Search
Upcoming Performances

October 22, 4:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Allen organ, White Bluff United Methodist Church Savannah, Ga.

November 12, 3:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Charles Town Presbyterian Church, Charles Town, W.V.

February 11
Inaugural recitalist, Casavant organ, Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2018
Guest recitalist, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 2018, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

Saturday
Oct072017

Another one out of the ballpark

Two more “in the can!”

Producer Keith Weber, engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith, and I have just recorded the next installment of the complete Widor organ works, this time Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine, Op. 86, recorded this week on E. M. Skinner Op. 713 (1928) at First Presbyterian, Wilmington, N.C. The following three webpages will give you a nice introduction to the organ:

OHS database

Specs

A. Thompson-Allen site

In 2005 I was traveling through Wilmington with a couple students, one of whom had arranged for us to spend some time on the Skinner. As I recall, the organ was sublime, rich, full, rewarding, and in pristinely restored condition. Fast forward now to 2016, when inspired by the memory of that one encounter, I approached John Tabler, Director of Music at the church, about including this organ in the series. And here we are now. The crew and I have been enriched by this intimate encounter with a treasure of an organ located inside a most graciously appointed neo-Gothic building inhabited by some of the most hospitable staff we have encountered yet. Chalk that up to Southern hospitality if you like, but we also feel that the church and her staff are well aware of the treasure that resides inside those two chambers. We were welcomed with open arms by all we encountered but especially by John Tabler, who has expressed his thanks to us for thinking of this organ to present to the wider listening audience, with its first-ever commercially released recording. In return, I’m planning to play a recital there in May, and I’m sure I’ll include some movements from this project.

That’s the good news. But now imagine my surprise to recall in photographic evidence, only two weeks before arriving to record, that this organ has ZERO general pistons and only ONE coupler reversible [Great to Pedal (toe)]. There are four divisionals per division, save the Swell, which has five. Pedal divisionals may be activated by corresponding manual divisionals, but NO piston other than the reversible just mentioned operates ANY couplers. The coupler rail is set mercifully low and easily accessible, just above the Swell. But ZERO general pistons! With an organ from 1928, I should have known as much. [But hey, its sister instrument at St. Paul’s in Winston-Salem has TWO whole Generals.] And so all my careful piston planning in the scores had to be thrown out, less than two weeks before recording. I re-thought all stop changes, and then we had to find console assistants for the sessions, which we did, thanks to quick work by John Tabler and others. We enjoyed the gracious console assistance of Angela Daughtry and Gregory Gore, for which we are eternally grateful. Angela ended up with the hardest movements, simply by luck of the draw, and she, a non-organist, rose to the occasion admirably. She now knows intimately what “Great 4” is and how to insert her hand among mine to punch Choir pistons with the third finger of the left hand vs. getting Swell pistons with the thumb of the right. She also knows where the Choir to Pedal tab is and how tricky it is to avoid my hands when reaching for it. God bless her and her house. We have emerged victorious.

In the absence of Generals, one is constantly planning ahead. “Build the Great here, so that it will be ready in ten measures. Coupler here. Super coupler there. Catch Swell 2 here before going to the Choir.” And so forth, bit by bit, building here, reducing there. My scores are littered with incremental stop-change markings. But I would say that this process gets one more intimately involved in the “management” of the organ, as opposed to the somewhat cold, detached, lightning-quick changes we’re used to with Generals. Doing things the way that was considered state of the art in 1928 was eye opening and a much appreciated lesson this week. Although I wouldn’t complain if a future re-build added a few Generals, I will always hail this organ as imminently usable for all music, one way or another. 

This organ is in excellent shape, tuning, voicing, and everything else. Everything on the console works, and every stop is just right. It’s just beautiful. When one spends this much time on a true E. M. Skinner, one discovers at every turn just how much of his console and chest designs, layout, and other elements remained in force through the remainder of Aeolian-Skinner’s existence. Skinner deserved his accolades, and although voicing and specifications changed over the years, there remained a lot of his influence on organ design in the company.

