The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog
The personal views of a Catholic parish organist
October 1, 2015
The problem with singing the Mass at Christmas is that it is usually the same old Mass setting that we’ve been singing all the year round. Somehow it seems a bit of an anti-climax amid all the joyous seasonal carols. But how on earth can you get the people to learn a whole new festive Mass setting, especially in the busy run-up to Christmas?
The answer is: you don’t. Instead you ask them to sing Christmas carol tunes which they already know very well, set to the words of the Mass. And you make sure everyone has a sheet in their hand which shows exactly how the words fit the well-known tunes.
So Forth in Praise is proud to present its first published Mass setting – a Christmas Carol Mass. It’s an instant Christmas Mass! No practice needed! Even the Gloria can be sung right through by the people.
This Mass was in fact dreamed up some time ago. The carol melodies are in the public domain, and all that was now needed was to make the words fit, arrange the accompaniment, and attend to some additions requested by the Scottish Bishops’ publication approval committee, which then passed it. There was still the hurdle of ICEL royalties, which I had previously been wary of as possibly a bit daunting and bureaucratic. I was wrong. ICEL in Washington read and approved the Mass quickly, and came back with a very reasonable royalty arrangement.
So there it is: a Mass published by Forth in Praise with all the church approvals in place. The two-stave organ accompaniment is easy, although you can bring in the pedals if you want, and dress it up in other ways. Chord symbols are included for those who prefer them. The single pew sheet which comes with the book can be legally copied for an entire congregation. The tunes are Ding dong merrily on high, While shepherds watched, Joy to the world and The first Nowell. More details and samples are on our publications page.
The price, including UK postage, is £7.00. You can pay by cheque (UK only) or by credit card through PayPal. Postage will of course be higher on overseas orders.
Order and payment details are all on the order section of the publications page, including a note about our special deal for Australia.
It makes for a bit of Christmas jollity, without too much effort.
PS If you are interested, and live overseas, then I would suggest ordering quite soon.
September 20, 2015
Am busy phoning round last week’s volunteers. One or two have had second thoughts, which is to be expected, but others are happy to come along to a first training session early in October, to learn how the organ works and take away some easy material to practise.
Our parish priest, Father Paul Kelly, has offered to make these Linlithgow organ sessions open to organ beginners in other parishes, if they would like to come. So if you are interested in playing the organ in your church, and live in the area, keep an eye on this Forth in Praise website. I’ll upload the dates when I’ve finished phoning round, and will get the parish website to include the information as well.
Meantime, if you’re interested, here’s the leaflet we handed out last week.
September 16, 2015
You look around at them all. Someone out there, probably more than one, must know enough to play the organ. The question is how to winkle them out.
The answer may lie in working out why these lights are under bushels in the first place. Some possible reasons (with possible remedies in italics):
- Shy of coming forward, because not sure of reception.
Announce a welcome.
- Unsure whether they have skills enough.
It’s possible to start at any point. Admittedly, more work required for beginners, but there are short cuts.
- Nerves. Fear of messing it up publicly.
Make help and support available, and give them a gentle start, say, one Communion hymn.
- Unwilling to commit themselves.
Even a minimal commitment is welcome, so long as it is reliable. And of course, the more recruits, the less the commitment.
- Thinking we don’t need anyone else.
Tell them we DO!
- Pianist not the same as organist.
Most organists were pianists to start with. It isn’t hard to learn the organ touch, although maybe concert pianists should think twice …
- They don’t realise the sheer joy of playing the organ at Mass.
Well, last Sunday a short announcement along these lines at all Masses yielded ELEVEN possibles! We’ll see what happens. Watch this space …
September 5, 2015
Monsignor Michael Regan’s funeral will take place on Monday 7 September in Edinburgh. Full details will be found on the Archdiocesan website or the Archdiocesan Facebook page (scroll down).
Our own Forth in Praise tribute to our excellent Director of Liturgy is here.
May he rest in peace.
September 2, 2015
Eyes a lot better. Maybe now I will actually see the priests who are conducting the weddings I play at! Two more weddings coming up soon.
In the meantime, here’s something I picked up on Fr Z’s blog.
July 31, 2015
had eye operation 2 days ago, must keep away from computer till september, be back then
op should help with problems described in previous post
UPDATE 2 AUGUST
Great improvement already. May be back sooner than I thought.
