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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

September 2, 2015

Back again!

evelyn @ 7:33 pm

Eyes a lot better. Maybe now I will actually see the priests who are conducting the weddings I play at!    Two more weddings coming up soon.

In the meantime, here’s something I picked up on Fr Z’s blog.


July 31, 2015

Eye Op

evelyn @ 12:59 pm

had eye operation 2 days ago, must keep away from computer till september, be back then

op should help with problems described in previous post


Great improvement already. May be back sooner than I thought.

July 26, 2015

Bridal chit-chat (18) – ‘Please stand’.

evelyn @ 12:24 pm

When a couple bring along their own priest, it’s always a bit worrying. I have to agree signals with him, especially for the beginning and end processions, and sometimes it’s difficult even to get a word with him. One such occasion was particularly stressful.

I went to the rehearsal but might as well not have bothered, as I didn’t get a chance to speak to the priest at all. The groom, who was concerned for me, said he would ask him to say ‘Please stand’ when the bride was ready to enter, and also at the end when the couple were ready to process out. ‘Please stand’, ‘please stand’ – easy to remember, surely.

On the day itself, the groom made a point of telling me that he’d spoken to Father, who had happily agreed to this.

So what happens? The soloist kindly offers to go down and check what the bride is doing. Comes back up after an interval to say bride is ready to go down the aisle. I look towards the front of the church. No priest. My eyesight isn’t too brilliant, but I can see that he isn’t there. Remembering a previous débacle with a missing cleric, I hesitate. We anxiously scan the sanctuary.

Then soloist says ‘I can see him. He’s in the vestry’. I look towards the open vestry door, and sure enough, I can make out a silhouette in front of the vestry window. What’s he playing at?

‘Why on earth doesn’t he come out’ I say to the soloist.

‘Oh, he’s now making piano-playing signs’ she says.

That, of course, I can’t see at all from the far end of the church – thank goodness she can. And whatever happened to ‘please stand’?

I launch into the procession music, aware that while I have been unable to see his silly piano-playing gestures, all the guests at the front will have done so, and will have wondered why I hadn’t responded immediately.  Why is it that I always play better when I’m furious?

At the end of Mass I was ready for it, and sure enough:

‘He’s doing the piano-playing bit again’. Honestly.

That soloist was wonderful. I couldn’t have managed without her help. She was a wedding guest and she agreed to explain, if other guests asked her, about the ‘please stand’ that never was.

July 19, 2015

The Noble Art of Busking

evelyn @ 2:38 pm

It first happened one evening when I was about eight years old. I had just finished my piano practice, which included waltzes with what I now know are Alberti basses. These triadic accompaniments fascinated me. There was potential there. So with my right hand I tentatively picked out ‘Under the Bridges of Paris’, the popular song of the moment (that dates me, doesn’t it!). Then I added in a left hand which did its best to provide an Alberti bass. I played hesitantly at first, then more confidently. At this point I became aware of a silence in the room and turned to find my parents staring at me in shock. My busking career had begun.

Playing by ear was not encouraged or appreciated in those days. Several years later, in secondary school, I was discovered thumping out ‘Let’s twist again’ on the classroom piano while the class all danced around the room in the teacher’s absence. I got a real row for creating a disturbance, although I thought I’d done a pretty good job. But busking has to be its own reward.

Organ improvisation, however, is in a different category. It has always been part of the organist’s stock in trade, and the French in particular have taken it as an art to the highest levels. I personally know some pretty impressive improvisers to whom it is a joy and an education to listen. My own busking isn’t in that league, but oh! how useful it is. There are two ways in which it helps: by providing hymn accompaniments when the setting in the book is not what it should be (essential with some Catholic hymnals), and by actually creating music to cover a blank spot in the service. With these two skills, even if they are rudimentary, you are never stuck.

It’s a pity that many organists, particularly beginners, are scared to give it a go. The early piano-training belief that playing by ear is bad for sight-reading still holds good for some. Others are just terrified of launching into the deep. Where would I go? And how would I get back? Well, there are books and teachers to help. SCOTS does quite a bit on the subject. An interest in music theory is a big advantage – that’s what started things off in my case, I think. When I expand the organ page of this website, I’ll include as much information on the subject as I can find.

Once you are used to busking, it’s great fun. The sort of situation which brings the most satisfaction comes when, say, a visiting archbishop is interacting with a group of people one by one, as in Confirmation, and has requested background music while this happens. You’ve watched the action carefully (no need to look at music), quietly improvising on the gentlest flute. As he comes to the last couple of people, you start working back towards the tonic, arriving there just as he mounts the altar steps again. You stop. He says ‘Let us pray’, and no-one, absolutely no-one, realises just how clever you have been. Probably no-one even realised you were playing.

Busking has to be its own reward.

July 9, 2015

The Big Voice

evelyn @ 10:48 am

There was a time long ago when playing in a certain church always gave me a headache. This was because I would spend the entire Mass combating the loud, strident and grating tones of a woman in the congregation whose mission in life appeared to be to impose her own funereal pace on everything that was sung. The people round about her became confused, then silent. Subtle attempts from the organ to bring her into line rarely worked. There was some sympathy for me from the rest of the people – in fact, I think they would have stood up and applauded had I one day stormed down the aisle and silenced her physically. Invariably, however, I was reduced to drowning her out completely with the organ. But it’s no fun having both organ and prima donna belting fortissimo when the words are ‘grant us peace’.

Since that time, in different churches, at home and abroad, I’ve been aware of Big Voices. They pop up in various guises, in most cases innocently unaware of the effect they are having: the cantor who has been asked to ‘help the singing’ by retaining the microphone for the rest of the Mass, or the man in the next pew whose rich operatic tenor swells out and obliterates every other sound. Sometimes even the celebrant. If there is an organ, the organist has to struggle to maintain the lead or else just gives up and follows.

But it needn’t be like that. I had the privilege of accompanying Susan Boyle when she sang solos at two local church services, and Voices don’t come much Bigger than hers! But – and this is terribly important – during the congregational hymn-singing she was not noticeable, except perhaps for a subtle richness within the general sound, which actually encouraged people to sing and follow the organ’s lead.

Susan Boyle is, of course, a trained professional and famous, but maybe a little training wouldn’t go amiss with our amateur Big Voices, especially if they have been asked to lead in the absence of an organ. Perhaps the church could pay for a singing lesson or two, to teach the Voices (1) to encourage the people to sing, (2) to blend rather than dominate when the people are singing and (3) if relevant, to take a hard look at their relationship with the microphone.

If this is suggested positively – the last thing one wants to do is to hurt feelings – it might hopefully put a stop to mutterings such as ‘Oh no, it’s the foghorn again’, which I used to overhear so very frequently in that long-ago church.

June 29, 2015

Collecting thoughts

evelyn @ 8:12 pm

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

It IS a performance …

evelyn @ 3:47 pm
take a bow2

… 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

Changes ahead!

evelyn @ 7:09 pm

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

Knowing what you know

evelyn @ 11:43 am

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

Bring flowers of the rarest

evelyn @ 4:53 pm

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.


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