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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

December 18, 2017

O Holy Night (again!)

evelyn @ 5:53 pm

I’ve noticed that a number of bloggers simply upload a Christmas carol or two at this busy time of year.  A lovely idea.

I’ve decided to follow suit, and for the third year running will give readers my favourite version of ‘O Holy Night’.  (If video doesn’t work, go here and scroll down).  I promise I will not feature it next year!

Our choir leader hates ‘O Holy Night’ even more than I do, but it is now an institution in the parish and there would be a riot if we missed it out. We have to pacify her by letting her have her own way elsewhere.


December 16, 2017

While we’re on the subject …

evelyn @ 4:25 pm


… of the Scottish Federation of Organists, their freely-downloadable booklet Church Organs is absolutely excellent. Contains advice on purchase, maintenance and general suitability of both pipe and electronic organs.

To access it, go to the SFO website, click on Organ Advice, then click on Church Organs.

December 9, 2017

Pipe organs in winter

evelyn @ 4:30 pm

While playing at a wedding yesterday, I suddenly heard the organ humidifier kick in. It was to be expected in this dry and icy weather (bride was elegantly muffled up in what looked like a polar bear stole!).

What was interesting was that since our priest changed the heating system from a forced-air outlet to more organ-friendly radiators, the humidifier has come into action much less frequently.  But it is reassuring to know that it is still on the alert.

So I’ve decided this is as good a time as any to repeat an earlier post on the subject:

Winter is the danger season for pipe organs!

Church heating during a dry, cold spell (and we seem to be getting a lot more of these in recent years) can seriously and often permanently damage the wooden pipes and other wooden parts of a pipe organ by drying them out. Heating systems which force hot air into the church are the worst offenders. There are some lovely pipe organs in our churches, and if you are lucky enough to play one, you will want to keep an eye on its welfare.

Some ways to do this:

1 Keep a hygrometer (a little instrument registering moisture in the atmosphere which can be bought cheaply in garden centres) at the organ and check how often and for how long it dips below normal humidity range. From this you should be able to tell how bad the danger is.

2 Have the organ tuned regularly (twice a year is usual) by a professional organ-builder, who will be able to spot internal signs of damage and hopefully deal with them before they become worse.

3 Call in the tuner if you have a cipher (a note won’t stop playing – you would want to call him in for this anyway!) or a part of the organ goes badly out of tune when it shouldn’t, especially the wooden pipes, such as the flutes.

4 Take advice from your tuner on ways to make the atmosphere in the organ area more humid. Sometimes a strategically-placed tray of water will help; keep it topped up and try to stop a skin of dust forming on it. An old blanket draped somewhere near the organ with one end in the water can be useful (steer clear of electrical fittings!).

5 See if the church heating can be adjusted a bit downwards. With the present cost of fuel the parish may well be prepared to take this on board.

6 Ask the parish to consider installing an organ humidifier, a mechanical device for moistening the air. Your tuner can tell you more about these, and whether one would be suitable for your instrument.

7 Make use of the advice available from the Scottish Federation of Organists. An independent expert will assess the condition of the organ and make recommendations. For more details, go to the SFO website, click on ‘Site Directory’ then ‘Organ Advice’.

Original post (with a comment) can be found here.

November 17, 2017

A month with a difference

evelyn @ 2:45 pm

Well, apologies for yet another long interval between posts, this time due to a most unusual month.

It started in October when my husband went off to Australia to help out our son and daughter-in-law. The birth of their next child was imminent, and husband had offered to look after their older boy while everything happened. I didn’t travel with him, as with my mobility problems I would have been of no use at all in Melbourne. Also, he’d had quite a hard time looking after me in the weeks following my injury, so I thought he should have a break by looking after someone else instead! Grandad and grandson soon became great buddies as they toured Melbourne playparks and investigated the trams.



Meanwhile, I decided to do a bit of socialising myself. My friend of longest standing (she refuses to be called ‘my oldest friend’) came for a few days and introduced me to the delights of Italian antipasto, and another friend whisked me off to spend a week in her home in Kilmacolm. In between those visits our daughter and son-in-law had invited me to spend some time in their house in Barrow-upon-Soar in Leicestershire, and I had a lovely time playing with our other two delightful little grandsons.

I saw two organs on my travels, but was only able to try out one. The Kilmacolm organ was a nice two-decker by Hill, Norman and Beard. I got to try its many sounds and wish I had taken a photograph of it.

