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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

June 14, 2021

It’s like shepherding cats …

evelyn @ 4:42 pm

Following on from the last blog post, things are becoming even more changeable, going in all directions.  Keeping up to date is really difficult.

The early Mass is still streamed online, but the readers are now live instead of recorded.  So would the cantor be, except that we don’t have one.  We never have had.  To organise it would be a major project, which just isn’t feasible in the present circumstances.  So the recorded cantor continues.   As before, the same set of rehearsal material can be used for the live cantor at the later Mass, although if they are different people and if their voice ranges are different, a transposed version of everything will also be needed.  This is where my brain starts going round in circles.

That was last week.  Then everything changed again, and yet again.  First change – we were allowed ‘a few’ singers, so four were permitted 2 metres apart from one another in the gallery.  As the choir is twelve strong, a selection process had to be quickly and fairly created.

The next change was the body-blow which almost caused me to run off down the church drive shouting ‘I give up!’  As I entered the church last Sunday, our priest had only just heard that congregational hymn-singing was to be allowed provided they all keep their masks on.  He was delighted and had put hymn numbers on the board for beginning and Communion.  It wasn’t the short notice of the hymns that caused my despair – after 40-odd years I can play just about anything – nor the idea of an opening hymn.  It was the Communion hymn problem.

Pandemic-time Communion in our church takes place after Mass is finished.  People walk up the aisle, receive Communion, and go straight out of the church by the side door into the car park.  They can be discounted as far as any singing is concerned.  Even the remnant choir has to go down for Communion eventually, so last week I finished up playing the final verse solo while the sanitisers got to work with their mops.

So now we have to work out a system to cope with that.  And all the time, we are hearing not-so-good news about the Delta variant and an impending third wave.  Could all these changes start being unravelled one by one, until we are back at square one?

Our priest recently suggested a summer break for musicians and technicians, which is a really good idea.  If only there was somewhere nice to go.



May 14, 2021

Light at the end of the tunnel

evelyn @ 12:52 pm

I’ve no doubt this blog will be registered yet again as ‘dead’ by whatever body gauges the health of blogs.  But quite honestly, when there’s been nothing to say that isn’t depressing, why say it?

But now things are improving, although singing in church still seems to be the last item on any government’s agenda.  One singer is now permitted, behind a plexiglass screen, and from next week, more than one (they don’t say how many) but still not the whole congregation.

At the moment everything is fluid and uncertain.  Easter for us was a mix of live and recorded music.  For the Vigil, we interpreted a ‘single singer’ as meaning ‘a single singer at any one time’.  So our priest chanted the Exsultet, and we had separate cantors for the Gloria and each psalm.  Separate readers, too, which made for the most incredible, dance-like, social distancing movements, each reader/cantor pair trying to stay well away from the previous pair, the following pair and each other.

Easter over, we went back to the live online early Mass with our choir’s recordings, and the later Mass with single cantor and small electronic organ, streamed only to the overflow people in the church hall. In both cases the allowed 50 people are in the church, with a further 20 in the hall watching a screen. Even so, quite a number of people have had to be turned away, if the booking stats are anything to go by, and I’ve heard that the same is happening in other parishes.  The predicted falling-away doesn’t seem to be taking place.

Meanwhile, the choir is champing at the bit.  We have kept in touch all through these long months, with WhatsApp and Zoom as well as making and mixing recordings.  Our tenors have come into their own, and we have been recording as SATB rather than our previous SAB.  Wouldn’t it be nice if that continued in reality?  And the pipe organ’s major refurbishment is almost complete.  It was really rather clever of our priest to have this work done in lockdown.

So each week at present, I have to email an audio file of the psalm to the cantor, who returns his/her recording for me to mix with organ accompaniment.  The recording is played at the early Mass on Sunday.  The same cantor then appears in person at the later Mass and sings the psalm again, with organ accompaniment by me.   So I have to plan and execute remotely the music for the early Mass (fortunately, we have plenty of hymns in the can now), and then turn up and provide the music live for the later Mass.  I feel like a juggler, throwing plates in the air, and waiting for the crash.  But this is probably just another stage in the return to normal life.  If only we don’t have a third wave …

February 20, 2021

Lent Lockdown Take Two

evelyn @ 5:37 pm

You can get used to anything.

