web analytics

Forth in Praise

Downloads and Publications


Blog posts by DATE

Blog posts by TITLE

BRIDAL Blog Posts

blog posts


The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

September 25, 2020

Organists don’t count. So what’s new?

evelyn @ 5:14 pm

‘Organists don’t count, do they’, someone said as I passed a group in the church porch deep in socially-distanced conversation. Well, we’ve always known that, I thought. Why mention it now?

We organists are used to a certain invisibility: ‘the organ played’, ‘the singing was good today’, ‘let’s just have silence [i.e. background organ music] during the ceremony’. It’s actually good for both ego and nerves to be regarded, or rather disregarded, in this way, and I’ve never really objected to it.

Then I realised they were talking about the virus. Although the horrible thing is having a second wave, the numbers attending our two Masses are steadily increasing, and last week they passed the maximum permitted, leaving one or two people stuck outside. Our priest was now discussing with the stewards whether to have a third Mass or to start a booking system, or both.

I hung around to listen, and as the conversation progressed, it became clear that in the Covid world organists do count. Everyone does, apparently, even babes in arms. All are equal.

But at least the organist still gets to make the most noise. Although the babes in arms can be serious rivals …


September 11, 2020

Masses and Masses

evelyn @ 12:09 pm

In the beginning, our church had three Masses on a Sunday. Then came Covid, and suddenly we had no Masses. Then we hesitantly ventured into a streamed Mass. Gradually, as we became more confident, we made recordings which were included with the streamed Mass said live by the priest. Each choir member or instrumentalist recorded his or her part in isolation, while others did the sound mixing to bring all the parts together. Cantors, too, recorded their solo psalm settings, to which an organ accompaniment was then added. We estimated from the figures of those who tuned in to the live streamed Mass that almost all our congregation was with us.

Then churches were allowed to open again for limited numbers, and a second Mass was added, at which I now provide a snatch or two of live organ music, all that is allowed, for a small congregation. The original streamed Mass continued, but now there were people in the pews, whose responses, stronger each week, could be heard online. The numbers watching live went down as the attendances went up.

I suppose it had to happen that some of the choir also went along and had the strange experience of listening to their own recordings. For the cantors, who sing solo, it was even more eerie. As one of them said, ‘listening to myself singing the psalm was quite surreal’.

There’s a science fiction paradox (or was it something Einstein said?) about travelling fast enough to meet up with oneself going the other way. It must have felt a bit like that.

Personally, I would feel very strange if I had to sit in a congregation and listen to myself playing. But at least with social distancing I shouldn’t overhear any disparaging remarks …



September 1, 2020

The Catholic organist’s new normal

evelyn @ 3:17 pm

I once posted a description of my organist’s routine before the start of Mass.  It included porch chat, cantor preparation, organising music for hymns and Mass parts, all working up to the moment when the bell goes, the full church rises to its feet and the first hymn starts.

How different is the routine now, with only a few dozen people spaced out among the pews.  No gossip, no cantor, no hymns or hymn books, no Mass music, no exit voluntary.  Instead:

  • Park car, put on mask and gloves before getting out. Wave to friends in car park (smiling no use in mask), greet ushers in porch.  Up to gallery.
  • Remove mask and gloves, take out sanitiser and disinfectant wipes, wipe organ doorknob, open organ door.
  • Disinfect stops, keys, console, chair, chair lever, wind and light switches. Poor organ – never has this happened to it in the whole of its 146-year life.  Take out organ shoes and glasses.  Glasses on console.  Change shoes.
  • Take out music, what there is of it – a few quiet voluntaries and two sets of improvisation notes. Check time, don organ glasses, play voluntaries until two minutes before bell, then start improvisation no. 1 quietly, building up slowly until bell goes.  Then much stronger build-up – this is the loudest I’ll play all day, must make the most of it – until priest has passed behind altar and is ready to begin Mass. Stop.
  • After this, nothing at all until the Our Father, when I start playing improvisation no. 2 very quietly and continue until Communion. This innovation, the brainchild of our priest, was described in last week’s post.
  • Mask on, down to receive Communion (so difficult not to say ‘Amen’). Afterwards, another wipe down of everything, mask and gloves in place, and back to car, waving at friends and occasionally stopping for a muffled, socially-distanced chat.