The organ in the church in Barrow-upon-Soar looked most interesting, but sadly, I couldn’t get near the console. The minister had kindly unlocked the door to the spiral staircase, and I even took a few steps upwards. But then I decided it was much too risky in my present state, and gingerly came back down again. My daughter took some pics of the pipes, and of the full interior of the church (yes, that’s me, clutching my stick in the corner). I do like Anglican churches.

My husband returned a few days ago, looking fit and well, and we both felt that this lengthy separation, the first in 46 years of marriage, had been quite unexpectedly beneficial.

Oh, and it’s another boy. Well over 8lb at birth and doing splendidly. That makes four grandsons.

September 29, 2017

The Incredible Organ Bench Backrest!

evelyn @ 5:52 pm

‘Get an organ bench with a back rest!’, ordered our priest, on the realisation that my back injury meant I couldn’t play. So I tried to do just that. A search of the Internet didn’t produce much, while an appeal to other organists brought answers saying much the same thing: you need a joiner to make a bespoke bench.

Then David, our organ builder, stepped in and came up with a really excellent device.

He got a padded seat from somewhere and attached it to a wooden frame spanning the pedalboard. The seat has a lever which allows it to swivel, so I can get on and off without stepping on the pedals. Two wooden steps on the right allow me to climb easily into the seat.

And the whole thing is quickly removed – you just pull it backwards – so that other organists can use the real bench. Our priest was delighted and even produced a cushion of suitable thickness to give more support at the back of the seat.

I have now played at two Sunday Masses and at a funeral, thus giving the whole invention a good workout.

Congratulations to our imaginative organ builder. Take a bow, David!

September 8, 2017

Blog returns!

evelyn @ 1:29 pm

To the very few readers I may have left:

I’m really sorry for the long absence, which was unavoidable. In June, halfway through a short holiday in the west of Scotland, I had the misfortune to trip and fall, and managed to injure my back. It was fiendishly painful at the time but I was assured it would get better though it might take a long time, they said (long time? weeks? months? years? Help!!).

Two-and-a-half months on, everything has improved enormously but there are still things I can’t do. One of them is operate my desktop computer on which I do all the blog posts. Another, sadly, is play the organ for more than 15 minutes, but I have an excellent helper who does the rest.

Yesterday I discovered that I can dictate into my iPhone and I’m going to see if I can speak this post and then somehow upload it.

If so, you’ll soon be reading all about the backrest bench our organ-builder is creating, just for me!

That is, if there are any of you left to read about it …

May 31, 2017

Bridal chit-chat (25): Ave Maria continued

evelyn @ 2:14 pm

Some more candidates for the ‘fake Ave Maria’ slot. The most authentic, having as its chorus the Latin words right down to benedicta tu is As I kneel before you. Usually known by its title, it’s what a recent bride came up with when I asked her to think about which Ave Maria she wanted. It’s very popular as a modern Marian hymn, although I personally think the words a bit sloppy, and musically it is unremarkable.

The Bells of the Angelus takes me back to convent school days, and then there’s Holy Virgin, by God’s decree, described as ‘the new Lourdes hymn’, although I haven’t heard it sung for quite a while. Both of these have ‘Ave, Maria’ as the chorus, and there may be more.

However, in my view there’s no rival musically to the two ‘greats’ – Bach-Gounod and Schubert. However, the age-old plainsong version could perhaps be better known:

May 24, 2017

Bridal chit-chat (24): which Ave Maria?

evelyn @ 8:08 pm

Bride: I would like Ave Maria at the signing of the register.

Me: Which one?

Bride: Are there more than one?

Me: The two best-known are Bach-Gounod and Schubert.

Bride: Who’s Bach-Gounod?

I try to explain the nature of the hybrid piece, then give up and say ‘Gounod wrote the tune, Bach the accompaniment’. It makes Bach-Gounod sound like Lennon-McCartney, except that Lennon and McCartney knew each other, whereas Bach died in 1750 and Gounod wasn’t born until 1818. I suppose I could call it Gounod’s Ave Maria, but the underlying prelude is the making of the piece, and really J S Bach should get the credit for that. It’s such a pity that you can’t play Prelude 1 of The 48 at a wedding without the guests expecting a song to come in at bar 5.

Schubert’s Ave Maria is equally well-known, and goes well on two manuals and pedals.

