Friday, February 27, 2015

Holding forth at the organ

If you are an organist, and have always wondered how to impose your will on a congregation, I have your long-sought answer:

First, don't think of it that way. It's bad form.

Second, you have to be subtle about it. Well, not subtle, exactly, just....flexible.

...which is a paradox, right? I love a good paradox. Do you?

We're going to get along fine.

Now then, about last week. We had a little hymn going. A favorite of the pastor's, it seems. Now this little hymn had a bit of a fermata at the end of the second to last line.

If you've been a church organist for a while, you see one of those, and you ask yourself a few questions internally, in the run up to the fermata. 1) does the congregation know this hymn? answer: probably not. I don't recall us doing it more than once or twice in the ten years I've been their organist. 2) how musically literate is the congregation? answer: the choir is, but not universally. Besides, they routinely ignore musical symbols and have to be reminded to observe them. As for the congregation at large, they are average folks who have forgotten what they learned in music class, and many of them probably either won't notice the fermata or don't know what it's for (I'd vote for the former as the majority position; you can't underestimate people's ability not to notice things).

All of which means that if you are going to observe the fermata, it will have to be audibly spelled out for them. So how does one do that?

The first clue is in the introduction. I played through this section, observing the fermata. Now, an idealist would be under the impression that the congregation would be listening carefully and imbibing the various clues as to how to sing the hymn when it was their turn, particularly since they maybe don't know it. But that's probably assuming too much. Instead, they'll have spent at least half the introduction fumbling with their hymnal and the rest clearing their throat. However, the folks at Faith do manage to receive at least one important element every time:

The introduction sets the tempo. I recently heard an organist online whip through an introduction and then, when the people came in, the tempo was worlds slower. That's not how things work at Faith. Part of the point of the introduction is to set the tempo. And it is the same speed at which the hymn will be played throughout. Also we set the stage via the key, and remind people how the tune goes. But the tempo is pretty important. And they pick up on that and are ready to join me at the same tempo. Yeah, congregation!

The choir and the pastor are also good about figuring out when to come in. I imagine I deserve a bit of credit for that, but they have good ears and can hear the musical cues I throw out so we don't all have to stare at our shoes during some enormous grand pause and can simply hit the ground running. Now then....

The fermata. It worked, if I recall, on the first verse. I think it happened on the second. I thought I had it made. Then it failed on the third attempt. And finally, the last time, it worked beautifully. Ok, so what happened the third time?

The organist is a leader. But there are two ways to lead. One is from the front, another is from behind. Sometimes you get out in front and set the agenda (or the tempo). Other times you are there to make the congregation sound good--i.e... to facilitate. I may have been doing a little too much facilitating at the wrong time on the third verse. The stop selection may have been too quiet, and I don't think I gave enough of a ritardando on the three chords leading up to the fermata, which is what made the fourth try so obvious, and got everyone to stop. Also, on that last verse, I set louder stops.

My general philosophy as a hymn-leader is to do just enough and not more. If it is a familiar hymn and the choir and/or congregation sounds good, I often don't play the melody. Then I am an accompanist. The organ part may sound like the accompaniment to an anthem, or it may be spare and only serve to keep time and remind of the pitch. There are also times when the organ stops altogether and the choir and congregation sing a verse entirely unaccompanied. I frequently do this without advance warning, and it is based on my listening to the quality of the singing and determining whether folks sound like they would be comfortable without an organist. If they don't need me, my role changes.

There are other times, of course, when it is obvious they are hanging on for dear life, and I keep a firm tempo, a full organ sound, and make the melody obvious. The difference is in the listening, and for me, the ear is the primary arbiter when I am playing hymns. What is in the page is secondary--the ear keeps me oriented.

Which is pretty handy sometimes, because what happened on that third verse is that the entire choir completely blew through the fermata. Before I knew it, they were on the next downbeat--without their organist! But a recording of the hymn, if such existed, would not seem to indicate that anything was amiss. That's because while I was recovering from my surprise, I was re-configuring my meter map. Beat one was all congregation and no organ. Beat two was where the organist started up again, having immediately reinterpreted the downbeat, and knowing exactly where he was rhythmically. So in fact, it sounded exactly as if I had planned it that way (there are times I drop out for a beat or two on purpose). Of course, it probably helped that I was already on alert for such a thing happening before it happened, but listening and reacting quickly can keep ensemble disasters from happening.

Slowing down, obviously and loudly, going from facilitator to leader-by-making-himself-prominent to the ears of the congregation, I got that last fermata to stick. But I didn't hold it very long; that seemed wise. However, had I held that chord longer, I might have gotten the fermata to last a bit longer.

You see, I am an accompanist of the congregation, and they are an accompanist of me, if by that term we mean that we have to adjust to each other. All of us are raising our voices together, and by teaching the congregation to listen for musical cues from the organist, and by the organist doing the same thing for the congregation, we establish the importance of everyone doing this together. Nobody sings or plays at the expense of the other, we all contribute. And we all sing lustily or muddle through together as well, although that last is why I am sitting at a pitched instrument with a doctorate in music--so I can help with the unfamiliar and the difficult. Sometimes I have to carry the congregation and sometimes they do just fine on their own. We have our different roles, but we are one body.

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