Upcoming Performances

September 7, 6:00 pm
Inaugural recital, Belin United Methodist Church, Murrells Inlet, S.C.

October 3, 7:30 pm
Guest recitalist, Valdosta State University

October 12, 5:30 pm
Evensong recitalist, Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, Houston, Tex.

October 19, 3:00 pm
Guest organist, Hymn festival, Francis Street First UMC, St. Joseph, Mo.

October 31, 8:00 pm
Annual Halloween Monster Concert, Appalachian State University

November 9, 4:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Independent Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.

November 11, 2:00 pm
Featured recitalist, East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, Dallas, Tex.

December 7, 6:00 pm
Annual Messiah Singalong, Appalachian State University

February 20, 2015, 7:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Shandon United Methodist Church, Columbia, S.C.

June 22 and 29, 2015
Featured recitalist, Montreat Conferences on Worship and Music, First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, N.C.

June 23, 2016
Featured recitalist, somewhere very exciting, TBA!

May 28, 2017
Evensong recitalist, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, N.Y.


A tale of two ears at two conventions

This summer, the American Guild of Organists held its biannual convention in Boston, and the Organ Historical Society held its annual convention in the Syracuse area. For the first time ever, I was able to attend both.

My favorite part of an organists’ convention is the ability to “do” an unfamiliar city by hearing its organs. One can visit a museum any time, but at a convention I get to walk into all the churches I’d want to walk into, anyway, AND get to hear the organs. That alone is worth the price of admission. This summer it was wonderful to get to know areas of the country I had not visited before. The American northeast is stunning.

The AGO puts on a huge show. Five days of recitals, workshops, and services. Hundreds of people, all recognizable by their convention tote bags, milling about in the lobby and taking over the subway and area restaurants. Lots of visiting with friends and running to the next thing. But there is a lot of overlapped programming, so no one could possibly attend everything. One must pick and choose.

The OHS puts on a good show. Three days of nothing but recitals and eating. Up to six different recitals per day, no workshops, and only one or two services and lectures during the entire week. Lots of bussing to outlying areas. And everyone attends everything; no picking and choosing; once you get on that bus in the morning, you are cattle for the rest of a very enjoyable day. With a schedule like that, recitalists have to stick to their time limits, and one of them actually cut a movement to do just that. I was proud of him.

Being historically centered, the OHS visits only organs that are of historical significance, whether due to their age or to their builder’s reputation or to their longevity or to their groundbreaking developments or to their preservation. And they’re all pipe; not a whiff of digital anywhere. Not saying that’s good or bad; just saying it’s OHS.

There were quite a few students in attendance at OHS. The organization does an excellent job reaching out to students with scholarships and other sponsorships.

OHS sings a hymn at every recital. That’s a nice touch that they developed not too long ago. For me, it’s instructive to find out how well a person can play a recital AND a hymn. But I got tired of gasping to catch up; I didn’t hear a single dotted half note given its full value all week. And I had trouble singing the hymns because the words weren't flashed up on a screen. (Tongue in cheek there. I got some good laughs by “lodging that complaint” with the convention planners. Refreshingly, there was not a single screen to be found all week -- we sang from these strange books called "hymnals.")

But during both conventions, I sometimes felt my ears must be screwed on wrong. Here and there I heard what I felt was terrible playing, but then I would see Facebook light up with accolades from others about how wonderful it was. When that happens, I try to stay in the game and re-hear what the Facebooker heard. But alas, my ears are my ears, and they were trained by some of the greatest teachers I have ever known. So there. But I did appreciate hearing some other perspectives from a friend. I was talking with him about a particular recital that I didn’t like because I was listening to the playing itself, which I found flabby and uninteresting. But he and others loved that recital because they like the kind of music that was being played. And others continue to be drawn by the age and/or gender of a performer (yeah, that still happens; don’t get me started). Those are big differences in enjoyment, and they can usually tip the scales in one direction or the other for a person having a career. It is what it is.

Perhaps the most enlightening discovery I made is that you can play pretty much anything for OHS. Since they’re “historical,” they like music old and new, organs great and small, academic organs and historic little church organs, trackers and EP, performance practice and schlock. It was absolutely wonderful to see everyone being enriched by everything they encountered. I was happy to be among them.

