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The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

October 17, 2014

What is a real organist?

evelyn @ 1:02 pm

‘I’m not a real organist, of course’.

I hear this so often when first introduced to an organist. She (it’s always a ‘she’) usually adds ‘I’m a pianist, really, but Father was desperate for someone to play so I thought I’d try to help out.’

Further chat will reveal that she has been playing in church for several years, and does weddings and funerals as well. I’m willing to bet she has developed an organ touch, is familiar with the stops, and leads the congregation efficiently. The clergyman who introduced her obviously has great confidence in her.

‘You are a real organist’, I say. She shakes her head, thinking I’m just being kind. It’s quite infuriating.

Perhaps what causes this self-deprecatory attitude is a qualifications thing. A pianist-turned-organist will probably have high piano grades, and be uncomfortably aware that she has no organ grades at all. One can take organ exams, of course, and work towards virtuosity and recitalist fame, but the organ in its church context is a different animal altogether. It’s a workhorse instrument, an essential part of church services, and playing it regularly is a job, for which the organist is paid a salary (or should be). Even the ‘realest’ of real organists – FRCOs and ARCOs – usually have a cathedral or important church which employs them.

In the humble parish church a lesser but competent standard is perfectly acceptable, and formal qualifications are usually neither here nor there, provided you are fulfilling the job description for that particular church. You don’t have to be able to toss off half a dozen Bach fugues, or play the Widor Toccata without cheating (although it’s nice if you can, of course). Effective accompaniment of hymns and liturgy, and some voluntaries up your sleeve will do nicely. If you are doing this, you are indeed ‘real’, whether paid or not, and I will continue to say this to every I’m-not-a-real-organist I meet.

Well, I will so long as one unforgettable situation doesn’t arise again:

Saturday morning. Emergency call from the undertaker. ‘Funeral starts in ten minutes, and the church organist has just told us that she can’t play Crimond. Can you come?’   

Can’t play Crimond? Unbelievable.

Jump into car, dash down to church, park with difficulty, rush into the building, mourners all in place. Organ, church and denomination completely new to me.

Big pipe organ, loads of stops. Non-Crimond church organist awaiting me, playing quietly on a couple of flutes. It had been agreed I should have a few minutes to prepare before the minister entered, so I decided I would extemporise on Non-Crimond’s flutes while checking out the other stops and mentally registering the hymns.

Me (to Non-Crimond, who is about to change places):   Please can you leave the stops exactly as they are.

Non-Crimond organist:   Yes, of course. I’m not a real organist either.

A funeral was not the best occasion for exploding, so I didn’t.

But she was UNREAL!


October 10, 2014

Did it really frighten the children?

evelyn @ 2:34 pm

This year All Souls’ Day falls on a Sunday. It doesn’t happen often, so I was looking for something suitably Purgatorial and not too difficult to learn for the choir. It could be years before we would be singing about Purgatory again.

While I was racking my brains and looking through old hymnals (Purgatory doesn’t get much mention in anything post-Vatican II), our priest suggested that we should sing the version of ‘God of mercy and compassion’ which we first did in Lent. If you remember, the idea of that arrangement was to be chilling and dramatic, with soprano and alto ‘shrieks’ over the men’s melody and a ‘drumbeat’ pedal line.

When the choir heard, they seemed quite pleased to be giving the shrieks another airing, and there was a bit of banter, in the middle of which someone said ‘It frightened the children’.

Frightened the children? I didn’t get a chance to find out who had said that and pursue it further, so I was left wondering.

When I was a young child (pre-Vatican II) and attending a convent school, Hell and Purgatory were spelled out very definitely. In fact, even at the time I wondered how the nuns knew all the horrible details they described. I was pretty frightened about it, I remember, but times have changed and I’m sure youngsters don’t get subjected to that sort of thing now.

Also, our priest would have had complaints from parents if the choir had upset any children. And he certainly wouldn’t be asking us to sing the thing again.

So it must have just been a joke.

It must have.

