Music & Survival: One Handed Organist Comes to Sag Harbor

Posted on 26 July 2012

In the summer of 2003, organist Mark Thallander was driving from Wooster, Mass. to Ogunquit, Maine when it started to rain. Storm really — one of those gales distinct to summer in New England. Visibility was limited, and Thallander missed his exit and took the next one.
That’s when the car rolled over, several times. The driver’s side window gave out, and Thallander’s left arm jerked out of the car, and, as the vehicle rolled over, was dislocated from his shoulder.
Thallander doesn’t remember everything that happened after that. He remembers that the windshield was red — doctors would later tell him that he had lost 50 to 70 percent of his blood. He remembers the paramedics saying, “We don’t know how we’re going to get him out of here.” And he remembers signing an amputation release form, even as he told them that his profession — his art — required him to keep both of his arms.
Then the anesthesia hit, and Thallander was taken into surgery.
When he woke up, Thallander says now, he could feel his left arm. So even as the nurse told him that they had amputated it, he didn’t understand. It was a phantom sensation (they continue to plague him to this day) and the nurse called over a pastor who Thallander was staying with to explain what had happened during the surgery.
At that moment, the already accomplished organist thought he would never play again. And yet, this Sunday, Thallander will perform with Andrew McKeon at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor.
Took to the organ early on
Thallander was a fifth grader in Stockton, Calif. when his parents won an organ for a month — four free lessons included. He took to it, and so, when the month was over and the organ was returned, he was sad to see it go. But his parents had a suitable replacement in mind.
“I came home from school and I was pretty upset, and then the next day I came home and a piano was there,” he said.
He started learning the piano and didn’t have another run in with an organ until high school, when the organist at his church went on vacation. Thallander played instead, but it wasn’t until his junior year of college that he realized he wanted to pursue the instrument full-time.
After he graduated, he went on to receive a masters in music education — getting a job at the megachurch that would ultimately become known at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. near the tony Laguna and Newport Beach communities.  He worked first as a member of the television production crew for the church broadcast, but was given a break when an assistant organist left and the church needed someone to fill in.
Thallander’s career at the Crystal Cathedral went on for 18 years. Over that time, he ascended the ranks, eventually becoming the cathedral’s associate director of music. It was an administrative role, but he would also conduct the ministry’s choir when the director of music was out of town.
He left the church in 1983, and worked around the country, eventually landing on the music faculty of Vanguard University in southern California.
After car crash, support
The week after Thallander’s accident was tumultuous. At one point, the morphine pump he was using malfunctioned, and gave him a nearly fatal dose of the pain medication.
While he was in the hospital, Thallander’s father died in California. Because he couldn’t travel, he had to listen in to the private funeral through a cell phone a relative had placed on the pulpit.
But he knew that when he returned to his home state, there would be a public memorial service.
“I knew I wasn’t ready to face that public yet,” said Thallander. And so he began doing physical therapy in Maine, staying with a pastor friend of his. That’s when the music started to arrive.
Composers who had worked with Thallander started sending him pieces that were arranged for two feet — and right hand. Suddenly, it seemed as though he might play again.
“I was told that there would be a season of grief and a time of anger,” he said, “but I moved right through that because of all the support I was receiving and the positive encouragement I was getting.”
After Thallander recovered, he returned to California and asked another organist if he could play with her. When she went to her office to get some tape, he tried playing. He was able to, albeit by using a few different stops than he would have before his accident.
Then, his friends organized a concert in his honor that brought together a massive volunteer choir — and the Mark Thallander Foundation was born. Since then, the organization has put on choir festivals around the country and in Canada, giving amateur singers the chance to sing in a festival environment they might not be able to experience otherwise.
And Thallander has gotten back to performing — thought he’s had to make some adjustments to accommodate his different needs. Usually, he performs with another musician so that he can rest his right arm while they play a solo piece.
“I know now what my limits are,” he said.
Still, Thallander is happy that he can play, even if those limits are there.
“There were two times when I almost died, and when I look back on it those times give me strength because I’m still here and even though I’m limited in what I can do, I still have a job to do.”
And that’s the job he’ll do on Sunday, when he and organist Andrew McKeon perform at Old Whalers’. Thallander said that while the program will feature traditional organ pieces, the performers will also involve the audience by including some hymns for the whole congregation to sing.
Thallander said he had not met McKeon, the organist at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Center Moriches, until this month’s National Organ Historical Society convention in Chicago. He said he approached him and told him, “You look like your picture.”
“He’s a delightful young man and will add a youthful vigor,” said Thallander.
Mark Thallander and Andrew McKeon will perform on Sunday, July 29 at Old Whalers’ Church, 44 Union Street, Sag Harbor, at 3 p.m. Admission is $10.

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