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Upcoming Performances

July 2, 6:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Cazères, France

July 18
Guest recitalist, Church of St. Jacques, Muret, France

August 20, 3:00 pm Central
Inaugural recitalist, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Enterprise, Ala.

September 10
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.

October 1, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Ga.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

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

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

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

Monday
Sep152014

Life in the Big D: The tough questions

The title of a recent article by Bill Zeeble seeks to get to the bottom of a troubling situation by asking, "Why isn't the Meyerson's world-class organ played more often?" Alas, although the title asks it, the article does not answer it, and so I will:

The article talks about that immense pipe organ staring you in the face upon entry into the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Lay Family organ was built by the C. B. Fisk company and installed and inaugurated in 1992. The article mentions that that organ is not played much these days. It then goes on, as general articles on these topics do, about the organ’s superlatives for sizes and its scope of dynamics and frequency range. Same statistics we hear all the time about new organs. Biggest pipe is 32 feet tall. Smallest is the size of a pencil. Yawn.

Then it says that if you’ve ever wondered what that Fisk sounds like, you’re finally going to get three chances to hear it this coming season. Well, now we’re getting somewhere. But then the article fizzles out into just another shallow teaser for the reader to attend two or three programs to keep this organ’s life support plugged in so that no one has to answer the article’s title’s question for another twenty years.

After the inaugural concerts in 1992 (which I attended), the Lay Family organ dropped off in usage. So what happened? Why didn’t the organ keep its momentum going? Mr. Zeeble actually answers that (somewhat), ironically by celebrating the upcoming season, which will include “three concerts with international soloists.” And the soloists who inaugurated the organ were also international. Mr. Zeeble also brags that an international (there’s that word again) competition was founded on the Meyerson instrument. Yes, it was a big deal, but when its supporters moved on, it fizzled out.

I would suggest that the love affair with “international” is part of the problem. Yes, this is a world-class organ built by a fine builder in a fine hall. This organ was the inspiration for a renewed interest in major concert organs installed outside of churches. But after the inaugural concerts are over, it is just another fine pipe organ in another fine hall in another fine city -- we have many of all those in our great country. But there is not one contraption on this organ that hasn’t been installed on others, and there is absolutely nothing about the operation or playing of this organ that differs from any other similarly-sized organ. And the cleverly-designed acoustics, so proudly touted by Mr. Zeeble and his interviewees, are just another successful imitation of other, older places that also got the acoustics right. [Update: one reader has rightfully corrected me on that point. Although good acoustics are good acoustics no matter how achieved, the Meyerson acoustics are indeed groundbreaking in their adjustability due to those resonance chambers, and the geometry of the room is unprecedented.] So when the celebration is over, the Meyerson is another concert hall, and it needs to get to its daily work. The celebration of the acoustics is nice, but now use the acoustics. The celebration of the organ is nice, but now use the organ. The subliminal message of 'international-or-hands-off' does not help the cause. “International” cuts down dramatically on the pool of prospective performers, and it dramatically increases the cost of getting them to Dallas. What's wrong with "national" soloists? Or state ones? Local AGO ones? Or students who might increase their interest in the organ if allowed to play?

DSO organist Mary Preston wants this organ to be heard more. Journalist Scott Cantrell says that the organ sits right there in front of everyone and that people want to hear it. But neither of these fine folk asks the tough question of the DSO or the Meyerson: “What are you waiting for??” Using the organ more would require the DSO to plan more rep for it, which to its credit it has done for the current season. [Might be nice if Mr. Zeeble had mentioned who is playing and what they’re playing.] Anyway, it is a worthwhile endeavor, but no one on the planning end of things ever seems to look past the first few concerts to keep it going. Once the DSO has performed, say, Saint-Saëns, Jongen, and Poulenc, they lose interest because they think everyone has now been sated for a while. But what about Rheinberger? Sowerby? Dupré? Handel? Holst? Paulus? Hakim? Respighi? Commissions? Smaller works for organ and winds? What about an annual Messiah singalong or July 4 celebration using the organ alone? What about student field trips? What about sending out an invitation to organ teachers all over the country to bring their students to visit a world-class instrument in a world-class house inhabited by a world-class orchestra? What’s wrong with a little outreach, folks?

The Meyerson organ is in tip-top shape and currently needs nothing fixed, but to keep that organ playing publicly would require far more resources of time, energy, and money than the Meyerson or the DSO has or wants to throw at it. And if that’s the case, then here’s another tough question: “Why was this organ installed in the first place?” Even more to the point, “Why do we keep installing these monumental instruments in these great halls, when the common pattern is that they will rarely see the light of day again after the inaugural concerts?” The organ becomes a museum piece, and the house brags that it has this magnificent organ. 'Oh, but you can’t play it or get close to it, for heaven’s sake; that’s just not done here.' So another tough question is, “Was this organ and its sisters around the country built merely because generous people paid for them and that we hope to get more of their money sometime?”