The real victory was in matching rep to organ. Once again, we have hit one out of the ballpark, and the finished product (which should be released in 2019 or so) should be thrilling to listeners. The entire project evolved, and we have chosen to record on Aeolian-Skinners (and this E.M. Skinner) that have not been “messed with” very much and yet have inexplicably not been recorded on very much. While some would record all this French music in France or at least on unabashedly French-aesthetic organs, we have chosen to use some of America’s own landmark instruments for this project, and we continue to be glad we did. The instruments are “speaking French” well, and the music on these organs is certainly speaking to our very souls in the playbacks. We have enjoyed the grandeur and the power of Symphonies VI and romane on the monumental Aeolian-Skinner in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport. We have enjoyed the solid yet elegant readings of Symphonies I and V as rendered on the Aeolian-Skinner at First Presbyterian in Houston. And now we have thrilled to a most profound 8-foot fullness in Wilmington for Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine.

Want more about this organ? I thought so: Every stop on this organ has a job, and no stop is redundant or useless. If you look at the spec, you’ll see that the organ has everything you’d ever want. Even if you feel like you are starving for mutations and mixtures, somewhere is a stop that will give you all the color you need, whether by itself or in clever combination with another. The Pedal Trombone was a 2003 addition, narrated here (see if you can read that paragraph without choking up just a little). And the Diapasons are to DIE for: an 8-foot on the Swell, and I and II on the Great. Swell and Choir have full 73-note chests on ALL stops [whereas twenty years later, Aeolian-Skinner was extending only 8- and 4-foot stops]. There was a weird winding issue in the Choir, where it sounded like that division was speaking from behind a box fan turned up to high speed. At the console, it was troubling, but through the microphones, it was “charming,” as producer Keith puts it. When Thompson-Allen visits soon, they will address that. Then there was that squeak in the Swell box, but Keith said, rightly so, "The squeak doesn't have the fullness of the pipes, and so we don't hear it in the microphones!" Sage observation, and a relief at the console. Finally, we’ve all heard beautiful organs and beautiful rooms, but this particular marriage was made in heaven. This organ just seems to like being in this particular room, and the whole experience continued to inspire us all, all week long.

In our time, this organ has had three major, faithful stewards under its spell: Charles Woodward (whom we can thank for the first restoration in the 1970s), Douglas Leightenheimer, and now John Tabler. Faithful stewards indeed; may they ever prosper, and may this organ serve its listeners for many more Skinner-length lifetimes.

Monday
Sep182017

Children will listen

My students do as I say, most of the time. But they nearly always do as I DO. And that may be a scary thing.

I am pleased with my students for being protective of our console at the university. They forbid people to place book bags, reed cups, instruments, coats, folders, etc., on the console or on the bench. They have learned such from me, because I, too, forbid such things. It’s only respectful of our instrument, no matter how much like a table or shelf it may look to a non-organist. Although no one is likely to damage anything by placing their coat on a console, we must continue toward an ideal of complete respect of all musical instruments, no matter how otherwise utilitarian an instrument may look. While I am proud of my students for their pro-action, I don’t have control over them becoming an old codger like their teacher! Here’s an interesting story of their putting this into practice one day:

A few years ago, we were all in Kilgore, Tex., for the annual East Texas Pipe Organ Festival. We gathered around the console at First Presbyterian after church on Sunday, to meet and greet for a bit before going off to lunch. During our visiting, the recitalist for that evening appeared, pushed his/her way through the crowd without a word, placed his/her coffee thermos on top of a stop jamb, and prepared to go to work. My students were mildly annoyed by the unfriendliness of said artist, but they were utterly HORRIFIED by that coffee thermos being placed on top of such an historic console and all it represents. After their horror subsided, which took about four seconds, they promptly shifted over to anger and hatred that someone would do such a thing to something so valuable to all who were gathered that day and that week.

Oh, but they didn't stop there. Later that evening, they left that person’s recital at intermission and came to where I was practicing for mine. They’d rather listen to me practice than listen to that person perform flawlessly from memory. And this is only a guess, but I suppose they were also no longer interested in auditioning for that person for grad school.

From a single, non-musical encounter, my students lost all respect for this person as a performer. No matter your opinion on how that happened, it does happen, and we teachers are often the model for how it happens. So teachers, be careful out there. “Children” will listen.

Friday
Sep082017

In Search of New Models, Part VIII: Advertising

A quick look at older issues of The American Organist magazine will show that we used to live in a simpler time. The magazine wasn’t the ad farm it is today. Although we’re told we have fewer organ students enrolled in higher degrees and fewer places to earn those degrees, somehow we are up to our armpits in organists taking out ads in the journals.