I hope.

September 26, 2014

Bridal chit-chat (17) – a very special soloist

evelyn @ 1:54 pm
Bridal chit-chat (17) – a very special soloist

I put down the phone, and started pacing up and down the room, still reeling from the bombshell dropped by the groom.

As I paced, I kept telling myself, You’ve played for lots of wedding soloists. Think of her as just another wedding soloist, and accompany her as you usually do.  Think of her as just another wedding soloist, just another …

I stopped pacing.

It was no use trying to kid myself. She wasn’t ‘just another wedding soloist’.
She was Susan Boyle.

I suppose it was always possible that this might happen one day, as Susan Boyle’s home town is only a few miles away from our church. On this very local occasion she was a family friend of the couple, just as most wedding soloists are. Of course, most wedding soloists are not world-famous …

But after the first rehearsal of her two pieces (Gounod’s Ave Maria and You raise me up), I realised I needn’t have worried. Susan’s two PAs were delightful people and incredibly efficient in arranging practices. And Susan herself was a joy to work with. There’s nothing better for an accompanist than a trained soloist with a beautiful voice who knows exactly what she’s doing. Also, the big advantage of her fame was that I could check Youtube for answers to any technical queries.

However, there was another challenge to face.

As it happened, the parish choir had already been booked by the couple to boost the hymns and Mass parts. And of course, when Susan Boyle sings You raise me up there is usually a choir in the background. In this case, therefore, the general feeling was that it would be a bit odd to have a choir present which didn’t join in with You raise me up. Would our choir consider it?

At first, I was doubtful whether a small parish choir could emulate the singers backing Susan on Youtube. On second thoughts, however, perhaps a bit of re-arranging and a specialist coaching session might help us to put in a respectable performance.

So the word went out to the choir: if you want to sing with Susan Boyle, you must come to all practices. The response was a general ‘Wow! Yes, we’ll be there!’ One soprano even arrived on crutches, having strained her leg in a fall at work. ‘I wasn’t going to miss the chance of singing with Susan Boyle’, she said, as she hitched her way into the church.

I simplified the choir part and organised a bit of expert instruction. We had two intensive practices before the final one with Susan herself, which was also attended by the couple and their families. To my relief Susan liked what we’d done, and the choir warmed to her cheery comments.

On the day, the music went smoothly, apart from an annoying technical hitch with one of the organ stops, which probably went largely unnoticed. The logistics also worked, in what is really quite a small gallery. The unusually numerous choir were all in their allotted seats (some on cushions along the deep window-ledge). Susan sang with her usual power and skill from the front of the gallery, and everything was enhanced by the resonant acoustic of the church.

All in all, working with Susan Boyle was a lovely experience for choir and organist to remember, and we wish her well for her forthcoming American tour.


September 19, 2014

A personal problem

evelyn @ 4:05 pm

I usually post on a Friday, but this week the Scottish independence referendum seems to have paralysed my thinking.   I’ve been genuinely worried about what it would mean if I were to lose my British nationality.

You see, I’m one of the many people – I’ve heard us called Anglo-Scots – in whom Scotland and England are equally represented. Born in England, brought up in Scotland. Scottish father, English mother. Living in Scotland, married to an Englishman, who is an expert in Scottish architectural history. My own academic research on Scottish music at a Scottish university. The two countries are fused together within me, and I am proud of both, and very happy to be British. But if the two components were pulled apart, where would that leave me, and those like me? Stateless? Forced to choose?

However, it’s all over now, and I’m still British.

So, back to business.  There’s a really special ‘bridal chit-chat’ post just waiting in the wings …


September 12, 2014

A light mystery

evelyn @ 2:33 pm

On holiday in rural England in January, I had hopes of getting a chance to try out the two organs in the centuries-old Anglican church beside the cottage we had rented. One was a heritage organ, the other a respectable electronic. I was delighted to be given permission and the key to a small door at the east end of the church, behind the altar.