If there is a soloist, however, neither the original German words nor any English translation I have found is directly equivalent to the Latin Ave Maria prayer. The bride might not mind this, of course, but soloists seem to want to go for the Latin words. Although these are tricky to fit in, they can be made to work using a lot of repetition.

Then there is the ‘fake Ave Maria’, the popular 60s song, The Wedding, which finishes with the bit of Schubert above. Brides have been known to confuse unwary organists by insisting that this is ‘Ave Maria’.

The guests frequently sing along, so I usually treat this one as a laid-back sort of hymn.

The first time I was asked to play The Wedding, I did a bit of research. I discovered the original melody was entitled La Novia (The Bride), and was written by Latin-American composer Joaquín Prieto. I suggested our own bride should put ‘The Wedding (La Novia)’ on her order of service, giving Prieto as the composer. What finally emerged on the day was ‘The Wedding’ with ‘La Novia’ as composer. I hoped there were no Spanish-speakers in the congregation.

May 17, 2017

A psalm too far?

evelyn @ 2:53 pm

On Good Friday, I did something crazy. We are a bit short of cantors at present, and the unaccompanied Good Friday psalm can be daunting. There had been no volunteers. It is a point of pride with our cantors that we shouldn’t need to double up in Holy Week, but it looked as though this year one of the experienced cantors would have to be asked to sing twice.

Unless …

I have accompanied cantors for years, but have never, ever, sung a psalm myself. Good Friday is the one day of the year when my singing of a psalm is theoretically possible. We use the small organ for the minimal hymns-only accompaniment, and the choir is downstairs in the side-chapel rather than up in the gallery. All I would need to do would be to leave the organ and walk up the altar steps. I could create a psalm-setting to suit my voice and my untrained singing. I could even hitch it up a tone mid-verse if I thought the pitch was dropping.

No. It’s crazy. I have no experience, and have never been taught the mechanics of singing, breathing and all that. Stick to the organ.

But if I could just mention it …

Our head cantor listened, and liked the new psalm-setting. As to my voice, ‘Well, you’ll have the microphone, of course,’ she said. Our priest didn’t seem too enthusiastic, but after a chat with the head cantor agreed to the experiment.

Well, I did it. The large congregation was very responsive, though no doubt surprised. I was mentally psyched up, and there were no major hitches. I walked carefully back down the altar steps, glad that it was over.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the aftermath. All through the long Gospel I was in a daze. At the Veneration my mind went a complete blank, and the choir had to tell me what hymns I was supposed to be accompanying. Why did I ever think of this? As if there aren’t pressures enough in Holy Week.

The choir praised my courage and liked the psalm-setting. Our priest liked the psalm-setting. They all dodged round the question of my singing ability, and I decided that, one way or another, the psalm-setting that they all liked so much should next year be sung by someone else.

May 10, 2017

Organist funeral fees (2)

evelyn @ 1:31 pm

A number of readers have consulted an earlier post on this blog looking for advice on funeral fees. I’d like to add a word or two to that, especially for those in Catholic parishes where opinions on what is due to the funeral organist vary widely.

The Scottish Federation of Organists sets out financial guidelines for organists which include a recommended funeral fee (quoted there as ‘Additional Service/Deputy Fee’).  No doubt similar organisations in other countries do the same. It is useful to know this when one is asked to play in a different church. Protestant churches, which pay their organists, are usually aware of the SFO funeral rate, as are undertakers. Many Catholic churches sadly have no idea at all.

At one time, when asked by a priest about my fee for a funeral in his parish, I would quote the SFO rate. Now, I respond by asking him what the parish rate is, and if it’s lower, I’ll probably accept it. If he doesn’t know, I will suggest he consults the undertaker.

I adopted this rather wary procedure following a most unfortunate affair in a distant parish a long time ago. Asked by the priest for my fee, I quoted the SFO recommended rate, giving my source for this figure. He looked quite shocked, and shortly afterwards phoned to say it was too high, and I wouldn’t be required. I hoped he hadn’t spoken of this with the bereaved family, but I feared he had, and I felt really dreadful.

For the next funeral in that parish, the priest had obviously decided to leave the matter of organist and fee to the undertaker. What he didn’t know was that the undertaker in question (a) charged exactly the SFO rate and (b) had me as an employee.

I have never seen anyone so disconcerted as that priest when I turned up. But I felt vindicated.

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