Our other, live-streamed Mass is different again, and I have responsibilities there, too.  But that’s for another post.




August 24, 2020

The Communion problem

evelyn @ 5:39 pm

It wasn’t working.  I’d already realised that, I think, but it was confirmed by our priest, whom I encountered as I sneaked into church on Friday for a practice (I say ‘sneaked’ because I’m never sure what’s legal and what isn’t these days).  He was happy enough about voluntaries before the start of Mass, but the other organ spot at Communion was not so good.

‘Communion is over too quickly’, said Father, ‘and there’s no-one left to listen to you’.  It was true. Twenty or so people receive Communion and are out of the side door and into the car park in a matter of seconds, leaving me serenading the mop and disinfectant brigade.  But our priest is anxious that there should be some music at Mass, even though singing is forbidden, so his new suggestion was that I should provide background music for part of the Mass instead of Communion.  I was to start at the beginning of the Our Father and carry on until the end of the Agnus Dei.

Now this was something completely new, and very interesting.  It would have to be improvised, of course, but it does give the organ a chance to take part in the liturgy itself and not just be an accompaniment to hymns and Mass parts.

So I tried it, and it seemed to work.  The lovely 8’ flute on the Swell was perfect for the job, and faded out nicely at ‘grant us peace’.  Ironically, Communion took quite a bit longer this time as more people had turned up, but I didn’t play.

The verdict from priest and people was favourable, and I’ve been asked to take it further.  Next Sunday I’ve to continue playing until Communion is under way.  That still gives me plenty of time to go downstairs and join the socially-distanced queue myself.  Although, as I said to Father, I’d rather the ushers didn’t turf me out into the car park along with the rest.  An organist always has to go back and tidy up.


August 11, 2020

Distracted times (again)

evelyn @ 4:38 pm

‘You’re the organist, aren’t you’, said the elderly lady in the church porch.  Considering that I was wearing a mask and my hair was down to my shoulders, I was surprised that she recognised me, unless she had merely registered my formal funeral outfit and briefcase.

Her next words took a weight off my mind.  ‘I’m so pleased there will be some music,’ she said, ‘even though we’re not allowed to sing.  It will make all the difference’. I was relieved because I had been feeling a bit inadequate, being engaged as organist, but forbidden to play any hymns, psalms or parts of the Requiem Mass.  Quiet music as people came in, something at Communion and a tune of their choosing as the coffin was taken out, was all that was permitted, and I did my best.

This had been my first funeral since lockdown.  At first, church services weren’t allowed at all.  Then they were, but limited to ten family members, and latterly to twenty.  This particular funeral would in normal times have been a big one, with the church full.  As it was, quite a crowd had gathered outside, no doubt intending to form the cortège to the graveside.

Afterwards, I didn’t follow my usual custom of joining other parishioners in the car park to pay my respects as the hearse left.  Instead, because of the numbers, I stayed in the gallery, peering through the clear bits of the stained-glass window, watching the vehicles move off.  As I expected, there were many more cars than the small congregation had warranted.

I had planned to have a practice then, but when the high-vis jackets with their mops and disinfectant turned up, I felt sad and just went home.

I’ve been a funeral organist for decades, and on the whole I have found it an uplifting experience, which I suppose is to be expected in a Christian setting.  Not on this occasion, sadly.  But if a bit of consoling music helped some people, then that is what matters.

Oh, these distracted times.


August 3, 2020

This blog is not dead!

evelyn @ 3:03 pm

It’s just been having a bad time, like the rest of us.

