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Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

July 18, 2014

A Wonderful O-Puss!

evelyn @ 6:10 pm
A Wonderful O-Puss!


I don’t usually post twice in one day, but a friend has just sent me
the link to this video, which you must, must look at if you haven’t
already come across it.

It’s beautiful, and so, so clever! Well done, composer and conductor
Mindaugas Piecaitis – and soloist, Nora.



House-keeping (2)

evelyn @ 9:45 am

Have now added the Index by Date of posts. Indexes go up to the end of June 2014. Have still to work out an updating strategy …

July 11, 2014

He who sings prays twice? Really?

evelyn @ 3:42 pm

‘I can’t believe it’s as long ago as 2011 that the new liturgy came in.’

So mused a friend who had been looking at last week’s Index by Title page. In his parish, he continued, they sing one refrain Gloria, one Sanctus – always the same ones – and the usual hymns. ‘It’s as if the new liturgy never happened’, he concluded.

And so it is. The practical problems which hit parish liturgical music with Vatican II are still with us. The 2011 change of words has done nothing. Indeed, it has added an obstacle or two.

Personally, I think the Second Vatican Council’s vision of EVERYONE singing the Mass has set parishes a truly impossible task. Many parishes have done their best by learning ONE example of each part of the Mass for singing EVERY Sunday. A widespread interpretation of the Vatican II instruction seems to be that singing – any form or quality of singing – is better than speaking. ‘He who sings, prays twice’ is often quoted.

But is the prayer really better when one is totally and utterly bored by singing it to the same tune week after week after week?

To introduce a variety of Mass settings is the obvious solution, but this has been made very difficult with issues such as expense, copyright, approval committees, teaching, learning, finding resources, information or support … I won’t go on.

On the subject of the ‘prays twice’ quotation, American Father Z makes an interesting point on his blog:

  • St. Augustine of Hippo … is often quoted as having said “He who sings, prays twice.”  The Latin cited for this is “Qui bene cantat bis orat or “He who sings well prays twice”.

A-ha! The word ‘bene’ makes all the difference. I think it must refer to the soaring, uplifting feeling one gets when the singing of sacred music is just right. When the congregation responds gloriously to a wonderful tune. When the organist uses the stops to respond in turn to the people. Reeds on final verse. That’s ‘bene’. That’s praying twice. But it nearly always happens with hymns, rather than Mass settings.

So unless a major upheaval takes place with regard to the music, and not just the words of the Mass, I think I’d rather sometimes just pray once.

July 4, 2014


evelyn @ 1:25 pm

July. The slack time. Mass reverts to the Sundays of the Year. Priests on holiday. Choir on summer break. Organ pupils at the seaside. Weather in typical British fashion varying from downpours to hot sunshine (today is a downpour).

Time to tidy up the blog a bit.

It’s amazing to think that it will be five years in October since the blog began, so I thought a bit of indexing might be in order. I’ve made a provisional though not perfect start with an Index by Title, giving links to everything. Similar indexes by date and subject to follow. Then I’ll try to tidy up the peripheral detail on main and index pages, and maybe weed out less relevant stuff. It’s quite fun exploring the technology.

But I’ve just realised that today at least is far from being a slack time for the blog’s surprisingly large number of American readers. Have a happy day, all of you!

(image by ChristArt.com)

June 27, 2014

It’s happened again!

evelyn @ 4:31 pm

This is getting ridiculous. I gave my second organ lesson last Saturday. On the Sunday another pupil – let’s call him Martin – received compliments on his playing, this time at the early-morning Mass. He texted me to say he’d decided to experiment with last verse stop changes, and had got ‘rave reviews’. When I arrived at the church later in the morning, our priest met me in the car park to tell me how well Martin had played.

Time to pause and consider this phenomenon. It can’t be due to my teaching experience – this was only lesson two, for heaven’s sake – nor do I possess a Harry Potter-style magic wand. It can only be that these are people with considerable musical ability who don’t understand the fundamental nature of the organ. When once (and I mean just once!) a feature is pointed out to them – wow! They apply it with instant success.