I always created my ads without professional assistance. I would trawl through my photo archives and pick out something that grabs attention in some way. Then I came up with a clever tag line and designed the ad. That’s it! My ads get people’s attention but only for a moment. A new ad, a new tagline, something clever. And just when I felt I was beating my head against the wall of obsolescence, I would hear someone say, “You have the best and most refreshing ads in the magazine. I enjoy looking for them.” That is encouraging of them to say that, but it dawned on me that I had become known as Joby Bell, maker of clever ads, rather than Joby Bell, organist. And so the time came several months ago to discontinue regular advertising in the magazine.

I certainly won’t presume to instruct anyone in the art of staying visible or even staying alive in this profession. My own journey has been one of some luck, more than some perseverance, and a metric ton of money spent on advertising. My continuum in this business began as a prizewinner in the AGO national competition in 2000. From there, I advertised as a performer, and then my alma mater came calling with an interim professorial position, which turned permanent after two years. I’ve been there ever since. Now I’m involved in a multi-disc recording series that will come with its own marketing – marketing that I don’t have to manage. There are a handful of people in the profession who still remember me as one of those finalists in 2000. Most everyone else just thinks I’ve always been around. It gets interesting from there, because the people who think I have always been around also assume that I went to one of the usual suspects of great schools and studied with one of the usual suspects of great teachers. (I did indeed study with one of the great teachers, but he wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” that come to most minds.)

People also know me as a supremely well-organized individual. My work on the committee for the national competition set a new standard, and people noticed. But I became known as Joby Bell the organized, rather than Joby Bell the organist. That required me to take a step back, once again, from regular committee service in the national organization.

I see two models at odds with each other in career self management: 1) the buzzing bees pursuing a certain model of being sensational to be noticed; 2) someone saying, “Just be excellent, and only the people interested in excellence will come your way,” or, “Just work hard, and it will come to you.” The first group has a self-taught work ethic and is probably comprised of the young, the cute, the driven, and often the male. The second group is waiting for a desired thing to happen, a habit for which I have no fondness. At first, I was told to be in the second group. Later on, I was told to be in the first group. Once I had been around both blocks, I fell back into the second group but with a difference. Now I am no longer waiting for something to happen. Now I do what I do just because I like doing it and teaching others how to do it. My corner of the world is still small, but it’s mine and I made it good. The difference lies in discontinuing the investment in what others think about it. I’ll never be invited to perform here or there, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a management roster, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a faculty of usual suspects. But the work ethic that was instilled in me is still high, ironclad and very useful, and I shall continue to practice and play my very best and let anyone who has ears come and hear. 

My teacher Clyde Holloway could sit and wait for business to come to him. It was a different time in the 1960s when he landed just right in the profession with his supreme performing, his national competition win, and his devilishly handsome looks. When he was older, he told me that in his early days it would anger him to no end when he discovered that people invited him to play because he was cute and not because he played well. He did play very well indeed, but he wanted people to take him seriously for his playing and stop cruising him. But when he related this story to me, he added that at his present age (then in his 60s), he’d now take any attention he could get! Good looks cannot be ignored in this profession and are in fact fairly necessary toward success. The young will inherit the earth.

I have chosen to claim a newer model by ignoring the buzzing bee game, pursuing my passions and being excellent in my way. I use my creativity to offer my students something they can't get from anyone else, and then I advertise that. This is about being “seductive” – making people want to hear more of my something different rather than the same things they see all the time. Sure, I just might achieve fame. But at what point should I consider myself famous? The fame can’t be its own goal; only excellence is a worthwhile goal.

Friday
Jun232017

Widor in Houston

The next recording is “in the can.” (Young folks don’t know what a can is. Nowadays, a recording is just on a hard drive somewhere.) Anyway, this summer so far has included four days on Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A (1949) at First Presbyterian in Houston to record Widor Symphonies 1 and 5. This will be one of six CD installments presenting all ten Widor Symphonies, plus his handful of other works for organ solo.

This multi-CD project has evolved, as explained here. In my efforts to match repertoire to organ, I knew that the Widor 5th needed to be recorded at FPC Houston. When I first moved to Houston for grad school in 1990, I heard then-incumbent Harold McManus play the entire 5th on a recital at the church. Every year or so, Harold would present a Sunday evening recital, and the church media team would set up a HUGE screen for everyone to see what was going on at that horribly hidden console. It was during recitals such as these that I was introduced to the Roger-Ducasse Pastorale (which I have performed ever since), the Bach canonical variations on Vom Himmel hoch (which I have not), and the REST of the Widor 5th beyond the Toccata.

