The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog
The personal views of a Catholic parish organist
June 29, 2015
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.
June 18, 2015
… but without the applause and bow at the end.
Someone drew my attention to an American article about narcissism in the liturgy which had been linked to recently on Father Ray Blake’s blog. It’s a most interesting article, well worth a read. But there’s one point which I must take issue with, although only about the use of a single word. It’s in a paragraph about the laity (you have to scroll down a good bit):
Perhaps the most obvious example of narcissism in the laity assisting at the mass occurs in the realm of “music ministry” … one notable aspect of this phenomenon is the moving of the choir from the choir loft and onto the sanctuary, where they are better able to “perform” to the congregation and to be seen and applauded. Indeed, there is a growing sense that the music at mass is more a performance than anything else.
It’s that word ‘performance’ again, mis-used to mean showmanship or self-aggrandisement. It shouldn’t be employed in that way. It is a neutral, technical word referring to the playing or singing of music in public. To treat ‘performance’ as a derogatory term is not only inaccurate, but can be damaging to the morale of church musicians. For we ARE dealing with performance.
Think about it. Do you have to get yourself organised and take a deep breath, ‘psyching yourself up’ before starting the Mass music? I do. That’s why I get so flustered if I’ve arrived late and haven’t had a chance to focus mentally. During the week, do you practice what you’ll be playing on Sunday? I do. We all do, whether we are organists, group-instrumentalists or choir. We have to, in order to provide the highest standard of music that we can – wait for it! – perform.
Church musicians need practice and preparation exactly as if they were to perform in a concert hall. The big difference, of course, is that the church musicians aren’t the centre of attention, and won’t be bowing to applause from an audience at the end. But that’s the only difference.
Playing down the performance angle isn’t helpful. Remarks like ‘don’t worry, it isn’t a performance’, with the implication that sub-standard is expected and acceptable, and somehow humbler and holier, can discourage people from improving their technical skills and downgrade liturgical music as a whole.
I do know, of course, what this article is really talking about, and yes, it happens. There are indeed churches afflicted with conceited persons or groups looking for admiration and applause, who think the liturgy is a great vehicle for showing off their musical talents. The article suggests that they actually get the applause they are seeking, which may happen in America, but is perhaps less likely here. The problem with these people is finding a way of dislodging them. But referring to their exhibitionist antics as ‘performance’ doesn’t encourage those of us who need the confidence given by proper performance training. Such training actually helps musicians to be respectful and self-effacing, as well as effective in providing music for the Mass. In fact, the very best performers, in both church and concert hall, are totally absorbed in the music they are interpreting, and do not give a thought to personal vainglory.
May 30, 2015
You may have noticed a few changes lately in the look of this website. I have been retired for some time from my voluntary work with the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and now the active part of Forth in Praise has also ceased. The Forth in Praise website, however, continues to be popular, so rather than close it down, I thought it could be kept going as a smaller, independent site dealing with Catholic liturgical music resources.
So although this is no longer an official archdiocesan website, it will retain most of its content and probably add to it. The blog will certainly keep going; sorry if it’s been a bit erratic of late – it’s all this extra coding I’m having to do.
The revision work is still going on, and some pages are still to be uploaded, but please, readers, hang on in there. Forth in Praise will come alive again!
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
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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.