ education and work was varied, but the constant in her life was her organ playing each Sunday.

At 16, she completed a commercial course for secretarial work, followed by her studies at the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, and Camrose Lutheran College. 

She worked short stints with the CNR in Camrose and Edmonton and was even a music programmer for CFCW Radio in Camrose. In 1957, she also started as a music student at the Jacob, Shean, and Morris Music School in Edmonton. She very soon was asked to teach piano there.

During this time, her brother kept pestering her to meet an accountant friend of his, Ken Klonteig. She did, and after many baseball and hockey games, in 1958, they married, had four children, Lori, Colleen, Kevin, and Kerry, and continued to be the organist at Central Lutheran Church in Edmonton for 15 years. 

In 1973, the family moved to Kelowna because they thought it would be a great place to live.  She has played for Christ Lutheran Church’s services for 47 years, and is still going.

While Gladys’s reputation as a fine organist grew, unfortunately, the popularity of this instrument was in a big decline because it is one of the most difficult instruments to master, they are huge, difficult to fix, and now churches prefer bands and pianos.

Gladys’s talent for accompanying singers has taken her to Holland with the International Choir for the 45th Anniversary of D-Day, and Carnegie Hall with Unity Choir in 2008.

In the early 2000s, she played for four choirs at Christ Lutheran Church each week.

Pipe organs, king of the organs, are rare. The oldest playable pipe organ, built around 1435, is in the Basilica of Valier in Sino, Switzerland. 

The largest one is in John Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia, Penn. 

In Kelowna, there is only one. It is more than 100 years old and can be heard at St. Michael and All Angels Cathedral, 608 Sutherland — during COVID by reservation only.

The organ, I’m happy to report, is having resurgence in appreciation and use. No, not in churches, but in hockey. 

While Gladys has never played for a hockey game, she did play for a motorcycle-gang wedding where the groom arrived on a motorcycle.

“I just love music and how the sound of the organ excites me to this day. I will play until I drop.  If just one person is moved by my playing, I will continue or until I can’t climb the stairs up to the organ loft.”

“It still sends shivers up my back,” Gladys said when asked if she still prefers the organ to the piano.

She is a remarkable woman in her quiet, unassuming way, using music as her personal ministry to help make the world a better place. 


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About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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