Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 166 of #AskVidasAndAusra Podcast. This question was sent by David and he writes:
Dear Vidas and Ausra,
At the churches where I play, the organists have to play 2 or 3 hymns every Sunday, plus a prelude, postlude, offertory, and Doxology (old 100th), and sometimes accompany a choir anthem as well. That is between 6 and 8 pieces every week. Do you have any suggestions how to handle that quantity of music? Especially the Prelude, Postlude, and Offertory...
V: That’s a lot of music every Sunday.
A: Yes, but that’s life of the parish organist. That’s what we did when we worked at church.
V: Do you remember the time when you first started playing in church in Vilnius.
A: Yes, I remember it was the second year of my organ study at the Academy of Music I had to work at church.
V: Did you have to play the hymns only or also some organ music.
A: Well, I had to play both. Plus because it was a Catholic Church we had lots of other stuff going on playing such things like litanies for example, and Psalms and so on and so forth.
V: And the masses were not only on Sundays but every day.
A: Yes, every day and we had that you know Adoration hour of the sacrament. So also every day. And this was sort of a little bit of nonsense because we would have to play two hymns at the beginning of it and two at the end of it. And it lasted for like an hour and the church was unheated and it was horrible, horrible you know to spend those fifty minutes in that cold church between two hymns and two hymns.
V: And doing nothing.
A: Yes, I know it’s impossible to play when it is so cold at least for me.
V: Is it, you know sometimes if you pray very hard you can heat up the area around you.
A: Well, I can’t maybe you can.
V: I tried and nothing happened.
A: I know. But in terms of my starting playing in church, of course at that time pedalling was still challenging. But for me the biggest challenge was to follow that liturgy. Because in Catholic Churches we have those invocations and each priest sings a little bit different, and in different key and you have to catch up. And some priests are so badly musically educated that they cannot keep the tune and they modulate like a few times and you never know on which key you will end up so all this gave me such a big stress.
V: How did you handle the stress then?
A: Well little by little I learned everything.
V: Uh-huh. Like we have a saying, like a dog which is being led to be hanged too frequently. This dog basically get used to that.
A: I don’t think it makes sense in English.
V: Probably not. They have a better expression.
A: I’m sure of it. There are so many idioms in English. So, let’s go back then to the question. Well you know I received such a good school in the Catholic Church that later on while playing in the Christian Scientist Church in the States and also the Lutheran Church in the States it seemed so easy and so nice. But in terms of selecting the right repertoire I think this is very important for David and for other church organists. At least if you don’t have very good technique, well advanced technique, it’s better to choose easier pieces for prelude, postlude, offering. And if you are new in church so each Sunday it seems like new hymns are sung and you have to learn how to play the new hymns but after a while we, you know repeat themselves.
V: So after one, two or three years.
A: Yes, that’s true. And even actually sooner because some of the hymns are repeated quite often, as for example Doxology.
V: Well yes, my own church playing experience started early on when my Mom and I went to the church nearby where we had this summer cottage that was where her parents lived at the time. And this was a wooden church and it had an antique 19th century organ by anonymous organ builder and my Mom asked the priest to let me play because I was studying at the music school at the time maybe it was like sixth grade I think. And I started playing excerpts of my choir repertoire from school. I sang a soprano part and little by little I sort of harmonized those excerpts without even knowing anything about the chords. And actually at that time I started to remember how my friends were fooling around during recess, or intermissions between the classes. They were sort of improvising and playing popular melodies but adding on-the-spot accompaniment with the left hand. So I started doing that myself.
A: In church.
V: In church. And it wasn’t so bad actually.
A: Did you do that during service?
V: Just for fun, for me. Yes, and then the priest heard and they didn’t have a local organist that Sunday or any other Sunday I guess. And he asked me to come and play and it was a very solemn occasion I think the golden wedding anniversary of some couple. And I foolishly agreed in sixth grade to play a wedding and the mass also. I remember that the priest let me to come and practice during the weekdays of that week preparing for this wedding and mass and I found the hymnal, handwritten scores and I tried to practice those hymns selecting the repertoire as I thought it would work and then when the time came I missed the Sanctus part.
A: It’s to know when to start it because if you don’t know the Catholic Mass there is that moment when the priest does his prayers and after that he sort of has to cross his arms to put his hands together in front of him and that’s the sign for you to begin Sanctus. And sometimes from the organ loft it’s very hard to see that he is doing this so you can easily miss it.
V: So he started saying the Sanctus instead of playing. Then after he said the Sanctus I started playing.
A: That’s funny. You usually don’t do it twice.
V: But he was actually happy with that mass considering my age probably and my inexperience.
A: That’s nice. I remember when I started to work at the church in Vilnius, Holy Cross Church, it was probably my third or fourth mass that I had to play and it was actually a cardinal who had to lead the service. I was so scared, I was freaking out. I think I missed something or I played something in the wrong spot.
V: What was scarier? The cardinal on that occasion or myself coming occasionally to your organ loft.
A: Neither you nor the cardinal. The scariest part of that church was those elderly ladies who are so devoted to the church that we spend all day each day in the church and we sort of searching for trouble and there are all these complaints about everything that you are doing, that everything is wrong, tempo is wrong, you dress is not appropriate, or you didn’t make the sign of the cross in the right moment.
V: And that ended my career in that church.
A: Yes, I remember that old lady chasing you throughout the downtown Vilnius.
V: So, Ausra is there a shortcut that David could take in order to facilitate his liturgical playing and make life easier for him?
A: Well, yes and no. Because still you will have to overcome all obstacles and all those difficulties but in order to help yourself just select easy organ music at the beginning. Maybe less pedal stuff and then later on you will catch up and will start to play harder things. Maybe you know if you are playing, I don’t know, if you have like regular Sunday service or you have like festival like for example Easter or Christmas when you have to play more sophisticated organ music.
V: But that’s only several times a year.
A: Yes, but for other Sunday’s you can just pick up something easier because you know if you will play easy music well it will still sound fine. But if you will pick up pieces that are two hard for you to play and you will make lots of mistakes for example, or you keep unsteady tempo then everybody will notice it and nobody will appreciate that you are playing hard stuff. The most important thing is play right.
V: And probably what you are saying is that you will not get a medal for playing advanced music.
A: Yes, yes, I guess so.
V: Nobody will appreciate that.
A: Well, yes and no. You never know.
V: I mean you could play advanced repertoire when you are ready.
V: But for now, as Ausra says, probably it is better to focus only on manuals only pieces and occasional pedal parts, maybe long sustained pedal points, which would make your life so much easier. And sight-read as much as you can.
A: Yes, this will help to improve with time. And you know when playing hymns is to keep a steady tempo especially if your congregation sings together with your playing.
V: I would say three things here which helped me and maybe it will help David. Sight-read as much as you can, play harmony exercises as much as you can, and improvise as much as you can. And over time, maybe in a few months even, you will notice considerable improvement. Right?
A: Of course, yes.
V: If you do this every day after one year your organ playing skill will be completely changed.
A: Yes, and you know you can even sight-read from a hymnal for example, from your hymnal of your church. It will help you later on you know for playing hymns.
V: OK, guys. We hope this was useful to you. Please apply our tips in your practice and send us more of the questions. We love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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