Some readers will think I’m being incredibly naïve here about something very obvious, but this is a matter that directly affects the standard of liturgy in the average Catholic parish. It isn’t the same in churches, even Catholic churches, where organists are paid professionals. But in parishes where organists are unpaid, persuading a pianist out of the pews and then leaving him or her to sink or swim with an instrument that nobody understands is regrettably quite common. And I suppose you can’t blame priest or parish council for their lack of what is in effect specialised knowledge.

I really feel that our Church could do more at diocesan and national level to help amateur parish organists. There must be many of them out there, doing their best to play an instrument which they don’t understand. And all the while the most basic bits of information could transform their performance.

It clearly doesn’t take much to effect the transformation. The personal touch of a lesson may not even be necessary. A booklet of handy hints could be sufficient.

Maybe I should start writing one …

Or wait!  Let’s not get carried away.  Maybe I  just have extra-special organ pupils, who happen to be coming for lessons at just the right time.  We shall see.

June 20, 2014

Bringing them in

evelyn @ 1:17 pm
Bringing them in

Am preparing another lesson for the troops. They’ve been asking about the organ introduction to hymns and Mass parts. So while getting together all the usual advice on this topic, I find myself remembering with some embarrassment one or two of my own experiences of this aspect of organ playing.

I discovered the hard way that the Church of Scotland really has the introduction business sussed. The first time I ever played for an ecumenical service, I got quite a shock.  It was in my own church during the old harmonium days when the instrument was down at the front.  I was a real rookie, although I should have been warned by the presence of all the nearby hats that the other churches were there in force.

At the end of my two-line introduction to the first hymn, it was as if someone had pressed a button. The hats all stood up as one – instantly. Anyone who knows Catholic congregations will understand my astonishment at this level of discipline. A rush of adrenalin nearly had me off the harmonium bench – did I think they were going to attack me? – and there was probably a longer gap than there should have been before the start of the first verse.

Since then I’ve played at many C of S services, and am used to this phenomenon. Even in the funeral parlour it works. Most people there are not church-goers, but a sign from the minister at the end of the introduction does the trick, and I duly wait until they are all on their feet.

Another memory was of a long-ago holiday in France, the land of organ improvisation. At Mass in a biggish town in the south-west, I was enchanted when the organist’s opening improvisation effortlessly turned into the introduction to the first hymn, to which the people responded immediately. ‘Must try that at home’, I thought.

I did. It was a disaster. Either the French, being used to improvisation, come in naturally, or that particular organist had them trained. All I got in my own church gallery was a feeling of ‘huh?’ from down below.  I had to stop, wait a beat or two, then provide the proper introduction, while priest and altar-servers no doubt wondered what the hold-up was.

Ah, well. We live and learn.

June 13, 2014

So easy to miss the obvious

evelyn @ 10:17 am
So easy to miss the obvious

A couple of weeks ago I gave my first proper organ lesson to two of our trainees. On the following Sunday, one of them – let’s call him James – was due to stand in for me at the main Mass.

‘James played exceptionally well this morning’, said our priest when I turned up for the afternoon Mass. ‘Brilliant’ said someone else, later in the week. ‘So confident’, said another.

Good grief,  I thought, could all this have resulted from that one lesson? No, not possible, it has to be coincidence. However, when I told James about all the plaudits, I ventured, ‘Er – did it have – could it possibly have had anything to do with our lesson?’

‘Oh, yes’, he replied immediately, ‘it had everything to do with it. I played on the Great, as you showed us in the lesson.’

‘You mean, you hadn’t played on the Great at Mass before?’


I was staggered, and felt a bit guilty. James has high piano grades, so I had rather left him alone, and had rarely, if ever, heard him play in public.

I consulted the oracle (my former organ teacher), who said it was very common among experienced pianists, accustomed to controlling dynamics instantly by touch, to want a similar immediate control when playing the organ, and only the Swell pedal can give them that – on a regular pipe organ, anyway. So they tend to stick to the Swell.

