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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist



August 2, 2019

Wiring the organist brain

evelyn @ 2:49 pm

What happened last Sunday seems a very small thing, but it is significant.  Organists, especially Catholic organists, have to respond automatically to the Liturgy.   Thus, ‘we acclaim’ is the trigger for the Sanctus, ‘the mystery of faith’, the Memorial Acclamation, and so on.  These cues become hard-wired into the organist’s brain (is that the psychologist’s term for it?)

To understand last week’s great achievement, you really have to read my post about my embarrassment when I messed up the Kyrie (in front of the Archbishop, no less). The Kyrie had become wrongly wired because our priest almost always uses one version and I’d completely forgotten that there are three.

Since that dreadful day when I drowned the Archbishop’s solo tenor singing, I’ve been on full red alert whenever he has been to our parish, and rank being rank, in a somewhat lesser state of watchfulness with other visiting clergy.  This summer, our usual substitute priest took over for a fortnight.  On the first Sunday I relaxed when I realised that he was saying the same version of the Kyrie as our own priest, and by the second Sunday – last week, a very hot day – I had, without realising it, switched off the mental alert.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, my subconscious spoke in my ear. ‘Careful’, it said, ‘He’s saying the Confiteor’.  This prayer, of course, introduces one of the alternative Kyrie versions, so for the first time ever, I had been told automatically by my brain not to come in with the Gloria and obliterate the ‘Lord have mercy’, which, not being on the look-out, I could so easily have done,.

I hope this means that the Kyrie mess-up will never occur again, and I’m really rather proud that at my age I can still re-wire my brain to the point of changing an ingrained habit.

This encourages me to think of tackling other habits that could do with changing.  They mainly involve eating …

July 26, 2019

Organist Marthas

evelyn @ 2:28 pm

The Gospel reading on Sunday about Martha and Mary reminded me of our local Organists’ Society back in the 70s when I first joined.  We met in various churches for recitals and talks, followed by a cup of tea.

There were more men than women in the Society, but it was always the lady organists who would locate the hall kitchen and get the tea things set out, together with the biscuits, milk and sugar which we had brought.  During the talk or recital one of us could have to leave the interesting goings-on and retreat quietly to the kitchen to oversee the operation of kettle or urn.  It was infuriating.  Afterwards, there was the washing-up, again done by the ladies, whose cars were always the last to leave.

I was the one who raised the question of sex discrimination at an AGM, and I have to say the men, who had never given the matter a thought, responded whole-heartedly.  In fact, the sight of our gentlemen organists rushing round with kettles, cups and tea-towels was quite something.

Since then, there have been many changes.  Things like urns have improved and don’t need so much tending, and domestic roles in society are not automatically consigned to the females of the company.

Coming back to Martha and Mary, why do we rarely hear what happened next in these Gospel narratives?  Did Martha, on being reproved by Jesus, immediately flop down beside Mary to listen to the message, so that the disciples had to get their own tea?  I’d like to think so.

 

July 19, 2019

Did Théodore Dubois have four legs?

evelyn @ 3:06 pm

A pianist uses fingers, wrists, arms to play the piano keys, and feet for the damper and una corda pedals. He or she wouldn’t dream of employing any other part of the anatomy, let alone any outside object.

But with the organ, anything goes.

I was put in mind of this by a casual remark from a friend who claimed to have seen an organist turning pages with his feet. It was a passing comment which I really should have followed up, as I can’t imagine such a thing to be physically possible.

But it made me think of other instances. I was looking at a score by one of the French masters – Dubois, possibly? – and remember asking my teacher if the composer had four legs, as the pedal part included four notes played simultaneously. It was gently pointed out to me that you can play two adjacent notes with one foot, and if this occurs with both feet at the same time, you will get the ‘four-legged’ score.

Then there is the object officially called a ‘key weight’. Sometimes a piece will have a passage over a long pedal note. If you don’t have a pedalboard, you can place an object in the bass of one of the manuals which will depress the key concerned for as long as you need it. Composers using this technique should make sure the player has a hand free at suitable moments for the placing and removing of the key weight. Otherwise, a friend is necessary.

And the object itself? It can be anything – pens or pencils, watch, spectacles – anything that does the job. Before the advent of smart phones, I had a mobile that was just the right size and weight. My current favourite is the spare key to my husband’s car. My own very full key-ring tends to flop over on to the next-door notes.

Things can be done with the hands as well. A large hand needn’t be confined to one manual, but can sometimes briefly play a note or two on the other at the same time. Similarly, small hands can be helped by the occasional foot on a pedal note, minus any 16-foot stops.

Perhaps the most imaginative episode of this nature happened with a piece I was studying which finished with a very quiet chord containing a high pedal F sharp coupled to the Great. Not all organs have this high F sharp in the pedal, and mine didn’t. So this essential note somehow had to be played on the Great, though both hands were busy on the Swell, and with my short thumbs there was no chance of reaching down to the Great to add in an F sharp. It looked as if one of the Swell hands would have to be released, with consequent thinning of texture.

