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Upcoming Performances

September 23, 2018
4:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Schantz organ 40th anniversary, Culpeper Baptist Church, Culpeper, Va.

September 28, 2018
7:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Camp Hill Presbyterian Church, Camp Hill, Penn.

November 18, 2018
4:00 pm Central

Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Miss.

December 4, 2018
8:00 pm Eastern

Organist, Appalachian Chorale, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

February 12, 2019
8:00 pm Eastern

Organ-plus-one concert with ASU faculty, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

April 28, 2019
3:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsport, Tenn.

May 5, 2019
Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Cathedral, Des Moines, Iowa

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.

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.

Monday
Nov022015

Because it is

It is increasingly difficult in our society to defend those disciplines that on the surface don’t make us more viable in business and military sectors. But most any reader of this blog knows that music and all the arts are an integral part of any successful society’s fabric. We keep discovering – or reminding society that we have already discovered – that music has huge extrinsic value. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, raise social awareness, heighten collaborative skills, raise math scores, create lasting relationships, thrill the mind and soul, boost brain cells, and banish cancer cells.

Music is also intrinsically valuable. We need to study music just because music is a great thing, and not just for what it does for us. It is worthy of study on its own merits, not just those merits that “contribute to society.” Rain dances, ecstatic expressions of gratitude, parades, ceremonial marches, fight songs, hymns, concerts, recitals, lullabies, movie scores – music is all around us and is worthy of our rather undivided academic attention. If we can keep that message alive, we can stay alive.

Yeah, so the arts are important in our lives. And you and I agree that all artists should be paid handsomely for our work. What we provide is just as sustaining and nurturing to society as anything else. However, I know that I’m howling at the moon to think that a recently earned Ph.D. in Art History is going to make a living without a day job or attachment to a university, archive, or museum.

While I recoil in horror at those who would strip our society of music and the arts, sometimes I use language similar to theirs when I question the usefulness of an organist who can play the complete works of Naji Hakim from memory but can’t sightread a four-part hymn or keep it at a steady tempo. I question the usefulness of fresh grads complaining about having to take a church job to make ends meet until they land the teaching job they feel they deserve with all those degrees. I question the depth of education of someone who can talk about Buxtehude’s summer vacation activities in exquisite detail but can’t compose a coherent, properly spelled memo about appropriate wedding music in the church they serve.

We keep hearing that our children need courses in accounting, business management, personnel management, computer science, business Mandarin Chinese, and standard Spanish if they have the remotest prayer of “making it in the world.” Children have been conditioned to question, “Am I going to need this after graduation?” Facebook buzzes with memes about ‘look, Ma -- I didn’t need to use Algebra today’ and how ridiculous Common Core sounds to people. And yet I myself use much the same language when I ask, “How in the world does he expect to make it as an organist if he can’t play a hymn?!” If I say that organists need to learn service playing or else wither on the vine, I also have to remember that my parents nearly pulled me out of the NC School of the Arts because it didn’t offer courses in accounting, business, or typing. (I nearly lost my place at the table in a conservatory – for TYPING class?)

Pipe organs in Medieval Christianity were mechanical novelties. And since the mechanical brains of society tended to be monks, the organs resided in monasteries. Organs didn’t accompany services until later. Therefore, would it be more historically accurate for me to complain that anyone who doesn’t know how to build an organ is not worthy of a degree in organ performance? Or fast-forward to today, where the organ is being eschewed in many churches: am I wasting my time teaching students how to play for church while fewer churches these days need their services? Do I need to be asking ‘is this important?’ myself?

Service-playing courses have made their way into many previously all-performance conservatories. In other places, entrepreneur-related courses are showing up in music curricula. Almost too little, too late, but we’re getting there. (Hear that? I sound like my parents.) If they’re going to survive, students need to know how to set up a CV file, how to network, and how to advertise. And if they’re one of my students, then they also need to know how to spell, write, shake hands, smile, do their own taxes, and sightread. Not every organist needs to know how to accompany an oratorio from the piano reduction, and not every organist needs to be able to memorize the complete works of Ned Rorem, but the vast majority of all organists will need to be able to dabble in both. It’s music either way, and music is beautiful.

