Wednesday, June 30, 2010

25 things I’ve learned about playing the organ

Margot at Mormon Mommy Blogs had a great post titled “Confessions of a Ward Organist,” which I totally loved, since that is also one of my callings. So, I’ve decided to expand on her post with my own list.

25 things I’ve learned about playing the organ in church

1. I’ve learned that when sitting at the organ, I have to be careful how I unfold my arms after the prayers.

2. I can only handle so many sudden fly-away pages or minute adjustments to paperweighting hymnals. A personal hymnbook with a spiral binding is the only way to go.

3. Setting the volume pedal takes practice to get it right, so my embarrassment quotient has decreased for hearing “Onward Christian Soldiers” tiptoe like a ballerina and then stomp through the floor with a devastating blitzkrieg before I can arrive at a suitable volume level.

4. Marking the introduction brackets in my hymnbook with highlighter prevents frantic searches for the intro's second half. Most of the time. It also prevents awkward pauses when jumping between introduction sections. Mmmmmost of the time.

5. Introductions can be the roughest part of the hymn with the most missed notes. The last verse is the most smooth. (Yes, I DO practice. Before church.)

6. It’s wise to keep “All Creatures of Our God and King” and “Oh Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” in perpetual practice because one week’s practice is usually not enough for such active pedal parts.

7. I’ve learned that congregations love hymns to be played fast, particularly when it is all seven verses of “A Poor Wayfaring Man” or all four verses (which really are the equivalent of eight verses) of “I Believe in Christ.” It’s helpful to learn to play all hymns at least 25% faster than they are rated in the hymnbook.

8. I’ve learned I’d better start “A Poor Wayfaring Man” and “I Believe in Christ” at a pretty good clip because inevitably… it slows down during the last few verses.

9. “The Time is Far Spent” played 200% faster would make a great song for a cartoon.

10. Having a knob that automatically transposes everything up a half-step is TOTALLY AWESOME. Its location on the extreme outside edge of the organ console beyond convenient reach is TOTALLY OBNOXIOUS. Epic design fail, if you ask me.

11. Choir hymn arrangements provide some of the best ideas for neat alternate chord progressions.

12. I’ve learned I can write alternate chord progressions right into my hymnbook, and then when I use them, everyone thinks I’m improvising beautifully. (Shhhh! Don’t tell my ward members about this!)


13. The stake music chairman is not in favor of (and does not sustain) my use of alternate chord progressions during congregational singing, even if I am playing “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

14. I’ve learned that I don’t read ward chorister’s lips very well when they are trying to communicate what verses they’ve decided to stop at.

15. Similarly, I don’t read the bishop’s lips very well when he is trying to communicate spontaneous hymn changes in the program. (Thankfully, in my current ward, the organ is positioned right behind the bishopric.)

16. I’ve learned that I love 32 foot bass stops.

17. I’ve discovered that some old people will complain to the bishop about the bass levels if their internal organs vibrate too much from the 32 foot bass stop. (“I caused someone heart palpitations?! No way!!”)

18. I’ve learned I really love the bell stop, which sounds like the chapel has suddenly experienced a divine visitation by a massive angelic bell tower.

19. I’ve also learned that the bishop only thinks the bell stop is appropriate for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”

20. When I’m trying to learn something new about playing the organ, such as setting the stops manually instead of with pre-sets, the skills I consider already cemented tend to fly out the window in unexpected ways.

21. I’ve also learned that if I make a terrible mistake in setting stops manually, if I then take my hands from the keyboard in dramatically visible shock and then press an appropriate pre-set button, the congregation thinks the mistake was the organ’s fault instead of mine. (Shhhh! Don’t tell my ward!)

22. After playing a hymn, I must immediately set the stops for the next hymn, especially if the next hymn is the sacrament hymn. (Yeah, those trumpets don't work very well with "There is a Green Hill Far Away.")

23. I should never EVER change stops in between verses unless I’m absolutely sure I know what sound is going to result. (I learned this when an impulsive change suddenly made the tenor and bass parts twice as loud as the soprano and alto parts..)

24. I’m still unconvinced that organ shoes are necessary, but I‘ve learned that my feet slide better over the pedals when my nylons don’t have major holes in the toes.

25. And finally, I’ve learned that the Holy Ghost can teach me how improve my organ playing with line-upon-line impressions and ideas of things to try during diligent practice. (I didn’t have to learn everything through painful mistakes.)


S.Faux said...

I think your wonderful list should be mandatory reading for all Ward organists. Very creative, very funny, and very wise.

Jared said...

Great post. I too, play the organ for my ward and have experienced many of these.

I have to add that I think organ shoes are a must. I can play just fine in my socks but organ shoes help a lot.

Thanks for the laughs.

Clifford said...

This needs to become the nucleus of a book about one of the most under-appreciated, incredibly demanding callings in the church.

Donna B. Nielsen said...

I am not any kind of a musician, but I LOVED reading your wonderful post--I have an entirely new level of appreciation for your calling.

Thanks for so cleverly expanding my perception of organ playing . You are a terrific writer!

Matthew said...

#7 makes me cheer - all the hymns need to move faster than the listed tempo.

#13 makes me cry - it is so frustrating when diversity is crushed in favor of mindless conformity. Been there and done that with some of the music I have done.

And yes, 32 foot bass stops are awesome!

Awesome list, I enjoyed reading it!

Michaela Stephens said...

Matthew, don't feel bad about #13. Unusual chord progressions can really confuse a singing congregation if they find they are suddenly dissonant with the organ when they should be in harmony.

The stake music chairman was in favor of the alternatives being used as prelude or postlude, just not during singing.

Anonymous said...

#19 The bell stop sounds lovely with "Silent Night", used as postlude after Christmas programs. I have had young children come up to the organ to see where the bells are... which is fun!