The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog
The personal views of a Catholic parish organist
August 22, 2016
Priest: Just start the bridal march when I give you a nod.
Me: At that distance a nod is no good. You’ll have to semaphore! Or just announce the thing.
The lot of a short-sighted Catholic organist in a gallery at the far end of the church is not a happy one. As you get older and reach the reading-glasses stage, you realise you need middle-distance lenses for the music and distance lenses for nodding priests. Varifocal, and to a lesser extent bifocal, lenses can work if you place your head and neck just right, but if the music rest is high it can become a strain. And how can you know just when and through which part of the lens to look for a priestly nod?
I much prefer single-vision lenses, and some years ago a sympathetic optician, who was also a member of our congregation, created my flip-up organ glasses.
Flip them down and I can read the music easily, flip them up and I can see right to the far end of the church. I used them happily for years, but last year, following an eye operation, I had a series of problems getting the right lenses, my friendly optician having long since retired. However, I’ve now found another sympathetic and clever optician, and yesterday, for the first time in months, I surveyed the scene from the gallery and everything was as clear as clear. The new lenses passed my personal eye-test (reading the hymn board beside the altar) with flying colours.
Only one problem now: I’ve been warned that the flip-up mechanism has a finite life, and it seems they don’t make these frames any more. But my new optician is going to do some research for when the time comes. There may be other answers.
There is an odd thing, though. I also thought that with the new glasses I was hearing things better yesterday. But that can’t be right, can it?
August 15, 2016
They acclaim one of three texts, but usually they don’t know which one until it actually happens.
This applies if the acclamation is chanted unaccompanied in response to the priest’s ‘the mystery of faith’. It applies if the acclamation is a composed setting. It even, and especially, applies if the words are spoken rather than sung.
When the Memorial Acclamations first became part of the people’s responses, many years ago, the lead-in problem was there at once. The 2010 revision gave a chance to resolve it, which wasn’t taken. And yet we are told that this is one of the most important responses of the Mass, if not the most important. I would have thought that working out a helpful approach to this great moment, so that it could be given the acclaim it deserves, would have been a priority. As it is, however, the priest often has to lead off the acclamation, the people joining in once they have recognised which one of the three he is using.
There are some ways of letting the people know in advance what’s coming:
- to have the same acclamation every time. But I understand this is frowned on, and priests would probably want to vary it anyway.
- to have the actual acclamation words for this Mass on the Mass sheet rather than the three alternatives.
- to let the organ give a few notes introduction, which is what is done in my church. Even so, the similarities between some of the chants can make people hesitate.
These similarities do seem to be deliberate. In fact, composed Memorial Acclamations submitted for approval are required to be related to the Sanctus of the same Mass, which means that they usually resemble each other as well. Composing three clearly distinct melodies all linked to the same Sanctus can be quite tricky. I’ve never understood the need for this, especially as the three ICEL Memorial chants seem unrelated to the recommended ICEL Sanctus.
Oh, maybe I’m just fussing too much. No-one else seems to care. But the idea of ‘acclaiming’ an important event seems to be lost in the inevitable hesitation of the people’s response. If we have something good to shout about, we should surely be given the chance to do it properly.
August 8, 2016
Our priest has just come back from his holiday in a German-speaking part of Europe, and is very enthusiastic about a hymn book called Gotteslob (meaning ‘God’s praise’ – I think), which contains Mass music as well as hymns and seems to be the official Catholic liturgical music book for the German language. He wants me to find out more about it and to decide whether our parish would benefit from having a copy in the organ loft.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m trying to learn German, but although I’m sticking at it, my progress is slow, and I can’t make out much of the German websites which Google brings up, even with a dictionary. I managed to work out that there are pocket editions on offer, but these will be limited, perhaps even words only.
I wouldn’t want to go and get the wrong thing, so I’d like to ask if anyone can help. I know there are readers of this blog in Germany, who may well be familiar with this hymn book. If anyone can direct me to a website where I can buy the full music version, I would be very grateful. Please comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 1, 2016
Groom (on the phone): … and the cascading one as we go out.