I’d say that as a society we need to stop playing the my-discipline-is-more-important-than-yours game. We (you) need to stop conditioning our (your) children to question the importance of a particular study in their schooling. It’s important because it is. It’s important because it exists in the world in which you live. And if it exists, then it has a history, and history is also important. It’s important because we can learn from it. It’s important because some of us are inspired to go create more of it. It’s important because someone in your classroom, with whom you have to live for a time, finds it important. It’s important because it was created by some of your fellow human beings. It’s important because a ninth grader has no idea how to answer the question of importance yet. It’s important because J.S. Bach made it so. Shall I go on?

As for my learning accounting, business, and typing? Thank goodness for TurboTax, real life, and Mavis Beacon, respectively.

Friday
Oct162015

In Search of New Models, Part V: Doctorate required. Or not.

Here’s a frightening question: How many organists will there be on the committee that interviews you? Indeed, at your interview, you will probably be the only true expert in the room. The process is already flawed, but is the model?

In most cases, a search is an Episcopal, not a Presbyterian, process. Most search committees are doing the legwork on behalf of the one person who will ultimately make the hiring decision. Broken model? Who knows?

Job announcements are always off the mark. That’s no one’s fault, really. It’s just that a committee can’t expect to know exactly what they’ll get, but they need to have done the best they can to advertise for what they want. Think about what it might take to replace you as a complete human being, and not just as a professional. Can a committee really put in the job description that they’re looking for someone compassionate to a fault, who will take walks with the students to discuss pressing matters, who knows as much about fixing an organ as playing it, who has seen the writing on the wall regarding travel funds and will take the students to conferences, anyway? The models seldom match between the job ad and the person who gets it. A committee is always blown away by something they didn’t expect or weren’t even searching for.

Broken model: Search committees put out an ad and then wait for the applications to come in. Applicants send in their materials and wait for an answer. Applicants even close their cover letters with the subtle signal that they have made their play in the waiting game: “I look forward to hearing from you,” which means, “I’ll be waiting over here.” Everyone is waiting for the phone to ring, the email to chime, or to see a letter lying behind the glass in his PO box. Professors waiting for the state legislature to come around will die disappointed. Students waiting for the urge to study or to practice will just end up playing poorly. Organists waiting for their churches to stop treating them like the hired help may never find joy in the music again. Waiting will be the death of us all.

Rather, search committees might be better served to seek nominations from all sectors and actively recruit specific people to apply, right up until they make an offer. No harm in expanding the pool at all times. For upper-level administration searches, colleges even pay big bucks to a search firm to seek out applicants and invite them to apply. A new model says that an applicant who is content in their current position is the perfect candidate to consider taking another step somewhere else. And their being actively asked to apply says a lot about them and about the asker. Better to land a person like that than landing the one who is desperate to get out of their current situation.

Ever-changing models: During high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, I noticed a recurring title on virtually all professors’ doors: “Artist-Teacher.” There were only 2-3 doctored faculty members in that school in those days. Now they’re all doctored. My generation that scrambled to get doctorates was chasing the model that said we had to have one to get a job. But now, non-doctored professors are gaining tenure-track positions, which is an aggregate of the previously separate models of artist-teacher vs. professor. The fine print in NASM standards says that the boss may hire whom s/he likes, if that person has equivalent experience and has demonstrated the desired SuperManliness.

We all seem to serve on only the most nobly-intentioned search committees, but searches we observe from the outside often appear “flawed” and “scandalous” and should be declared “failed” from the beginning. Although I’ve never served on an organ professor search, I’d say that some of them I have observed from the outside look a little, um, interesting, to say the least. One school hired a friend of the incumbent. Another hired the person who taught during an incumbent’s sabbatical. Another hired the biggest name they could find, but only after their even bigger first choice kept turning them down. Another hired an alumnus who had already been teaching there on visiting status for two years. Another hired a local boy from the nearest big city. Another hired an early music scholar to teach on the electric-action organ. It’s not that none of those searches turned out well or even for the best. It’s just that they looked sort of … misaligned … from where I was sitting. And yet, one of those scenarios above describes how I myself was hired! (I’m not telling you which one.)