Imagine my thrill and humility to be able to succeed Harold as organist of the church in 1997, where I continued the large-screen recital tradition and tried to play as beautifully and as sincerely as he did. The recitals were far easier to play than to assume Harold’s heart in service playing. When the time comes, I will dedicate this recording to his memory. It’s the best I can do, and it’s the least I can do.

Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A is the second Aeolian-Skinner built for this church. Op. 912, ca. 1933, is in the chapel, in quite its original condition after a handsome Schoenstein rebuild in 1993. That organ was moved from the original downtown campus to the present campus in 1948. When Aeolian-Skinner had a second project on the same site, the opus number was kept the same and added a letter. Hence Opp. 912 and 912A are on the same campus but separated in age by 16 years.

The building is a traditional Georgian exterior, and the room is a Calvinistic-white marble space with a divided chancel and the longest nave aisle in town. (Brides faint on their way down.) It really is one of the more stunning spaces for traditional worship I have ever seen. And it still looks good despite the FIVE camera perches retro-fitted into the space. The sound system is unobtrusively installed, and there are no projector screens. (Keeping fingers crossed there.) The organ is a side installation with no pipes showing, and the console is across the chancel from that, high above the choir stalls. [Rumor has it that the pastor who built the building was determined that the organist was no longer going to be able to escape during sermons.] Op. 912A is a handsome 3-manual, 72-rank beauty with full principal choruses on all divisions, including an 8’ Diapason on each manual, plus Diapasons I and II on the Great. Two Great mixtures. Great reeds are enclosed in the Choir. Fully independent Pedal principal stops all the way through a mixture, and a huge Bombarde at 16, 8, and 4 that Harold McManus affectionately nicknamed “Fafner.” Schoenstein performed a comprehensive rebuild of this organ in 1993, retaining everything imaginable, including the winded console – the combination system has the most delicious pneumatic ker-chunk to it with the punch of every piston. Schoenstein also added a Choir mixture, a Tuba in the Choir, and a Great Harmonic Flute. They moved the Swell 16’ Fagotto to the Pedal and replaced it in the Swell with a 16’ Contre Trompette that is worth its weight in gold. They also added two Walker 32s, which rumble the choir stalls, which helps recruit more choir members to sit near them.(!) Read more about the organs here.

 

************************************

So on June 12, 2017, after a very early morning flight followed by a delicious Texas breakfast near Hobby Airport, I arrived at the church to begin registering. It is not difficult to register Widor; there are large swaths of stops, and the dynamic terracing of French organ music makes things easy.

 

But only on French organs.

 

On anything else, you have to “orchestrate” things a bit more. These days, I normally have the voicing of an Orgelbewegung Casavant in my ears, and to arrive back at my old stomping ground and to hear the richness of this organ was a culture shock. Nevertheless, the music at hand demands a much thicker richness than I remember this organ delivering. True to form of American Classic, no single stop is commanding, but lots of them in combination brings forth a sonic thrill not heard just anywhere else. And so the registration quickly got “interesting,” and I found myself supplementing Widor’s requirements more than I ever thought I would on this organ:

-- Widor’s voix cèleste was huge and commanding, and the swell box was thick and could keep it under wraps as desired. How to simulate that on an American Classic organ? Add the Swell Diapason 8!

-- During my service playing days on this organ, I used the Pedal Principals only in large combinations, but with Widor, they are on most of the time. It was utterly shocking to compare my use/disuse of those stops in church vs. in Widor. But his music works with them, and we needed the gravitasse.

-- Widor is sometimes vague about manual couplers. And so I was vague right back. Every now and then, I set up a three-manual texture, where each manual had its own character, but the buildup was nevertheless present and audible.

-- What should I prepare as “tutti?” There are super- and sub-couplers on the organ. I never touched the supers. But I used the sub-couplers religiously. As did Widor. And his music is perfect for it. The Toccata, with the resulting 32-foot manual stops is rather glorious. And the fullness of the Pedal division keeps it from being so top-heavy as it can be all over this country. Fafner does his job well.

-- As things evolved during recording week, we removed many of the flutes from fuller textures, much as we would on a Fritts. This gave the 5th Symphony a certain clarity that will make it sound like an entirely different organ from the 1st Symphony.

