Working With Church Leaders— An Organist’s Greatest Challenge

Just posted on the Discussion page:

“Most of the organists I know who have taken any type of lessons through schools have learned to be creative, enhancing the text with registration, proper use (or non-use) of pedal, volume, soloing out a part on another manual, key changes, etc.  My ward music chairman has asked me to be VERY conservative and feels that most of the things I do are calling undue attention to the organ, which is not my intent. What should I do?”

. . .

From the annals of the Horror Stories of the LDS Organist I find some of the most horrifying to be when outrageous musical standards are imposed on organists by their non-musical ward leaders. Some of these standards have included such restrictions as well-known hymns only preludes, no registration changes allowed, and congregational singing limited to hymns 1-61. (Serious! When one ward leader heard the counsel to sing “the hymns of the Restoration” he looked in the hymnal Table of Contents, saw the heading of ‘Hymns of the Restoration’ and limited the congregational singing to those first 61 hymns!)

When I first was called as an organist I got spoiled. Not only did my bishop have a very relaxed, hands-off leadership style, but he was a humanities professor who loved music and encouraged my musical growth and expression. He seemed to be grateful for any effort I put forth to enhance the worship service through music. And when as a beginning organist I told the ward music leader that some hymns were very difficult for me and asked if I could choose the Sunday hymns—a direct contradiction to the Handbook of Instructions—a hearty “Absolutely!” was the response. Ah, unbounded freedom in all my musical endeavors. It was heaven on earth!

Well, you know, all good things come to an end.

In time a new bishop was called. Within a month or two I received a new directive. “Sterilize the hymns,” I was told.

“What??” (I tried not to scream.)

“The bishop wants you to play the hymns exactly as they are written.”

“But I haven’t played a hymn exactly as it’s written in years!

“Well, that’s what he wants you to do now.”

So here it was, my worst nightmare had come to pass. My musical freedom was gone. I felt that my passion, my creativity, and yes, my very soul was being locked away in a cold, dark cell, never to feel the warmth of the sun again.

Resigning from the calling was my knee-jerk reaction. But honestly, I love playing in church too much to just walk away from it so quickly. Ignoring the bishop’s request was pretty high on my list of ways to deal with this too. Unfortunately (or fortunately) that tactic pushed my Guilt Button a little too hard. While I just wanted to tell the world (or at least the ward) that my bishop was inflicting unnecessary punishment upon me, there was that little voice within, urging me to respond appropriately.

After a time of calming myself down about the matter, I made an appointment with the bishop. Instead of meeting in his office I asked to meet at the organ bench. With the preface that I was having a difficult time knowing how to sterilize a hymn and magnify my calling at the same time, I explained that the hymns are vocal scores, not instrumental scores—they were meant to be sung as written but not necessarily played exactly as written. And any changes that I made were with the intent to inspire and encourage congregational singing, to add to the spirit of worship and unity.

I played one verse of a hymn ‘straight’ and then played a more musical version. As we talked about various changes I had employed the reasoning behind his ‘sterilization’ request became more clear and I was able to offer options that supported his vision and were musically satisfying to me. The meeting was friendly and productive. While I was not granted the musical freedom that I had previously enjoyed, we were able reach a compromise regarding the changes I was allowed to make.

If I stop here it may seem like a ‘win-win’ story. But I’ve got to be honest and tell you that from my point of view the solution did not feel like a win. It was not fun. For a while it was even miserable. After all, it was a compromise. It was not my way.

Then one night I had a dream that I was the bishop and I got to tell the organist what to do. How fun! We would have interludes and last verse reharmonizations and awesome registration changes. What a beautiful scene appeared before my eyes! Then the responsibility of conducting a weekly 70 minute worship service that was meaningful and uplifting to the individual members congregation fell upon me. As I sat in the bishop’s seat, looking out over the ward, it came to me that given the same calling at the same time, with the same people, that I would make the same decision he had. That understanding and the peace it brought was enough to allow me to submit cheerfully and with patience to the will of my leader.

. . .

How about you? How have you worked through organist/church leadership issues?

Share your thoughts and experiences about working with leadership below or on the newly formatted Discussion page.

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