SOPP577: Not long ago it was my job to serve at the organ to lead a congregation of mostly untrained singers in a meeting outside a worship service with the singing of a closing song with which most of them were unfamiliar
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 577 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Steven, and he writes:
Not long ago Vidas it was my job to serve at the organ to lead a congregation of mostly untrained singers in a meeting outside a worship service with the singing of a closing song with which most of them were unfamiliar.
The tune was St. Clement, a traditional hymn not especially easy for a trained voice to sing that's better known to members of the Anglican faith and perhaps a Methodist or two in the audience but completely unfamiliar to everyone else.
This number does not appear in any of the newer hymnals -- I have only found it included in a couple of very old editions of hymn books which have been out of print for a very long time.
People singing this tune on YouTube videos are doing so at a tempo Moderato about half the time and the other half of the time they sing at something close to an Adagio.
Three stanzas of this closing song were to be sung, the words were provided to the audience, and I began with a short introduction and took the first stanza at an Andante (slow walk tempo) thinking that this pace would keep everyone together and the organ would lead.
I was wrong.
Instead of the organ leading them, the Anglicans in the audience who were used to hearing it sung at a still slower tempo ignored the organ and sang it at the tempo they remember from their worship services -- some of them even lagged behind a few others.
The result was that they all trailed behind the organ through the whole first stanza and were late to the finish line at the point where the organ paused between stanzas.
They were still trudging through the words of the first stanza at that point, and, as I began the second stanza to avoid the awkward silence a senior officer stopped the whole thing and a member of the audience was then asked to conduct the congregation (and the organ) beginning at the top with the slow tempo, through all three stanzas, with everyone including me brought back to the starting line and subject to the baton.
We managed to get through it this way, but not without considerable embarrassment.
Up until then I used to believe that "not every day is a good one for the organist" was an observation that tended to fade into oblivion with the onset of crow's feet, gray hair, more pill bottles, and the use of a cane.
I was wrong about that, too !
Even though I was well prepared and the instrument gave sufficient support for the singing, I never anticipated that the singers would drag through it with such perfunctory indifference to the tempo set by the organ.
This wasn't the typical dragging that an organist can encounter in a singing congregation from time to time -- it was a complete mismatch in tempo from the get-go.
When any congregation sings, the organ MUST lead, but this time that didn't seem to matter..
Afterwards, since the same closing song is prescribed for the organization's regular meetings, I was asked to chair a committee to come up with a solution to keep this kind of calamity from happening again, even to the point of recommending a different song be prescribed, if need be.
My feeling is, the problem isn't with the song although it isn't particularly easy to sing, and I really don't think it needs to be changed.
It's a beautiful song -- the singers just need to get in sync with the organ and stay that way, pay attention to the tempo taken by the organ, and not go their merry way with blinders on their ears.
The fact that so many of the singers in the audience preferred such a slow tempo was only learned by this organist, sad to say, after everything crash landed and not before.
The organist wasn't fired over it, the situation wasn't that dire, nobody lost their life over it, no blood was drawn, but it occurred to me that the question of how to best move forward from here would benefit other organists as well as myself.
Any suggestions you or Ausra may have from your personal experiences or circle of acquaintances that could be shared with your subscribers, including myself, about possible steps to take would be greatly appreciated.
Many thanks, as always,
V: So, that’s a very colorful question, very extended description. I hope Steven wrote a blog post out of it.
A: It’s very entertaining. I kept laughing inside of me while you kept reading it, because actually, we have talked about rehearsing the congregation before the service if you know that hymns are unfamiliar or putting your choir member downstairs, mixing them among the congregation members so that they could lead the congregational singing, but obviously there are sometimes ways when you just have to adjust to your congregation and you have to adapt. Because if a minister has to stop service and to start that hymn over again, that’s not a good sign. It shouldn’t be like this. And, in some cases, I think what you can do is actually just to adapt to them or just to quit the church. It reminded me about that situation that we had many years ago in Lithuania when we were just organ students for the Academy of Music and Vidas and I were sharing one position of organist in a small church in the center of Vilnius, and basically old ladies were so unhappy about how we played organ, and it was a problem of us playing hymns too fast for them. And since I played a little bit slower, they preferred me over Vidas, and I remember one little old lady chasing Vidas for maybe one kilometer behind after a service until she finally caught him and started to teach him how to play, that he needs to take a slow tempo because elderly people are in the congregation, and so on and so forth. But basically, right at that moment I understood that it’s basically a good time to quit. We didn’t at that moment, but actually we were both fired without any explanations maybe a few months later. So I guess sometimes these things are simply hopeless.
V: That’s right, Ausra. I guess another solution would be to sing more new hymns that people don’t know, and they don’t have any prejudice.
A: Yes, that way, you know, they could listen more to what the organ is doing.
V: But this situation shows that this congregation is not willing to adapt. It’s simply the fact of life. Right? And I wonder if they sing loudly enough or actively. I presume that they are sort of lethargically sleeping with their eyes open and moving through the motions, not actively participating in the service.
A: Well, I’m not sure about that, but anyway, you could either play the Organo Pleno and try to ignore what is happening downstairs, or you could maybe have your own microphone and sing like solo very loudly above them all. But basically, I think in these cases like this, it’s useless to fight.
V: Yes, because one or two or five people will start complaining, and those people, maybe they are in a minority, they will be a loud minority!
A: And you know, like in our old story, I think what happened is that old lady and her friends started complaining to the priest day after day after day after day, and he didn’t have another solution, only to get rid of us.
V: It was easier for him to get rid of us than to get rid of those ladies!
A: But what I found out later, is that actually instead of us, her son started to play the organ in that church!
V: The old lady’s son?
A: Yes, so that was a corruption, a little bit… so….
V: Ah, maybe she had some plans!
V: Evil plans!
A: She definitely did, because these sort of pretenders to be very faithful in the Catholic churches that are there day and night, they are not doing really good things to their church, although they think they are the most holy and they know the things right, and…
V: Aren’t you glad that we are no longer working in this church?
A: Yes, I am. I really am!
V: So, you always have to choose sometimes the less obvious way. And do what feels right for your heart. Yes?
A: That’s right.
V: Thank you guys, we hope this was useful to you. Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. 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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