 

I quick-patched a whistling air leak in a concussion bellows. It was mild during the recording of the 1st Symphony, but by the time we started to record the 5th, it had become stentorian. Consequently, one may be able to hear that whistle during the 1st but not during the 5th. Thank goodness it got bad between Symphonies, rather than between movements. And thank goodness we recorded a full Symphony at a time. I’m looking forward to hearing engineer Ryan Edwards’ surgical removal of that whistle as needed in the 1st.

The most interesting part of this particular project was in managing the air conditioning. This building was built in 1948, and the air conditioner for it is rumored to be Houston’s oldest system still in operation. Which means it is loud. Very loud. Ear-splittingly loud through an engineer’s microphones. But it was going to be 90 degrees all week, with Houston’s usual 90% humidity. What to do? We knew that we HAD to have the air completely off for sessions (and that quiet is indeed heavenly), but the organ was going to drift in tuning after about 40 minutes. My producer and engineer, Keith Weber and Ryan Edwards visited the church a week before and made some notes about what happens when. Their solution was brilliant – leave the air on all night, and then cycle it on and back off every hour throughout the day. So it was turned off on all odd-numbered hours and then came back on during all even-numbered hours. The real stroke of brilliance there was that the air-on hours gave us an hour to prepare for the next air-off hour, which dramatically cut down on in-session coaching and patching. It also gave us time to rest body and mind. We just might do things that way in the future now, air or not. We got all twelve movements from these two Symphonies recorded in only 12 hours, spread across three days with plenty of rest.

Thanks are due the physical plant guys from the church, who programmed the air conditioner without a hitch. Thanks are certainly due Rhonda Furr, FPC organist, for her gracious hospitality. And to the office staff, for getting us going in the first place. It was good to be back and to hear this organ play music I had never played on it, beyond the Toccata.

I'll address the $28,000 question now: the Toccata is played at 100 bpm, just like Widor marked it and recorded it. We all should.

Saturday
May272017

The Theory of Evolution

I now find myself in the middle of a recording project of the complete Widor Symphonies, plus his Suite Latine, Trois Nouvelles Pièces, and Bachs Memento. I am having the time of my life. Recording is an expensive habit, but it works for me.

My recording process is evolutionary. I think, "Gee that's a wonderful piece. I should record it." Or I think, "Gee, that's a wonderful organ. I should record on it." Once I get those two ideas into the same sentence and have rep matched to an instrument, then I call my producer, and we start looking into it. He and I and the recording engineers he calls "the secret weapon" have already recorded three times together. Our first was the Widor Sixth and Romane Symphonies on the landmark Aeolian-Skinner at St. Mark's Cathedral in Shreveport, detailed here. That organ needed recording, and the Romane needed to be recorded on it. A few months later, the four of us met in Houston and recorded Jongen, Brahms, and Reubke on the Fritts organ at St. Philip Presbyterian, detailed here. That recording is done and on the Centaur label, entitled "Sonatas and Variations." Our third project was an all-British program recorded on the landmark Aeolian-Skinner at First Baptist in Longview, Texas.

It wasn't long after that that we just HAD to get our hands on my beloved Aeolian-Skinner at First Presbyterian in Houston, where I "presided" from 1997-2005. Our first thought was all-Howells, but then the idea of doing two more Widor Symphonies presented itself, and then Evolution took over, and the complete Widor project was officially born.

This post appears in the "News" tab of this website, and so the news is that I'll be heading to Houston on June 12 to record Widor Symphonies I and V. That will leave only six Symphonies to go, plus the three extra pieces. We have already received clearance to record on the E. M. Skinner at First Presbyterian in Wilmington, N.C., and we have received clearance to record on another landmark Aeolian-Skinner in the Midwest.

Evolution also struck in the selection of instruments to record Widor on. As it turns out, Aeolian-Skinners, E. M. Skinners, and maybe even an Aeolian have become our instruments of choice. At first, that was coincidental. Now it's deliberate. Now I'm on a mission. And I believe in evolution.

Tuesday
Dec202016

New deal breakers for a new year

This blog has tended to state how things are rather than what they can be. I tend to wax complainingly rhapsodic about the increasing amount of paperwork in education, overwrought society, overwrought weddings, fabulous organists who don’t know how to behave in public, and churches removing Christ from Christmas by canceling church when Christmas Day falls on Sunday. But how to move on from the point of calling it what it is into starting to make it what it can be? I suppose I can only start with myself.