Yeah, okay, it costs an awful lot to rent the hall for non-DSO events. It costs too much to run the place for an audience that won’t fill a third of the seats, if that many. I can hear a bureaucrat saying now, “Oh, it’s just not economically feasible to open the house to such a small audience.” Well, then, my next tough question is, “How in the world do you suppose it got that way?”

I'm told that the organ is practically off-limits to organists who just want to lay hands on it during the week. In many houses, getting in and out of the building outside of a performance is a security problem. Tight scheduling conflicts are sure to abound, and practice time must be extremely limited. Of course, many organists are happy to practice overnight, but then the ultimate Catch-22 is set in motion when the house and/or Union requires Union crew be present to open all the doors, turn on/off all the lights, turn on/off the organ, operate the elevator for you, move the console out for you, and clear the hallways for you to pass through. I’m not nobody, but I guarantee that Meyerson and DSO managements have never heard of me and that therefore I'd never get to lay hands on that organ or introduce my students to it without providing some amount of CV to prove my worth, getting Mary Preston's approval and probably having her present, getting officially scheduled with house management for my visit, and hiring Union house tech crew to be present to do everything except play the organ and help me in the restroom, plus make sure that I don't trip over anything and sue. That's true in symphony houses all over the country, not just at the Meyerson. Dear Reader, it's the red tape that shuts these organs down, not a disinterest on the part of the audience, and certainly not a lack of organists who are glad to line up to play, if only they were invited or at least considered worthy. [Update: an apathetic administration would also be to blame for the silence of an organ. I suspect that's a big part of the problem in Dallas (and other places, of course), in which case you and I are wasting our time writing and reading this blog until that is rectified.]

The over-management stranglehold on houses all over the country has evolved in recent years. Apparently someone gradually got it pushed through that the Union ought to “protect” the house by over-controlling and over-managing it. "Safety" tends to be the curtain behind which most managements hide. The Union and the house "don’t want anyone to get hurt," which really means, “We don’t want to be sued for anyone getting hurt, and we don't care to address the more pressing issues of people not watching where they're walking or being so vain as to sue when they get hurt for not paying attention in the first place.” And so the over-management is actually about money (as most things usually are in these cases): saving money by removing all chance of litigation to the point of shutting out legitimate visitors, and spending money on "trained experts" to flip some switches and open some doors. (Not to minimalize their training, of course. They are capable of super-human feats backstage, but turning on lights and organs is something they ought to watch a church organist do sometime. And they ought to get a load of the trip hazards that await a church organist at every turn.)

Here’s an interesting question: "What does Fisk have to say about all this?" Perhaps they might lament all that work put into a huge instrument that no one knows about any more. Or they might actually enjoy this ivory-tower effect, where people wonder just how great this organ really is and they go in search of other Fisks to hear. And Fisk got paid for the Meyerson organ immediately following installation, plus there are no royalties on the use of a builder’s instrument once installed, so Fisk has no money in this game. And that means I'd really like to hear their opinion on all this -- it would probably be an honest one; this isn't their only symphony house organ.

[Update: another interesting question would concern what the Lay Family thinks of all this. I can't imagine.]

Well, I have said it. But the truth is that the Meyerson and its sister houses have no way at present of making changes. There's not enough time and not enough money. The Catch-22 of available house time and available Union crew is too strong. The organ is stuck where it is, and it will not be dug back out of moth balls until rampant over-management implodes or at least subsides. It is what it is, folks. So when you’re in the Big D, just pay for a ticket to attend something at the Meyerson – you are not likely to get in otherwise. Unless you’re internationally known.

Monday
Sep082014

The irony of a musicians union

It’s time to write about this. And it won’t be pretty.

Orchestras all over the place are in trouble. And it always seems to be about money. And it usually involves some toxic combination of an administration, a Union, and a healthy pinch of myopia. It never seems to include idealism or an interest in music.

For the record, most administrations are myopic. There’s not much more that need be said about that. They should all be fired and replaced with working musicians. Failing that, I’m taking the Union to task now:

In terms of pay, musicians get raped all the time. But it’s our own fault, because we are often too willing to give our art away, out of love for the art. Sometimes there’s just too much energy involved with educating a presenter on the expenses of art. It’s just like educating couple after couple, bride after bride, on what is appropriate in church and what is not. The battle is sometimes too taxing on our time and energy to continue. Fortunately the Union can sometimes do that battling for you. BUT:

Although I’m not a struggling musician, I still negotiate recital fees rather than set them in stone take it or leave it. I enjoy performing more than making money, and I enjoy bringing my brand of the art to an appreciative audience more than in staying home in protest over the compensation package for a recital. I know some organists who don’t leave home unless they make a profit. I also know that they are jackasses in general. And so I have established my own common ground, and I can live with that. The Union would probably not be so flexible.

I have never joined a musicians union. Few organists need to. They’re usually already employed by the presenting venue where an organ will be used. And they are rarely called on to play someone else’s instrument, unless there has been an easy mutual agreement reached. And so my experience working with Union musicians has come from only one perspective, from the outside. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional contractor who was also a friend, my experiences have rarely been positive.

