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
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.
June 1, 2016
Blog has been a bit neglected – apologies to my (probably few by now) regular readers. The reason has been, of course, Saturday’s organ afternoon for beginners, which needed a lot of preparation. And here they are:
There were fourteen people altogether, representing six different parishes in our archdiocese, which was quite a lot for this sort of event. Two of them were playing three-manual instruments on Sundays.
They were a cheerful, attentive crowd, and I hope they had some benefit from the afternoon. We looked at the nature of the organ itself, touched on the things to remember when leading the people, and, I regret to say, spent some time on an item called ‘shortcuts and surgery’, which told people how to cheat their way through a difficult or inadequate hymn setting; perfection is not the name of the game here. Working with chords was also a theme, with the emphasis on being simple and smooth. You can’t strum the organ.
The Forth in Praise 100 Hymns for Organ Beginners went like hot cakes. I’m beginning to understand the attraction of that book, which has been far and away the Forth in Praise best-seller. But that’s for another blog post.
In the meantime, I’m wondering what to do about the response to the question ‘What next?’ The strongest reply was ‘Pedals!’
May 14, 2016
The choir was surprised and pleased when we heard from our priest that we had been asked to sing at the Confirmation service, by special request of the parents. How nice. We hadn’t realised our own popularity.
Our priest suggested we sing the Veni Creator chant, and learn the response to the psalm which would be sung by a cantor. What we didn’t know were which hymns had been chosen by the school for the beginning and end of the service. By the time we got round to asking about this, the school was on its two-week Easter holiday, and no-one else seemed to know the answer. We decided that there wouldn’t be time to learn parts to the hymns, so we would just boost the singing of the melody. Meanwhile, I would email the school ahead of their return, politely regretting that at short notice we couldn’t do more.
A friendly but rather puzzling reply came back on the first day of term, saying that they were pleased I was playing the organ and giving me the names of the hymns. The email added that the parents were delighted with the involvement of the choir, and also named the teacher (we’ll call her Alice) who would be the choir overseer.
Choir overseer? Why did we need overseeing?
I put this to the choir at our next meeting, and they were equally mystified. Don’t they trust us or something?
Then it dawned. ‘Is there a school choir, does anyone know?’ I asked. There was indeed. Alice’s husband, who is in our own choir, immediately phoned home and got the answer. The parents had asked for ‘the choir’, meaning the school choir, but our priest had, naturally enough, taken this to mean the church choir, i.e. us. This explained our unexpected popularity, and why we apparently needed to be overseen. It also cleared up the school’s puzzlement and concern at Father’s insistence that the choir should be in the gallery, which is off-limits to children on safety grounds.
I met Alice in the car park on the evening of the Confirmation service, and had a laugh with her about the comedy of errors. She hadn’t known about her new role as choir overseer, and thought it hilarious, adding that with her husband in the choir, there might be a certain sense in it.
Our choir’s work has not been wasted, however. We have prepared the Veni Creator for singing tomorrow at Pentecost.
PS Important! There has been a good response to the Organ Afternoon for Beginners at Linlithgow on Saturday 28 May. If you would like to come but haven’t booked, get in touch now. Details on our News Page
April 30, 2016
Details are now posted on our News page. If you’re a beginner, or just thinking about it, do come along.
April 27, 2016
It isn’t about music, but I can’t resist sharing this.
After choir practice last night, we were chatting about the ‘clustering’ of parishes in our archdiocese, which is woefully short of priests. A handbook has recently been issued to all parishes to accompany a series of meetings on the subject.
I had read the booklet, but found it difficult to understand. Two words kept recurring which quite frankly didn’t mean anything to me: discernment and vibrancy. I asked the others if they could translate.
‘Oh, it’s quite straightforward,’ replied one of the baritones, ‘discernment is deciding which kind of beer you want, and vibrancy is the feeling you have when you’ve drunk it!’
April 17, 2016
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Calling organ beginners! Or pianists thinking of taking the plunge!
If you live in or near the Linlithgow area you will be very welcome to come to the organ afternoon in St Michael’s Catholic Church, 53 Blackness Road, Linlithgow for this 2-hour session. No charge.
More details will be given on this website and sent round the Forth in Praise mailing list. Meantime, put the date in your diaries, and watch this space …