Me: (oh no, not Widor) Cascading one?
Groom: You know the one, it’s very fast-moving.
Me: (please, not Widor) You mean the ‘Entry of the Queen of Sheba’?
Groom: No, that’s not its name. I think it’s called ‘Toccata’.
Me (fighting a losing battle): Oh, the famous Bach D minor Toccata? Da-da daa. Dadadada daa daa.
Groom: No, not that one. And it isn’t by Bach. I remember now. It’s by someone called Vee-dor. They’ve had it at royal weddings.
Me (forced into a corner): Oh yes, that one. But (suddenly remembering) the organ in your church is a very old and limited electronic. The Widor Toccata wouldn’t work. It would sound awful. (And that’s actually true. I’m not prevaricating now. What a relief.)
Groom: Oh, didn’t you know? They’ve had their new organ installed at last. It cost £18,000 and it’s beautiful.
Me: (another organist will be needed) I’m not sure I could get it ready in time. It’s a very long piece. Probably best to find you someone else …
Groom: Are you sure you won’t do it? We’d really love it if you would.
Me (coming out with the truth at last): I CAN ONLY PLAY THE FIRST THREE PAGES!
Groom: Well, that would do.
Me (nonplussed): But if I run out of music?
Groom: Couldn’t you just go back and play the first three pages again?
Me: (Hmm. That’s a thought) Well, I suppose I just might be able to …
Groom (briskly): Great. That’s settled, then.
The Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony is a really exciting piece and I love listening to it. But it takes a lot of work. Technically, I should be able to manage it, with a few adjustments for my small hands, but the real problem is the sheer length of the thing. Depending on the edition you are using, there could be around ten pages of fast semiquavers cascading away, and needing practice. And practice. And practice.
There is a ‘made-playable’ version which misses out the semiquavers altogether, but these myriad little notes are what the piece is all about. The main melody is very simple; the decoration is everything. The groom had it right, and shouldn’t be denied his cascades.
However, as he wisely implied, you don’t need all of it for the end of a wedding in a small church. So I revised the first three pages, tacked on the bars from the very end of the piece, and prayed for a nice sunny day that would have them all out of the church in double-quick time. It worked, although I did feel a bit of a fraud.
I’ve now decided I must get back to a steady practice routine on this one, and do a few more pages.
Maybe one day I’ll play the whole thing.
July 25, 2016
I can’t remember where or when I first picked up the expression ‘a strange priest’, meaning a visiting priest. It may have been a local phrase, and old-fashioned at that. It was queried by one priest that I spoke to. I explained that it didn’t mean he was in any way idiosyncratic, just that he was a stranger to the parish. Fortunately, he was amused rather than offended, and even went on to quote it in his sermon. I never used it again.
However, the ‘strange priest’ problems for the organist turn up regularly, especially at holiday time. You have to be on high alert all through Mass. Ideally, you should have a word with the priest beforehand, with a written note of suggested music. This isn’t always easy when you are stuck high up in a far-away gallery with a cantor wanting to rehearse, and these priests often arrive with little time to spare.
If you do get the chance to ask him whether he has any special wishes regarding the music, the reply will most likely be ‘What do you usually do?’ At this point the temptation is to tell an outright lie, or at least to become devious. ‘Well, we do sing some Mass parts’, you say (in a tone that suggests this doesn’t happen very often), ‘but if you just wanted hymns then that would be fine’. A hint that the regular priest chants a lot of the Mass will usually clinch things.
It’s the Mass music, of course, which carries the most risk. Some things to watch out for:
- Kyrie. There are three of these, and only two actually allow the ‘Lord have mercy’ to be sung as a whole. He might choose the third.
- Sanctus. The Preface just might not end in the usual ‘we acclaim’. A sudden silence means you should be playing.
- Memorial acclamation. Usually spoken, but it’s worth having a sung one ready just in case he chants ‘The mystery of faith’.
- Agnus Dei. A visiting priest will often start saying the Agnus on his way back to the altar after the hand-shaking. You may have a split second to jump in to prevent this, but is it worth it?
