Upcoming Performances

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Franck-ly speaking, Part III: Cantabile

This is the third installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today we look at the Cantabile. See the first post in the series for background information.


The Cantabile is the shortest of the big twelve. Perhaps it’s also the easiest, but none of them is truly easy, so don’t get too excited.

I insert a lot of inter-manual “thumbing” to keep things legato, and therefore I try to place the hands on two adjacent manuals whenever possible. If the Great is the middle manual, then keeping hands on adjacent manuals will require a couple more pistons to convert the Great into the Positif and back several times. This also brings up the issue of fingering for a Great on the bottom or a Great in the middle. Solution: finger it both ways, and write it all in. Things won't always work in both directions, of course, but when it is possible, I’ll draw an up- and a down-arrow to show which direction to travel to the other manual, and then I’ll write in the fingerings for both configurations. Then it’s only a few extra minutes for me to memorize both ways and then be ready for anything at the recital site.

Throughout the piece, you’ll need to make innumerable decisions between tying and breaking repeated notes. Don’t forget that Franck composed vertically, not contrapuntally, and so he didn’t mind when notes were tied across. But of course, repeated notes in melodies should be broken. I break repeated notes among other voices to hear/show a beat better, and I break when a voice sounds imitative of a melody. I try to break in voices that aren’t terribly exposed, so that the beat is merely heard rather than hammered.

Registration: our American Swells can be sorely lacking in the colors Franck is looking for. Trumpets are too strong or weak, Hautbois are too weak or strong, and there’s very little in between. You might consider adding the 4’ flute and/or the 8’ string to the Récit texture. They might come in handy later as the piece winds down; more on that later below.

In the U.S., rarely does the Positif/Choir have enough 8’ flues to do what Franck asks, and so I usually add a stop or two from the Great to give the Positif more presence. Of course that’s not always possible, but if you have the stops, the pistons, and the time to switch stops back and forth between the "real Great" and "contrived Positif," then surely Franck would approve. For the Cantabile, that means I use one piston for the first two measures of pedal “solo” against Great and Positif 8’, then I hit another one in measure 3 to reduce the pedal and remove some of the Great to sound like a Positif. All while remaining on the Great. Back and forth like that we go: measures 6 and 8, measures 11 and 12, measures 25 and 27, etc.

Franck’s initial dynamic of p is unnecessary. To the French organist, a dynamic indication is a box indication. But the Récit is not playing there, and when it does show up in measure 3, the dynamic is mezzo forte. So set the box to mf before you begin, and for heaven's sake don't lunge for the box in a panic at the last second. But on the other hand, if you choose to hit extra pistons as explained in the paragraph above, you could add Récit fluework to the Great to strengthen the 8’ registration when the solo is not playing, then operate the box accordingly. If you have time to do all that in the moment, it’s a nice idea that helps our American organs nudge closer to what Franck heard.

Franck marks the piece Non troppo lento, so don’t get stuck on half notes and quarter notes. The piece still needs to pulsate with some life.

Measure 1: notice that the Pedal foreshadows the real melody coming up in measure 3. Franck even registered those first two measures and their later siblings to bring out the Pedal, but for whatever reason the registration was watered down at publication. In his complete Franck recording, Jean Guillou registers a quiet reed in the Pedal for those. I also try to bring it out a bit, but I try to use fluework.

Measure 5: It’s curious that Franck does not insert the global quarter rests from measure 5 into 6 and 10 into 11 that he inserts from, say, 2 into 3 or 7 into 8. Nevertheless, I insert the rest for all voices. It just begs for it, I feel. One exception is in Measure 11, where I go into measure 12 without breaking, not only because it’s possible but also because I don’t want things to get predictable. Non-breaking requires some quick fingerings and substitutions.

Measures 13-14. I get across that barline legato in the left hand.

Measures 15-16: I carry the melody from measure 15 without breaking. With the box closing, I feel it’s a nice enough arrival without the break.

Measures 18 and 67: I thumb the second quarter note in the alto with the right hand. I do the same thing in measures 24 and 73 for the first eighth in the left hand. See the discussion above regarding playing this piece on adjacent manuals.

Measure 27: I thumb the b in the alto with the left hand.

