Upcoming Performances

December 1
3:00 pm Eastern

Messiah organist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

December 3
8:00 pm Eastern

Haydn Creation organist, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

December 13
12:15 pm Eastern

Music at Midday, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2020
3:00 pm Eastern

Inaugural recitalist, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C..

February 16, 2020
5:00 pm Eastern

Evensong recitalist, Church of the Ascension, Hickory, N.C..

March 6, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

April 5, 2020
2:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Ga.

April 18, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Concerto organist, Milligan College

May 12, 2020
12:35 pm Central

Tuesday Series recitalist, Church of St. Louis, King of France, Minneapolis, Minn.

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


Getting into character

Does the music begin with the first piston? The first note? On your way to the console? Does the music end with the final release? With General Cancel? With the applause?

When should we get into character for a given piece? Perhaps pistons for a rocket launcher of a piece should be hit with more insistence than those for a quiet or slushy piece. I often sense a disconnect between what I see and what I hear. Consider a hypothetical performance of the fiery piece of your choice. The organist:

-- slides onto the bench slowly and carefully;
-- gets situated on the bench, rocking back and forth slowly to set the derrière in place just so;
-- gives the score a friendly pat to make sure it doesn’t fall off the rack;
-- sits a moment in meditation with hands in lap and head bowed;
-- straightens up, gives the score one more pat; shifts hiney one more time;
-- presses the first piston gingerly and/or elegantly (Note: if this is a gutbuster of a piece, then the console will go THOK while it draws all those stops. It’s almost as if the console knows something exciting is about to happen, and it makes an appropriate noise in preparation.);
-- checks boxes open;
-- places hands;
-- places feet (or not, unfortunately);
-- plays the piece with all manner of fiery attack OR plays with a dainty touch, relying on the registration to produce the excitement;
-- lifts the final chord slowly and delicately (and unevenly);
-- moves right hand immediately to Cancel and left hand to music rack to clear the score away;
-- OR moves both hands to lap;
-- OR stares at score, waits for applause;
-- slides off slowly.

A blazing fire of a piece suggests to me a completely different, “in-character” approach, where the organist:
-- glides onto the bench in character;
-- punches the first piston in character (perhaps even in tempo!);
-- sets hands and feet;
-- releases final chord with great energy;
-- breaks (or maintains) character with applause, hits Cancel, and slides off.

On the other end of the energy spectrum: I once ended a Lenten recital with the Langlais Kyrie from the Hommage à Frescobaldi. The piece was apparently unfamiliar to the audience, as was the notion of ending an organ recital quietly. After the release of the last chord:
-- nothing happened;
-- I lingered over the keys;
-- nothing;
-- I slowly came away from the keys;
-- nothing;
-- I sat;
-- nothing;
-- I very slowly approached and pressed Cancel;
-- nothing;
-- I sat again;
-- nothing;
-- I slowly began to slide off;
-- the applause finally began and grew, now that character was finally broken.

That was completely unplanned, but it turned out to be a wonderful moment. All of us lingered in that moment: it was Lent; it was quiet; the piece was meditative and beautiful. Only then was it over. All that might very well have been marred by breaking character too early or too quickly. There is merit in awareness of character and when it should be established and broken. It's fun to play with!


Virgin ears

One year at Bible camp, the missionary told of new converts coming to him in a panic, saying, “I’m sinning more than ever, and it’s discouraging.” He told them that they were NOT sinning more than ever – they were just MORE AWARE of sin.

While that illustration is one I no longer buy in that context, I do think it can be used to illustrate the fact that students can reach a point of discouragement in their training, where they don’t like ANY of their playing. Nothing sounds right; everything sounds out of control, poorly phrased, and poorly executed. They have arrived at a point where they are aware of old (bad) habits in their practice and performance, while they have also been shown “the New Way.” But the New has not yet taken up as much space in their practice as the old, and so they feel “empty” and directionless.

As it turns out, that is GOOD news. The pursuit of excellence involves a “repentance” of sorts, just like those new converts experience. Not only does one develop new techniques, but one also forsakes old ones. Those are two separate actions, and when they converge, the student doesn’t have a whole lot left to hang on to. They are learning to pick their playing apart (and that of what they hear others play!) note by note. They are learning to listen with critical ears, and often, they don’t like what they hear! At that point, I ask them to recall the last organ recital they actually enjoyed and WHY. It is verrrrrry telling to see them go back farther and farther in their memories to pull one out. It’s sort of like having virgin ears all over again. And that’s not a bad place to be, when we are pursuing excellence. Saying a performance is great or terrible is one thing. Being able to explain WHY is something else and the loftier goal.


I'm not making this up, you know

Have any of these ever happened to you?

1. The preacher of the day asks you to push hymn tempos along, using vague words such as “upbeat,” “fast,” “energetic,” “peppy,” or “lively.”