Lent is here and we are still streaming. But we’re much more in the groove now. I’ve just agreed with our priest that we’ll do the Litany of the Saints as usual on the First Sunday in Lent, which is tomorrow.  The main problem has been whether to get all the saints up on the screen, or just the responses. And we’ve prepared a Lenten Gospel acclamation.   We might even try to slip in a little penitential anthem sometime.

Of course, it’s nice to know that Holy Week and Easter are already in the can, so to speak, from last year. Even so, after a year’s experience, we may be able to improve on them a little.



January 22, 2021

More streaming problems

evelyn @ 5:56 pm

I was recording a solo piece on my living-room organ to be used as ‘tuning-in music’ on the next Sunday. We call it ‘tuning-in music’ because quite a lot of people, including myself, have difficulty finding the correct video on Facebook, that is, the video that is about to go live with the weekly Mass.  If music is playing over a still of the the church, they know they’re in the right place.  So every week I or my fellow-instrumentalists have to record something suitable to fill this slot, and I was having a go at an organ piece by Noel Rawsthorne.

Just after the final chord died away, the doorbell rang.  I was quite pleased at the lucky timing of this – until I came to play back the recording.  Although the doorbell sound came after the end of the music, my gentle closing diminuendo included the sound of the delivery van drawing up and parking, a door slam and some crunching gravel.

Ah, the big recording studios don’t have these problems … (sigh).



January 6, 2021

Back to Square One

evelyn @ 1:59 pm

Well, that’s it.  Churches closed again.  Everything locked down.  What a way to celebrate the Epiphany.

At least this time I don’t have to worry about keeping the organ ticking over with a weekly practice.  It’s out of action, undergoing a major refurbishment.  The hope is that it will be ready for Easter …

Last Sunday I played our small electronic organ, down in the side-chapel.  It was unexpectedly pleasant being down there, even though I had to wear a mask, and at one point, a visor.

And it was nice to be part of the socially-distanced group that gathers in the cold outside the side door after Mass. Some old friends were there.  That will stop, too.  Only two people are allowed to meet in the open air now.  There’s no Mass for anyone to meet after, anyway.

What are the chances of a proper choir singing with a refurbished organ at Easter, I wonder?

We can always live in hope, I suppose.  At least we have kept the audio files from last year’s Holy Week.  And after the huge, frantic effort that was Christmas, that is very good to know!

Happy New Year!



November 8, 2020

A problem unique to streaming

evelyn @ 1:49 pm

It had to happen, I suppose. I have had to explain to one of our best cantors why the Gospel Acclamation verse she recorded would sound nothing like her when she listens to it online on Sunday. And it’s all my fault.

It started the previous week. The cantor was our deepest bass who prefers a tone below the usual key. It’s good practice for my transposing as well. Since lockdown, however, I’ve been using my living-room electronic, and instead of transposing I’ve been cheating by using the transposing knob.

Yes, you’ve guessed it. I forgot to switch it back again. The ‘psalm guide’ for the next cantor (melody with a few chords) went out a tone down, and as neither of us has perfect pitch, we didn’t notice.

This particular cantor has a lovely alto voice, so her psalm, in E flat instead of F, sounded positively beautiful. But her Gospel Acclamation verse was a different story. The choir’s Alleluia is in G, and the cantor’s verse, which comes between the two Alleluia renderings, turned out on this occasion to be in F. I looked at the transposing knob and my heart sank.

It was too late to ask the cantor to re-record. So I had to check out the pitch-change capabilities of my sound-mixing program. Yes, it could raise the short verse by a major second, even giving a reasonable result, but in doing so, it made the voice quite unrecognisable as that of our cantor. But it was the only way, so I sent off the result to our technician.

What to do then? The choir has a WhatsApp chat on which it is customary for them to dissect Sunday’s performance. Would they notice? My husband said I should confess to the cantor, but leave the others to work it out. So that’s what I did, and she was quite amused.

As for the others, they didn’t even notice the doctored acclamation! Although they did remark on the lovely psalm, quite rightly.




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.


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