Measure 32: if you’ve been on adjacent manuals up to this point, you’ll need to move your right hand to the “real” Positif here (assuming it's on the bottom), to be in position for Measure 43, where all three manuals are needed on their own terms. Everything can be re-positioned as you wish at 65.

Measures 38-39: I don’t break the melody across that barline. I like the continued crescendo that allows.

Measures 51-61: The canon is exquisite. Register it carefully so that the Pedal gets its due, and phrase the Pedal melody exactly the same way as the right hand melody. Keep careful track of the couplers, and know that you could cheat with an extra coupler to the Pedal, if you need it.

Measure 59: I take the lowest right-hand note E with the left.

Measure 61, fourth beat: I take the lowest right-hand note E with the left.

Measure 62, third beat: I take the lowest right-hand note F# with the left.

Measure 64, third beat: I take the lowest right-hand note D# with the left.

I live for measure 74. I believe it’s a stunning repose the piece has been yearning for all this time. I start preparing for it in 72 with a subtly graduated ritard and a smooth closing of the box.

At 78, some Swells have little left when the Trumpet comes off. Here you could use those extra stops I suggested at the beginning, such as the string or a 4’ flute. Hopefully, there’s an Oboe that would also have been on from the beginning. The reason I mention all this is because I remove all but the Oboe from the Swell at 82. It helps with the decrescendo, and it gives me a chance to get rid of any lingering stops (such as my added 4') that may not contribute to a quiet ending.

Measures 86-end: Use the slowdown to buy successively more time on each note so that you don’t have to add a fermata at the end where Franck didn’t write one.

Measures 88-89: I add a stop or two to the Pedal so that it can be heard. This is especially important if the left hand has been coupled all along to the Pedal. (Sometimes coupling the accompanying manual to the Pedal makes a more subtle 8’ than the Pedal’s own.) Play those Pedal quarters with a nice tenuto; don’t clip the penultimate one prematurely.


Franck-ly speaking, Part II: Prelude, Fugue, and Variation

This is the second installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today we look at the Prelude, Fugue, and Variation. See the first post in the series for background information.


The title is problematic. Not only is there only one Variation (not Variations), but also the use of the Oxford comma gives some of us fits. Against my usual punctuation morality, I insert the extra comma just to show the three sections at a glance. The original edition cleverly gets around this with the title “Prélude, Fugue, Variation,” omitting et [and]. I don’t recall as of this writing what Franck called it in his manuscript/autograph. The later Durand edition says, “Prélude, Fugue et Variation” (no Oxford comma). Anything is possible, and I’m over it. All I'll ask is that when printing the title, stay in one language: use the accent in Prélude with the French conjunction et, or use no accent with the English and. I’ll stay in English below:

The truncated version which omits the Fugue is a bastardization and should never be used in public. The original piece is a complete whole, for heaven’s sake. The interlude alludes to the Fugue subject, so it makes no sense to play the interlude without the Fugue attached. And it makes no sense to play the Prelude by itself, because it ends in the wrong key. So about the only excerpt-able section is the Variation itself, which is hard to play, in which case you might as well learn the whole thing.

The Prelude and the Variation are trios. The left hand spends a lot of time in the alto range, and the feet spend a lot of time making surgical little movements from note to note in the tenor range. The whole body is put into traction to play this piece, and there are just too many pitfalls to be checking music AND feet AND hands. If one of those gets derailed, the others are likely to follow. Therefore, this is one of those pieces that will go better if it is memorized (and well).

Throughout the Prelude and the Variation, play the melody and make the accompaniment fit around that. The most common error I hear is the left hand rushing into the second eighth note of each beat, following the rest. Once that is under control, the piece flows quite naturally beautifully. Sometimes I think it’s silly to hear a different instrument in your head when you play a melody on the organ, but in this case it works: pretend you’re an actual oboist, and the melody will speak for itself. First eighth of each beat stronger than the other two eighths.

