Friday, October 4, 2013

Glamour Job

Being a church organist is not often thought of as a job for highly talented musicians. That's often a perception of musicians themselves as well as the public at large.

I once received a compliment from a visitor to our church who said that the music that morning was very fine. She went on to say that you don't often encounter churches with good music programs.

I've often gotten the impression that when I tell people I'm a church organist they form an opinion of my musical skills that isn't particularly flattering.

And why not? I happen to have a Doctorate in music in performance on the piano, and can be, and occasionally am, a concert pianist. Over the last several years I've tried to bring my organ playing up to match that. But although there are some extremely fine concert artists at some of the larger churches it is somewhat unusual to find one there. After all, there are thousands upon thousands of churches in America, most of them small or medium sized. And the jobs don't pay very well. How many really good musicians are there to go around and how many of them will want to have a job that pays so little and where the chief arguments are often over whether or not the organist should be listened to respectfully or talked over when he or she plays and whether or not it is actually sinful to pay them anything at all? And if you have to prepare at least three pieces each week and you know nobody is paying attention to them anyhow, you might not give them your best attention. Supposing you are a concert musician and you have a concert on Thursday. Which pursuit is likely to get the most attention?

Regardless of the church size and the salary size, churches are usually not looking for musical excellence in their musicians--it may even scare them. What they are looking for are people who will play the hymns and the anthems and the service music without complaint, who are easy to get along with and have positive attitudes, who work well with amateurs, are consistent and show up on time and basically get the job done with as little drama as possible. Some folks are afraid that a particularly good musician must necessarily have an attitude that will make it hard to deal with them. Not without some real life examples to back up that fear, regrettably.

There's a particularly funny (and painful) sketch Garrison Keillor did several years ago about a little church that strove for musical excellence "and it nearly killed us." They advertise for a music director and manage to hire folks like Stravinksy, Phillip Glass, and Aaron Copland, pretty much a who's who of the 20th century in music (I particularly remember a minimalist introduction to "Onward, Christian Soldiers" in which the pianist never manages to get to the second line). Each time the composer doesn't stay around long for some reason and the church ends up returning to their in-congregation back-up volunteer, Mrs. Palmquist.  Keillor sums her up after every one of her comebacks: "She was a good woman."

That is really an indictment on both the musician and the congregation, although Mr. Keillor paints his set-in-their ways, stubbornly average congregations in such humorously sympathetic ways that it is hard to fault them. And, after all, I may have all [musical] excellence and all [musical] knowledge, but if I have not love....

Still, excellence is something that can be achieved, and should be attempted in church. Part of this will depend on our definitions of excellence. And part of this will hinge on whether or not these pursuits are friends or enemies of what your congregation thinks they want. It is a curious dynamic, and I'll explore it in some of the coming blogs.


  1. The Garrison Keillor sketch, "Elim Lutheran", is from the May 15, 2004 episode:

    1. Thank you, sir. I've listened to it again. Still funny.


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