Perhaps the Reader can sense my preference for the OHS way of doing a convention. AGO is stimulating and professionally important, and I'll keep going, but OHS was refreshing and downright life-giving.


Permission granted

Keyboard playing has lots of rules. Organ playing has even more rules. And performance practice keeps discovering more rules. And yet with all this, there is a dearth of rules in some areas of our noble art of organ playing. Well, here is your free lesson in figuring all that out:

How to play a hymn: I tell students just to consult the textbook on that. And of course, there isn’t one. Actually, there are many, about as many as there are people to play hymns. So that doesn’t help. So now what? I agree with the notion of learning to play the bass in the pedal and to redistribute the other voices among the hands. I agree that it’s good practice to break repeated notes and tie moving notes. I also know that while all this is an excellent way to develop finger independence and part reading and part distribution between staves, I believe it’s a lousy way to play hymns in church. Using hymns to teach technique is fine, but actually playing those hymns in church as if they were technical exercises is terrible. Most hymns are notated for singers in four parts, and so you are hereby granted permission to play them any way you like that is clear in tempo and rhythm. And since hymns are actually music, then permission is granted to play them musically, too. As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society, “We’re not laying pipe!”

How to play an orchestral reduction or an accompaniment that wasn’t written for the organ: All bets are off; play what you want! Seriously, if you’re having to play piano music on the organ or orchestral music from a piano reduction on the organ, then enjoy your freedom to re-orchestrate any way you like. Of course, that will take some experience and some training, but permission is hereby granted to pick and choose freely among all those notes.

Ornaments: yeah, yeah, upper note, on the beat. That will get you most of the way there. But every source eventually has to conclude that there are no absolutes. Every source eventually arrives at granting permission to do what sounds good, what serves the moment, what is musically satisfying, and what promotes bon goût.

Metronome markings: if it seems too fast, then it is. Many publishers insist that composers provide a metronome marking before publishing. And so the markings that appear in many pieces were merely thrown by the composer at the publisher and have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Not only are some of those tempos the sort of thing that only a MIDI playback device could produce, they are hopelessly out of touch with the instrument mechanics and acoustics that many composers worked with regularly. Permission granted to play in a tempo that is musical and note-perfect.

Registering Bach: yeah, yeah, manual plenum and pedal reed alone. I am of the school that says that an audience will feel hit over the head after 15 minutes of American mixtures. Permission granted to make things clear, exciting, and in full utilization of the tonal resources at your disposal. Sounds like something Bach himself might have done. On the other hand, a new piston every other measure is overboard. If it doesn’t assist the audience or serve the form, it’s too much. If it sounds like an organ demonstration, it’s too much.

Tying or breaking notes in Franck: there are no absolutes, except to make things beautiful. Keep it clear, but keep it beautiful. Tie away!

Sometimes we just need permission. We feel alone and need someone to come along and say it’s okay, just like in life. Everyone should read Gerre Hancock’s book on Improvising, even if you don’t intend to improvise. The amount of encouragement in that book would bring anyone out of depression!

So after you have received some training in what sounds good and what ought to feel good, then if it feels good and sounds good, go for it!


Spoken like a pro

The Rev. Kenny Lamm, senior consultant for worship and music for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, maintains a blog on worship and music. A fellow Facebooker shared one of Kenny’s recent posts, and I can’t let that pitch go by without taking a swing at it. I have known Kenny for many years, so I’m comfortable adding my own perspective and taking him to task here. So open your Bibles and your hymnals and Kenny’s blog in another window, and let’s get this service started:

Kenny says, “Worship leaders…are changing [the] church’s worship…into a spectator event, and people are not singing any more.” Well, YEAH, it’s a spectator sport and has been since the Ark of the Covenant and before. Walked into a Medieval European cathedral lately? There is so much to see in the architecture and appointments that you will always see something new each time. But in our modern churches that specialize in “contemporary” worship (hate that word, but history has not produced a better one yet), there is virtually no architecture to admire. And so our lights and graphics have become quite the visual feast (the only thing to look at, really) – so it's our own fault that people just look and don't participate, or at least look and not listen. Screens are hypnotic, and if the projector fails during a service, in some churches there won't be much left to take in. But being a spectator and not singing are two different phenomena. Looking at something is different from choosing not to sing along, and not singing along is a choice toward which many people are routinely driven today by worship teams. But when I attend church at, say, Esztergom Basilica or the Bavokerk in Haarlem, there is plenty to look at and there are plenty of kind and sincere people all around, and I can feel quite close to God without understanding a single word being said. Nothing wrong with worshipping with our eyes.