Finally, how many hymn verses? Probably best to curtail things, especially at the end, if he moves smartly off the altar as verse 2 begins.
But it doesn’t always follow. One visiting priest waited until the very last verse of a very long final hymn. Afterwards, he sought me out to find out more about our lovely Hill organ, which had come as a real surprise to him.
Now that was strange.
July 18, 2016
“It’s so accessible!” said one of the participants at the organ afternoon last May. She was referring to the Forth in Praise 100 Hymns for Organ Beginners, which she had been using since first starting to play several months previously.
Before going any further, a word to experienced organists. Unless you are working with beginners, this post is not for you. Stop reading now. I watched one experienced organist push the book away with disdain, saying ‘That’s far too easy’. He had obviously forgotten the stresses of first playing in church. Or maybe he was just brilliant from the word go. Most of us haven’t forgotten, though, especially if we are trying to ensure the succession by bringing in new people.
But still, a reminder:
Imagine that you are not an organist, but play piano or keyboard a little. You want to help out with church organ-playing because there is no one else and the parish is stuck. You think you can manage to play in time simple accompaniments in the easier keys, although you would have to practise, and you have never played in public before. You agree to give it a go.
But when you pick up the parish hymnal you are faced with this:
Your immediate instinct is to run a mile.
It isn’t just the technical complexity, but also the sheer quantity of hymns that you would have to learn to play pretty quickly. Every Sunday a new set of four or five hymns. It would take all week to practise them. Even if you have high piano grades, you need to be an excellent sight-reader to take on with ease the full music version of this lot.
Things do improve, of course. The number of basic hymns sung in the average parish is large, but has its limits. Eventually you would become familiar with them all, and can relax and enjoy what is a very rewarding experience. But it takes quite a bit of work to get to that point.
At the very early stage, many people, of all skill levels, have found the 100 Hymns incredibly useful in different ways. It has been far and away the Forth in Praise best-seller, with orders from around the world.
Full details of this book, how it works, and how you can order it are over at the new Forth in Praise Shop.
July 11, 2016
With just ten minutes to go, the Irish priest, specially imported by the couple from their home parish in the Republic, appears at my elbow, and I have to stop playing the preliminary music.
‘Now,’ he says, obviously settling down to do some planning at this very late stage, ‘the bride and groom are going to light two candles right at the beginning. Can you play something while they do that? Just a few bars’.
I nod. (thinks) No-one has mentioned this before.
‘Then after the marriage ceremony, the couple will light a third candle, so can you play a bit then?’
I nod. Nor this.
‘Perhaps, if you play the same few bars that you did at the beginning, that would be meaningful’.
Hey, hold on. It’s bad enough forcing me to improvise at no notice, but don’t start dictating WHAT I improvise.
I say, ‘Well, I might not be able to remember, as I’ll be improvising, but I’ll do my best’.
‘And then something at the Sign of Peace. Just while they’re all shaking hands. Then stop for the Agnus Dei’.
What we’re talking of here is a matter of perhaps 30 seconds for each candle session and less than a minute for the Sign of Peace. If you decide to choose a hymn tune or voluntary rather than improvise you have the problem of bringing it to a convincing conclusion within the allotted time. There is now less than ten minutes left for you to work out how you’ll do this – or at least the first candle bit – not to mention find the music. The only thing that I can immediately think of offhand that might work is Pachelbel’s Canon, and the bride has already chosen that for her entrance.
If, on the other hand, you decide to improvise, ten minutes notice of the need for a thematic link just isn’t fair on the average organist. I don’t even know if I did what he wanted, as my busking is strictly short-term memory stuff.
But the real annoyance was the lack of notice. If this had all been part of the original planning with the bride and groom, there wouldn’t have been a problem. However, it is possible that these tricky little additions are a normal feature of Irish weddings of which I simply wasn’t aware. Irish organists would probably just take it all in their stride.
