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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

June 6, 2014

Complaints department

evelyn @ 12:52 pm

Most parishioners are supportive of their organist, especially if they know he or she is a beginner. But there will always be the odd one or two who find something to criticise about our playing – ‘too loud’, ‘too fast’, ‘too high’ – and some of them can be pretty arrogant and nasty with it. The standard answer I always want to give to ill-mannered complainers is ‘If you can do better, go ahead and do it’. But it’s perhaps more dignified if you just suggest they take their complaint to the parish priest.

Equally offensive is the more general ‘Why is (something) always so (something)?’ It was with fury that I read an article in a Catholic magazine, by one of their regular contributors, asking why organists are always making mistakes, and equating this with the nuisance of children crying in church. My letter of protest at this demoralising article wasn’t published, and I cancelled my subscription. Another person emailed me to ask why organists always played hymns so high. He should, of course, have been criticising the hymn book compilers rather than the organists, and addressing his complaint to Mayhew or Decani.

The damage complaints can do is out of all proportion to their seriousness. Most of them are isolated, just one person’s opinion. People who are satisfied tend not to comment. The complainers haven’t a clue about the stresses of the organist’s task, nor do they realise how drastically confidence can suffer from a single ill-chosen remark, especially if one is a beginner. I have known beginners of great promise simply give up when this happens.

Some suggestions from my own experience which might help if you are sensitive about complaints:

  • Work at developing a thick skin. Keep telling yourself you don’t care, and eventually you won’t care.
  • The only complainer that you have to pay heed to is your parish priest, and he won’t be arrogant and nasty about it (if he wants to keep his organist).
  • Sometimes things are criticised which are out of the control of the organist. The pitch of hymns already mentioned is a case in point, as is the inadequacy of some instruments. You should make this very clear when answering a critic. If the instrument is inadequate, suggest he or she complains to the parish priest. It might help you get something better to play.
  • It can be worth interrogating the complainer about exactly what he or she didn’t like. Press for details. This can get them flustered, because half the time they don’t know what they are talking about.
  • Complaints in the form of anonymous letters (yes, it happens) should always be totally ignored.
  • And of course, there’s always the possibility that the critic is right. If so, admit it to yourself (though not necessarily to them!) and quietly amend things in the future.

Not all complainers are nasty, of course. Some are actually trying to help, or are just interested in knowing what went wrong. I’m reminded of the parishioner who one Sunday jovially remarked ‘Organ went a bit funny in that last hymn, didn’t it?’. I had developed my thick skin by that time, so I just smiled as I told him that my toddler son had decided to crawl across the pedals from one side of the organ to the other while I played verse three.


  1. 😀 I don’t remember exactly, but I think that was just my own special way of giving constructive feedback…

    Comment by Ant — June 9, 2014 @ 11:50 pm

  2. Of course you don’t remember. You were about two years old at the time! Constructive feedback indeed.

    Comment by evelyn — June 10, 2014 @ 10:29 am

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