2. A hymn is cut from a Sunday service because the preacher of the day doesn’t recognize it.

3. A hymn in a minor key is cut because the preacher of the day deems minor a downer.

4. The preacher of the day wants to insert a hymn into the service (the very same one he inserted the last four times he preached).

5. The preacher of the day insists that the solo or anthem after the first hymn never be slow or in a minor key.

6. The preacher of the day refuses to walk in the procession because it distracts him from his preaching duties that day.

7. Someone makes announcements while you are playing: “Jill and Brantley would like to invite you to the reception in the fellowship hall…” “License plate SYC5483 has left lights on…” “Will the parents of…”

8. The preacher of the day fills up time at the next service just because the previous service ended early.

9. The congregation can’t get enough of you or the organ, but the pastor asks you to pull back on the volume.

10. The preacher of the day turns up his mic and sings at the top of his lungs – in a tempo at the other end of the spectrum from your introduction to the hymn.

11. The associate pastor is already into the first words of welcome and announcements while the final chord of the prelude is still reverberating in the rafters.

I’m not making any of this up! All this and more has happened to me and surely to other Readers. As evidenced in my list of complaints above, I tend to complain most about liturgical clumsiness and lack of professional respect. Bumbling, haphazard approaches to liturgy, music, and worship are unacceptable to me. And preachers do things during our music that they would never tolerate during their sermons.

It is tempting to complain and stop there, as witnessed by blogs and listservs that have longer lists of complaints than solutions. But what might be some solutions to achieving professional deference in both directions (not to mention helping that preacher overcome being victimized in the past by minor keys and slow tempos)?

It helps me to define the balance in my approach between the ministerial and the professional. Am I a minister of music, or am I a professional musician that day, that conversation? That balance moves back and forth, depending on the situation. Once I have defined the parameters for a conversation, then I can find a compassionate solution, which does exist. Trouble is, these things often come up so fast that there is no time to talk them all through with the perpetrators. Often, I must live with a certain baseline level of continuing snafus.

Clergy don’t know as much as we do about liturgy and music, but we don’t know how many people have complained to the clergy about the organist. Everyone hang in there and keep searching for solutions. The solution is a two-way street. Drive on the correct side, and don’t park in the No Parking zones.


A fond memorial: Richard Forrest Woods (July 26, 1929 – May 15, 1993)

Dick Woods never tired of the beautiful and the excellent. He worked and worked to get a sound just so, and it paid off. He ended up with the finest church choir in Texas (thank you very much), for which I was privileged to serve as Assistant Organist for four years. Dick was a musico-liturgical conservative, but he was progressive in knowing that there is room for everyone in church music. He found a way to maintain excellence and still avoid being classified as snobbish, surely the most delicate balance a church musician can strike, and a particularly difficult task for Dick’s generation.

Dick’s funeral was beautiful. I will never forget that hour with so many current and former choir members in attendance, vested and singing the Vaughan Williams O how amiable, the Tallis If ye love me, and the Mendelssohn He that shall endure, among others. I still see some of the choir members each year; we celebrate Dick’s birthday with Mexican food. (He still draws a crowd!)

Richard Forrest Woods was of “Pennsylvania Dutch” heritage. He studied with Marshall Bidwell at the Carnegie Institute before serving in the Navy band and attending Tulane University. From 1962-1964, he studied in Paris with Boulanger, Langlais and Marchal, and was among the first four Americans to receive the Diplôme Schola Cantorum. Dick served as parish musician at St. James (Wichita), the Cathedral of Holy Angels (Gary), and St. John the Divine (Houston). Prior to Houston, he served as Professor of Music at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.

[Update: On September 30, 2014, I discovered some of Dick's notations in his copy of the 1945 Prayer Book, which indicated the date he acquired the book (1949), plus some additional church positions he held: Trinity Chapel (Sharpsburg, PA), Grace (New Orleans), St. David's (Austin), and St. Matthew's (Austin). Obviously, the church positions were added as he served. He was only 20 years old when he acquired the book. There is also the signature of The Rt. Rev. Girault M. Jones, Bishop of Louisiana, dated April 7, 1957.]

Dick’s death left the choir with me – a 25-year-old whippersnapper with 1) a Baptist background, 2) no idea how to deal with a death like this, and sometimes 3) little more than the knowledge that the show must go on. The choir turned their full support to me, and we managed just fine in the interim, making beautiful music each week. I recently dug out a Nunc dimittis tribute I wrote in the church newsletter soon after Dick died. I have brought it out of the dusty archives of my 20s and posted some excerpts below:

"Dick woods taught me a lot, whether he knew it or not. I learned how to use a computer; I learned what a good choir sounds like…

"I learned that if one was with Dick, one could march directly to the front of the line at Ninfa’s Navigation on a Saturday night and be seated immediately. (Incidentally, Dick was perhaps the only person in the world who drank Margaritas straight up with no salt.)...

