Friday, November 15, 2013

A union of opposites

I've been writing and thinking about what does and does not constitute a good church musician. Last week I dared suggest that having a personality and/or an ego wasn't all a bad thing, despite everything I've ever read on the topic. The point wasn't to encourage self-centered attention grabbing on Sunday mornings, but to suggest that having to be mediocre in everything so as not to be noticed was not a very good solution, and that there are ways both to be excellent in what you do and even be noticed for it that need not be interpreted as interfering with the larger picture. As beautiful as stained glass is, it needs to have light shining through it in order to accomplish its purpose. On the other hand, there is something uniquely beautiful about the rays of light being refracted through all the ornate glass. Get it?

Something else that Mr. Nevin, our guest from last week, said, is this: that too many people use church positions to advance their careers. and become puffed up from holding such important positions. I found this rather amusing, because I never thought of having a church job as an indication that one is a great musician. Perhaps this is because there are so many of them (churches), and all but the largest generally do not have great music programs. Instead, in Bach's day as well as our own, the best, and often most career driven musicians head for the concert hall or the university, and leave the church to founder on its own.

As a musician of both the concert hall and the church, however, I have to say that very often what I do on Sunday morning is actually more challenging than giving a concert. The concert arena may be more prestigious, but the challenges of a Sunday morning require, at least in my set of circumstances, a greater variety of skills in order to do the job well.

First there are a number of skills which I learned at the conservatory. I learned how to practice and prepare sometimes difficult music quickly and well, to play accurately, fluently and musically, from the attack on the first note to the silence after the last, to pay attention to detail, to balance the parts, to listen to the sound and make constant adjustments so that the musical though was clearly articulated, stylistically accurate, emotionally satisfying, and sometimes viscerally exciting. This applies to playing on one's own as well as with others. It requires both technique and understanding, disciplined and thoughtful preparation and being in the moment.

Then there are a number of things that I did not learn at the conservatory. I have learned to create my own music, on the spot, and on reflection, sometimes writing it down. When I am improvising with others I listen to what they are doing and try to compliment it rather than getting in the way, taking the lead at times and following at others. I can play pieces in different keys if the soloist can't get up to that high G that morning. I can add a beat or a measure if the singer(s) didn't come in on time, probably so nobody will notice. I may have to add a few measure to the morning prelude if the acolytes didn't get started on time or communion took longer than we thought it would. If the offertory is in one character and the doxology is in another I try to make an introduction to the doxology that transitions smoothly between them. If the choir is in fine voice I let them sing a verse of the hymn with little or no accompaniment, adjusting my part as my theological imagination and the sureness of the singing allow.

Basically, there are two major areas going on here that do not apply in the concert hall. One relates to working with amateurs, for which there are any number of useful skills which really require a high level of musical understanding so that you can bring out the best in people of widely differing ability, and so that everyone, regardless of their skill, sounds better with your help. You can achieve this subtly. The other is that because of issues of timing and because there are so many different kinds of music required in each service, one has to continually be thinking, making decisions during the serice itself. Playing a concert, as highly skilled as you have to be, can in essence be a replication of decisions you have already made about how you are going to approach the music. You can't get through a church service that way. What ends up happening is that you have to plan ahead as well as you can, know your stuff, and then know how to deal with all manner of predictable and unpredictable situations that continually call on you to make it up as you go. You have to have something to contribute and you have to listen to what everyone else is contributing and help them to do it well. This calls for a combination of skills that deal with the written note and the unwritten note, creativity and re-creativity. It is a union of what seem to be opposing skills, particularly when one considers that the nature of each of them is to make it unnecessary to have recourse to the others (for instance, planning well seems as though it would leave nothing to chance and no room to improvise; planning to improvise does just the opposite!) and yet, when one's best efforts in one direction inevitably break down, there are the other skills to prop you, and everyone else, up.

I realize I've said enough in the last paragraph to introduce about 50 blogs on the topic, and eventually, I'd like to do just that. In the meantime, I'll finish up with a little anecdote.

This summer we had a guest pastor. I was trying to be helpful before the service and pointed out to him that ordinarily on weeks that we have communion (as we did that Sunday) we only sing one hymn; however, probably by mistake, all three appeared in the bulletin. However, I told him I was not only flexible but was ok with last minute decisions. So if you'd like to sing the hymn, just announce it. You can decide right at the time, I told him. If you announce it, I'll play it, and if you don't announce it, I won't play it.

Well, about a minute before the hymn, as the liturgist is reading the scripture at the other lectern, the pastor whispers over to me, "let's not do the hymn." ok, I said. I closed the hymnal. I was this close to leaving the organ bench to join my wife for the upcoming sermon. Then the liturgist announced the hymn!

One of the skills I forgot to include above is that it helps to be able to play hymns from memory. Or, failing that, to be able to play with one hand while finding the hymn with the other. Or, you can just make sure you talk to the liturgist before the service, if you can find them in time! There is generally more than one solution. But they don't always work, which is why you always have to be thinking ahead to plan B, and, for heaven's sake, have a good time with it!

Doesn't this sound like something you'd like to do on a Sunday morning? Believe me, you'll never be bored. Not if you're doing it well.


  1. Couldn't agree more with this. I've recently started playing the organ for Mass at the church I serve, and one of the many things I enjoy about it is the spontaneity and having to work with so many people.

    For example, you can't really predict how many verses of a particular hymn you'll be playing. Or maybe the music director will want something done differently. Case in point: for the Responsorial Psalm last week, my music director wanted me to add an imperfect cadence to the response. So I had to adjust on the fly, which was fun. Naturally, during the actual Mass, I forgot about transiting from chord I to chord V, so my fellow choristers were reminding me.

    Another important thing is that, as organists, we must never overpower the choir and congregation. Like what you wrote, a lot of times I take cues from the choir, music director, and cantor. If its a mellow piece, for instance, during the second verse I'll provide minimal accompaniment, before returning to the full plenum on the final verse. I'm not there to show off my musical prowess, how well I memorised the pedal lines, my ingenuity at reharmonising the hymns, my creativity with various organ registrations. I'm there to provide musical accompaniment to the choir and congregation via the skills God has given me, and I hope I do so for a long, long time.

    1. I hope so, too, Terence. Thanks for the observations. Also looks like I should check my comments more often! (I had the flu the day you posted this but it has now been 6 weeks. woops!) Glad folks like you are out there.


I don't bite...mostly.