Who is to say that those committees were not completely honest? The favorite model today appears to be one of familiarity – committees hire names they already know, even if the name is too big for them or is from several degrees of separation away. The point is that all those new hires mentioned above were known somehow to the committee. Getting your foot in the door is still the way to go, apparently. The trick lies in figuring out which foot and which door to use. Perhaps hand-picking was always the best way. That may work better for the hiring body, but it’s hell on an applicant trying to figure out an entrance strategy from an incomplete job description. On top of that, some committees behave in the other direction, refusing to hire any former student of the outgoing professor. There’s no way the applicant can know what the committee really wants. This is all part of the reason why a committee’s recruiting is so important. It helps reduce the beauty contest factor in the search.

I stopped job hunting a while back. The waiting games, sham searches, doctored vs. non-doctored, and big-game name chasing are not part of what feeds my passions or makes me happy. And so I began to question the model that says my current position is but a stepping stone to a final destination. Rather, I should turn my stepping stone into a destination. And I have done just that. Moving on is no longer on my mind. I have grown to know myself, and I’m doing just fine where I am. Having said that, I am not opposed to being actively recruited. (Who wouldn’t welcome a new pursuer? A healthier form of the waiting game.) But I don’t have much time to think about that – I’m too busy teaching.

Tuesday
Oct062015

First ad?

This website will never go commercial, except for peddling my own wares. But here is a worthy cause that I will gladly help promote:

The Steering Committee for the 2016 American Guild of Organists National Convention in Houston, Texas, has established a fund to honor the legacy of Clyde Holloway (1936--2013). The fund will underwrite concerts held at Rice University during the June 2016 convention. Contributions may be made via check or PayPal. For more information, visit the fund's webpage.

Friday
Sep252015

In search of new models, Part IV: I go to college; I must be smart

Higher ed keeps finding itself in the position of defending its existence and proving its worth, all at the expense of its ability to deliver its goods. The value of higher education continues to be slowly eroded by disserviceable shifts in our mindsets. Many students go to college because their local society expects it [broken model]. Many students go to college because they think it’s the only way – or their last chance – to ‘get smart’ [myth]. Many students go to a particular college just because daddy did [yawn] or because they have been told that it’s the best or only route to getting married and having children [double yawn]. We have all heard the non-sequiturs: “This is your senior year? Oh, that’s wonderful. Where are you going to college?” “Go get the education I never got.” “You’ll need a degree to get a job.” “You’ll need a doctorate to teach.” No wonder colleges are full of students who don’t really know what they’re doing there. Many have lost touch with – or were never shown – a serviceable model of why we go to college.

The disserviceable models continue after college. Junior comes home after Commencement, and at the first sign of disagreement, he is accused of being “too smart and too good for us plain folk anymore. I guess that college didn’t do you any good, after all.” Nice double standard there, Dad. The chronic stereotyping continues: College graduates in movies are routinely portrayed as complete nerds or even idiots, having virtually no street smarts, while the street folk are portrayed as fourth-grade dropouts and just fine on their own, thank you very much. TV shows and the Internet offer lists of the most useless degrees, based on how immediately employable the graduate won’t be or how much money she won’t make in her chosen profession. Meanwhile, we see the success stories on TV of college dropouts making it big and then blaming college for being a waste of time: “See, anyone can do this!” If only it could be so black and white.

Myth: college is supposed to make you smart. Really? What about those prior twelve years of public or private schooling? They worked for me. Where were you? And smart has nothing to do with it by then. We need to stop apologizing for kids who choose not to pursue a four-year degree. Learning a trade is every bit as difficult and fulfilling as anything else. I’m not lying when I say that truck driving is my next career choice if this music thing doesn’t work out. We need mechanics, computer techs, piano tuners, organ techs, and Physical Plant personnel more than they need us.

I’d settle any day for focused and well-spoken over smart. I can train “smart” and resourcefulness into students, but I can’t do much for their poor spelling or inability to carry on a grown up conversation. The Univ. of North Carolina system routinely hears from hiring agencies complaining that the first-year hires out of college are not adequately prepared for the job, let alone for the real world. There the elaborate blame game commences: the hiring company blames college for not preparing the student; the college blames the public schools for not preparing students for college; the public schools blame teachers for not preparing students for the next grade; teachers blame parents for not preparing students for school; teachers blame state legislatures for gutting budget and teacher pay. Meanwhile, legislatures use number-based criteria to blame teachers for not producing better results. And then everyone turns back around and blames the colleges for being too busy pursuing bleeding-heart liberal agendas to teach students “what they really need to succeed” (whatever that might be). Then we see new laws being written for teachers and professors to take up the slack that mama and daddy (the real culprits here, by the way) left behind, and then everyone thinks it was the babysitters’ teachers’ fault all along. So education continues to bear the brunt of the lapse in good judgment in our society, higher education continues to be the first thing cut in a struggling state budget, and the arts continue to be viewed as a bleeding-heart liberal agenda item.