"The most valuable knowledge I gleaned from Dick was that of the Episcopal tradition. As I began work at [this parish], I found that there was more to being an Episcopalian than many people know. But Dick knew. There is a certain amount that one may know and retain simply through lifelong practice, but there is something more to be said for the person who studies, practices, and teaches what goes on in our great faith. Such a person was Dick Woods. I will always be in awe of his vast knowledge of and intimacy with the liturgy. It was somewhat frustrating at times to learn from him; his humility and general quietness made it necessary for me to ask questions. Dick never volunteered much information, but if one would ask, the wisdom that poured forth was generous, awesome, and inspiring…

"He knew precisely what was Episcopal and what was not, and if he didn’t know something, he knew where to look for answers. Dick was not a fundamentalist but a traditionalist. No one was more open-minded toward the current trends in the Church than was Dick. Through that open-mindedness, he provided this parish with a greatly diverse music program that was without equal in its day. From Evensong to Eucharist to Morning Prayers to concerts and tours, somehow he managed the difficult task of incorporating all of the various changing preferences into an unchanging, age-old liturgy – always in good taste and always well prepared...

"Richard Woods was one of the last of an amazingly fertile and prosperous generation of true liturgists … The Choir of [this parish] is most fortunate to have achieved musical and liturgical perfection; the people of this church are a most fortunate people to have had such expertise available to them. And I am most fortunate to have worked with Dick, even if just for a short while …"

Rest in peace, dear peaceful one.


Owning a practice organ

Being able to practice at home changes everything. I heartily recommend it to all who can afford it, and I recommend it just as heartily to all who can’t. In the particular home in question (mine), the organ sits in a corner with large plate glass windows in both walls. I witness all four seasons passing by as I work in natural daylight. In the summertime, I can get away with wearing pajamas, but when the leaves are off the trees and the neighbors have a better view, I have to dress more conservatively.

My practice organ is digital. Pipes would have been nice, and they would have been stunning in the cathedral ceiling of my living room. But time and money said, “Get a practice organ NOW, not later.” So I did. There are four outboard speakers up on a second-floor landing, and the wooden ceiling and floor are friendly to the sound. The many rugs covering the floors are not acoustic-friendly; enter digital reverb, and all is well.

As it turns out, this particular model has proven very effective as a pedagogical tool. I can bring students over and demonstrate various sounds from various countries, and I can demonstrate various tunings, which gives the students a fresh perspective on early music.

I always knew that owning a practice organ would make things more convenient. (I suppose people who buy exercise equipment for their homes think the same thing. The difference is that a practice organ stands a better chance of actually getting used.) Well, anyway, I did not realize until much later just how much this practice organ has revolutionized my work like nothing else has:

  1. It gets me out of the students’ practice room at school.
  2. It keeps school time in perspective. I don’t go to campus now unless I’m teaching.
  3. It keeps me away from the office during otherwise prime practice time. While I’m on campus, the desk and office beckon, and I must heed their call. But when I leave campus, my life and practice time are mine again.
  4. I can practice any day, any time.
  5. Even in the middle of the night, I can plug in headphones so as not to wake Sleeping Beauty.
  6. Since it’s a practice organ, I’m not tempted to perform for myself. I get more done when I can listen to my playing and not have too much fun listening to the organ.
  7. The playback sequencer is at the core of productive practice. The organ plays back to me everything I just played, and I can then hear myself through the absolutely impartial ears of a sequencer. Very telling, some things!


With perks like that, it’s worth the money. So everyone go get a practice organ. Three simple rules I’ve learned from experience:

  1. Doesn’t matter if it’s pipe or digital. All you need for basic practice are two manuals and pedal. Everything else is gravy or can wait until you get to the performance site.
  2. If presented with the choice between two or four speakers, get four. It ain’t about loudness; it’s about blend and quality of sound.
  3. If you buy digital, do NOT buy from ANYONE other than your designated regional representative.


Now go practice.


You can't get there from here

One evening I was driving a car full of friends and students to an organ recital. We were discussing getting old and fat. I was waxing nostalgic over how skinny I used to be. One of my students said, “Dr. Bell, I can’t picture you skinny.” The whole car erupted into laughter, except the student, who was horrified at how that had sounded. I didn’t mind, because at that time, I did need to shed a few. And you know what? When I lost a few, I discovered that organ playing is much easier without so much weight to throw around on the bench! And it’s embarrassing when a large belly plays extra notes on the Positif.

