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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

February 9, 2010

The organ and other instruments

evelyn @ 5:41 pm

About 15 minutes before the funeral was due to start, I was told someone in the porch wanted to speak to me. When I got down, there was a young girl standing at the gallery door, in tears and clutching an oboe.  This was her gran’s funeral, and she wanted to play the oboe as her contribution to her gran’s music.  I asked gently if she had any particular piece in mind.  Well, no.  She just wanted to join in with the hymns.  She had no music with her.  She said she would look over my shoulder, read the music and play along.

How could I refuse? The only problem for me would be having an oboe in my ear the whole time, and I could put up with that.  It wouldn’t matter if she played wrong notes or broke down – all the family knew who she was, and how much she loved her gran. So we did it, and it went well.

But – and this is a big BUT, quite enormous in fact – had she been clutching a clarinet, everything would have been different.  For those who don’t know, the clarinet is one of a number of transposing instruments, which sound at a different pitch from that of their written music.  Any accompaniment must be transposed to accommodate this.  Electronic organs have transposing knobs, but pipe organs generally don’t.  Transposing at sight is not my favourite occupation, and all the hymns at a funeral, with no time for preparation … the very thought makes me shudder.

Usually, though, there is advance warning:

Cornet player:  I want to play the Burns song ‘Of a’ the airts’ at the tribute time.

Me:  What’s the key?

Cornet player:  G

Me:  Your G or my G?

Cornet player:  My G

(It always takes me ages to work this out – it’s like the mental arithmetic which I was so hopeless at in school.  It’s a B flat cornet, so if he reads C, it comes out as B flat.  So if he reads G, it will come out as F.  So I have to play the accompaniment in F – I can busk that, not a problem. He’ll play the tune in G and it should sound OK.  But will it?  I don’t trust my own calculations.)

Cornet player: Are you still there?

Me:  Oh, yes.  Sorry.  Look, I know time is short, but please (oh, please) can we have a practice?

And we did. And it was fine.

But there was one proposition – for a wedding this time – that I did have to reject, even though asked in advance.  The chief bridesmaid wanted to play a euphonium solo from the front of the church, with me accompanying from the gallery at the back.  With my mind full of the strange spectacle this would present, I voiced some doubts. Even though the instrument wasn’t a transposing one, I wasn’t at all sure that it would blend with the organ. And I was especially concerned about the time lag.  In the end I suggested she perform unaccompanied, which she did.  And it was really rather nice.

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