July 26, 2015
When a couple bring along their own priest, it’s always a bit worrying. I have to agree signals with him, especially for the beginning and end processions, and sometimes it’s difficult even to get a word with him. One such occasion was particularly stressful.
I went to the rehearsal but might as well not have bothered, as I didn’t get a chance to speak to the priest at all. The groom, who was concerned for me, said he would ask him to say ‘Please stand’ when the bride was ready to enter, and also at the end when the couple were ready to process out. ‘Please stand’, ‘please stand’ – easy to remember, surely.
On the day itself, the groom made a point of telling me that he’d spoken to Father, who had happily agreed to this.
So what happens? The soloist kindly offers to go down and check what the bride is doing. Comes back up after an interval to say bride is ready to go down the aisle. I look towards the front of the church. No priest. My eyesight isn’t too brilliant, but I can see that he isn’t there. Remembering a previous débacle with a missing cleric, I hesitate. We anxiously scan the sanctuary.
Then soloist says ‘I can see him. He’s in the vestry’. I look towards the open vestry door, and sure enough, I can make out a silhouette in front of the vestry window. What’s he playing at?
‘Why on earth doesn’t he come out’ I say to the soloist.
‘Oh, he’s now making piano-playing signs’ she says.
That, of course, I can’t see at all from the far end of the church – thank goodness she can. And whatever happened to ‘please stand’?
I launch into the procession music, aware that while I have been unable to see his silly piano-playing gestures, all the guests at the front will have done so, and will have wondered why I hadn’t responded immediately. Why is it that I always play better when I’m furious?
At the end of Mass I was ready for it, and sure enough:
‘He’s doing the piano-playing bit again’. Honestly.
That soloist was wonderful. I couldn’t have managed without her help. She was a wedding guest and she agreed to explain, if other guests asked her, about the ‘please stand’ that never was.
July 19, 2015
It first happened one evening when I was about eight years old. I had just finished my piano practice, which included waltzes with what I now know are Alberti basses. These triadic accompaniments fascinated me. There was potential there. So with my right hand I tentatively picked out ‘Under the Bridges of Paris’, the popular song of the moment (that dates me, doesn’t it!). Then I added in a left hand which did its best to provide an Alberti bass. I played hesitantly at first, then more confidently. At this point I became aware of a silence in the room and turned to find my parents staring at me in shock. My busking career had begun.
Playing by ear was not encouraged or appreciated in those days. Several years later, in secondary school, I was discovered thumping out ‘Let’s twist again’ on the classroom piano while the class all danced around the room in the teacher’s absence. I got a real row for creating a disturbance, although I thought I’d done a pretty good job. But busking has to be its own reward.
Organ improvisation, however, is in a different category. It has always been part of the organist’s stock in trade, and the French in particular have taken it as an art to the highest levels. I personally know some pretty impressive improvisers to whom it is a joy and an education to listen. My own busking isn’t in that league, but oh! how useful it is. There are two ways in which it helps: by providing hymn accompaniments when the setting in the book is not what it should be (essential with some Catholic hymnals), and by actually creating music to cover a blank spot in the service. With these two skills, even if they are rudimentary, you are never stuck.
It’s a pity that many organists, particularly beginners, are scared to give it a go. The early piano-training belief that playing by ear is bad for sight-reading still holds good for some. Others are just terrified of launching into the deep. Where would I go? And how would I get back? Well, there are books and teachers to help. SCOTS does quite a bit on the subject. An interest in music theory is a big advantage – that’s what started things off in my case, I think. When I expand the organ page of this website, I’ll include as much information on the subject as I can find.
Once you are used to busking, it’s great fun. The sort of situation which brings the most satisfaction comes when, say, a visiting archbishop is interacting with a group of people one by one, as in Confirmation, and has requested background music while this happens. You’ve watched the action carefully (no need to look at music), quietly improvising on the gentlest flute. As he comes to the last couple of people, you start working back towards the tonic, arriving there just as he mounts the altar steps again. You stop. He says ‘Let us pray’, and no-one, absolutely no-one, realises just how clever you have been. Probably no-one even realised you were playing.
Busking has to be its own reward.