Speaking of Positives, the pipes of the Positif on the organ on which I teach are virtually inaccessible to anyone with a waistline greater than about thirty inches. When I was a (skinny) student on this same organ, I was able to gain access to said Positif. I simply slid between the Récit shades behind the Positif and stepped out onto the walkboard, right next to that recalcitrant Cromorne that always needed touching up. Well, those days are long past, not only in terms of my size but also in terms of the necessity for anyone to access this Positif in that fashion at all. Since my student days, a trap door has been cut into the Positif walkboard to allow access from below, so long as the swell shades are closed to allow the trap door to open. The maximum allowable waist measurement for access in this dramatically new, improved fashion is now a whopping thirty-five inches, and one can count on activating a Positif primary or two with one’s belly or belt buckle in the process. Yeah, so it’s still not the greatest design for access. (On the other hand, one could lose a half-inch or so just by removing one’s belt.) But if you don’t go that way or through the swell shades, then you have to set up a really tall ladder and step over seven ranks of pedal pipes to get to the Positif walkboard. In other words, you can’t get there from here unless you’re skinny.

Accessing the Grand-Orgue is not quite as challenging but still no less annoying. One must climb a short ladder on one interior wall of the Récit, duck under the Tremblant and some dangling wires for the Clochettes, and shimmy along a board to the other side of the Récit, being careful neither to hit your head on the ceiling nor kick the Récit pipes under the shimmy board. Upon reaching the other side, you climb a few more ladder rungs through a trap door to the Grand-Orgue. The dramatic view of the concert hall from up there is spectacular, of course – always worth the climb. If only I could just stay up there for the next time.

Access to the Grand-Orgue primaries is tricky, too. It involves some gravity- and death-defying maneuvering over a Récit chest full of temperamental pipes that will change their pitch if you look at them wrong.

Access to any part of the organ requires a 20-some-foot climb up an extension ladder from the stage floor. There are no doors from behind into the organ, and even if there were, they would be blocked by air handlers and furnaces. So we’re stuck with the ladder method.

I can only imagine how organ technicians get to some parts of some organs. Someone could make a fortune designing short-haul, lightweight jetpacks. I have visited more than one organ whose incumbent player has informed me that the technician is so fat he just doesn’t bother with tuning or repairing some of it. (Although tragic for the organ and organist, does that earn a tuning discount?) Granted, many organs are crammed into spaces that are too small, but good access must be thought out in the design.

Three conclusions: 1) Don’t get fat; 2) Don’t hire fat organ technicians; 3) Encourage builders to build organs whose every division and components are actually accessible. (Imagine that.)


Memorization, Part 1: Why memorize?

Three simple reasons why I memorize my recitals:

1) I sound better when I play from memory.
2) I know a memorized piece better.
3) I was taught how to memorize.

Let’s take those in order:

1. Yes, nerves aside, one sounds better if playing from memory. Fewer distractions for organist, fewer for audience. No page turner to screw things up. No music to spread out incorrectly and screw up. No large mass of white paper paste-ups reflecting into the audience’s eyes. No leaning from left to right as your body follows your eyes across a paste-up board. Playing from memory also lends an extra bit of excitement, an “edge,” much like watching trapeze antics without a net. Of course that is impressive. But I sense that audiences seem to be moving away from being impressed by memorized performances to appreciating them for their artistic merit and heightened musical excitement. Check back with me in a few months or years on that one.

2. With memorizing, I get deeper into the music; I learn much more about the ins and outs of a piece. Most exciting of all, I get into the mind of the composer – I get a glimpse of the organization behind every note. Memorizing brings to my attention any patterns in the notes – especially where those patterns don’t match up from statement to statement. (I’m convinced there is a wrong note in the Duruflé Toccata. And I suspect there are quite a few in the Vierne Sixth. Another day.) From there, I get a chance to dig deeper and try to determine why the composer did it that way (assuming it’s not a misprint). Hey, maybe memorization would land me a job as a proofreader for publishers! (And then maybe music prices would actually reflect the reliability of the printing – maybe.) But I digress.

3. Memorization of organ music used to be more a matter of course than it is now. As it has made its comeback in recent years among younger performers, it tends to be treated as a gimmick. But it began as a sort of gimmick when Marcel Dupré became the first person ever to memorize the complete organ works of Bach. However, Dupré quickly realized how much more musical a memorized performance could be, and he certainly discovered how much easier it would be to plan multiple programs on the road when all the music to be played was memorized. But as I say above, I think audiences are now beginning (merely beginning, mind you) to get used to memory as customary rather than exceptional.

But how do people memorize? There is a difference between memorizing and just repeating until automatic. And there is a difference between being told to memorize and being taught how. I am convinced that having discrete methods to the madness makes all the difference. Knowing how to memorize, as opposed to hoping for the best, removes the mystique from it. With solid methods in place, one need not fear memorization nor wonder when a piece will “take.” I’ll not go into the O/C methods I use and was taught for memorizing music. I’ll just say that whenever I am asked, “How do you memorize all those notes?” the answer is, in all truthfulness, “One note at a time.” :)

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