I have two stacks of books I want to read -- one in my house, the other in my office. In the office, I resolve to devote at least an hour each day to reading. Reading about Duruflé, Sweelinck, research methods for Felix Mendelssohn’s slurrings, the complete works (or so it seems) of Robert Donington, and about the perennial question of pronouncing that pedal stop name “off-ih-clyde” or “off-ih-slayd.” In the stack of books at home are the Iliad and the Odyssey, books on North Carolina architecture, and self-help books by Harville Hendrix and Elizabeth Gilbert.

I also need to swim every day. Jog every 3 days. Stretch every day. Practicing every day might be nice, too. And I just might want to throw in writing every day. That’s a soul feeder and should therefore be a deal breaker. Writing student textbooks, blog posts, and that zombie novel I have been pondering.

Sunday
Oct162016

What's on YOUR console?

After a bit of a blogging hiatus, I’m back. Let’s have a little fun today, shall we:

Unlike Samuel L. Jackson, I don’t care what’s in your wallet. But I care a great deal about what’s on your console, and I prefer that it be nothing at all. I follow those rules for school and church organ consoles, definitely. But when it comes to the two consoles in my own house, I break my public rules.

“Clara Belle” is my Aeolian-Skinner, and “Big Al” is my Allen Bravura. You can read about Clara Belle here and watch videos about her here and here. Clara Belle’s console is nicknamed “Clyde.” On top of Clyde is some music and a nice music rack lamp. On Clyde’s side flats are a pair of nail clippers, a small emery board, a Kleenex dispenser, pencils, an eraser, a small pencil sharpener, a tube of chapstick, and a very nice Franz metronome (you know – the one that looks charmingly like a 1960s Kodak camera). There is also a small book in which I make repair notes for my tech, Morris Spearman. And yes, I’ll admit – there is also a small tube of l’Occitane hand cream, plus a coaster for the occasional water glass. Oh, the humanity. But with all these items, I have within arm’s reach everything I ever need during practice, and that helps me not to interrupt practice time by getting up to go get something I want/need but don’t have.

 

Big Al is a bit more heavily decorated than Clara Belle. On his top is everything “Clyde” has on him, plus a rather intriguing 4-dimensional puzzle of Manhattan that I chose not to put back in the box:

 

[The fourth dimension of this puzzle is Time. When you follow the directions for assembling it, you place the buildings in chronological order. It is so cool to see the city taking shape as you assemble it.] On Big Al’s side flats are the same items that Clyde has on his. Big Al adds a remote control for the playback sequencer. And there is a small wooden statuette of Elvis at his famous Hawaii concert:

 

[Elvis was a post-recital gift from Sondra Tucker and the wonderful audience from Holy Apostles in Collierville, Tennessee. I am reminded of good friends and happy times while I’m slaving away at these practice organs.]

Finally, next to each console is a fan, and each fan is plugged into the switched outlets inside the consoles, so that they come on automatically with the organs. What can I say -- practicing makes me warm.

Wednesday
Dec232015

In Search of New Models, Part VII: An unexpected one

Since the creation of this blog, I have kept a Word file “scratch pad,” into which I have deposited random thoughts and inspirations for blog posts. My near-weekly routine has been to scroll through and decide on a topic, write the post in Word, use Word to check grammar and spelling, and then paste it into the website. It has been a simple and easy process for sharing my thoughts with any Dear Reader who stops by the site. This blog has covered everything from hymn playing to owning a practice organ to liturgical goofs to practice habits to funny stories to heartfelt tributes to reharmonizations to exciting news and more.

This particular series on “broken models” has brought to mind a number of increasingly disserviceable ways that some things are done in various sectors of our profession. But in fleshing out the ideas and the general organization of the series in my Word file, I developed a longer laundry list than I am comfortable with. In other words, my ability to tear down in this blog is currently greater than my ability to edify, which is a complete, unsettling reversal from the approach I followed in my first months of blogging. Despite my best efforts toward compassion, the rant factor threatens to increase in my written output. I do not want that.

I believe it’s time to apply this New-Model philosophy to this very blog for a while. I’m suggesting that perhaps it is time to pursue a new model for the very vessel through which I have been discussing the need for new models all over the profession. Ironic, isn’t it!