Measure 10: obviously, the right foot needs to make the crescendo in this measure, rather than lunge for the box AND high B at the same time for measure 11. You can hear that panic every time otherwise, so just take care of the box earlier. This applies to the other similar spots throughout (31, 156, etc.). Remember that Franck’s organ had the box lever placed all the way to the right, which means that he could have (but did not necessarily have) had someone moving the box for him. Franck was known to have said that you should play as many pedal notes as possible with the left foot so that the right could operate the box. But myself, I sacrifice neither notes nor their legato for anything. So I work out some box movements at other times as required to preserve line and legato. Throughout Prelude and Variation, only slight box movements need be used; just enough to hear a difference is plenty.

Throughout Prelude and Variation, obey Franck’s every rhythmic command. He built the breaths into it, so don’t cheat the breathing voices. And don’t hold left-hand notes into rests. Keep it clean.

Measures 39-42: it is suddenly about the pedal, so let that melody rule the rhythmic motion of everything else. The same goes for 177-180.

Measures 51-59: the interlude is just an interlude. Don’t make it an event. Notice that it alludes to the Fugue subject, so make it sound that way. And notice that the fermatas have been placed on notes, not on rests, so don’t go out for coffee during the rests.

Fugue subject: I cheat a little by making a slight(!) break after the half notes in measures 64 and 65 and all other similar passages in other voices (72, 73, 82, 83, etc.) throughout the fugue. Such is (barely) legal in Franck – don’t forget that he was developing organ playing from ordinary touch into legato, but that did not fully arrive until Widor and later. So don’t arrest me.

Measures 117-122: fingering here will be unorthodox to many. Don’t be lazy – work out a legato fingering. It is possible.

Measure 128: I decrescendo here. I love that arrival on the Picardy.

Make the Variation flow. Again, make that left hand obey the rhythmic wishes of the melody. Yes, I know that 162-169 is difficult for the left hand. Tough! Learn it cold and make it fit.

This is one of those pieces that is beautiful to the ear but horribly awkward to play. Go with making it sound good; never telegraph how difficult it is. Sit up straight, and refuse to lunge for any note or swell shoe in a panic.


Franck-ly speaking, Part I: background and the Final

I have been on my way through performing the twelve large works for solo organ by César Franck. I have programmed them at a rate of about one per year, having begun in 2007. I have learned or re-learned them in order of my own preferences: Final, Prelude/Fugue/Variation, Cantabile, Pièce Héroïque, Pastorale, Choral in E, Prière, Fantaisie in A, Choral in b, Choral in a, Grande Pièce Symphonique, Fantaisie in C. As of this writing, I have just put the A major Fantasy to bed and will move on to the b minor Choral for early 2015.

This music is groundbreaking and very popular among organists, audiences, and audiophiles. I played several of these pieces during college, but I discovered their true difficulty when I started working back through all of them with a professional fine-toothed comb. These pieces are HARD sometimes, but their nobility forbids you from glossing over a single note. I love this music; it fits my sense of phrasing at the organ. I say a lot with these pieces in less time than with others. They “learn” quickly, and they speak to me and my listeners immediately. But they must be approached somewhat carefully to keep them from sounding like halting organ demonstrations or unnecessarily mad dashes to the finish.

This blog series will outline some of the usual troubles we encounter in these pieces. I’ll add some of my own hints and personal reflections on each. Then there are the other well-known sources to get more information, such as Rollin Smith’s two books, the Durand edition, the Craighead/Goddard corrections to the new Durand, the Dover compilation, the Wayne Leupold edition, the Gunther Kaunziger edition, the complete recordings, etc. I gravitate toward the complete recordings by André Marchal and David Enlow. Marchal is musical and forward-moving. Enlow is all that, plus muscular.

In this series, I don't correct notes or other misprints in the score that haven't already been addressed in a critical edition. Consult those editions carefully, especially when you suspect something isn't right in your score -- it probably isn't.



It may be an omen to begin a series with a "Final," but here we are! What's more, when I performed this piece, I always placed it first on a program. It opened my recitals with the kind of bang I look for. This is a thrilling piece that has no sister among the big twelve. It has no slow section, and it keeps charging at you.