Maybe that’s why they are so well-paid …
July 4, 2016
Make me a channel of your peace is a modern Catholic hymn with four short verses, the third verse having a different melody from the others. It has gained popularity in other Churches as well, but they see verse 3 as a sort of chorus, which they insert between verses 1 and 2, as well as singing it in its usual place before the last verse.
So for Catholics the hymn looks like:
• Verse 1
• Verse 2
• Verse 3 (different tune)
• Verse 4
And for others:
• Verse 1
• Chorus (Catholic verse 3)
• Verse 2
• Verse 3 (Catholic verse 4)
At a recent Catholic funeral it appeared thus on the Order of Service, which unfortunately I hadn’t checked:
• Verse 1
• Chorus (Catholic verse 3)
• Verse 2
• Verse 4
Make me a channel was the opening hymn, and I began confidently enough, delighted to hear a massive response from the packed church below. But as I began verse two they all soared into the chorus, to my shock. I went with them instantly, hoping my initial clash hadn’t been too obvious, desperately trying to open the Order of Service with my left hand while right hand and pedals kept the thing going.
By the next verse I had managed a quick glance at the now opened leaflet. The Catholics must have been a bit puzzled, thinking the verses had been transposed, while the others, especially non-churchgoers, might not have been too sure about exactly when the next chorus should come. Sure enough, at the last line of verse 2, the singing suddenly died away into an expectant silence.
There was only one possible decision. I launched into another chorus, and the sound swelled up again as they resumed singing. A rousing last verse followed, and all finished well.
The undertaker may not have been aware that there are two versions. Maybe I should have a word.
But the over-riding moral of this episode is:
Always look at the Order of Service FIRST. Not as an afterthought.
I ought to know that by now.
June 26, 2016
The conversation after Mass today was all about the EU referendum. There was really nothing to say, but we said it at length and finished up:
Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.
Er … don’t know. Not sure.
Oh, let’s just ask God to sort it out somehow – please.
June 17, 2016
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Organs have to be protected from random tinkering by casual visitors to the church. This is done either by a locked door or a hidden organ key. Recently the door to our organ gallery had its lock changed, the old Yale having finally given out. As I was about to discard the well-worn key which had been on my ring for forty years, my mind ran over a couple of ‘lockout’ incidents.
One of these happened about ten years ago, on a Sunday when I was on holiday. Our custom has always been that organist and choir go down first to Communion. Normally, I would precede the others so as to get back to the organ first, and as I passed through the opened gallery door, I would click the Yale up on to the latch. This automatic action was both visible and audible to my companions, so much so that I assumed that in my absence the first person to go down would go through the same routine without even thinking.
Of course, they didn’t. Even then it might have been OK but for a stray gust of wind which slammed the door shut, to the dismay of the choir returning down the aisle. The key was now locked in the gallery, so someone had to push back through the busy Communion queue to hunt up a duplicate from the sacristy, while the others huddled round the locked door, wondering whether there would be any further music that morning.
The other lockout concerned the door from the church into the sacristy. A further door within the sacristy leads into the presbytery, both doors being lockable for maximum security. During Mass, however, the door between church and sacristy is closed but not locked. Except on one memorable occasion many years ago …
The priest saying Mass was a visitor, helping out our then parish priest. He processed out of the sacristy to start Mass accompanied by six or seven altar servers. At the end of Mass, this large group processed back again, only to find that the door to the sacristy had been locked. In those days, the hymn was expected to be curtailed once the priest moved off the altar, but in this case I thought I’d better keep going to try to disguise the banging, thumping and shouting, not to mention repeated bell-pushing, which was coming from the crowd of vested people clustered around the sacristy door. They did not appear to be succeeding in attracting the attention of the parish priest in the presbytery, who had obviously inadvertently locked his colleague out. Fortunately the hymn was a long one.
I didn’t see exactly how the situation resolved itself – possibly an enterprising parishioner went round and rang the front door bell – but when I looked up at the end, the sacristy door was open and they had all gone in.
Ah, those were the days, thought I, looking at my shiny-with-wear-and-about-to-be-binned Yale key.