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Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

December 16, 2014

Improvising at speed

evelyn @ 6:06 pm

The Mass seemed to be going faster than usual. We were nearly at the final blessing, and my book of exit voluntaries, beside me on the bench, was still underneath the three hymn books and a missal that I had been juggling with for the last hour.  Carefully, I pulled the voluntary book out from under the others, opened it at an eighteenth-century trumpet piece, and laid it on top of the pile. Alas, my action destabilised the pile, and the voluntary book slid away and disappeared, landing with a clatter down beside the pedals, just out of reach.

No time to leave the bench to retrieve it. The dismissal was upon us, and I had to launch into the final hymn.

What do I do? I thought as I played the hymn. Should I BUSK a final voluntary? A fast and furious improvisation on nothing in particular?

I tend to improvise quite a bit before and during Mass, because it makes it easier to keep an eye on the action being covered. But at these times quiet background music is all that is needed, with tempo no more than andante. A ‘playing-them-out’ piece is something else again. One has to be thinking ahead when improvising, and I wasn’t sure if I could think fast enough for this situation. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I had a go.

It wasn’t the most inspiring of exit voluntaries, as I was playing safe both rhythmically and harmonically. But it was cheerful enough, and helped greatly by the lovely tone of the organ and the resonant acoustic. I’m fairly sure most people don’t listen anyway.

But the experience has got me thinking. This is surely an area where one can improve with a bit of practice.  After all, look what the French can do …

Will try it again sometime.  And next time, it will be deliberate.

 

December 6, 2014

The Christmas Carol Mass has made it!

evelyn @ 2:04 pm

Well, well, it’s all happening now. My Christmas Carol Mass has been officially approved in time for Christmas, which is very nice indeed. You may remember it was rejected last time because it needed all three Memorial Acclamations rather than the single one I gave it. There were some missing slurs as well.

Anyway, it now has three acclamations, slurs in place and one or two other minor points sorted, and can be found here.

November 28, 2014

The dreaded lurgy is with us!

evelyn @ 7:03 pm
The dreaded lurgy is with us!

Last Sunday at the organ I was not myself. I kept coughing and needing drinks of water. I was irritable with the choir, and my playing was pretty substandard. In fact I had to abandon the final voluntary after the first two bars went pear-shaped, and continue it as an improvisation in the same style – the usual coward’s way out for us buskers. The result wasn’t inspiring but at least it was reasonably respectable and not the obvious mess-up it would have been if I’d tried to carry on with the music.

Some of the choir were rather cool as they left; others hugged me and said to calm down. In the afternoon I sent a terse text message to them all cancelling Tuesday’s practice. Some cool acknowledgements to that.

By Monday the family had to call the doctor.

I was flat out with the current November lurgy, a chesty coughing-and-wheezing bug needing, in my case at least, antibiotic treatment.

Now, on Friday, things are improving, and I’m wondering about the best way to get back the goodwill of the choir. Also, I have doubts about my fitness for Sunday coming.

So today I rang our priest to discuss this Sunday, only to discover that he, too, is down with the same lurgy. I had noticed him coughing during Mass last week, but hadn’t put two and two together.

I don’t know how infectious this horrible bug is, but I’m getting a bit worried about those nice people in the choir who hugged me …

November 14, 2014

Scottish composers please note!

evelyn @ 4:04 pm
Scottish composers please note!

The committee which approves for publication new settings of the Mass is back in business after quite a long interval. There is a meeting scheduled for 18 November – next Tuesday. The Roman Missal Scotland website has the news. Its composers’ guide has now been updated, and gives all details.

This is an excellent development for Scottish composers, whose Mass music, if they wanted it first published or distributed in Scotland, has been on hold for some time. Parish musicians will welcome it, too. I’ve had a number of enquiries from people looking for home-grown settings.

I’m assuming this will mean that the list of approved settings on the Roman Missal Scotland website will also be updated following the committee meetings. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on the website now.

October 31, 2014

Cantors and confidence

evelyn @ 1:25 pm

Our parish has five new cantors, bringing the number up to eleven, and for the first time in several years some serious training is required.

We first started singing the psalm in 2000, when there was a change of priest. It was completely new to us, but we mobilised the choir, brought in an expert to give us a tutorial, and away we went. However, only now do I realise what hard work that was. Sight-singing is not easy, and one or two of the cantors needed tapes, which meant recording the psalm, and I am no singer. There were also regular weekly or twice-weekly practice sessions. But the original batch of cantors soon became proficient, and the workload was a lot less.

As the years went by, we grew more confident and tried various experiments, such as cantor duets. Perhaps the high spot was a Christmas psalm sung in two parts by six cantors grouped around the lectern.

Now, with this new batch of cantors, I have a ‘back-to-square-one’ feeling, and even though tapes have given way to MP3 files, I still don’t fancy making recordings and having endless practices.

So, to a new approach. Using the Responsorial Psalter as a basis, the idea is that the non-sight-singing cantors should first of all learn two chants by rote, one major and one minor. With luck, they should be able to use these with any response, although the organist may have to make some adjustments.

These ‘default’ chants shouldn’t be needed for ever. After all, we want to encourage people to learn to sight-sing, as so many of the original group of cantors did. But the chants will give confidence initially, which is probably what is most needed just now.

So I’ve prepared some material and very soon we’re going to have a Karaoke session with the new cantors on the block.

We’ll see how it goes …

UPDATE

I meant to post the above last week, but things got in the way, and before I knew it, the cantors’ session had come and gone.

It was highly successful, but the big surprise came when they all produced their mobile phones and asked for a recording of the chants on the spot. With the organ, and the help of an experienced singer, it was no bother at all. Handy things, these smartphones.

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.

susanboyle



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.

 

 

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