Using the strong but unyielding Great takes an effort, and pianists have to work at it before they can fully appreciate its grandeur. James on a single Sunday had managed this with spectacular success, after I had unwittingly introduced him to it.

It reminded me of a similar episode in my days with the Scottish Churches’ Organist Training Scheme (SCOTS). I was adviser to a young pianist who played a nice little pipe organ with great confidence, but no changes of registration within hymns. I assumed she was nervous about taking her hands off the keys.  And then it suddenly dawned on me that she just hadn’t considered it; the piano has only one sound, after all.  I made a few suggestions, and on my next visit she showed that she had no problem at all manipulating stops and couplers between verses. I left her practising, and on my way out of the church fell into conversation with a couple of parishioners. As we listened to the organ music, one of them said with great deliberation, ‘See yon wee lassie. She’s always been good, but noo she’s like Westminster Abbey’.

So simple, really.  So obvious. And I nearly missed it.

June 6, 2014

Complaints department

evelyn @ 12:52 pm
Complaints department

Most parishioners are supportive of their organist, especially if they know he or she is a beginner. But there will always be the odd one or two who find something to criticise about our playing – ‘too loud’, ‘too fast’, ‘too high’ – and some of them can be pretty arrogant and nasty with it. The standard answer I always want to give to ill-mannered complainers is ‘If you can do better, go ahead and do it’. But it’s perhaps more dignified if you just suggest they take their complaint to the parish priest.

Equally offensive is the more general ‘Why is (something) always so (something)?’ It was with fury that I read an article in a Catholic magazine, by one of their regular contributors, asking why organists are always making mistakes, and equating this with the nuisance of children crying in church. My letter of protest at this demoralising article wasn’t published, and I cancelled my subscription. Another person emailed me to ask why organists always played hymns so high. He should, of course, have been criticising the hymn book compilers rather than the organists, and addressing his complaint to Mayhew or Decani.

The damage complaints can do is out of all proportion to their seriousness. Most of them are isolated, just one person’s opinion. People who are satisfied tend not to comment. The complainers haven’t a clue about the stresses of the organist’s task, nor do they realise how drastically confidence can suffer from a single ill-chosen remark, especially if one is a beginner. I have known beginners of great promise simply give up when this happens.

Some suggestions from my own experience which might help if you are sensitive about complaints:

  • Work at developing a thick skin. Keep telling yourself you don’t care, and eventually you won’t care.
  • The only complainer that you have to pay heed to is your parish priest, and he won’t be arrogant and nasty about it (if he wants to keep his organist).
  • Sometimes things are criticised which are out of the control of the organist. The pitch of hymns already mentioned is a case in point, as is the inadequacy of some instruments. You should make this very clear when answering a critic. If the instrument is inadequate, suggest he or she complains to the parish priest. It might help you get something better to play.
  • It can be worth interrogating the complainer about exactly what he or she didn’t like. Press for details. This can get them flustered, because half the time they don’t know what they are talking about.
  • Complaints in the form of anonymous letters (yes, it happens) should always be totally ignored.
  • And of course, there’s always the possibility that the critic is right. If so, admit it to yourself (though not necessarily to them!) and quietly amend things in the future.

Not all complainers are nasty, of course. Some are actually trying to help, or are just interested in knowing what went wrong. I’m reminded of the parishioner who one Sunday jovially remarked ‘Organ went a bit funny in that last hymn, didn’t it?’. I had developed my thick skin by that time, so I just smiled as I told him that my toddler son had decided to crawl across the pedals from one side of the organ to the other while I played verse three.

May 30, 2014

About time

evelyn @ 5:13 pm
About time

‘SIX crotchet beats in a 4/4 bar? That’s not like you, Evelyn.’

