So You Want To Be An Organist

 Maybe you've been conscripted into playing the organ at your parish because word got out that you play piano (same thing, right?) and there's a hole to fill.

Maybe your parish currently uses a piano and there's an organ just sitting there and you have a vague sense that it would be more fitting.

Maybe, just maybe, you're actually a classically trained organist and for once, someone is offering you money to play.

Any way you look at it, playing the organ for your parish is a bit of a different animal from whatever you've been doing before. So first, some words on why the organ is So Great, so much better than any other instrument (including the omnipresent piano) and why you should use it in the liturgy.

Three things set the organ apart. Firstly, it breathes like a singer, and sustains notes the way a singer does - its ability to hold prolonged phrases without sound decay or having to resort to "filler" notes maintains the sense of the musical line without distraction. Secondly, it fills the whole space - wherever you are seated in the building, you will hear the organ, supporting your singing, without expensive and ugly amplification equipment. Thirdly and finally, its expressive range is comprehensive - from the tenderest flute meditation to the most majestic anthem, every facet of worship can be fully expressed through the pipes.

And then, of course, it's right there in the church documents - from Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 120:

"20. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things."

It was not always so laid down, of course. In the early church and throughout the middle ages there was always a bit of a fight to get anything other than chant introduced into the church. First, it was harmonies, then polyphony, then accompaniment by the organ. As each of these things was carefully considered, then admitted, then promulgated, it became incorporated into the sacred music tradition of the church. Other things were tried and rejected - notably, in twelfth-century France, some innovative composers tried layering the words of the liturgy with secular love poetry and even imitations of animal sounds. Those things that were found to elevate and ennoble the liturgy were kept in, while those that tended to debase it were swept out.

Among the former group falls the mighty pipe organ, the King of Instruments, the orchestra playable by a single person. When you are in command of the ranks, you change your timbre by mechanically manipulating the overtones of your sound. You have All the Volume. You have All the Power.

Except for the one thing you don't have - you don't have Any of the Words. This automatically puts you in the support role. You must never override the Words, however fancy your arrangement. Keep this maxim in mind at all times, and you won't go wrong.

Here are some practical tips for someone making the switch from living room piano player to Church Organist:

1. Breathe when the singers breathe. As you play, hold the words in your head (you don't have to sing, but if you can, it helps) and make sure to lift your fingers from the keys when the choir or congregation breathes. This helps regulate the tempo, and keeps the music from going too fast or too slow.

2. You set the tempo with your introduction. Whatever speed you intend to play through the whole hymn, that is the speed of your intro. Keep your tempo as constant as possible - even if you need to resort to a silent metronome - and be sure to put the same space between your intro and the first verse as you intend to put between verses. If you change this up, the congregation will become unsure, and they will not sing. (The corollary of this is: do not slow between verses, however satisfying the final cadence.)

3. Make friends with the presets on your instrument. I have five presets, going from softest to loudest in order, and I tweak them as I go, but each one is balanced on its own, so I can switch between them for different verses. Have someone play your presets for you as you stand in the middle of the church, as different combinations will sound fine at the console, but muddy or top-heavy out in the hall space.

4. Play something after the final hymn.* Whether you prefer something meditative or something grand, those remaining in the church to pray will always appreciate the sound of the organ over the sound of those departing more immediately, standing around and chatting by the doors. And going straight into an organ postlude is a great way to hold off applause for the choir (which I loathe).

5. Consider asking your parish to pay for lessons. Contact your local chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and see if they can refer you to a teacher. Many chapters have scholarships, and sometimes even free loaner practice instruments to set up in your home.

6. And of course, practice as much as you can. Practice on your church instrument is the most valuable. As with any instrument, frequency is more important than length - half an hour four times a week is far more useful than three hours every Saturday.

Here are a few great books to get you started:

First Organ Book - excellent for beginners, contains music for manuals only, and also with pedal

The Organist and Hymn Playing - a classic, tiny book packed full of helpful instruction, with a few philosophical problems, but eminently practical. Easily found used.

Davis Organist's Manual - single most useful organ book I have ever owned - real music for manuals only, pedal lessons and exercises, chapters on registration, and a solid chunk of beautiful repertoire for manuals and pedal together

"Little" Preludes and Fugues (printable online) - eight preludes, eight matching fugues, probably mostly written by J.S. Bach. If you are ever unsure of what you should play, play Bach.


*According to the GIRM, paragraph 313, "In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing. Exceptions are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), solemnities, and feasts." So, no postludes or instrumentals during Lent.

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