Kenny says about pre-Reformation worship, “The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin).” In many cases, the musicians were professional only insofar as they were professionally led and very well-rehearsed. Latin notwithstanding, presenting well-prepared church music is a good thing.

Kenny says, “The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple tavern tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.” One must be careful not to “nutshell” the Reformation too much. It was about far more than any one issue, and it was brought about by far more than one person. And although Luther got tunes from wherever they needed to be gotten, many of them came from aristocratic soirées, not from drunken brawls. And the tunes were NOT simple; matter of fact, the watered down versions we have today (by Bach, of all people) are far simplified from the rather vigorous rhythms of the originals.

Kenny says, “What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading – enabling the people to sing their praises to God.” And there is his thesis. He blames the re-professionalization of church music for shutting out the congregation. I’ll disagree passionately by saying that if anything, worship music has deliberately shunned professionalization, to its detriment and that of the musical health of its congregations. We need professionals all around us, in all spheres. And it is possible to be a professional musician and a compassionate Christian. [And I'm sorry, but I don't consider someone squeezing a microphone and crooning with their eyes closed and head tilted "professional." I sincerely hope Kenny does not, either.]

Kenny says, “Worship is moving to its pre-Reformation mess.” Sounds kind of alarmist to me. We’re way ahead on the Reformation issue of the vernacular in worship. And it took hundreds of years for the Reformation to finally gain enough ground to get started. And here we are hundreds of years after THAT, and our current sudden silence in the congregations took only about 30 years to come about. So it’s imminently fixable.

Kenny continues with nine reasons he feels congregations aren't singing anymore:

1. “They don’t know the songs.” I believe more accurate would be that they are not being allowed time to learn the songs, and they are not being presented with enough information to do so. Worship songs are not hard to learn. Any song on earth consists of text and melody, but our screens offer text only, thereby leaving out around 65% of the information required to sing a song. That's an easy fix on the screens, but it will probably require a professional musician to do it.

2. “We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing.” No argument there. Worship songs are notoriously solo-centered. It’s one of the most destructive forces against congregational singing today.

3. “We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.” True; see #2 above. But keys are easily fixed, preferably by a professional musician (there’s that word again) who knows how to transpose and to produce parts for the band. But we used to sing even higher in our hymnals, before worship songs came along. That is easy to explain: we got bigger. People were shorter and smaller in the 19th century and earlier – bodies and voices were smaller, therefore, higher pitched than today.

4. “The congregation can’t hear people around them singing. If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud.” No argument there, but the loudness is less than half the problem. Next to #2 above, dead acoustics are a primary culprit to congregational silence today. There has always been a reason why people sing in the shower and not in the bedroom. And at Kenny’s previous church, the acoustics were lousy, and the sound system and music were oppressively loud. Speakers just shout at you; they don’t envelop you. Loud doesn’t work when the organ is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the band is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the lead singer’s mic is too loud. And despite their insistence to the contrary, choir members don’t “get” their part by sitting next to someone singing their part in their ear or by asking the pianist to “bang out” their part. Sound must be all around a person to lead him, not shouting out of a speaker to drag him.

5. “Excellence – yes. Highly professional performance – no.” I cannot imagine how you can have excellence without some know-how behind it. I am a professional musician. And so is Kenny. And when I “take the stage” to lead a crowd, I do it better than most. What’s wrong with getting the music as good as we possibly can? What’s wrong with hiring a professional musician to lead the flock? Give of our best. Get it right. Hire skilled musicians [I Chron 15:22, I Chron 25:1-8, Psalm 33:3]. In his excellent and punch-in-the-face kind of book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best asserts sternly on page 170 that “There is no hint anywhere in the scriptures that mediocrity is excused in the name of service and ministry.” He asserts over and over that God expects us to find the best people in order to offer the best product. "Professional" is required to educate, to produce, to move amateurs into a higher worship IQ bracket.