No, it wasn’t a memory from my student days. This was an archdiocesan training day, and the speaker was leading the singing. I blushed and apologised for the typo, muttering something about dashing it off in a hurry. In fact, I had unintentionally written what I normally played, not what was set out in the hymn book. The inserted beats gave the people a chance to breathe. In practice, most organists slow down in some way at that point in that piece of music, which maybe I’d better not identify. The composer had obviously felt constrained to stick rigidly to the 4/4 metre, come what may, or maybe he just didn’t know that a single 3/2 bar would have solved the breathing problem while keeping the rhythm steady.

There are other tempo deviations which are not so understandable, some of them peculiar to a parish or locality. The Church of Scotland organist who stood in for me at two Easter Vigils had to be told about the significant pauses for dramatic breath-gathering when the parish sang Webbe’s Regina Caeli, especially before phrases with high notes such as the second ‘resurrexit’, which they enjoy absolutely belting.  The markings on a nineteenth-century volume discovered in the church strongly suggest that this tradition has prevailed for over a hundred years. I have never even tried to change such a hallowed custom. The C of S organist, a very precise person, shook his head in puzzlement.

As he did on another occasion over Sweet sacrament divine, in each verse of which there twice appears a bar written like this:


and sung like this:


Then there’s Hail, Queen of heaven with its huge pause on the unimportant word ‘for’ in the phrase ‘pray for the sinner’.


The pause even appears in some of the published hymn books.

Perhaps the fact that these two hymns go way, way back has some significance.

But then there are the modern hymns with extra beats halting the action every so often, presumably to allow for guitar strum build-ups. A visiting organist will ask as a matter of course ‘Do you play the extra bar in Here I am, Lord?’ (This is the empty bar right in the middle of each verse. Most organists simply miss it out.)


Or he/she might ask, ‘How do you stop them coming in too soon in I watch the sunrise?’ Not a request for advice, this, simply an enquiry as to which of several possible methods is customary in the parish for coping with the blank patches between the phrases. The people can’t be expected to count beats when nothing is happening.


Coping methods include: (1) prolonging the previous melody note until the words resume, ignoring the resulting harmonic clashes, (2) making up a little tune to fill the gaps and (3) just shrugging and coming in early if the people do – recommended for funerals.

And finally, have you ever played for a funeral in another parish and just known that on Sundays they sing with a digital hymnal or CDs? Their timing is too perfect, almost metronomic, with none of the ebb and flow of real congregation and real organist responding to each other. The lack of organists is such a sadness.

Time to stop now.

May 23, 2014

The Pope’s favourite Mass setting

evelyn @ 10:16 pm

The Misa Criolla, by Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez, is understood to be the favourite Mass music setting of Pope Francis. Ramirez wrote it in the 1960s for the Vatican II liturgy. It is doubtful whether it could ever be sung by a congregation, as that liturgy demanded – and still demands – but it makes good listening.

It’s important to realise that this isn’t the Argentine equivalent of ‘happy-clappy’. Ramirez was a serious composer of some note, and the styles, rhythms and instruments of his native land are used to great effect. Here are three samples from Youtube, but there are many more out there. Unfortunately, with some browsers there are irritating adverts to get through before you can start listening.

First, the version by the Argentine band Los Fronterizos, which I suspect Papa Francisco will like most of all. It’s probably the best known, and has a real ‘gaucho’ flavour. Watch and listen to the Gloria as sung by this band:


The Mass has also been recorded by classical artists. My favourite version has a young José Carreras and some fascinating South American instruments. I have an idea this was recorded in San Francisco, though I can’t remember how I knew that. The choir’s Spanish is Latin American, and Carreras’ European accent stands out. Let’s have the Gloria from this recording.

carreras instruments1 instruments2

Then there’s the polished version recorded by the UCLA choirs, conducted by Rebecca Lord. It’s beautifully done, but it hasn’t the instrumental interest of the other two recordings. Listen to the whole Mass here (the Gloria is 4 minutes in).


And, as I have said, there are lots more recordings of the Misa Criolla if you look for them.


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