Both organs were at the other end of the church, by the main door, as was the bank of light switches. Although it was early afternoon and still daylight, my husband insisted on switching all the church lights on, saying I would need them in an hour or so. Before he left me to my own devices he gave me a torch. ‘Once you’ve switched off all the lights, you’ll need this to make your way up the aisle to the door we came in at. Mind the altar steps, there’s a trailing wire on the carpet there.’

The organs were lovely, and I didn’t register the disappearing daylight. Eventually, I looked up and saw that two hours had passed and all the church windows were dark. I closed down and switched off the organs. Then, torch on, I switched off all the lights.

I expected the church now to be in total darkness, apart from my torch. Instead, I found myself staring at a single bright light, far away at the east end, where no light should have been. It seemed to be coming up from the floor in front of the altar. I was certain it had not been there earlier when we had switched on the other lights, and if it had come on in the interim, surely I would have noticed it? Maybe not, maybe not. I had been totally organ-focused. But what could it be?

Three possible answers:

  1. It was an ordinary light on a timer switch, which had come on for some reason I couldn’t fathom.
  2. It was a burglar alarm sensor, and the police were already on their way.
  3. It was supernatural (oooh! shiver!).

Sadly, I had to discount the thrill of the supernatural. I am the most un-psychic person I know, and have never had a spooky experience that wasn’t explained. The burglar alarm idea had to be abandoned, too. The police would have been here by this time, and in any case, these alarms don’t provide burglars with warning lights.

So it looked as if the timer theory was the most likely.

With the help of the torch I went up the aisle and had a long look at the mystery light. It was a single electric bulb in a holder. It sat on the carpeted floor and was attached to the trailing wire my husband had mentioned. Close to, it was blindingly bright. But what was it there for? To light the way of people like me? Should I try to find its socket and put it off? I decided not to interfere, but to mention it when I handed back the key.


‘Oh, yes,’ said the lady, ‘That light is timed to come on at dusk each evening and stays on all night. It goes off in the morning’.

‘But why?‘, I asked.

‘To confuse the bats,’ was the reply. ‘We’re absolutely fed up having to clean their droppings off the carpet.’


Well, well. I hadn’t thought of that one.



September 5, 2014

Keyboard thoughts

evelyn @ 3:32 pm
Keyboard thoughts

The other day I played a keyboard for a funeral service. I had been asked to stand in for the regular organist at a funeral parlour. This wasn’t my usual funeral parlour, which has an electronic piano (see here for my thoughts on electronic pianos!).

The keyboard proved surprisingly responsive, although like all these instruments it was light-weight and needed gentle handling. As it happens, I own a simpler version of this particular make of keyboard, and I had come prepared for the usual disadvantages – hand-operated volume control, sloping surface sending any spare music to the floor, an open piece of bent metal as a music-rest which anything A5-size will fall through. Having sorted these out, however, I found this keyboard’s organ sounds to be far superior to mine. A really rich hymn accompaniment, and a pleasant quieter one for coming-in music. There were one or two other sounds which proved useful in varying the tone. And – joy, oh, joy! – touch-sensitivity could be disabled!

One small incident took me by surprise. The minister announced a pause for people to reflect in silence, and with a little click the keyboard dutifully switched itself off.  Drat, I thought, I should have been ready for this economy feature. It will probably go and reset itself when I switch on again, but I can’t risk fiddling with settings in this deep hush. Just don’t let him ask for a hymn immediately afterwards. He didn’t, and all was well.

All in all, I would say that in a parlour or small chapel setting, a keyboard with a good organ sound does far better than an electronic piano. The difference in price between the two instruments probably runs into thousands, but the only advantage of the more expensive electronic piano is that it looks better, which is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Obviously, the ideal for this type of situation is a small organ, electronic or even pipe (dream on!), but failing that, give me a good keyboard any time.

I do hope I get asked back.