My son uses one of these feeds that tell you when a blog you follow has posted something.  He says that until the Organists’ Blog revived suddenly a week or so ago his feed had declared ‘this blog is probably dead’.  What a cheek!  It’s just been feeling a bit out of sorts, and no wonder.

The fact is that sometimes there is really nothing to say.  The blog prides itself on dealing strictly with matters concerning church organs and organists, and rarely strays out of this area.  Of course, I do have plenty of opinions on the issues of the day, and could go on at great length about the Scottish government, the British government, Donald Trump, and the fact that pubs seem to have precedence over schools and churches in our culture.  I could, I suppose, give opinions on religious matters unrelated to the organ, such as the Pope’s aeroplane interviews, Cardinal Pell, and why the Church of Scotland is being more cautious than we are about re-opening churches.  Or I could chattily bore readers about things affecting me personally, like the fact that I can’t get a hairdresser’s appointment until late September, and possibly not even then, if we have a second wave of virus.

But the Organists’ Blog doesn’t deal with these things.  Not that it shies away from controversy, provided the controversy concerns organs.  The subject of organist fees, or the lack of them, comes up regularly in this blog, as do the copyright laws, which I think are so unhelpful.  And back in 2010 the blog happily took sides in the heated argument over the music for the papal visit to Scotland, and got quite a bit of flak for its stance.

But with churches shut for months, choir members operating in isolation, and a lot of eye-straining sound mixing going on, what was there to say?  We all felt depressed over it, and there seemed little point in echoing this on the blog.  However, things are moving a little now, hence a slight revival seemed in order.

But it is slight. Right at the moment there is only one organ-related issue that I can think of to report on.  The government in its wisdom has forbidden wind instruments, as well as singing, in churches for fear of infected droplets flying around, but doesn’t say whether it counts the pipe organ as a wind instrument.  The general opinion, however, is that there is no danger as organists don’t blow into their instruments!  Anyway, I played again yesterday.

Dead, indeed!  Huh!




July 27, 2020

Back again! At last!

evelyn @ 12:42 pm

I was back at the organ at long last yesterday morning. But how different it all is. No singing allowed, so no hymns or Mass parts. Just background organ music at beginning and end.

The music to be played at the beginning had caused a bit of discussion. Our priest wanted something loud. He seemed to be thinking in terms of a processional, but of course there would be no procession. He would simply come out of the sacristy and walk over to the altar. A bell would signal this, and the people would stand up. I was concerned that any loud music on my part might drown out the bell.

I suggested we should, at least on this occasion, try to follow the custom of the Protestant churches thus: organ plays quietly, bell goes, people rise, organ keeps playing until priest has moved to the altar and is ready to start Mass, organ then winds up. Priest agreed to this when I added that I would explore ways of making things louder for future occasions. In fact, I’ve thought of a few already.

The end of Mass was very strange, and rather sad. After receiving Communion, people didn’t return to their seats but instead turned into the side chapel, then out through the opened emergency door and into the car park. It was over very quickly, and my background music just died away.

Then, as I watched from the gallery, the ushers moved in with mops and disinfectant. They looked quite alarming and police-like in their high visibility jackets and their masks. I could hardly recognise the friendly churchgoers I knew so well.

Will things ever get back to normal?

But it was good to be back.



May 16, 2020

How ‘live’ do you have to be?

evelyn @ 4:04 pm

A friend and I had an argument over the validity of including recordings in a live-streamed Mass. Her view was that such a Mass was not fully ‘live’ – happening at that moment. I think she thought that if you record one bit you might as well record the lot, and she’s probably right about that.

My point was that viewing a Mass online doesn’t mean you are attending Mass. The only people who really attend a ‘live’ Mass are the physically present operators of the streaming equipment. So why not include a bit of recording of parish readers and singers, to give a sense of community in lockdown?

