Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why your organist is a cranky old guy


Imagine you show up for work one morning and someone is sitting at your desk and your boss says, “we’ve decided to go with somebody else for today. Come back tomorrow. Take the day off! Do something fun!” And then he beams like you should be glad for the vacation. “Do I get paid for my time off?” you ask. “uh, no.”

That may have happened to someone before, and it is, unfortunately, something like an abuse that church organists sometimes suffer. The way it works is somebody books the church for a wedding and then decides not to tell the pastor or the organist that they have hired somebody else to play the music. Sometimes they even decide to use another pastor.

When this happened at my church not that long ago the bride, in addition to deciding to use a different organist without telling anyone,  also decided to hire a few other musicians and schedule a rehearsal that went on for a few hours before the wedding rehearsal, so when I showed up to practice for Sunday I suddenly found myself out of an organ to do it on. This is after I had decided to let her go ahead with her bad manners and simply unhire me when we found out about her plans a few days before the wedding.  I’ve stopped being so ‘nice’ about those things now.

It’s called “right of refusal” and it is actually standard operating procedure in many churches including ours. The resident organist gets to play weddings (and/or be paid) unless permission is asked for and granted for another musician to do it. In case you are wondering why that should be necessary, there are a number of reasons, the first of which is that I would have put the wedding on my calendar and scheduled around it for months. If the bride tells me at the last minute (which is generally what happens) that I’m not needed—but do I really need to explain why that is a problem? Another is that extra services like these are often one way to supplement organist’s generally less-then-stellar salaries (churches can make this part of their “benefits” package in place of health care and other useless perks). The one about guest musicians damaging an instrument seems to me to be mostly baloney, although I suppose if somebody truly did not know what they were doing they might do some damage. It’s not likely, though. And a really good musician will know better than to reprogram your combination pistons and a poor one probably won’t know how to work them. Still, you never know what sorts of things will happen if you are out of the loop. As I mentioned above, it could unexpectedly cut into your practice time.  (I had to stay up rather late for a couple of days to get ready for services that weekend)

Most of this centers around courtesy and fair treatment and would not be hard for anyone to understand. However, some years ago at another church when I received absolutely zilch for playing a funeral I tried to explain to the pastor there why that was a problem and he said that he had done the funeral for free himself and didn’t see the difficulty. I think he forgot that he had a full salary and free housing from the church and that I was a graduate student getting along on $8,500 a year who had just driven halfway across town to get there and was probably missing practice, rehearsals, class, and whatever to be there. Things are not always equal.

I am well aware of the stereotype of the cranky organist, of the artistic prima donna who is temperamental, hard to get along with, not at all flexible, and just a pain in everyone’s existence.  It’s one reason I’ve not said much over the years when, for example I’ve gotten unhired for a wedding an hour before the ceremony or had to play for half pay because the bride thought I was getting too much (I’ve never gotten anything close to what the American Guild of Organists recommends, by the way)--both these incidents happened at previous churches. Unfortunately, sometimes those stereotypes are well-deserved. Recently I was on some organist forums online and witnessed some of that lack of respect. Organists who kept complaining about people talking through their preludes told with glee how they never listened to the pastor’s sermons, or kept referring to their clergy as “his nibs” (which is a term of disrespect they use in England). Some of these organists had legitimate gripes it appeared, but they certainly got their backs up pretty fast, and often did not seem to be very good at returning the respect they demanded from everyone else. These folks are not helping the cause any, I thought.

And so I try to tread carefully. But when someone who knows the rules is clearly trying to sneak around them, I get tired of it after a while. And I find myself getting older, and meaner. No more Mr. Nice guy. If you honestly were confused about our church policy, that would be one thing. But when people lie, I’ve found, they generally lie dumb. They always through in a few details that are supposed to make their case for them but actually give them away.  And it is this sneaking around that really gets my goat.

For when I am actually asked I have never yet denied my permission to let someone else use the organ or the piano and have surrendered my fee.  It is my right not to do this, but I like to be generous, and not territorial or overly protective. Some days I'm not sure if there is much difference between that and being a doormat. And I think that eventually I'm just going to turn into a protective, argumentative old cuss who is always complaining about his rights being violated. There is much power in letting things go, and 10 to 1 somebody is going to do something to upset you every day. Forbearance is golden, sometimes. But I can understand why it is in short supply with some people. And when we look at some of these cranky old veterans of the organ, let's not assume they were born that way. Maybe some of the rest of us had something to do with it. Just perhaps.

Fortunately I have a very supportive staff which has realized the importance of standing up for their organist. And, as incidences such as this one have piled up over the years, we are constantly trying to emphasize the language which is clearly spelled out in our wedding book given to every couple (if only they would read it!) and keep these things from happening again.

In the end it is important for another reason. We are a church, not a rental hall. It is the tendency of some of us, particularly at weddings, to think that everyone should give us whatever we want and that there are no procedures to follow. But we do have a pastor, an organist, a staff, and we are not simply a building for hire. We are responsible to each other and to our congregation, just as persons getting married here, whether members of our own congregation or people we’ve never seen before who think we have a pretty sanctuary, have both expectations and responsibilities to us. Persons starting out on a relationship of such importance need to be skilled in responsibility and caring for each other, not simply themselves. And it’s never too early to practice.



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