July 9, 2015
There was a time long ago when playing in a certain church always gave me a headache. This was because I would spend the entire Mass combating the loud, strident and grating tones of a woman in the congregation whose mission in life appeared to be to impose her own funereal pace on everything that was sung. The people round about her became confused, then silent. Subtle attempts from the organ to bring her into line rarely worked. There was some sympathy for me from the rest of the people – in fact, I think they would have stood up and applauded had I one day stormed down the aisle and silenced her physically. Invariably, however, I was reduced to drowning her out completely with the organ. But it’s no fun having both organ and prima donna belting fortissimo when the words are ‘grant us peace’.
Since that time, in different churches, at home and abroad, I’ve been aware of Big Voices. They pop up in various guises, in most cases innocently unaware of the effect they are having: the cantor who has been asked to ‘help the singing’ by retaining the microphone for the rest of the Mass, or the man in the next pew whose rich operatic tenor swells out and obliterates every other sound. Sometimes even the celebrant. If there is an organ, the organist has to struggle to maintain the lead or else just gives up and follows.
But it needn’t be like that. I had the privilege of accompanying Susan Boyle when she sang solos at two local church services, and Voices don’t come much Bigger than hers! But – and this is terribly important – during the congregational hymn-singing she was not noticeable, except perhaps for a subtle richness within the general sound, which actually encouraged people to sing and follow the organ’s lead.
Susan Boyle is, of course, a trained professional and famous, but maybe a little training wouldn’t go amiss with our amateur Big Voices, especially if they have been asked to lead in the absence of an organ. Perhaps the church could pay for a singing lesson or two, to teach the Voices (1) to encourage the people to sing, (2) to blend rather than dominate when the people are singing and (3) if relevant, to take a hard look at their relationship with the microphone.
If this is suggested positively – the last thing one wants to do is to hurt feelings – it might hopefully put a stop to mutterings such as ‘Oh no, it’s the foghorn again’, which I used to overhear so very frequently in that long-ago church.
June 29, 2015
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Yesterday, having spent our west coast weekend break in drenching rain, we came home early and I found myself in the unusual position of attending the Sunday afternoon Mass in my own church as a member of the congregation. I had carefully ensured that I had money with me to put into the collection and I picked up a pew hymn book as I entered.
As an organist, I’ve always found playing for the Offertory hymn a bit tricky. Singing is often patchy as people scrabble for their cash and pass the basket along. Sometimes the priest will ask me to substitute quiet organ music to cover both the collection and the following procession. I know one church where the collection is taken up in total silence, except for the chink, chink or (if they’re lucky) rustle, rustle of the money. The Offertory hymn then accompanies the procession. Probably this is why some Offertory hymns are unusually short.
So there was I yesterday, in the pews for a change, the hymn being ‘Lord accept the gifts we offer’, which has three verses. The introduction strikes up. I unzip my bag, find my purse, take it out, open it to retrieve my offering, put it back and close the bag again. That takes up fully half of the first verse of the hymn. I sing the first line, but can’t remember any more words, and haven’t a hand available to open the hymn book.
I take a look around to see where the money basket has got to. Now that’s odd. There’s only one collector, and he’s going down the other side. Someone taps me on the back and when I turn round proffers a collection basket which has been travelling up the church all by itself. I put in my contribution and am preparing to pass the basket forward when the lady in front of me turns round to hand me another basket which has been working its way down from the front.
I am now standing holding two baskets of money, and the hymn is well into verse 2. Hymn book is still unopened. I arrange the two baskets at the end of the pew where they will be visible to the solitary collector, and finally open my hymn book in time for verse 3. Collector arrives, shunts all the money into one basket, and joins the back of the procession which arrives at the altar bang on cue as the third verse ends.
So how practical, really, is an Offertory hymn? Of course, being attacked by two self-travelling baskets at once doesn’t happen to everyone. But the fact remains that the entire congregation is multi-tasking during a hymn at the Offertory. Maybe those churches who hold back the hymn until the procession have the right idea. And if the priest prefers to say quietly the prayers that follow, the hymn doesn’t have to be all that short.
But I still think the hiatus that is the actual collection should be covered somehow, and organ music is the obvious answer, either a voluntary, if you can time it right, or that good old stand-by, improvisation. With the latter you can even follow Gordon Reynolds’ suggestion* and try to engineer climaxes as the basket approaches the most financially-promising pews.
*Reynolds, Gordon, Organo Pleno (1970), p 14.