6. “The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.” I'm not sure this is verifiable. You’d have to ask the congregation. But they’re not professionals, so don’t expect them to be able to put their finger on it immediately.

7. “We fail to have a common body of hymnody.” Actually, the songs keep changing so fast that we can’t decide what’s in and what’s out. Worship songs are being churned out so fast that it’s impossible to determine which ones will stand the test of time. It's our own fault that few non-hymnal-based churches have a reliable repository of songs to use anymore.

8. “Worship leaders ad lib too much. Keep the melody clear and strong.” This is a sibling to Nos. 2 and 6 above. The fastest fix is to get the melody up on the screen. With that, you could even do away with most of the worship leaders, which could eventually pose the question, “Why did we require multiple worship leaders wielding microphones in the first place?"

9. “Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.” This one is tricky, in part because I'm not entirely sure what Kenny is saying. But the people are looking at a screen, so it’s impossible for worship leaders to connect fully with them. But ultimately, everyone is responsible for his own worship. A worshipper shouldn’t expect to be reached without reaching out himself, and a worship team should not be expected to take responsibility for anyone’s non-participation.


This post came about from some comments I made on a Facebook friend’s page in somewhat rawer language. I hope I have been more compassionate here, but this debate is important, and I have my suspicions that all this is an easy fix. Kenny has offered his summary of the problem in an over-professionalization of church music. I have offered mine in the mis-channeling of professionalization and in uninformative screens. We’re both close, but it remains for churches to embrace their own fixes.

I'm not advocating here for the removal of the screens and a return to using hymnals. That would be too drastic for the screen camp, but it would solve a host of problems being increasingly debated.


Thanksgiving in July

I am extremely sensitive and routinely compassionate, believe it or not. Although I speak my mind in this blog, it is usually a place to release steam, and I am then able to go back into the trenches and serve my fellow man with unhindered patience. I teach my students how to deal, how to cope, how to behave despite a low opinion of a situation or a person. But recently, my writing has been of the insistent kind that assumes any idiot would agree with anything I say. Part of my subconscious had apparently decided that I don’t have to practice what I preach. The evidence has been in this blog, which has lately exhibited an increased level of woe, gloom, doom, and complaining. I have become, in a favorite organist word, a bitch.

Two events in the past week have brought about an abrupt turnaround to this, thank God. One was a challenge from a reader who was taking all the yelling and screaming at face value, as a reader should. Sure enough, when I went back and looked at a few comments in last week’s post, I saw that I was blowing a larger smokescreen than usual. I had gone too far. I immediately reversed it and reclaimed my compassion. An insidious enemy, the assumption of superiority.

The second event that brought me back into the land of the living was the acquisition of Clyde Holloway’s Aeolian-Skinner from his house. That was a surreal process that I never expected to come to a conclusion so quickly. Many Facebook friends have assumed Clyde left the organ to me. If he had, my life would be complete, and I could die happy and fulfilled. But he did not. However, one thing led to another, and it’s now a textbook case of ask-and-ye-shall-receive. I am ever so glad I asked, and I shall live out my days in hope that Clyde would be pleased with this development.

Getting that organ is much like my keeping my father’s 1970 Lincoln Mark III. The organ and the car represent two people whose presence I can still feel by now owning these things that were important parts of their lives. I suppose it will be a while before I start calling them mine, rather than calling them "Dad’s Lincoln" or "Clyde’s Aeolian-Skinner."

Those two events this week were humbling. I am reminded that I have no real reason to complain about anything. I may be disappointed in my state economy and my state legislature’s continuing evisceration of education and in not getting that bigger studio, but I still have a job doing what I was trained to do, with a full stable of students. I may now be in debt from acquiring Clyde’s practice organ, restoring Dad’s Lincoln, or paying for a new transmission on my own car this week, but I am fortunate to be able to make the payments. I may not have been considered attractive enough to have a career manager, but I still get to go play for appreciative audiences 2-3 times per month. I may not like the screens in church but I am still able and invited to play for church for congregations who still want to use the organ.