But of course, I still have plenty more I could say about the necessary but broken model of having a booth at organist conventions. I still have plenty more I could say about the hard lesson I learned about the broken model of trying to advertise in convention tote bags. I still have plenty more I could say about the difference between a wedding and a marriage, or the horribly overblown attention given to the former over the latter in today’s society. I still have plenty more I could say about how utterly mystified I continue to be by the rich rewards given to deliberate mediocrity and pervasive arrogance in our profession. I could still go on and on about church sound systems, salaries, student evaluations, search committees, and beauty pageants organ competitions.

But more writers are stepping forward in their blogs and Facebook memes to offer passionate but levelheaded thinking and timely assessments of modern liturgy, marriage, and the devastating effect movie screens in church have had. I’m seeing a welcome re-thinking of contemporary worship trends and how much they have nearly decimated congregational singing and theological brain cell activity. I’m seeing Facebook friends wonder to their organist groups how to deal better with church matters or recital ideas. My church music majors are showing up for their freshman year with a better knowledge of liturgical and hymnological matters than their predecessors did more than a decade ago. In short, I’m seeing things turning around. New models are being posed all around us in music, arts management, politics, education, and child rearing. This is good. More people are asking the questions I have been asking. Although this blog has been the only one of its kind, I don’t feel so alone on many troubling issues now, and so I think I’ll move on to something else now.

My pattern after a “soft reset” like this is to renew my energies in my teaching. Not only will I follow my usual model of seeking improvement in my teaching at every turn, I’m also going to create and post more videos, which you can access on the “Watch” tab of this website or on my YouTube channel. I’ll also keep updating my newsy posts of this site, available at the News tab. Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like to read through the archives of my blog – it’s all still right here on this site. Click on a month in the right-hand sidebar of this page. Feel free to visit individual posts or click on some tags in the right sidebar. Or search for a subject in the search field. Perhaps you’d like to read about my teacher or my take on playing Franck. Perhaps you’d like to browse and print some of my reharmonizations and use them in church sometime. Perhaps you’d like to read about crazy things I have witnessed in church.

In any event, I’ll say ‘So long for now’ to blogging, while I continue to enjoy new models for inspiration. And since I’m posting this on December 23, 2015, I’ll also offer you my best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy 2016.

Tuesday
Nov242015

In Search of New Models, Part VI: Backstage at the teaching show

In the theater, there are two shows going on: the one in front of the audience and the one behind the scenes. When you're attending a show, you have no idea of the beehive of activity going on behind the scenes. And if you are performing in that show, then you have no idea what's going on out in the house. Rarely do the two groups meet, and when they do, it's considered a breach of theatre protocol.

There are two shows going on in higher education, too. The students see a show, but they have no idea what professors are required to do outside the classroom or how much data we are required to gather each semester. Most students have no idea of the difference between a department of music and school of music. They have no idea what a Provost is or does. They have no idea of the difference between a President and a Chancellor. They have no idea how much their in-state taxes save them on tuition. And did you know that the school of music where I teach is one of only a couple (if not the last one standing) of administratively freestanding schools of music left in this state system? And did you know that of all the organ professors in the system, I am the only full-time? (All the others are adjunct, part-time, or split with a church or another school or an administrative post.) Impressive? Maybe. But I had nothing to do with any of that. It has all been in place since my teacher was here 30 years ago; I just show up for work. If you were a prospective student, I doubt you’d care about any of this, and I’m certain you wouldn’t need to. None of it changes my teaching.

Broken model: “state” universities. "State-supported?" More like merely "state-located" these days. I don’t think a table could call itself "supported" on less than half a leg. The state owns the university, yet these days it funds only about 12% of its operations. And in some states, that number has dropped to single digits. How do you own something, lay claim to it, govern it and enact [myopic] laws for it to follow, yet provide only a fraction of the funding it needs to be excellent? If universities are having to seek outside funding at every turn, then they might as well seek out the really big bucks and buy themselves out of the system.