Is the college model broken? Certainly not. The greatest benefit of the college experience lies in collaborating with others, learning of other fields and sharing ideas. There will never be a substitute for that community, the shared experience. I have never been a fan of online degrees, and I fortunately teach an instrument that ultimately requires teacher and student to be in the same room. So the college model is not broken, but many students are when they arrive there. College is one of the most liberating yet intense models for learning to live in society. But increasingly, students are not prepared for college or even for the real world when they show up. Many don’t know how to collaborate, how to share a bathroom, how to be quiet for and respectful to their roommates, how to dress, how to do laundry, how to make change at the store, how to cope when a business doesn’t take plastic, how to eat healthy, how to spell, how to write, how to follow directions, or how to speak without over-using the words ‘like,’ ‘so,’ ‘um,’ ‘actually,’ ‘literally,’ and ‘awesome.’ I blame the parents.

My thinking constantly circles back around to recurring societal problems and the one solution for them all: Education. Not just attending class. Not just getting a degree. And not just “getting an education to get a job.” But rather learning how things work, how the world works. Learning about better things to do with a tax refund than go to Wal-Mart with it. Learning how to fix your own car or door jamb. Learning how to hike, bike, raft. Learning how to master more than one language in written and spoken forms. A little education exposes the dangers of over-population, over-indulgence, over-eating, and waiting around for things to improve in our legislatures. Educating our legislators on how higher education and art work is vital to our survival as artists. We organists are always educating congregations, brides, and students on musical matters. We have to educate our college administrations on why organs are so expensive and why the money is so well spent on them. It’s all education!

Education begins at home, dear Reader. It’s a process, not an event. It begins immediately at birth, takes no vacation, and does not stop until death. The college experience seeks to be a precious jewel in the crown of that ongoing process, refusing to consider itself the beginning of smarts nor the end of the job hunt.

Wednesday
Sep162015

Rinse, repeat, part 2: “Do you have a student who could … ?”

The emails and phone messages I receive each week: “We need an organist!” “We need a pianist!” “We’re looking for an ‘accompanist’ for our services,” (whatever that is). “Do you have a student …?” One of my teachers added the following statement to his office answering machine greeting: “If you’re calling about the availability of a student for a church position, your call will be returned only if a student is available, due to the large volume of such calls.”

I remember as a child that no church in my hometown was without an organist or pianist. Then in about the early 1990s, things began changing. Those organists/pianists started getting older and retiring and/or getting replaced by the band. Then I began to hear rumblings along the lines of, “Alice played for us for 50 years out of the goodness of her heart. We can’t find anyone to replace her.” I’d say that in many parts of the country, they won’t find a replacement for dear old Alice for two primary reasons: 1) there isn’t anyone, and 2) no one does it for free anymore.

The so-called “organist shortage” occurs on different levels in different places for different reasons. It began to become a bit more epidemic when more churches came into need of organists to replace aging Alices all over the country. But it is a little puzzling that out of 319 million Americans, there aren’t enough keyboardists (not just organists) to play for church. There are indeed fewer organ students in college today, and there are increasingly fewer colleges offering organ study. But there is truth to the organist shortage in that far fewer children are taking piano lessons any more. There’s no one coming up the ranks, folks! The very people in the congregation who claim to have appreciated Alice’s work all these years have not been paying attention to what they’ve been doing to their children by not training them in the arts. Parents were not paying attention to the future of church music when they sent their kids to soccer rather than piano lessons, to the youth service rather than the traditional service, to math camp rather than youth choir, and when they modeled screens instead of hymnals. It’s their own fault, and I can’t fix it by sending students to fill the gaps.