And so I am thankful to have been brought back this week from an old path of bitchiness I learned to follow as a younger man. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Clyde Holloway’s memory by continuing to preserve the Aeolian-Skinner that he was so careful to preserve. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Dad’s memory by restoring his car the way he always wanted to. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Dick Woods’s memory with his choir members each year. I am thankful for the students who seek me out.

And so if you have life, health, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then stop complaining. Did you hear that, Joby?


Going dormant

***This post has been heavily edited from before. If you have been Facebooking about a rawer, more rant-ive post, the current version speaks in a more compassionate tone, the same tone I try to teach my students. The earlier version was me in a heated moment, which should not have seen the light of day.



Some reactions are so automatic in years past that they do not lose their potency when they come up again.

I left regular church employment three years ago, but just in the past three days nearly all of my church "triggers" converged into a perfect storm. My visceral reactions were at the same level today as if I had never taken a step away from church work. It's kind of like that good friend with whom you can always catch up on things in just a few minutes. Only different.

This weekend, I agreed to help out an organist who wanted to leave town for a friend’s funeral. My duties included a wedding; weddings proved to be my biggest emotional trigger in years past. The stress that many people bring to their weddings is sky-high, and much of it is avoidable. I always fancied myself above all that and congratulated myself for staying cool. But after a few years away, this past weekend proved to me that I am just as emotionally high-strung as any nervous bride or her soon-to-be mother-in-law. My primary stressor was always a fear of screwing up -- it wasn't about making a mistake, but rather disappointing any people who were already on edge. Once an organist plays the wrong piece or plays it in some fashion other than the recording everyone is used to, he becomes the object of disappointment and maybe even hate mail. This is stress that I bring to the table, and I have never been very good at letting go of it. My powers of service playing are formidable, but they usually co-exist with a childhood fear of, "Please like this, and therefore like me." Now you know.

Now, this wedding just past had a healthy dose of many things I like in a wedding: modest bridal and bridesmaid attire, well-dressed witnesses, traditional music, short ceremony, no soloist, etc. But some triggers were in full force: 1) A nervous instrumentalist was worried about available rehearsal time, especially since I couldn't be present at the wedding rehearsal. 2) The guest minister wanted me to play the wedding party and mothers out at the end and then stop so he could invite everyone to the reception. 3) there were some yuk yuks scattered throughout the ceremony that I always feel reduce the solemnity of the occasion. If a minister feels the need as a matter of course to put everyone at ease with non-holy humor, then we bring too much stress with us as a matter of course. 4) The groom mumbled his vows. I get nervous when I see that -- I always wonder if a mumbler believes what s/he is saying. 5) The guest minister decreed that the service was now over, even though I had more music to play, all of which I like to think is part of the service.

Then on Sunday, I played for church for the same organist friend. The service had lots of things I like: a single service (traditional), sturdy hymns (all stanzas), faithful choir, good pacing, etc. But the triggers were as strong as ever, most of which I have blogged about before.

During this same weekend, I read the latest from another blogger, who I feel misses the point on why congregations don’t sing very well any more. He blames the “professionalization” of music; I blame the lack of musical notation on the screens, which is always a hard sell against "but no one reads music."

With this fresh wave of old triggers came an unexpected glimmer of new understanding. Perhaps I have been so uptight over the years because so much of this has cropped up in church since my childhood and would be all too easy to reverse (if anyone would like to do it Joby's way). Perhaps I have been so uptight because I don’t want anything I do to be seen as foreign and therefore regarded as a screw-up. Surely I am as guilty of the emotional wrenching that I blame brides and their mothers for.

But as always, it’s time to get over it. Some things are just not my responsibility. It’s time to go dormant with this crusade! Oh, I’ll still play for church when I can – there is still no greater thrill than playing and hearing congregational singing, screens or not. But I’m still learning to take the rest of it in stride. Life goes on after triggers!


Happy and gay? Part 2

I heard from a couple friends regarding an earlier post on gay organists. They had good things to add that need to be repeated here. And since no one else is taking up the subject for research, this lowly blog is the forum for now, folks!