Then I had the brainwave. On the very gentle final chord, with both hands on the Swell, I leant forward and played the F sharp on the Great – with my nose!

July 5, 2019

No post this week

evelyn @ 9:46 am

[Owing to a close family bereavement there won’t be a blog post this week or next week.]

June 28, 2019

The long handshake

evelyn @ 8:08 am

As long as it is in a parish where they don’t know you, this method of getting out of the Sign of Peace will work.

On our last weekend away, in the West of Scotland, my C of E husband as usual came to Mass with me on the Sunday.  He absolutely hates the Sign of Peace and will go to great lengths to avoid it, such as hiding behind medieval pillars in old French churches, and having to be dragged out by friendly altar servers eager to serrer la main.

On this day in the West I had a sudden inspiration.  ‘Shake hands with me’, I whispered, ‘and keep shaking’.

So for the whole of the Sign of Peace we stood solemnly shaking hands with each other, all the while gazing into each other’s eyes in order to avoid having to notice the people round about who had turned towards us expectantly.

They must have thought we were mad.  But it worked.

 

June 21, 2019

Bridal chit-chat (29):  the unexpected Gloria

evelyn @ 10:18 am

Priest (catching me on my way to the gallery):   You should start the Gloria right after my introduction.

Me (totally taken aback): Gloria?  Are we singing the Gloria?

Priest:  Yes, the bride processes up to the front, then there’s the introduction, then the Gloria.

Me:  But I’ve no music … (priest’s expression changes) … but it’s all right.  I’ll cope.  Really, I will.

I scurry up to the gallery.

Gosh, I hadn’t expected an emergency quite so soon.  It’s a while since we had a Nuptial Mass, so maybe I’ve just forgotten.  Or have I?

But first, must organise this Gloria.  It will be our ‘standard’ version – has to be, it’s the only one the people really know.  It’s a Catholic-Catholic marriage and both families are local, so they should respond to it. Now, do I know it well enough to play from memory?  Probably, but let’s have a hunt around in the music cupboard.  Here’s a vocal copy.  Fine, that will do.  Now, find entrance music and get pre-nuptial tootling ready.  No need to start yet, guests are still chatting outside in the sunshine.

So why didn’t I expect the Gloria?  Well, there was that Saturday archdiocesan event with the Archbishop last year.  I had asked our priest about the Gloria and was told ‘There is no Gloria’.  This was because it wasn’t a Sunday.  But … but …    Puzzled, I had then pointed out to him that in a previous year we had had the same archdiocesan event, also on a Saturday, complete with Gloria.  ‘Yes’ had been the priestly response, ‘that’s because it just happened to be the Feast of St Margaret of Scotland, which does have a Gloria’.  Oh.  Right.  Ever had the feeling you can’t win?  Guests are starting to drift in.  Better shut down stream of consciousness and do some playing.

That was on the Saturday.  The sung Gloria in fact worked reasonably well. But on the Sunday I was thinking more clearly and I asked our priest straight out, ‘Does Nuptial Mass always have a Gloria?’  ‘Yes’, was the answer.  ‘But it needn’t always be sung, surely?’  I persisted.  ‘No, of course not.  It can be said.’

The next day I received a very useful email in which our priest spelled out conditions for the Gloria.  I reproduce them here as it could help other readers who were puzzled like me:

  • The Gloria is said or sung on all Sundays of the year (except Advent and Lent), all Solemnities and Feasts (including those in Advent and Lent), ritual Masses (weddings, ordinations, &c.), and other celebrations “of a more solemn character”.

I still think he was taking a chance having it sung at that wedding.

June 14, 2019

Return of the pump organ?

evelyn @ 1:15 pm

The other day I read a post on Father Z’s blog which rather took me aback. Someone wants to bring back the ‘pump organ’ to replace mediocre electronic instruments in parishes which can’t afford pipe organs.

A ‘pump organ’ is a harmonium or other kind of reed organ which works on the mouth-organ principle. Even the big ‘luxury’ ones with two manuals, pedalboard and electricity are really glorified harmonicas, and can sound like it, too.

Long before electronics were dreamed of, I pedalled away, sewing-machine-like, at an old harmonium at the front of the church. It was certainly good physical exercise. There was even a mechanism for big crescendos where you held a couple of boards wide apart with your knees, all the while pedalling furiously. At full volume, organ and organist were shaking violently, while the half-dozen or so pews adjacent, along with their occupants, vibrated in sympathy. The build-up of sound was impressive, but its quality was always reedy, in spite of the varied labels on the stops.

I do agree that many electronics at the lower end of the market set one’s teeth on edge, but a bit of research and testing, and avoidance of gadgetry, can result in an instrument with a reasonable sound. Advice, too, can be useful, such as that contained in the Scottish Federation of Organists’ excellent and freely downloadable booklet, Church Organs. The quality of the sound is really the only important thing and often the smaller, less complicated instrument sounds better. And it is frequently cheaper, too.

So although I’ve long since graduated to a pipe organ, given the choice I’d go for a small, carefully-chosen electronic rather than a reed organ.