Our “Alice” above certainly served a lot of years. But rare is a 50-year tenure of any church musician in a single church any more. Many long-serving church musicians either grew up there, or their primary breadwinner took them there, and there they stayed. But today, everyone is fair game for departure to greener pastures, better pay, and higher rungs on the ladder. If Alice had not had such a good heart, she might not have stayed so long. There was a different mindset in those days. As a child, I always heard, “I do it for the church. I do it for the Lord.” “She would never make this about money.” Our organists and pianists were faithful church goers, just like everyone else. Playing was their service to the church, like that of other folks in the congregation who provided childcare, volunteered with today’s endangered species called “children’s choirs,” baked cookies for Vacation Bible School, and set up tables for Wednesday night dinner and chairs for choir rehearsals. There was always someone in the church who was there “every time the doors were open.” It was their service, yea even their contribution, to the congregation.

While I now tend to stand on the side of “pay your organist or do without,” I do understand this struggle many churches are experiencing, insofar as I understand (not accept) the historical model. Many churches have never put “organist” and “pay” into the same sentence. But musicians work as hard as the pastor, and they spend as much time preparing music as the pastor does preparing sermons and ministering to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Whether or not it’s their primary job, service playing is worthy of an appropriate retainer because it is a time-intensive job. It is also worth an appropriate retainer because not just anyone from the congregation can step in and take over – as many churches have discovered. (Curiously, no one bats an eye when someone un-ordained takes over the pulpit to share a word that the Lord has laid on their heart. Funny that it’s easier to replace the boss/pastor than to replace the organist.)

Recently, I subbed in a church with a large four-manual organ. Although it is some distance away, I have played there in the past because I love the organ and how the congregation loves (loved) to use it. But on this particular Sunday, I discovered that their services had evolved to the point that my only official duties that day were the prelude (short, please), postlude (no one listens), the opening hymn (play from this arrangement, while the minister of music conducts and sings into his microphone), and the anthem (along with piano). Otherwise, I merely “chorded it” during praise choruses with the band, one of whose members is an associate pastor, who wore his less-than-best jeans and un-tucked open-collar shirt for the occasion. That church has been seeking an organist, but I don’t think they really need one at this time. They just need someone who knows how to turn it on and which piston to hit to provide background fullness for the band. If they continue to search for “real” organists, then they will encounter a real “shortage” of organists, until they go back to a service that actually requires an organist.

Now, a certain shortage of organists does exist. I live in a small-ish college town, the hub of a ski resort area, located in a glorified retirement and seasonal residence community with mountain scenery. That’s three levels of expensive I just named off! At my last reckoning, it’s the second most expensive real estate market in North Carolina. I have begun to propose some new models to these churches. I advise them to embrace the fact that they are located in a resort area and that real estate would be a problem for anyone who moves to this area to play for that church (should they even find such a person). I advise them to advertise nationally, in hopes that they might find a recent retiree who is looking to relocate to a resort area such as this. I also caution them to stop defining the position as part-time, because it just isn’t. And it is skilled labor, not a form of congregational donation.

And so to answer the question, “Do you have a student who could …?” yeah, I have eight students this year (2015), the same four of whom are still spoken for with good church posts, and the other four of whom are either not quite ready for regular service, or I just don’t have the energy to inform the church that my students are being trained as professional organists, not as Sunday bench warmers. 

Rinse, repeat, part 1

Tuesday
Aug252015

Another recording: Gutbusters in Houston

Picture it: the Jongen Sonata Éroïca, the Reubke Psalm 94, and the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel transcribed from the piano by Rachel Laurin, all recorded on an organ similar to – or at least suitable for – what those composers might have known. But in HOUSTON, not in Europe. Such was my second recording project for summer 2015. [The first was two Widor Symphonies recorded at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, La., narrated here.]

Summer 2015 will go down as the very busiest of my life so far. Four recitals, three conferences, two recordings, a studio recital on the road, and only two brief vacation periods. When I agreed/planned to do all this, I did so with a strange confidence that had not been present in the past. It all just felt good, and I’m glad I did it all. (And nothing was double-booked!) Apart from the professional thrills of the performances, I believe having not one but two recordings in the hopper for future release might be one of the smartest things I have done as a professional. Now I can record every year and stay one recording ahead. [Update: our next project next spring might be some Howells on a “Perriola,” Roy Perry’s pet name for his Aeolian-Skinner installations. Stay tuned.]

