Attention All Organists: a way to improve your playing… Guaranteed!

Would you like a surefire way to improve your organ playing? Check out this repost from The Organ Is Praise. I wholeheartedly endorse what the author has to say. This is good stuff! I will even go so far as to offer a 100% money back guarantee if it doesn’t work for you!!!

I have a suggestion that will greatly help your playing: Forgive someone!

Yes, forgive someone. In fact, forgive everyone! Forgive the ward members who talk over your preludes, the church leaders that have openly censured you from the pulpit, the people who have sent you hate mail, the people who can barely play who were chosen for special meetings over you and the people who chose them, the visiting authority who walked into your practice time and spent the next 15 minutes yelling at you, the student who didn’t practice and everyone else who has ever trespassed against you. Forgive them all, no matter how great or small or silly the insult, and do it now.

All of the things in the previous paragraph have happened to me and, quite frankly, they hurt at time they occurred. Some of them hurt for years afterwards.  One day, however, I woke up and realized that I was carrying too much baggage around. I went to the Lord and told him that this was over. It didn’t matter how much I hurt or how justified I thought I was in how I felt. It was time to end the hurt and move on.

Why do I say that this will help your playing? It is because, as church musicians, we must have the Spirit of the Lord with us as we serve others. Bitterness is spiritual poison. It keeps the Spirit away and finally destroys the soul.

Why am I talking about this? It’s because, in my many years of church service, I’ve met too many great organists who, due to pride or offense taken, have hung an “out of order” sign around their necks and stopped serving. The number of people I have met who have made that choice is, unfortunately, way more than one or two. Service to the Lord and his church are the hallmarks of a great LDS organist. Without it, we are no longer great.

Just before I met my dear wife another young man was actively courting her. She wanted nothing more to do with him after he told her that he had deliberately flunked a class because the professor had offended him. She realized that he did not understand that by this behavior he was only hurting himself.

So, please – forgive someone today! You’ll be glad you did. Also, please forgive yourself.

Thanks, Harold!

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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What’s Bach Trying to Tell Me?

Johann Sebastian Bach

Soli Deo gloria and the organ belong together. The most prolific composer of organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach, appended its initials—SDG—to the manuscripts of his musical works. The American Guild of Organists has followed his lead and has adopted Soli Deo gloria as their motto.

Soli Deo gloria is a Latin term for Glory to God alone. It is the teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone; that one should not exalt humans for their good works, but rather praise and give glory to God who is the author and sanctifier of all people and their good works.

As I have studied Bach’s works I have often wondered why he did this, and what Soli Deo gloria has to do with the things he wrote. To bring it to a more personal level I asked myself, “How does Soli Deo gloria apply to me and my music?” Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me:

What if someone plays music better than I do? Feeling intimidated can be a natural response. But I think that Soli Deo gloria suggests that feeling bad about myself is not necessary. Putting myself down is, in effect, exalting others. Every individual is one of God’s creations. Most people consider roses to be beautiful, but daisies brighten our world too. I can be grateful to God that I am privileged to associate with creative, capable and talented souls who share with me. I can be appreciative for my own body and spirit that allow me to enjoy their contribution to the world.

What if others tell me I performed well? Accepting compliments graciously may not always come easily. But I do not believe that God wants me to belittle or degrade anyone, including myself. With a simple “Thank you” I can show my appreciation for the kindness of another, for the mind and body God has given me, and for his strength and mercy which allow me to learn and grow and progress.

What if I don’t perform well? According to Navajo tradition, when a rug is created the weaver is to place an imperfection somewhere within the design. This is a way of showing respect to the gods; for, to create something that one believes to be perfect shows a true lack of regard for Deity. I also love the LDS doctrine that teaches that our weaknesses are part of God’s plan for us. Though it can be uncomfortable for my weaknesses to be made obvious to others, I can use these difficult experiences to draw closer to God, to rely more on him and to increase in charity and compassion towards others in their own moments of weakness.

As I have attempted to put these concepts into practice I have found them to be a wonderful guide in my quest for excellence both musically and spiritually. It is more than just a catchy phrase that some guy put on his music. Soli Deo gloria reminds me both who I am, and whose I am.