Friday, April 6, 2018

The Cave of the Organists

There's an intriguing little verse tucked away somewhere in the Book of Kings, I think, referring to the "cave of the prophets." Most of us would, I think, be surprised to think that they lived in caves, or that there were whole groups of them living together. The picture we get of a prophet is some lonely figure on a mountain with a swirling robe (sort of like Moses in The Ten Commandments). His message is clearly audible, though not popular. He is fearless, and certainly powerful, even if he sometimes has to run for his life to avoid the wrath of the king.

The reality, though, is that there were a whole lot of them, that they served more like political advisers than predictors of future events (although, in some ways those roles collide), and that, apparently, like any other trade, they tended to congregate in large numbers, perhaps learning from, and/or competing with, one another. Whether they generally lived in caves or were just doing that because the current administration was a little too friendly with Baal worship than was optimal for a prophet of Yawheh is a question for an ancient Realtor.

If you've ever seen Monty Python's Life of Brian, where there are many prophets trying to shout their messages into a crowd of walking and talking people who don't seem to care, you probably have a more realistic picture of the situation at large. One that more accords with human nature, anyhow.

I'm mentioning this because the figure of the organist might need some similar rethinking. At your church the organist is off by him or her self in a corner playing a loud instrument, but you might be surprised to learn that organists do have trade organizations (like the American Guild of Organists), do go to conferences and meetings to pry secrets out of one another, do have an impressive online presence featuring scads of Youtube videos and recordings of everything from the week's prelude to tutorials on how an organ works, and participate in online forums where they discuss all things organ.

If you knew this already than you know that organists are clearly not troglodytes (at least, not figuratively), and you may be wondering what organists have to talk about. And you may not be surprised to learn that much of it includes complaints about working conditions, such as priests and pastors who are, shall we say, less than supportive.

I recently joined a large group of organists online. I've read various forum pages over the years so I knew what I was getting into, which probably included a fair amount of such complaining. When you've been practicing your craft on a mountain by yourself, shouting into the prevailing winds, it is nice to come back into the cave and commiserate with your colleagues about how nobody seems to give a --well, you know.

Right out of the box it was a woman who was halfway through her Easter prelude when (would that I were making this up) the priest sent a note that said simply "NO MUSIC!" Now it would have been nice if the priest had mentioned this a little earlier. And it is rather strange that he should want no music on Easter. There is a custom in some churches in which solo organ music is not permitted during Lent, which is a time of fasting and introspection leading up to the celebration of Easter. But on Easter itself? That does seem a bit strange. Still, he's the boss. Albeit, a boss who, like so many priests, unfortunately, does not seem to know or care about music, nor have any training in dealing with people in general.

Sometimes that deluge of complaints in other forums can seem a bit much; still, organ forums must serve as safe zones for people who otherwise aren't getting much sympathy. It can be dangerous to express frustration online: not only are there multitudes who think of sympathy as a weakness, there are many others who think of it as a competitive sport (i.e., you think YOU have a problem. Well, it's nothing like mine. Also, how dare you!).

Although that sort of thing be grab the headline, there is a great deal more that goes on in this cave. Organists mentor other organists. Sometimes there are questions about where to find pieces of music, or about the reliability of various brands of organ (if their church is looking to get one) or postings of preludes, or pictures of where members have played recently. A little strutting may not be out of place sometimes.

And people are just people. Some of them probably exaggerate their problems to elicit sympathy, some are just jerks when confronted with young organists who don't know things, others like to get into fights with other organists over everything from musical style to whether electronic organs are a sign of the Apocalypse. Apparently, on this site, the term "toaster," which seems to be a dismissive term for electronic organ, is banned. One new member used it, and had to apologize.

Then there are the humorists, and the folks who just want to have fun. In short, it is just like your profession, whatever it is, only the technical information is different. The personalities, however, are not. And they go out, Sunday after Sunday, alone, to face a world of persons who are not like them at all, and do not know what it is like to do what they do. And then they come back into the cave to talk about it.


I don't bite...mostly.