This was a rewarding project, but it was also a difficult project, for reasons I’ll explain below. Nevertheless, each time I record, it gets less stressful. For that, I credit producer Keith Weber, whose laidback approach and understanding of the [imperfect] human condition make this fellow in the spotlight relax more and more. Keith's talents as a producer are just now coming to light to me, and I am more pleased all the time. He also has what he calls “the secret weapon,” which is the formidable engineering and editing talents of Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith of Houston. The three of them are quite a team.

The other two major players for this project were page turner and registrant Kirk M. Rich, doctoral student of Robert Bates at the University of Houston, and the rather arresting Paul Fritts Op. 29 at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston.

I knew what I wanted to record, and I knew where I wanted to record it. Keith went to work to arrange the location, but delays and some disorganization at our first-choice venue eventually forced us to walk away for now. (The good news is that we will be able to go back for a future project.) As Keith and I began casting about for other venues, the Fritts at St. Philip came up, and both of us paused for a moment on the phone while the light bulbs went off above our heads. OF COURSE! Perfect choice. Keith got right on the phone with Dr. Thomas Goetz and Dr. Matthew Dirst at St. Philip, and we were off and running. St. Philip was not our first choice, but it was the best choice and the right choice, no doubt. Just as St. Mark’s in Shreveport was perfect for Widor, so was St. Philip in Houston perfect for Jongen, Brahms, and Reubke.

St. Philip Presbyterian and I are no strangers. I was their organist from 1995-1997, on the previous organ in the un-renovated building. It is by far the smartest and most affirming congregation I have ever worked for. What a pleasure in 2015 to sit in that beautifully renovated space, capturing the first solo recording on that nearly-new organ, enjoying the gracious hospitality of Tom Goetz and Matthew Dirst and the professional guidance of Keith, Ryan, Shannon, and Kirk. I am a better person for it, just as I became a little better for having served that church all those years ago. The only way this could get even better would be if Tom and Matthew were pleased with the result when the CD is released next summer.

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The corner of the church sits about fifteen feet from a six-lane surface street through one of the most over-developed areas of Houston. Finding quiet time was going to be a challenge. We conquered that challenge by scheduling three consecutive evening sessions, July 20-22, from 9 pm to 2 am. With that plan, it wasn’t difficult to decide to ask fellow night owl Melissa Givens to house me those few days. I practiced Saturday and Sunday, July 18-19, met with Kirk on Sunday to go over some registrations and page turns, and then went into rest mode. Melissa and I gallivanted during the days, I napped in the afternoons, and then recording began each night.

We "knocked out" Jongen the first night and got started on Reubke. We finished Reubke the second night and got a quick start on Brahms, whom we then finished off the third night. I believe we were all surprised that it took pretty much all the budgeted time to complete the project. We were working against a few mechanical and musical issues, but we prevailed. Apparently, the church is still at battle with the HVAC system for the renovated space, and the humidity had climbed just enough to start wreaking a bit of havoc in the organ. (Conquering 98-degree weather in Houston is one thing, but 90+% humidity on top of that requires some rather heavy-duty machinery to manage.) The box had a horrible squeak when closing, there was a very mild cipher on the TONIC note (of all things) of Brahms, and some of the pallets were wheezing a bit during quieter moments. Some other issues normal for Matthew but which I had to get used to were short pedal keys, a flat pedalboard, short manual keys, a feather-light suspended action, 58-note manuals (Brahms needed 59!), and a music rack that was too small for the paste-up boards I had made for the project.

In spite of all that, it is a beautiful thing how the human body can adapt and adjust to an unfamiliar instrument, but it is equally enlightening just how manageable this music is on a non-radiating/concave pedalboard – after all, these composers had pedalboards like that! This was the perfect organ for the perfect set of repertoire. The feather-light manual action was easily solved in many cases by adding a coupler for increased resistance and fewer cracks. As for the music rack issues, Kirk saved the day with page turning. He also helped out with some troublesome piston punchings. We even toyed with having him play a few notes in one spot that didn’t want to “clean up” under my fingers, but we made it through without it, after all.

