Friday, June 28, 2013

Who cares if you listen?

I've borrowed the title of Milton Babitt's controversial 1959 article to continue my discourse on the listening to organ music in church. Last week I attempted to mount a defense for why not talking over the music of the organist in a worship service can actually be a good thing, despite the prevailing rhetoric about organists with big egos simply trying to show off and wreck the whole spirit of the service if any attention is given to them for a few minutes.

But the issue gets complicated. Last week I stumbled across a remark made by a fellow organist with regard to a colleague of his who had played a Mendelssohn organ sonata in church that morning and wondered on Facebook if anyone had noticed. The organist commented on his blog something like "dude! They're not there to hear you."

I would like to suggest to organists like him, and pastors with similar attitudes that that is not a particularly effective way to support a colleague. Particularly as I think that the organist had probably done quite a bit of work (a Mendelssohn organ sonata is not easy) and was probably having a sort of crises wherein one wonders, after all of that, whether one's efforts have made any difference to anyone. There is a good chance, for example, that the organist (who may not be listed either in the church bulletin or on their website) is unable to list his or her musical selections anyplace that an interested congregant could know what the piece was, and was required to play to a room filled with people talking and moving about. When the music grew quiet it is quite possible (having had this experience myself) that the organist couldn't even hear the music themselves, never mind anyone else hearing it.

Human beings in general tend to have pretty large empathy deficiencies so it never hurts to explain how a thoughtless comment can be hurtful. In this case, the organist who made the comment was simply parroting rhetoric that he received from his superiors, rhetoric that, as is typical in such cases, is technically true, but is used in practice to put people "in their place." That is, it is true that the organist is not the point of the church service but not true that actually hearing their contributions to the service can have no use in worship.

But the organist who made the remark would also not have been capable of playing such a sonata (some Youtube postings made this clear) and it is worth noting that organists of lesser abilities often don't want to be listened to because it makes them nervous and they'd rather not deal with those nerves. In such cases the organist and a church which takes such an attitude of non-listening are well matched. Organists of the able-to-play-Mendelssohn type tend to prefer to deal with nerves. It isn't that we don't have them.

I in fact get nervous whenever I know I am being listened to. I have always assumed that was the price one paid for the privilege of sharing music with other people. It is not a fun experience quite often; nevertheless it is essential. For me, musical wallpaper can't engage you. Besides, it is such a privilege to hear and to play wonderful music like that--or it should be. Too bad many of us stumble through life like spiritual zombies. Part of the artist's job is to wake people up to the world around them. Which is easier to do when they pay attention. Have you seen Monty Python's "Life of Brian?" It's a bit like all those prophets shouting their messages in the city gates: nobody is listening. Seems a little defeating.

I would suggest to pastors and priests that they not treat their organists like the faucet in their kitchen which pours forth water when they turn it on but is otherwise not thought about much (except when it doesn't work) and instead support their organist by listening to the music, asking them to talk about the music, or put explanatory notes in the bulletin (:gasp:!) and take the opportunity to learn from a colleague who has specialized knowledge in a different area. Respect flows both ways, and it is more likely to come from those you treat as if they had important work to do on Sunday. Obviously this will also include playing for hymns and liturgy. But if your organist is talented it need not be limited to that. You won't want them to play a concert every week in church but you can certainly encourage them to use their gifts in the service of God. I think he created music as well as words.

Of course, pastors tend to be divided over the issue as well. Sometimes it is because those who are less gifted tend to be threatened by an organist who is getting attention of any kind; particularly if the congregation loved their musical selection that morning. I would suggest to an organist that they sometimes forego the opportunity to play something flashy exactly so things don't start to look like a popularity contest. There are plenty of wonderful musics that your congregation won't like all that well, but that are good for their musical (and spiritual) development. Keep that in mind as you strive for a balanced menu each week. And make a point of listening to your pastor's sermon as well!

*apparently my spell-checker needs to be educated in the importance of noticing organists as human beings as well. It thinks the term "organists" ought to be spelled "organisms." I tell you, we do exist! We are real creatures! With personalities (some of the time). And lives on the side, even.

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