I suppose that in the end it depends on what any particular parish priest wants to do, and in these unprecedented times, priestly reactions vary widely. For example, our priest actually requested the reader and choir recordings, but I also know of a priest or two with sonorous voices who do all their own singing live, hymns as well as Mass parts. The latter certainly fulfils my friend’s demands, as does the routine of another church I’ve viewed, where a live-streaming operator comes forward and does the readings. And I’ve heard of one where readers and a cantor are actually present, though no doubt socially-distanced.

There are lots more variations, all over the world. In fact, never have there been so many opportunities of ‘experiencing’ (can’t say ‘attending’) different Masses in different places.

My priest thinks the demand for live-streaming will still be there after the pandemic is over. That might not be a bad thing, so long as choir and organ are back in business and all this sound-mixing is finished. On the other hand, it could be a bit embarrassing for the choir if things go wrong in real time! At present we can always adjust a not-too-good recording …


May 8, 2020

Virtual virtuosity?

evelyn @ 1:06 pm

Since the last blog entry, I have been working non-stop. Far from being a failure, that first virtual Mass was surprisingly well-received by our congregation, and spurred us on to greater efforts. Holy Week hit us in a way it never had before (and I hope never will again!) but we did our best to rise to the occasion. Our virtual Vigil had all its psalms plus a bit of class with a Handel violin and piano movement by a husband-and-wife team. These were the only two people working together in the same household. Everyone else was on his or her own, receiving backing tracks, putting the headphones on and singing into a mobile phone. All the vocal tracks were then emailed to the two sound mixers (I’m one of them) who put them all together and sent the resulting ‘choral’ music files to the technicians who actually ran the streaming.

Since then, we’ve kept going, refining all the time. I found the sound mixing very difficult at first, but am improving all the time, to the point where I think of re-opened churches with an unexpected twinge of disappointment. However, I will be pleased when I can stop wearing my eyes out looking at wavy lines.

All this is nothing new, of course. Virtual choirs are streaming all over the world, and ours is a very amateur effort. But the importance here is that we are the regular singers and musicians of our parish, still doing our job although all locked down separately. I think this is appreciated by the viewing congregation. Or might they be grumbling that even with the church closed, they can’t get rid of us?

PS If you want a sample, try this (Mass starts about 6-and-a-quarter minutes in):

Mass 03rd May 2020 – 4th Sunday of Easter

4th Sunday of Easter

???????????? St Michael's Roman Catholic Church, Linlithgow ??????, 3 ?????? 2020 ?.

March 28, 2020

Music from Lockdown

evelyn @ 6:14 pm

I’m really getting worried about our live-streamed Mass tomorrow.  Last week’s was very good.  It had no music but that was, I thought, absolutely fitting in the circumstances.  This week, however, the people setting it up have asked me to provide music – music that we have in our own church.

Our choir has never done any recording, nor have any of the cantors – of church music, anyway.  So no chance of streaming anything with words.  It was decided that if I could provide an organ verse of a hymn for the beginning and another for the end, that would do.

Even that was a problem, with the beautiful church organ now out of bounds.  All I could use was the instrument I have in my living-room for practice.  It has two manuals and full pedalboard, but is electronic, and pretty old.  I put the reverb up to full, but it still sounded like an ancient electronic.  I managed to hitch it up to the speakers of our hi-fi, but it didn’t improve it much.

There was also the problem of recording.  All I had was the Voice Memos app on my iPhone.  The final result sounded very much like an ancient electronic with reverb up full, hitched to an amplifier and recorded as a voice memo.   Also I only now realise that I have unwittingly over the years used the wonderful acoustic of our church to conceal flaws in my playing.  These now stand out pretty obviously, or so I think.

The people organising the streaming seem to think the music is OK, even after receiving the files.  They say that when it’s been through all their mixing and filtering processes, it will be fine, and that I’m being too purist.

Well, we’ll know tomorrow.  I was going to add the link at the end of this post, but can’t face it.  But I just might do an update, depending.



Older Posts »