August 29, 2014

Bless me, Father …

evelyn @ 9:49 am

The Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass can contain a huge pitfall for the unwary organist. There are three variants, all of which include

(1) the ‘Lord, have mercy’ or ‘Kyrie eleison’

(2) the absolution:  ‘May almighty God have mercy on us … ‘, followed by the people’s ‘Amen’.

The problem is that in only one of these three does the absolution come at the very end of the Penitential Act. In the other two, the ‘Lord, have mercy’ follows the absolution. Close examination of any missal (and you have to look closely) will reveal this. However, the Mass sheets used in our parish, and in many others, are a bit confusing at this point, probably because they’ve had to cram so much into a page since the New Liturgy came in. On the sheet, the variants are all given, but at the end we have the words:

After the absolution, all respond: Amen’.     Next on the sheet is the Gloria.

An organist working from these sheets can surely be pardoned for thinking that this ‘Amen’ is the signal for the Gloria. But it needn’t be. The ‘Lord, have mercy’ may not yet have been said.  What we have here reflects the immortal words of Eric Morecambe: ‘… all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order’.

And, of course, much depends on what you’re used to.  Unless we’re in Advent or Lent, our parish priest tends to use the version with the absolution at the end, so that bringing in the Gloria immediately afterwards has become for me a reflex action. This means I can and do get seriously caught out when we have a visiting priest, whose first ‘Lord, have mercy’ can be drowned out by the start of my Gloria introduction. Oops. Sorry.

Even worse, I did it when our new archbishop said his first Mass in our church. It was made more painful by the fact that he chanted the Kyrie most beautifully, accompanied by the first chord of my Gloria.     Oops, oops.     Sorry, sorry.

I made a vow on that occasion always to look out for this possibility when we have a visiting priest. After all, it should be easy enough to register whether one has or hasn’t heard the ‘Lord, have mercy’ words.  No, I would definitely never, never, EVER do this dreadful thing again.

I did it again last Sunday.

Obviously, I’m greatly in need of a firm purpose of amendment.

Mea culpa.

But do check it out, folks, if you are not already aware of it.   It’s a trap.



August 22, 2014

Bridal chit-chat (16) – technical interference

evelyn @ 10:21 am
Bridal chit-chat (16) - technical interference

Very often enthusiastic amateur technicians in a parish are encouraged to tinker with aged electronic instruments which are well past their sell-by dates. Usually to avoid having to buy a new organ. The church organist will of course be fully instructed in how to manipulate the surgically-altered instrument to get it going on Sundays. Trouble is, visiting organists may not be given this information, and are often totally unaware of what is in store for them.

Perhaps my most shattering experience of this kind was a wedding in a large church with a very old and particularly difficult electronic organ. I had played it before, and had always found it tricky to handle because of its loud, harsh tone and confusing stop and coupler labelling. This time it seemed quiet and subdued, with very little of its usual brashness. I fiddled with the various controls, including the dreadful crescendo pedal, without making much difference at all. What had happened to the thing? Was it finally on its last legs?

This was getting worrying. While the guests were coming in it didn’t matter, but I’d have to get something reasonably strong for the bride’s entrance.

Suddenly a girl stuck her head round the door at the far end of the long gallery and hissed ‘The bride’s ready. Start now’.   I added everything I could, opened all pedals to the fullest and began playing ‘Highland Cathedral’.

The same girl reappeared, very agitated. ‘The bride’s READY! Please start!’

‘I have started!’, I hissed back, ‘I’m doing all I can!’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you haven’t got the amplifier on’, and she reached up to the wall beside her and threw a switch which I didn’t know existed. I had everything set at maximum, and the resulting blast just about took the roof off the church.

Needless to say, I haven’t been asked back. And needless to say, that church now heads my ‘never-again’ list.

PS This is a partial re-blog. The original post in 2010 was called Technical Mayhem, but now that I’m organising by subject, I feel this part of it should rightly be in the bridal suite, so to speak.

