AVA189: How to deal with well meaning but interfering micro-managers who won't let the organist do his/her job
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 189 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Stephen. He writes:
Good morning Vidas,
I'm finding your #AskVidasAndAusra podcasts very helpful and have a two-part question I'd like to submit:
Many years ago, very early in my experience as a church organist, when I was playing one Sunday morning during the Advent season, a young nun standing in the front row who taught music in the nearby elementary school unexpectedly turned around during the opening hymn and began waving her hands to direct the congregation at a tempo much faster than it should be taken.
The organ, of course, must lead, but she evidently felt the tempo should be faster, which wasn't the case at all, the organ wasn't dragging and neither was the congregation. She seemed not to know that the congregation is never conducted during a worship service because it distracts the worshipers from their devotions.
She was literally hauling the congregation by the scruff of the neck from line to line of the hymn with her arm waving without giving them any time to take a breath. The fact that tempo of hymns needs to be nuanced in the service, never rushed, that singers need a split of a second between phrases to breathe, none of that seemed to register or even matter to her.
When she failed to return my phone calls (why, I never found out) I took the matter to the priest, who told me it was up to me to work things out with sister ... he also added that HOW I WENT ABOUT DOING THAT WAS ALSO UP TO ME.
He washed his hands of it when I felt he should have weighed in on it, since his organist was encountering unnecessary interference and he was in a position to do something about it.
The next time I found myself playing was for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The opening hymn was Adeste Fidelis in the key of Ab Major, two stanzas. Sister took her place again in the front pew and, right on time, she turned around during the opening stanza and started waving her hands at a tempo that had some people out of breath and the rest of them two beats or more ahead of the organ.
My thought was, this can't get any more messed up than it already is ... or can it ... maybe it's time for a demonstration.
Remembering what the priest had told me, the way I handled it was, I abruptly dropped the key of the hymn to F Major by transposition -- an unrelated key 3 half steps below -- for the second stanza without a modulating interlude to get the congregation there -- something an organist should never ever, repeat never, do.
When this happened everyone stopped singing, of course, because their sense of tonal center had evaporated into thin air. Sister was in shock and began waving her arms frantically to get the people to catch up, to no avail. It was a Silent Night for them right through the whole second stanza.
Shame, shame on me for showing sister just how bad things can get messed up when everybody's trying to do their own thing.
I figured I was dead meat. Somehow I made it to my car. Sister never showed up at any organ Mass I played after that, for the next two years, and it just wasn't the same without her. Things went fine.
So, while this seemed to solve the problem at the time, I can't really recommend this kind of solution, it's too disrupting to the conduct of the service not to mention jarring to the nerves, and I figured there must be a better way to deal with things like this, better communication on the part of the organist maybe.
My question I guess has two parts: 1) how to get the pastor more involved in what happens musically when there's an obvious problem with the hymn singing that begs to be solved, and 2) how to deal with well meaning but interfering micro-managers who won't let the organist do his/her job.
Fighting fire with more fire like this carries its own dangers (it can get you bottled up and choking to death if you're not careful), and any suggestions from your own experience on how to better handle situations like this would be much appreciated, I'm sure, not just by me, but by every church organist out there.
Many thanks for your wonderful web site, podcasts, instructional materials, kind generosity, encouragement, and your precious friendship.
Wow, that’s quite a story, right Ausra?
A: Yes, I...you know, I just laughed out loud, it was so funny! But I can just guess how poor Stephen felt at that moment--it must have not been fun for him at that time.
V: I just hope that Stephen has posted this long comment as a blog post on his own blog, called organbench.com. Because it’s a really valuable experience…
A: Yes, it’s a fascinating story, and many organists will appreciate it.
A: And you know, the one thing that I could suggest in Stephen’s case--what you could do is maybe not transpose the next stanza to a different key, but to play organ as loudly as possible. Maybe that way…
V: To overpower!
A: Yes, to overpower any attempts to change your tempo, that actually you must dictate.
V: That’s a wise solution, right? Although, I kind of liked Stephen’s, too...