Well, then there were the musical issues. I have to hand it to Keith. He pulled some good playing out of me. It wasn’t that I played poorly, but the time was right for me to re-discover some phrasing techniques that had apparently been pushed a little (only slightly) to the side over the years. Had Keith been less of a producer, we might have been finished in two days, not three; but the project would have suffered in the end. Keith knew me and knew my work, and he knew that he could push me into higher levels of excellence, and for that I am grateful.

The organ will speak for itself on the recording, but it is a veritable masterpiece of voicing and specification. Each division has its own plenum and reeds, and generous ones, at that. As with organs of this style, you have to conserve wind by removing flutes as you build up to full organ. You can get a rather arresting full organ by omitting all flutes and even a few of the principal stops (don’t tell!), allowing the reeds and mixtures to work their magic. I even threw in the Cornet in a few climax moments. But if you ask me, the real gem of this organ is the Pedal Posaune, which is rich enough so as not to require the 16-foot flues with it. It is absolutely thrilling to hear this stop “do its thing” in the ensemble. The voicing of the organ is beautiful, but the winding shows real genius.

Keith, Ryan, and Shannon have been most gracious in their commendation of my work ethic. Apparently, they’re not used to working with people who have actually practiced and are actually ready to record. Although there were some real challenges to get right in some places, apparently these guys have to do less editing with me than with others. I am grateful to them for their professionalism and kindness, as well as to Clyde Holloway, who passed his work ethic on to me.

This was a good and worthwhile project that fed my soul on many levels. I hope that Tom and Matthew and the St. Philippians will be as pleased with this finished product as I am thrilled to have conceived of it and worked on it.

Saturday
Jul112015

In search of new models, Part III: A blogger's self-commentary

Know thyself.

As I get older, my filter gets weaker. I'm more willing to say things in this blog that I would have considered career suicide a few years ago. (And in this particular series, I'm just getting started!) I'm more willing to speak my mind. I'm increasingly willing to tell the horror stories of how unprofessionally I have seen people behave over the years. (I'll always stop just short of mentioning names, though. I must still have a filter somewhere, and so the perpetrators can rest easy.)

If I were to go back to the beginning and read every post in this blog since its inception, I might discover that it's full of things I may not believe any more or have at least relaxed my standards about. I might also see a gradual upward trend in the rant factor, undoubtedly a product of chasing one outdated model or another.

As we get more comfortable in a particular skin, we start letting our hair down. It happens all the time in new friend circles, counseling sessions, co-worker happy hour excursions, recital pieces played many times, exercise routines, and in what we will allow in our liturgy. This blog is a microcosm of that phenomenon. I choose to get more personal in it all the time. (After all it's my blog. And after all, I have something to say that others are probably thinking or that no one has thought of. And after all, the number of readers is probably not up to world domination level. And after all, lightning hasn't struck me yet for anything I have said here.)

Blogging itself as a model could even be on the way out! Technology and audiences are volatile. This blog is a treasure trove of one person’s ideas, and some really good ones at that, but not everyone who knows me reads it. (It’s kind of like reading the Daily Offices even when there’s no one else there.) But I'm going to continue for the foreseeable future. It's gentle therapy for me. It's entertaining for some and educational for others. And I enjoy writing, so it's good practice with organizing thoughts and teaching the same to my students.

And that brings us to an opportunity to define this blog's existence. I used to write in it faithfully every Monday morning, lest I be forgotten (silly old model). Now, I try to write in it every ten days. But in the summertime, I write in it when I remember to. I'll go back to the ten-day routine when school starts again. This blog's raison d'être has morphed over the years. Some days, I am inspired to write because I hear from a new reader who loves it. Other days, I am "inspired" to rant but usually catch it in time to re-model it into more compassionate writing. Other days, I am inspired to write another installment in a series -- the "Weddings!" series comes to mind quite a bit. Other days, I am inspired to write because I want to tell about another exciting trip -- as of this writing, I'm about to go teach at the Pipe Organ Encounter hosted in Columbus, GA, where I will be working with a student who has already impressed me with his command of the English language and his initiative in learning new music.

The conclusion is that I know myself better than ever. I know what I'm worth, and I know how to live with that, even if it's not sought out by the circles I think ought to be seeking it -- that will be covered in greater detail later in this series. And I am in a groove with this blog. It's not a bad product, and to my knowledge, it is the only one of its kind.

As for those horror stories mentioned above, I just might tell more of them soon. Gird up thy loins. And know thyself.