In the earlier post, I wrote that gay musicians are sometimes ousted from the very institution they give their lives to serve. But I am reminded that the church mistreats far more than just gay people. Adulterers, gamblers, porn lovers, and horrible people who just don’t believe the right things – all these are called out when found out, and many of them, therefore, hide their true nature in some churches. Deviations from some congregations’ beliefs are often called out as “sinful,” while the whistle blower twists the knife by insincerely hastening to add that the church will love that sinner no matter what. Yeah, right.

I also asserted that if a congregation is open and affirming, then gay can be happy. But I have been reminded that if a congregation is open and affirming, then straight can be happy, too. The congregation’s engagement in the proceedings is key. Congregational indifference can be as deflating to any musician as congregational homophobia can be to a gay one. (One reader said, “Straight people have feelings, too!”)

The discussion could continue here in several directions, such as congregational indifference, why some church musicians work so hard for so little sometimes, or why some gay musicians work so hard incognito. Might as well say a bit about all of those:

Congregational indifference: Does your congregation sit and listen to the postlude? Does the choir? Do any of them treat you the same way they would treat a lounge pianist with a tip jar, by making outlandish requests for Sunday and for their weddings, no matter how inappropriate? How “plugged in” are they to the music you provide? Just this week, I attended church at St. Mark’s in Philadelphia, where the entire congregation sat down and listened to the closing voluntary, during which the altar was dignifiedly stripped. It was a miraculous liturgical moment, as was the improvisation.

Why do church musicians work so hard? Sunday after Sunday, Eucharist after Eucharist, Evensong after Evensong. Directors and their choirs show up and work all evening one night per week, then perhaps all day on Sunday. The director plans recital series, Sunday music, extra concerts and services, etc. They deal with tyrannical clergy and fickle congregants and a paycheck that only occasionally pays all the bills. When do they eat? When do they compose? When do they practice? When do they get a break? I gave up my church work to devote more time to teaching and performing. Correction: I gave up church work because I didn’t have time to do all three careers at once. And now, if I didn’t give up one of the other two careers, I couldn’t imagine applying at a church ever again. But I love to play for church; I love to hear lusty congregational singing; I love to accompany choirs. But I can’t stand dealing with the inner workings of the office Mon-Fri, and I can’t stand being required to be intimate with fellow staffers during weekly staff devotions. And I certainly can’t stand weddings and being treated like a saloon pianist with a tip jar. A reader recalled a memory of being told something like, “When you work in a church, you’ll understand why Christians were thrown to the lions.” For me it was a no-brainer as to which career to let go of on a regular basis. And so I ask again: Why do church musicians work so hard at their craft, week after week? And why do some gay ones work so hard for an institution that could destroy them for coming out?

That’s easier to answer after seeing and hearing so many fine church musicians last week in Boston at the American Guild of Organists convention. The choirs sang angelically, and the directors and organists showed clear evidence of careful preparation and profound musicality. They honed their craft and “did themselves proud” all week. As I listened, I realized: Duh – they do it for the MUSIC. Church music is absolutely the most beautiful music ever rendered by the hand of man. I recall asking a friend why he continues to do Evensong for such small crowds, and he answered, “Because I love Evensong.”

Good answer.


My last days with Clyde Holloway

My interview with Clyde Holloway just came out in the June 2014 issue of The American Organist magazine. After that interview, I was newly inspired to learn more, do more, memorize better. I was even inspired to learn more Messiaen.

I would like to have heard more details about Clyde’s every church job, every school. We didn’t talk much about his training, and so I did not ask about all those little details that so many interviews cover about studying with this or that person. No, I wanted to hear more about those revivals that he and my other teacher H. Max Smith used to play for on the piano and organ. I would love to have heard more about what a drill sergeant Jack Ossewaarde was to work for. I would love to know if Jack’s Dutch name had anything to do with Clyde choosing to study in the Netherlands on his Fulbright. But I never asked.

