May 13, 2015
Arrived at the funeral parlour, switched on the instrument, opened my funeral briefcase to discover, to my horror, that it was empty except for a couple of paper tissues and a mobile phone. No music at all, of any kind. Help!
How this had happened was no doubt explainable, but right now the issue was coping with it. They were having a going-out CD, thank goodness, and there were hymn books on the premises, so the problem was the fast-approaching initial half-hour of gentle, soothing – what?
Very little time to plan. Think about what you usually play, I told myself. Write down the titles quickly, leaving out those which won’t work by ear or from memory (which puts paid to most of Bach). Add names of other easy tunes, such as the slower Scottish melodies. Add some gentle hymn melodies which won’t be in the service itself. Write the correct key against each one – there’s nothing worse than being faced with an unexpected modulation into five flats – and decide on the family-coming-in one. Then just go for it.
Strangely, as I was frantically writing down song names, I kept having a déjà vu feeling. Then I realised that this was the same process which I use quite voluntarily when asked to play a medley of Christmas carols. Like most of us, I have played carols from an early age, and know them inside out. I prefer playing them from memory, so long as I have a list before me of what carols I know, thus avoiding an ‘um-ah’ pause as I wonder what to launch into next. To include on the list modulations between carols, as well as keys, can even with luck give a sort of ‘seamless’ impression.
But ne’er a note of music is visible. It’s a question of grubbing in the filing cabinet of the mind.
However, the present enforced funeral-by-ear wasn’t the same at all. It did indeed work, but it was very stressful.
So since that day all funeral music has been checked very, very carefully before leaving home. I’m not going through that again.
April 24, 2015
It’s that time of year again! After all the Holy Week requests for the Exsultet and the Litany of the Saints, people are starting to search Forth in Praise for ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’, especially for chords. Find them here.
I’ve written before about how I’ve never understood the depth of hostility towards this hymn. Many priests just can’t stand it, and it appears less and less in hymn books. Getting hold of chords seems to be especially difficult.
Well, it is old-fashioned and the sentimental verses are flowery in every sense of the word, but it isn’t contentious and the tune is quite pleasing, especially if you treat the rhythm as a bouncy 6/8 two-in-the-bar. For general church use, the words restrict it to the month of May, so you would think the critics would let it pass. It’s often requested for funerals (‘it was Granny’s favourite hymn’), and the fact that it isn’t in our hymn book does cause a problem on these occasions.
My Church of Scotland organist friends tell me they have a similar difficulty with ‘O perfect love’, often requested for both weddings and funerals, the old-fashioned tune being definitely favoured. That’s the one which starts like this:
I can see that the leap of a fourth in the third bar, if scooped, can make it sound a bit pub-on-a-Saturday-night-ish, but is that really enough reason to ban a tune that means so much to so many? It’s interesting to note that although neither CH3 nor CH4 (the most recent Church of Scotland hymnaries) include it, their Mission Praise, which is more ‘modern’ in style, does.
Returning to ‘Bring flowers’, some credit is due to the Mayhew books, which I don’t normally like. Both Hymns Old and New and Liturgical Hymns Old and New contain ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’, though not with chords. Decani Music’s Laudate, however, has cast it into the wilderness along with ‘Sweet heart of Jesus’.
Nevertheless, three versions of the ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’ sheet music – chords, melody and bass, and an easy organ version – can be freely downloaded from the Forth in Praise Resources page . And the words are all over the Internet.
April 7, 2015
Oh dear, the Sign of Peace again. Some months ago the choir agreed not to attempt to shake my hand while said hand was hovering over the keys, about to introduce the Agnus Dei, and they’ve been very good about it. I just give them all a general wave over my shoulder and they get on with their own hand-shaking.
But at the Easter Vigil they seemed to feel they should do more than usual. I could hear them greeting each other by name. Next thing, as I anxiously watched for the Agnus Dei signal, I heard my own name spoken. Instantly I snapped ‘Go away!’.
As soon as I could, I turned round and apologised for my un-peace-like outburst. ‘Oh, we weren’t going to shake your hand’, was the reply. ‘We were only going to pat you on the back’.
It wasn’t the moment to explain that a pat on the back for an organist, quite apart from startling him/her into a wrong note, is equivalent to the tap on the shoulder that usually heralds bad news:
|The bride will be another half-hour …
We need a different Communion hymn …
The family have only just told us that they would like …
We’ve just heard that there’s an extra little ceremony …
So please don’t pat the organist, although your goodwill is greatly appreciated.