The Unions exist many times to protect musicians from getting raped in the pocketbook. But what about protecting the musician from the unpleasantness of working with a jerk of a conductor? I should think it would be pretty easy to blackball a venue or conductor after just one or two bad experiences. God knows I have quietly blackballed some places on my own behalf because the director of music was a complete jackass. It’s not that difficult. However, with the Union on your side, you can continue to go play for that venue and be guaranteed pay. But for me, there is a choice between getting paid and having to deal with a jackass in the first place. That really is a viable choice after a certain point in one’s career, and I believe the Union's guaranteed pay might cloud that choice until it’s nearly too late.

If the Union protects the players, it ought also to insist that those players be the very best they can be and play the very best they can play. But that has not been my experience. I have seen Union orchestras play like pigs and then revolt when rehearsal runs late. I have seen a concertmaster slump in his chair and doodle in the floor with the tip of his bow at the end of the Tchaikovsky Sixth, where the violins have nothing to play. I have seen a Union flautist request a rehearsal break so she could practice her part. American orchestras routinely clear the opera/ballet pit at the end of a show before the conductor has arrived onstage to acknowledge them; the audience is applauding madly, but the conductor is acknowledging an empty pit. I have been blamed for holding chords after cutoffs, when it was really the Union horns who weren’t paying attention over and over. I have heard many Union musicians complain that they can’t hear the tempo, even while the tempo is being presented visually right in front of them on the conductor’s box. I have seen too many Union musicians glare at me and tune sharp because they don’t like the A that the organ gave them. I have heard a Union violist complain that the organ was coming in early (with the baton, actually), while the orchestra was coming in behind the stick (but with each other).

I’m sorry, but the Union musicians I have worked with default to laziness, and only the better conductors can pull them out and make them play as well as they were trained and are being paid to. But I default to being the very best I can be, and THEN I back off if I discover that it’s just not worth it. I’m sorry, but I have never seen a Union musician enjoy the music; I have only seen them enjoy being Union musicians. This is a foreign concept to me. I am constantly in awe of what composers have left us to play and enjoy, and it is astounding to me the number of professional musicians out there who hate music.

Union musicians: your pay is important. Keep fighting for it. All I’m asking is that you fall back in love with the music and with your instrument and with sitting up straight and playing well no matter what else is going on. You know, just as organists have been replaced by canned music in some churches, we organists could replace you. I can play Messiah and Elijah as well as you can. And back in the day, people like my teachers used to play entire oratorios on the organ every Sunday for Evensong. And quite a number of organists are transcribing full symphonies and other big works for organ solo these days. Rediscover the music, and find the balance.

Wednesday
Sep032014

Owning an “Allen-Skinner”

My house is a wreck right now. It’s full of scattered parts of Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1457-B, from Clyde Holloway’s estate. Many people have asked what I’ll do with the Allen sitting in the other corner of the living room. The answer is that I’m keeping it. The two organs feed my midlife need for toys, I suppose. But the two organs will also complement each other.

The Aeolian-Skinner represents a history that I love. It also represents the man to whom I owe my entire career. Every time I sit down at it, I will think of him preparing pieces in his stellar career, hour after hour, and teaching me how to do the same. But this organ is limited. It doesn’t have pistons, a box, a playback system, or a headphone jack. But I can use it to learn notes and then move to the Allen to practice gadgetry.

The Allen has a playback system; I don’t have to set up a recording device. It also has a headphone jack, so that I don’t disturb Sleeping Beauty. It also has pistons and expression shoes to practice with. It is pedagogically useful with alternate temperaments. So you can’t beat some technology. I don’t understand the school that says “pipe or nothing.” When it comes to practicing, one should take advantage of all available resources to get things right. I have no shame when it comes to that.

Truth be told, neither of these organs is completely perfect, because neither has three manuals. I have said before that two manuals were enough to learn notes. They still are. But having three manuals allows you to practice three-manual music, without leaving some things to be done at the performance site. So I suppose it will be time for a new Allen before long. But not today.

Tuesday
Aug262014

A tale of two ears at two conventions

This summer, the American Guild of Organists held its biennial 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.

Tuesday
Aug192014

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!

Monday
Jul282014

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. Professional musicians have seen this issue coming since it started. Professional musicians could have told Kenny and everyone else that this would happen. It's one of the more tragic cases of "We told you so." But the good news is that this is imminently fixable; it doesn't have to be the way it is now. But folks, we need professionals all around us, in all spheres. We don't hesitate to contact professionals to fix our cars, our electrical shorts, our roofing, our air conditioners, and our bodies. Music is the same way, if you want it done well. 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. So once more, with feeling: 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.

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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.

Monday
Jul212014

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?

Sunday
Jul132014

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.

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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!

Monday
Jun302014

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.

Sunday
Jun012014

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.

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