The last time I saw Clyde was following my recital at Houston Baptist University, September 13, 2013. I closed that recital with one of his specialties, the Sowerby Pageant. After the recital, he said, “You play too fast.” I thought he was referring to general tempos, but he apparently was referring to the Sowerby, because he went on to say, “Sowerby wrote the notes to be exciting; they are perfectly exciting just the way they are. You don’t have to push and pull the tempo to make it more exciting; that just overblows it. You should play it strictly. I played it in Sowerby’s presence three times, and he said I played it better than anyone!” (In his prime, Clyde played a lot of things better than anybody else. I wish I could have heard more of it.) And as it turns out, he was right about Pageant’s tempos; I’m a believer now. Every time Clyde spoke, there was something to learn from him.

That was the last time I saw Clyde. But it wasn’t the last time I spoke with him. A few weeks later, he was working with a classmate of mine, Ann Frohbieter. Ann was preparing to travel to “my house” at Appalachian State to play a recital and to lecture on Jewish organ music. Clyde was helping her prepare registrations on an unfamiliar organ so that she would not be so far behind the curve when she got to my instrument. And he called me about five times that night to ask questions about my console so that they could work within those parameters where they were at the time. The problem was that he was working with her on a 72-rank Aeolian-Skinner from 1949, and I have a 51-rank Casavant from 1984! Huge difference. But I later figured out that he was probably re-living some pleasant memories of preparing huge pieces on huge instruments. I suspect it didn’t help Ann much, but it probably helped Clyde immensely, and since he died about a week later, I don’t begrudge any of it.

Right up to the very end, Clyde was giving and teaching. I had hardly a conversation with him that I didn’t come away with just a little bit more knowledge about our field or a little more insight about his generation. Sometimes, I would avoid talking to him because I didn’t have time for a long story or didn’t want to hear a lecture about how I should be doing something differently. [He and I did disagree on how some things in the organ world work, but I disagreed with him quietly.]

Clyde loved people, and he loved talking. The tributes paid to him in the wake of his death have been moving and loving. He was such a force in the profession that sometimes it was hard to think of him as a real person. And even though I studied with him toward the end of his prime, I nevertheless got the best of his teaching, and I also caught glimpses of both his personality as a lonely-ish fellow and his force as a world-class performer. As I’ve said before, there is very little I do in my work that doesn’t remind me of a teacher or a mentor, and I hope that his training won’t fade in my work or my own teaching.


Wearing the cloak of respectability lightly

Ah, Commencement. A time to celebrate. A time to enjoy the upcoming freedom of summer. A time to enjoy the quietness of the town before summer school starts and the seasonal residents arrive in droves. Also a time to observe how society has changed since last year’s Commencement. Although my heart is usually broken by my observations, the ceremony is still good each year. I have to say that this year, our crowd was very well behaved. But this is a blog, and so we’re going to pick it apart, anyway:

There was the usual hooting and hollering for this or that graduate (is that related to the sophomoric hooting and hollering for a groom who finally ties the knot?). There were those graduates who wore shorts and flip-flops under their gowns (one of the oldest and lamest tricks in the book). There were the usual graduate(s) who painted messages on their mortarboard (again, lame).

I’m a fun loving guy, but I get serious when it’s time. I may sit backstage and crack jokes about these organ shoes making my butt look big, but when it’s time to walk out and play, I leave the Bozo nose out of it. I’ll play a great recital, and then I’m ready to go eat Mexican food and tell adult jokes. My dear friend John Yarrington still tells the story of me playing a recital one day and on the next holding up one end of the sofa he bought while walking behind the truck. Well, I’m me. I’m “good help” and a lot of fun, but I have worked hard enough for long enough to know that I play pretty darn well, and I don’t apologize for being respectable on the stage.

I believe it’s that word “apologize” that derails us most often. Passive apology, such as painting words on your mortarboard. Or the clergyperson who doesn’t want to be perceived by his youthful charges as stuffy, and so he wears Birkenstocks under his vestments and approaches the liturgy with a casual air of “y’all come.” Or the clergyperson who begins the liturgy not with “Blessed be God…” but rather with “Good MOOORNing! and WELLLcome to HOLy EUCHarist, RITE ONE!” as if we were at the world premiere of a long-lost Bernstein musical. Or the student who doesn’t want to be seen as responsible among his peers because it’s not cool. Or the brightest minds capable of great things but can’t keep up with their daily schedule. Come on, folks. It’s okay to get it right and be proud of it.

