Friday, November 8, 2013

Another blog from your mild mannered church organist

A few weeks ago, I began to explore the role and/or function of the church organist. The issue was quality, or the decided lack thereof, in many church music programs, and the culprits were not only the average ability of the persons in charge of the music (can't be helped, in some cases) but also the attitudes of even those who could, if they really worked at it, bring some very fine music making to bear upon what is, theoretically, kind of an important place to be offering your best every week.

But there are other forces at work in this area. In addition to things that would not normally call forth either the best qualified persons, nor their best efforts, such as a very low salary, sub-par instruments, and the expectation that the organist will not play anything too fancy or too noticeable, there has often been this lovely idea floating around. It comes from a book on organ registration from nearly a century ago:

"In the work of the services of the church the student should at once realize that the organ cannot and must not be used as a solo instrument, for the obtrusion of personality is contrary to the spirit of things ecclesiastical; the organist must in this phase of his work be willing to submerge himself and his personal claims for attention as a performer, contenting himself with the knowledge that those among his listeners whose opinions he values will appreciate him at his true worth even though his service be characterized by the utmost degree of self-effacement."

                                                                      --Nevin, A Primer on Organ Registration, 1919, p. 47

The italics are mine, as is this reaction--I hope you don't mind a little vulgarity--what a bunch of horse-huey!

Actually, Mr. Nevin's book is fairly useful, and his judgement generally sound, but I happen to find extreme statements like those I marked to be very annoying. I am hardly someone who those who know me would characterize as a prima donna. I fit quite comfortably, and enjoyably, in a group, as a accompanist, as a listener, as a person who will get coffee for someone else, only there are times when I feel that I--or, more likely, the composer of the music I am playing--have something of value to say, and it seems to me that it ought to be said. And that generally requires the attention of the assembled multitudes. That never seems to bother anyone else, such as the pastor, the liturgist, the person reading the announcements, and so on, so why, down through the ages, prohibitions on simply the role of the organist? And if I have a unique way of saying what I'm saying--well, did God create us to be interchangeable automatons, or not? ("I wanted to get a lobotomy, but apparently those are illegal now, so I guess I just can't be a church organist. Sigh.")

This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't church musicians with big egos. I've met a number of them myself. So when I write about something like this I feel like I'm in the middle of one of life's innumerable battlefields, and I can see folks shooting at each other from both sides and frankly I don't really feel that comfortable championing either army. The difficultly I have with Mr. Nevin's well-represented side of things is that this is an example of how the church chooses to deal with the question of persons with overactive self-aggrandizement glands, which is to state, categorically, that humility is the best option, always and everywhere, and that pride, or personality, or even ego, are, always and everywhere, very very very very bad. So rather than trying to develop those tendencies so that they can be used to serve others, you should just suppress them and pretend you are someone else, preferably someone anonymous.

Did you catch what he said about the "obtrusion of personality," as if it were a bad thing to be who you are because--I don't know--you are in church now, and God might find out? That you have a personality, I mean.

And the bit about the "utmost self-effacement." Why do you suppose the word utmost is in there? Is it because it just takes that degree of extremity to get the point across to some of our more egotistical musicians? If it is, if it does, than I'll sign off on it. But really, just how self-effacing do we need to be?

Because, in reality, church organist is a leadership position. You have to lead people in worship on a Sunday morning. You have to set the tempo for the hymn, and the character, make it obvious when it is time to sing, not miss your cues when it is time for a sung response, keep going through any mistake you make so it does not derail the whole assembled body--you have to be able to make musical decisions and make them now and make them obvious. And if you are so meek and mild that you are afraid to do these things, you probably are not going to make a very effective organist.

You might, however, make a member of the congregation! Mr. Nevin says somewhere else:

…”Most untrained singers are literally afraid of the sound of their own voices and before they can be persuaded to attempt singing must be made to feel that there is sufficient volume from organ and choir to make it unlikely that their individual voices will be heard all over the church!”

I should have saved that quote for another article on congregational singing. The truth of the matter is that we need persons--singers, speakers, candle-lighters--who are not afraid to step in and step up when it is time to fulfill their function, and a little bit of personality isn't a bad thing, as is the courage to know that it is time to do what you are doing and if it isn't you are just going to have to laugh about it later because the church is not going to completely fall apart. This does not mean that a person who is a "soloist" one moment should not be respectful of the rest of the congregation, and always strive to make everyone else look, and sound, good, and to hold it as a high goal to make sure that everybody has a place at the table. The aim is not "hey! everybody! look at me! Aren't I terrific!"

Between that position and the one that Mr. Nevin outlined above there is plenty of ground, and many things to discuss. And it is not always the more subtle voices doing the discussion. Paul kicked things off two millenia ago when he advised the Corinthians to always "consider other better than yourselves." Which, considering what he was up against, may not have been such overkill as it sounds. Trimming back your own aims to make sure that others are being fed--that is close to a definition of love. And it is close to a definition of false modesty, too. Not to mention all of those Medieval saints who seem to have held it a fierce competition to prove that they were the lowest of the low and that everyone was better than they were (sheez!) (Well, after all, Jesus did say that whoever wanted to be the greatest should be the least. Leave it to some folks to take that literally--and to compete for the top spot by being more humble than the next guy.)

Last week, when, in front of the bishop and everybody, the giver of our children's sermon couldn't get her candle to light, someone from the band grabbed a candle lighter from the next room and ran over and lit her candle so she could go on with her illustration. I thought it was a holy moment. But you have to be alive to do that, and in the moment, and not afraid to be noticed. It's a true leader, then, who is able to take care of the flock, and to get things wrong sometimes, and to get up and try again. And to show people that they can be the unique people they are and still--gasp--be welcome in God's house.

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