But, come to think of it, why not both? The reed organ would be useful in power cuts, and I could certainly do with the exercise.  Or maybe on some of these larger models, someone else could use the exercise.  A real workout instrument.

 

 

June 7, 2019

Fees: just checking

evelyn @ 2:50 pm

This blog gets a lot of hits from people looking for information about organ fees, so here’s a bit of updating:

IRELAND

The Irish guidance notes mentioned in my post of 28 February 2012 are still as comprehensive and organised as before. Note the support given elsewhere on the website for training. To compare figures, however, you have to be able to work out what the euros mean, which these days can be a bit difficult.

ENGLAND AND WALES

The offerings page on the website of the Liturgy Office for the Church in England and Wales gives links to the Irish fee structure above, and also to the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) and the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM). However, all three links are at present broken. I’ve had a hunt around and found some up-to-date links for RSCM (here) and ISM (here). Note that the RSCM makes its recommended fees available only to members or affiliates.

SCOTLAND

The Catholic Church in Scotland doesn’t seem to offer any fees guidance online, unless I’ve just not been able to find it. My impression is that, with some notable exceptions, parish organists are generally unpaid, except for wedding and funeral fees. However, the inter-church Scottish Federation of Organists publishes its own recommended rates, which are those used by the Church of Scotland.

And finally:

The statement by the Irish Catholic Church which impressed me most when I first found their website is still there:

… it is essential that the value of music in the worship of the Church and the musicians’ training, skill and commitment are realistically recognised in monetary terms.

However,  the Scottish Federation of Organists warns:

‘ … it should also be noted that those who benefit from being paid the recommended scales should be competent to do so‘.

 

 

May 31, 2019

Tales of the organ

evelyn @ 11:09 am

 

It is difficult to realise that it is THIRTY YEARS since our wonderful Hill pipe organ was installed in the church gallery. I remember the circumstances very clearly.

Father James Ferrari, who sadly died not long after his retirement in 2000, had become our parish priest in 1986. He was very interested in church fabric and had seen instantly that the Pugin architecture and first-class acoustic of our church simply demanded a pipe organ (I was playing an unimpressive little electronic at the time). He acquired our present superb Hill from a Church of Scotland parish in Greenock, and for many months, while the money was being raised for the rebuild, I sat at my electronic in the gallery surrounded by heaps of loose organ pipes. It was very distracting, and I missed one or two important cues while dreaming of what was to be. But then gradually, bit by bit, the organ took shape even as I watched.

It was planned that it would be ready for the Confirmation visit of the then Archbishop in 1989. I was going to need a good deal of practice before the big event, but there were delays, and on the morning of Confirmation day the organ-builder was still at work. The electronic organ had already been removed and I was beginning to panic seriously.

By the evening it was finished – just – and the organ-builder pulled the stops for me as I tremblingly played my way through the Confirmation Mass.

Oh, the relief when it was over. The Archbishop’s procession had passed under the gallery and out of the main door. The church emptied as the people swarmed after him and no doubt everyone would be chatting away and taking photographs in the evening sunshine. I sat back, and those of us in the gallery shared congratulations.

Just then a young couple appeared. Their wedding was coming up on the Saturday. Could they hear their music on the new organ?

Of course! With great verve – no trembling now! – I happily bashed out Mendelssohn, until a quick look downward showed me a mitre and crozier moving below. The Archbishop had returned and was walking up the aisle in time to the Wedding March. Oops.

All that was thirty years ago. Hard to believe.

May 24, 2019

Health and safety in the organ loft

evelyn @ 4:00 pm

Organ galleries in older churches can be hazardous, and these days health and safety is taken very seriously indeed. Our present priest has restricted choir numbers, replaced the set of ancient wooden chairs which had been there since well before my time, and banned all children from the area.

Our gallery runs the full width of the church, but a quarter of that has been taken up by the organ since 1988. The stairwell itself takes quite a bit of room on the other side, so perhaps it is fortunate that there are only about a dozen in our choir, with everyone having a seat. Once a visiting choir of 30 or so wanted to stand up there like sardines, but this was vetoed by our priest, and they sang from the side-chapel instead.

Children are forbidden because of the dangers of the spiral staircase, but especially because the spaces in the decorated wooden rail at the front are big enough for a small person to fall through. The door from the porch is kept firmly shut, so that obstreperous toddlers who have been taken out for crying won’t try to climb the gallery stairs.

Forty years ago attitudes to safety were not quite the same. Our organ then was a smallish electronic, and organist and choir consisted entirely of young mothers, or mothers-to-be. We had found a couple of old doors to cover the gaps in the rail and all our infants were up there with us. There was even some discreet breast-feeding and nappy-changing, and the only real problem occurred when one or two of the older children started dropping bits of paper on the heads of people below.

But times keep changing, of course. A few decades earlier, attitudes were even more cavalier. This is a photograph of work going on at Stonehenge in the 1950s. Not a hard hat in sight. And is that someone’s lunch box on the upright stone to the right?

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