This past “May the fourth” fell on a Sunday. Someone was agonizing on Facebook over how to work Star Wars themes into the liturgy for that day. I told him, “It’s church, not a frat party. Leave Hollywood out of it.” (On the other hand, I myself did put South Park tunes into all services one Sunday. But they deserved it. Read about it here.) One Sunday many years ago, the Warden of the Vestry got up during the announcements and sang a song about the Rector “turning 50 in the morning,” sung to the tune of “Get me to the church on time.” I have seen moving liturgy brought to a mushroom cloud at the Peace by a troupe doing a frivolous skit about the upcoming country day fair. You’ve got to be kidding me.

But I know what it's like to be a prophet in his own land. I have been accused of being “so far above us now” when I played a fine recital on the home turf. But you know what? Screw ’em! It’s who I am now, and I will encourage anyone struggling with it themselves to wear the cloak of respectability lightly, except when it needs to be buttoned alllllll the way up.


Help Yourself X: Trigger a mutiny

Want to really throw your congregation off the track? Then try some of these harmonizations. It worked for me!

As with all the PDFs in this tagged series, you may click, print, and use these files freely. But cautiously and judiciously.

Ein' feste Burg

Gloria Patri (Greatorex)

Lobe den Herren

Nun danket alle Gott

Old 100th (rhythmic)


European ways

I'm back from my latest visit to Europe. This was my first time to attend the Annual Meeting of the European Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Each year during Easter week, the chapter members convene in some predetermined corner of Europe to visit and play organs. It's all set up by a volunteer chapter member. This year, the corner was the Alsace/Lorraine area of France, including the cities of Saint Avold, Strasbourg, Metz, and others. During this trip, I learned some new things and re-learned some old things, listed here in no particular order:

Europe is still my favorite place to visit for architecture and organs. To go somewhere and be able to gain access to organs in a group and not have to deal with making contacts myself is the best way to travel, hands down.

Speaking of hands, I got to lay hands on some beautiful instruments. See the photos here.

You can stand in virtually any spot in Europe and point in any direction, and you'd probably be pointing at a church, wherein will probably be a pipe organ. It is perfectly thrilling to be in a land where the pipe organ is such a normal part of life.

Issues in church music are similar all over the world, apparently. While Americans deal with tyrannical clergy, bad music, dwindling congregations, terrible acoustics, mediocre pay, and shameful architecture, Europeans deal with governmental red tape, tyrannical clergy, lousy pay, dwindling congregations, and unheated churches.

For some Americans, doing church music in Europe is as rewarding as doing academia in America. Only without the need for a higher degree. So more power to them.

European church musicians are not as exhausted after Holy Week and Easter as Americans are. I can't think of any American church musician who would have the time or energy to do something like this tour during the five days after Easter.

Europe is getting fat. McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Domino's are shamefully ubiquitous, and the Americans aren't the only ones partaking of the bounty therein, apparently. And "normal" restaurants now rarely serve anything that isn't fried or sautéed. Produce is not to be had except in grocery stores, but that's kind of true here, too.

The dollar stinks against the euro. Again.

AirFrance and Delta are in bed together, but AirFrance has more legroom. When faced with the choice between space and service, take the space.

While TSA is obsessed with shoes, belt buckles, and liquids, Europe is obsessed with carryon weight. For the first time, I was pulled out of line in Paris and "asked" to weigh my carryons, which were over the limit. And so off to baggage check I went. There's a first time for everything. Lessons: a) show up early; b) don't take too much pride in your ability to pack in exclusively carryon bags; c) weigh it -- twelve kilos is the total limit.

There is a veritable smorgasbord of lines to choose from at Charles de Gaulle. Few are marked well, and none is correctly referred to by airport personnel when giving directions, in any language. And most lines split into multiple lanes, then re-converge into one. It's worse than a highway tollbooth.

But the memories that linger the longest are always the pleasant ones. Mine will be about the new friends that now abound. It was a pleasure to meet and spend time with everyone in our 40-person group. I am especially keen to visit with a few of them again in Boston in a few weeks for the AGO convention. And I hope I can go to many more European chapter meetings. It's always worth those interminable flights.