March 30, 2015
Before I plunge into the maelstrom for organists that is Holy Week, I just want to say (and yes, I suppose it is a plug – sorry!) that the book of easy pieces that I was finishing in Australia has now been published. It’s called ‘In Tranquil Mode’ and consists of six small pieces for manuals only. Even one manual will do – the pieces are playable on just about anything. They’re supposed to be for beginners, but after decades at the organ, I for one still like it when really easy stuff comes along.
If you are interested, there are more details, including audio files, here.
In other respects, tranquillity is not the name of the game, with Holy Week starting to bring its usual set of challenges. Exsultet-panic is obviously growing in many places, as downloads from Forth in Praise have reached an all-time high this year. Also the Litany of the Saints is being downloaded furiously.
These are all on our Resources and Downloads page, together with some other Easter chants.
In my own parish, a throat bug has already been attacking one or two of the cantors, but they have recovered and otherwise we are unscathed.
And there are always some really satisfying Holy Week moments, too, else why would we organists do it?
Happy Easter, everyone, when it comes!
March 23, 2015
Our congregation have been guinea-pigs again, and they seem to have come out of it extremely well.
The experiment concerned the Lenten Gospel acclamations which replace the usual Alleluia. There are four different texts for the people to sing, all of which appear in no apparent sequence in missals and Mass sheets during Lent. No doubt there is a liturgical reason for so many variants to replace the single Alleluia of the rest of the year. It can’t just be a form of Lenten penance, surely?
However, you don’t have to stick to what is in the missal for any particular week. It is acceptable to select another of the four instead, and in the heady but confusing times following Vatican II, many parishes took the easy way out and adopted the custom of singing the same Gospel Acclamation – music and words – all the way through Lent. The most popular choice for this purpose was an acclamation which had originated in Glasgow shortly after Vatican II, but soon became known everywhere. Priests especially liked it, because it was easy to lead the people with when there wasn’t an organ.
It is still widely used, and our parish tended to go in for it quite a bit. But this year, parish priest Father Paul Kelly demanded a change. He was very precise about it. He wanted a chant, which the popular tune wasn’t. He knew which chant he wanted:
and he wanted it used for the cantor’s versicle as well.
I welcomed this as an opportunity to address something that had always bothered me: the fact that if the same acclamation was used for every week in Lent, there was only a one in four chance of the words in the people’s hands coinciding with those which they would actually sing. So I offered to arrange each acclamation, as it arose, to fit Father Kelly’s chant. This I’ve done over the past five weeks.
At first, the people were a bit wary, but by about Week 3 they had got the idea. We introduced it as we do the psalm response: organ, followed by cantor, then everyone. That way they knew how the words would fit in. Here’s what we sang yesterday:
After Easter, I’ll smarten things up with some sort of accompaniment and put the chants on the Forth in Praise Resources and Downloads page. You never know, someone just might be interested in trying the idea out for themselves.
Must stop now, as Holy Week looms yet again, and the pressure is already starting to build …
March 7, 2015
Following the previous post, I’ve been asked what I’ve got against the Sibelius music type-setting program, which is used by many musicians.
Sibelius is indeed popular – almost the music equivalent of Microsoft Word – and a few years ago I decided I ought to buy the current version, then Sibelius 3. Latterly I upgraded to Sibelius 6, but I’ve never been able to come to terms with the program.
I have lots of gripes about Sibelius, some more important than others. For example, not so important but highly annoying is the way the manual talks down to you, starting with a ‘stern warning’ on page 8 (Sibelius 3 manual). And did you know that putting page numbers in the centre, top or bottom, is ‘not in good taste’ (page 397)?
Common eyesight problems can often be helped by adjusting the text size in the computer screen resolution section of Control Panel. But Sibelius doesn’t seem to realise that some people need to do this. Before I can read the important dialog box which they call ‘engraving rules’, I have to change the text size of my entire computer back to the manufacturer’s default, and then change it back again afterwards. Both operations involve logging off the computer and on again. If I don’t do this, the dialog box is truncated top and bottom and for some reason cannot be scrolled, appearing like this:
||instead of this:
I also have difficulty with the teeny-weeny little menu bar buttons in version 6 for important functions such as sound mixing and properties. Their icons give little clue as to their purpose:
But what really drives me up the wall is the regimentation imposed by a program which believes that a basic rhythm is all-important and should be in place from the start. Bar lines are governed by the time-signature and can’t be moved at will. You must have a time-signature – if you don’t put one in at the start the piece will default to 4/4 – and you are just not allowed to enter anything that doesn’t fit it; Sibelius will enforce obedience by adding rests or chopping off notes. If you are a composer who prefers to work with a fluid, changeable outline which gradually develops into something more definite, and you want to do this while type-setting, then Sibelius is infinitely frustrating.