Beginning: I use measure 29 to determine my beginning tempo. I think about that measure first and then start the piece with that tempo, which tends to hover around 120 bpm. Thank God Franck adds “maestoso” to the tempo marking. Otherwise, people would play it too fast. Oh, wait, they already do. Folks, this isn’t the Sowerby Pageant. It’s only coincidental that the main melody appears in the pedal. It is still music. Make sure it’s played clearly and musically. Throughout this pedal solo, decide carefully how long any given note before a rest will last. Too short, and it sounds clipped. Too long, and it invades the rests. Give as much attention to the releases as to the attacks. And depending on the acoustics and my mood, I may cut dotted quarters at the dot, replacing the dot with a rest -- Franck does that later on the piece, in measures 207-211.

Measures 13-27: This is that hard part in the pedal solo. This section needs a steadfast refusal on the performer's part to play it any way other than nobly. Usually a more majestic tempo will fix it. In any event, focus on playing every note in this section, without rushing anywhere just because it's awkward to play. Use the feet equally in this section; don’t ask one foot to do all the work without exploring more innovative pedaling. Prepare your ankles for some interesting contortions!

Measure 33: Take Franck seriously when he thins out the texture by dropping out the alto and tenor. You’ll need that space for the soprano to be heard. Keep all triplets even; don’t allow the left hand to call the shots; make the melody rule all rhythms and rubato.

Measure 87: Notice the difference on the second beat between a full quarter (manual) and a quarter staccato (pedal). I play the difference.

Measure 94: I decide in the moment how long I’ll hold the second beat in the hands. Maybe that beat should be staccato like the notes leading up to it. If holding them through threatens to make the second beat (a weak beat in 4/4) too strong, I'll release them early.

Measure 99: Don’t lose the tempo; keep things moving. In the pedal is a preview of coming attractions, namely, the second theme. So let the pedal call the shots; don’t get hung up on how angular the hands are there.

Measure 125: I move Franck’s registration directive to measure 119, and I make it last until 127. It’s a smoother registrational descent that way; I tend to use three to four generals to thin things out. Then throughout the second theme that follows, you’ll need to make a lot of decisions on voice redistribution among the hands, plus when to tie and when to break. Franck wrote vertically, and so we are at full liberty to tie when desired. I break for voiceleading clarity and when a beat needs to be heard. Same directions apply to the recap later on.

Measure 155: By now, you have probably slowed down more than you intended to. An abrupt return to the opening tempo is too abrupt. Use 155-163 to make a (smooth!) accelerando.

From measure 173, it's all about the pedal. Don’t telegraph how difficult the hands are.

Measure 187: I put the right hand on the Great. In this country, the Positif/Choir rarely has enough 8-foot to support that soaring melody.

From measure 206, it's all about the pedal again, not about how hard the hands are. Don’t let the left hand rush the pedal; make the left hand obey the melody’s wishes.

From measure 215, it’s all about the left hand. Make the right hand notes fit exactly where they are supposed to go to support the melody.

From measure 245, you might go somewhat faster. But not too fast, because you still have a long way to go to the applause.

From measure 305: This is still Franck, so no one is authorized to fly through this section! If anything, you might consider making it sound somewhat halting and improvisatory and getting bolder while things make their way back to the home key and the home melody. People tend to play from here to the end somewhat detached. I do that, too, but it’s nowhere near pecking. Be careful, and stay noble. This brings me to the notion of detaching Franck where he didn't say to. We get away with a lot of re-interpretation of what Franck wrote or didn't write, but that's okay because this was the beginning of a style that was codified after Franck. In some cases, it was still played with "ordinary touch," and we can detach. With today's hindsight, decisions can now be based on musical and/or acoustical instinct. See Wayne Leupold's comments in his edition.

From measure 360: Be sure the hands don’t derail the pedal. Many times, those chords are played in such a way that the pedal eighth notes get compressed into a faster rhythm, which tends to over-rush the whole thing. Make smooth trades between manual chords to pedal notes.

From measure 372: No slower; we’re still not there yet! You can ritard at 378.

From measure 379, I make the eighth notes a fast flourish and the final quarter-note chords a guessing game of, “Is it really over?”


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.


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.


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.


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.


Permission granted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spoken like a pro

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

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

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

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

Kenny says, “What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading – enabling the people to sing their praises to God.” And there is his thesis. He blames the re-professionalization of church music for shutting out the congregation. I’ll disagree passionately by saying that if anything, worship music has deliberately shunned professionalization, to its detriment and that of the musical health of its congregations. 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.


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

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


Thanksgiving in July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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