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Forth in Praise

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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

April 23, 2010

Ohh, hohh, hohh-oh-oh!

evelyn @ 3:36 pm

In my professional capacity I’ve recently had quite a bit of transcribing from Youtube to do (this is in relation to special music requests for funerals in churches where CDs are forbidden – see Uses of Youtube). However, some of these latest demands have been for the ballad-type pop tunes that depend so much on the good looks, powerful voice, unbelievable breath control and amazing passion of the singer. The trouble is that when you take away looks, voice etc. the organist is left with a rather banal and repetitive ditty.

Musically, there’s nothing at all to these songs. The first verse is usually started in a husky whisper. This is the point at which, in concert Youtube videos, the audience might applaud wildly in recognition of what’s coming. Then there’s a build-up. Final notes of phrases are held for longer and longer. The volume increases. The tension increases. Bar-lines become meaningless. Then comes the Key Moment, THE REFRAIN – it’s usually no more than a phrase or two – which is belted out with utmost power and emotion, held on, and on, and on, then allowed to fade, often on a falling ‘ohh, hohh, hohh-oh-oh’, down to verse 2.

Verse 2 and any subsequent verses are never quite the same melodically as verse 1 or one another. Either the singer can’t remember the exact notes, or doesn’t care, or deliberately wants to tweak things with a few extra ohh-hohhs. Towards the end of the song the excitement builds up even more and the singer will go to town on The Refrain, repeating it, decorating it, shouting little extra bits while the accompaniment picks up the melody. The finish is either the loudest bit yet, or returns to an exhausted husky whisper.

What, oh what, can the organist do with this lot? Well, a church two-manuals-and-pedals instrument can’t compete with a singer in looks, but it can match him/her in decibels, and on breath control it wins hands down. If you forget about bar-lines and precision, and just have a semibreve tied to nothing whenever passion takes over, switch manuals dramatically for The Refrain, get the swell/volume pedal or pedals ready, even the dreaded crescendo pedal, then go mad with the diapasons and your intuition, it might just work. In fact, if the congregation takes ages to file out, it’s even possible to get carried away and start extemporising one’s own ohh-hohh-hohhs.

So that’s how I’ve been trying to manage it, and after one of these services, the minister came over looking pleased. ‘It sounded just like a hymn’ he said, which wasn’t quite the compliment I’d been hoping for. Me and the organ, we’re just not cool, was my inner reaction as I thanked him politely.

On second thoughts, though, when one considers some of the more modern hymns … Maybe we weren’t so bad after all.

1 Comment

  1. Did you laugh while you were writing this?
    The descriptions are wonderful!

    Comment by Elvira — April 23, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

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