A: I know! But, you know...Hahaha! If the priest cared more, you might lose your position as organist in that church, after such an incident! So…
A: And what Stephen asked about is how to involve your priest in the music. To the music part of the worship. That’s the sort of problem has two parts of it. On the one hand, it’s bad if your priest doesn’t show much interest in the musical part of the service; but on the other hand, it’s good, because it frees your hands, and you can do whatever you want to do. And I’m not saying you have to experiment and play whatever…
V: Although you could!
A: Well, I…
V: I would play whatever!
A: I would not suggest to do that, but...it means you can be your own owner of what you are making.
A: Master, yes.
A: And you can make things your way--you know, to play what you want, and what you like. And another thing--how I would suggest you would overcome people like that nun: I would probably do rehearsals with the congregation before the service, let’s say. Some of the people come to church quite early before the service...
A: And you know, if you don’t have something special going on (like sometimes there are months in the Catholic Church where you have, for example Rosary, spoken before the service, or something else going on), you could just do short rehearsals, like 10min rehearsals with the congregation. Let’s say, you could say that, “Today we will sing [hymn numbers, that, that, and that].”
A: “And now, we will just try to sing 1 stanza of each of them.” And you could go downstairs from the organ pew, and go in front of the congregation and sing with them.
V: That’s only on Sundays, though?
A: Yes, yes. That’s on Sundays.
V: Then, more people come.
V: I see. What I suspect, that your solution to play with much power, with mixtures, even reeds sometimes, and overpower let’s say, a heckler, right? Like a troll! She was like a troll, trolling Stephen’s service, right?!
A: I know, and I think this might be a problem because she was also an elementary school teacher, as I understood.
V: Ahaha, I see!
A: She...she...well, don’t get offended, but I think, you know...And he did not write how old she was, but if let’s say she was already in her mid-age, or you know, later on. Teaching…
V: Changes you.
A: Teaching, yes--it changes you, yes. And with years, you just become sort of...you know, that teacher thing becomes like a diagnosis for you.
V: What do you mean?
A: Well, imagine that you have to day after day teach kids, like elementary school kids.
A: And you have to...rule them--make them to…
A: Behave--to make silence in your classroom, and order, and everything work...I think she just sort of lost the sense of reality.
V: Where she was.
A: Yes. And I think with her congregation, she also acted like they were all her students, her elementary school graders.
A: And I think that’s sort of funny, but on the other hand, sad...But if you would go downstairs in front of your congregation, and take responsibility for hymn singing…
A: And teach them, and lead them, conduct them before the service, you would show that you are the leader for music in this church, and no other person.
V: Although, the situation sounds very unfortunate, right? We could all draw a valuable lesson here, right? Like, I’m quoting or paraphrasing--
A: Mary from Pride and Prejudice, right?
V: Exactly. The lesson would be to, first of all--from the position of the elementary school teacher, or nun right, who interfered with Stephen’s playing--would be to get involved in many other areas of interests in life, not only teaching--not only one side. In case of yourself, not only organ, right? You should have a lot of passions and interests, that your personality would develop more roundly. That would be a great thing to do, if you can, if you have time. And another thing to do, from the position of Stephen, the organist, could be to--without any anger, actually, not taking it personally (this was not a personal attack at all), without taking this to the next level of anger--you could simply...The first thing you could do is play much louder, and with much more power. And your congregation would have no choice but to follow you. I think so.
A: Yes, especially, you know, as he wrote that he played Adeste Fideles. That’s a joyful, loud hymn.
A: So you have to play it very loud.
V: And if you want, you could do congregational rehearsals, too.
V: Before the service. For people--they will appreciate that gesture.
A: And that way, if you will rehearse with your congregation, you might listen to them, how they are singing; and you might choose some of the leaders between them, that can really lead the congregation’s singing. Then you will be playing from upstairs.
V: You mean that the organist could assign some people to work?
A: Yes, yes. That’s true.
V: Or, as some people do, they transfer their choir members to the pews…
V: In various locations of the church, among the congregation members. And they’re not dressed in robes. They’re just like civilians!
A: Yes…Choir members are not civilians?!
V: In this case, not! And then, nobody will know that they have special powers, right? They look like everybody else. But they sing more powerfully, this way.
A: That’s true.
V: Excellent question, and story, too. You know, people should express themselves like Stephen did in this question, too, with so much humor and so much poetry, too. We loved discussing this, so please send us more of your questions. It’s really fun. 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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