Broken model: Peer reviews. Across my university system, all non-tenured tenure-track faculty must have three tenured faculty members observe one class or lesson once per year, and all tenured faculty members must be reviewed this way every five years. The idea for this appears to be an attempt by the legislature/university system to provide greater accountability within the system. (But to whom, and when?) Okay, so we do it, and we can prove on paper that we do it. But how do we prove that it did any good? What will be done if a tenured faculty member doesn’t perform well in that one lecture that a peer happened to attend? Who am I to suggest that the most senior faculty member in the unit adjust his teaching style? Who is a non-organist to suggest to me ways to adjust my church music curriculum? What happens if a long-tenured professor doesn’t do anything with the advice dispensed by the review committee? And what do you do with the long-tenured and much-beloved professor who is otherwise a womanizer or a horse’s ass or allows his favorite students to screen his emails? I believe it would be far more instructive if a higher admin-type or even a legislator attended a lecture and then attempted to fill out the review form. We’d see the model change pretty quickly.

Where do we find new models for all this ranting? Honestly, in the case of higher education, I'm afraid a new model can rise only from the ashes of a complete implosion. It’s too complicated to re-work a lot of it, like a failed pottery throw. It wasn’t always this way, of course. But things evolve, and in the case of higher education, money became the driving force behind a lot of players’ actions, and off we went.

Our passions are the only salvageable part of all this and will be the only things left if all else fails. Fortunately, they are still at the heart of all education. Teach your passions. Show students how to cultivate theirs. Teach something the students can’t get anywhere else. I’ll keep showing up for work and training the organists who also show up to work. And let us help others stop being so pleasantly surprised when a teacher or professor goes the extra fifty miles to show a student the passionate and compassionate approach. It’s just what we do – behind the scenes.

Friday
Nov132015

’Tis the season

I am the ‘sole proprietor’ at my university of an annual Messiah Singalong, the format for which I ‘stole’ from the same event at First Presbyterian, Houston. When I was at that church, one of my highlights each year was the first Sunday evening of December, when we would fling wide the doors to a full house (roughly 1000) of eager singers. We would hand them each a Watkins Shaw edition to sing from. There was a pickup orchestra, yours truly on harpsichord, and a hired friend of mind to play the organ or “cattle prod,” as I liked to call it. Our choir soloists sang the arias, our beloved John Yarrington conducted, and the assembled audience sang all the choruses. We would perform every note of Part I, plus Hallelujah, Worthy, and Amen. It was the greatest night of the year, to kick off the most wonderful time of the year.

So when I moved back to my alma mater to teach, it only took me a year without my annual Singalong fix to re-invent it for our purposes here. So, each fall I audition any interested voice majors for the arias/recits. I have the program and publicity prepared, I borrow Messiah scores from two local churches to add to our own stash here, and we have at it! I play the organ, no orchestra. We are about to mount our 11th annual performance on December 6 at 6 pm.

The event has evolved only slightly to include student conductors, rather than a recruited faculty member. Otherwise, it is unchanged from what I was used to in Houston. One year, we were nearly snowed out, but I went on with it, minus a few soloists who couldn’t get there. But I learned my lesson – NEVER cancel Messiah unless the university closes, because there are community members who would brave snow or fire to get here. They wouldn't miss singing those first four notes of ‘Hallelujah’ for anything.

Each fall, I remind our voice faculty and staff accompanists to be on the lookout for potential soloists to send my way for auditions. And so, Dear Reader, if you’re interested in auditioning, here’s what I look for in soloists:

-- I like it when a singer owns the story and doesn’t get stuck on the rests in a recit.

-- Anyone auditioning for ‘O thou that tellest’ or ‘He shall feed’ should prepare the recit as well. I tend to blackball people who don’t know the recit. And I certainly blackball anyone who is not willing to learn it.

-- Fast arias: the faster and more fearless, the better.

-- Transposed arias are fine. I’m also happy with sopranos singing the tenor pieces.

-- I like both versions of ‘Rejoice.’

-- I like it when mezzos sing ‘He shall feed’ in 4, not in 12. That will always be a deal breaker.

-- I like it when sopranos sing ‘He shall feed’ and ‘Come unto him’ in 4, not in 12. That will always be a deal breaker.

-- Anyone who sings more than one thing in the audition stands a better chance of getting something. That would allow more joy to be shared with more people, e.g., a recit to one person and the aria to another.

-- Assuming pitch and rhythm are intact, a singer’s fearlessness will usually tip my scales. It’s what we need for this performance that goes up with several handicaps: 1) little time for more than only one run-through onstage per singer; 2) a big acoustic; 3) a distant, non-percussive accompanying instrument (the organ).

Sing on.