And what if you have a penchant for irregular and frequently-changing rhythms? Or maybe you just want to render a non-mensural chant in staff notation? Sibelius doesn’t like that sort of thing at all. You are told to create a template in advance – a lot of empty bars, that is, with all the time-signatures in place. Then you can add the notes and they will stay put. In practice this means that you are expected to finalise your composition in manuscript before you start any type-setting at all.
Perhaps I am not being fair. Sibelius has many complicated nooks and crannies, as well as quite a tricky manual to negotiate. I haven’t had time to investigate all of its depths, and it’s possible that some answers to my problems are buried there.
And the program does have some good points, such as the ease of fitting words under notes, and the straightforward way chords can be built up using interval numbers. Sibelius is used in schools a lot, where its strict time-keeping will have educational value. And those whose job it is to type-set other people’s completed manuscripts will find the program very useful indeed.
But I always finish a Sibelius session with a headache, eye strain and in a bad temper.
Unless I’ve been setting a march or a waltz.
February 26, 2015
Blog has been quiet lately because after finishing the last two organ pieces in Australia with the help of my pre-loved keyboard (below), I’ve had to get the whole set into their final form for publication in March. This has meant transferring them to Sibelius, which I don’t get on with at all, but it’s worth it when it gets to the proof-reading stage. Proofs are now done, too, and I’ve had time to see what photographs are in my camera and phone.
I forgot I had taken a picture of old pre-loved.
I’ve also found two pictures taken in the Melbourne supermarket which we frequented. It was very like our shops at home, except that the self-service machines spoke with an Australian accent, and were a lot friendlier than the Tesco ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ lady.
But then there was this on the meat counter:
And this overhead sign:
It turns out that ‘manchester’ in Australia means bedding and household linen. Don’t know why, but possibly in their distant past, they imported this stuff from the mills in the north of England. As someone has said, it’s a bit like the way we call crockery ‘china’.
Little things like this remind you that you’re in a foreign country, even though the language is a friendly English and they drive on the left.
February 8, 2015
I’m currently working on a set of easy organ pieces for publication by Fagus Music in March. When I first realised that we were going to spend almost a month in Melbourne, a bit of a panic set in, as I wouldn’t have access to an instrument for that time. Our son offered to hire a keyboard for the duration, and started sending me links. That was how I learned about ‘pre-loved':
Other instruments were given as ‘new’, so ‘pre-loved’ had to mean second-hand. But what a nice way of putting it.
The piano which we finally hired was pre-loved. It did strike me that we didn’t know how many pre-lovers it had had, but it was certainly in good condition, and did the job nicely. And I gave it some love, too.
I haven’t yet got a title for the set of organ pieces. I did wonder about ‘Pre-loved Pieces’. It had a nice ring to it, but translated as ‘Second-hand Pieces’ – not so good.
Will let you know before March, just in case someone feels like buying …
January 31, 2015
We left for Australia on Christmas Day. I had played on Christmas Eve in my church, but didn’t hang around afterwards. Next day, it felt very strange, travelling to the airport while everyone else was preparing Christmas dinner.
But finally there we were, on a very comfortable plane, soaring into the air. We changed planes at Dubai, and had another stop at Kuala Lumpur, all the while with the feeling that we were flying away from Christmas. So when we arrived in Melbourne at 3 am and heard ‘Silent Night’ playing over the loud-speakers, it was quite a touching moment. Almost like coming home.
Next day, when the intense heat hit us, we realised that Christmas time in Australia was nothing like coming home. Lovely! we thought, as we shopped for the essential hats and sun cream.
Now we are indeed home, and as I write I am looking out at my snow-covered car and thinking of emigrating.
January 24, 2015
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Wet and cold in Glasgow yesterday, after our long journey back from the Australian summer. Main reason for visit was baptism of new grandson, but there was a chance to explore liturgy and organ-playing as well.
More when jet-lag wears off. Yawn …