Oh, and I still haven’t been asked back, not that I would go if I were. The impression I made must have been a really lasting one …

August 15, 2014

Assumpta est Maria

evelyn @ 7:38 pm
Assumpta est Maria

There wasn’t an enormous crowd at the morning Mass – most parishioners had probably been at last night’s Vigil – but I was still able to bring out all the stops on this Feast Day of the Assumption. The hymns were all hymns to Our Lady, and as usual with hymns to Our Lady, the singing was first-rate.

This enthusiasm suggests that devotion to the Virgin Mary could be an instinctive thing with Catholics. It certainly goes back centuries, and was one of the causes of the Reformation. Why the Reformers objected, I never understood, but this isn’t a theological blog, so I won’t pursue the question. Also puzzling is the apparent side-lining of Our Lady in Catholic liturgy after Vatican II, but let’s not pursue that either, as its effect on hymns features in an earlier blog post.

Coming back to today’s music, we had I’ll sing a hymn to Mary – without the wicked men, alas! – but still sung lustily. The other hymn that has made it through the shoals of the twentieth century is Hail Queen of heaven, which we sang at the end. There was also My soul is filled with joy. This paraphrase of the Magnificat is sung to the melody of the ‘Wild mountain thyme’. Although the ‘Wild mountain thyme’ song itself is in copyright, no-one can work out whether the tune is Irish or Scottish, or how old it is.* All the hymnals have it in 4/4 time, but I play it, possibly Scottish-fashion, in 6/8, a steady 2-in-a-bar, boosting the stops at ‘through all generations’. The response from the people below is always excellent.

Before Mass, I improvised on some of the older, forgotten Marian hymn tunes, and the exit voluntary was Schubert’s Ave Maria. All very satisfying.

Must go and listen to Palestrina now …

*For what it’s worth, I didn’t meet this tune when working on my PhD in early Scottish secular music, although there were one or two seventeenth-century melodies not unlike it. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t early, just that without the survival of a written-down version, we can’t tell.


August 8, 2014

Bridal chit-chat (15) – the non-weddings

evelyn @ 12:32 pm
Bridal chit-chat (15) - the non-weddings


Bridal chit-chat has been off the radar for a bit, mainly because for one reason or another I haven’t been able to play at many weddings. But now weddings are coming into view again, and I thought I would start the season by recollecting three weddings which never were.


In the first of these cases, they booked me, then all went suspiciously quiet, always a warning sign. It wasn’t my own church, so I eventually phoned the bride’s home, and got her mother.

‘The wedding’s off! It’s been off for ages!’
Her tone made it clear that I was stupid not to have known that.

‘Someone could have told me’, I suggested mildly.

‘Huh!’ she snorted, and I gave up, deciding not to pursue the matter with such a termagant, from whom the prospective bridegroom had no doubt fled in terror.

In the second case, the bride’s father had been a parishioner of ours before moving to Edinburgh. He phoned from his new home to tell me his daughter wanted to get married in her former church, and would I play? Weeks then passed in silence, so I phoned. The bride herself answered and, coward that she was, said I should speak to her Dad. Dad came to the phone, full of embarrassment and apologies. They had decided the wedding should be in the Edinburgh church after all, and had forgotten to tell me. I wondered if they’d forgotten to un-book the original church as well.

The third non-wedding was much more dramatic, and the only one I have ever pulled out of. The bride’s mother, an incredibly rude and overbearing woman, was ‘running this wedding’ (her words), and insisted, two days before the ceremony, that I was most definitely going to accompany ‘her’ soloist, even though the promised music had failed to arrive, and I had no idea of its content, technical level or indeed whether it was suitable for organ at all. When I pointed this out, the woman became downright objectionable, and I told her to find another organist.

My spies informed me that she did manage to find someone else to play, but even so, I felt a bit guilty about the bride, who was pleasant and rather meek (understandably, I suppose). I sent her a note of apology, referring her to her mother for the explanation, and wishing her well for the future. No doubt her new husband would shield her from the old bat that was to be his mother-in-law (no, I didn’t put that in the note).

The music for the solo arrived two days after the wedding.


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