Feeling Inadequate? Congrats! You’re in Good Company

Several weeks ago I was asked if I would be the organist for our upcoming stake conference. Yes, of course! I love the feeling that comes when leading a large congregation at the organ. The power that comes through their singing inspires and adds strength to my music, which encourages more singing, which inspires me further…and so on, and so on.

With all the great organists we have in our stake, I was very pleased (and surprised) that I had been invited to participate this time. And what added more to my joy was that the hymn selection was a great lineup of bold hymns, all of them begging for an awesome, let all the stops out, last verse arrangement. Furthermore, the meeting would be held at the new Provo YSA building that houses a brand-spanking new, state of the art, 3-manual Johannus organ with digital settings that change an American Classic organ into a French Romantic or German Baroque. Ahh, just think of the fun I could have with prelude & postlude. This was going to be organist heaven!

But (and there’s always a ‘but’) as I sat in front of the console yesterday, trying to get acquainted with this, uh, digital monster, I panicked. Who am I to be doing this?  I thought. This is way more instrument than my familiar little 9-rank Wicks. Why did they ask me to do this? Why not Ruth Ann or Kyle or any of those other really good organists?

And then (gratefully there’s always an ‘and then’ too!) two things came to my mind.

First, one of those ‘inspirational thought’ emails that has been circulating for years. It’s the one that points out many of the faithful men and women that God worked with in spite of their human-ness. You’ve probably read it at some point in your life, but here it is again:

Noah was a drunk. Abraham was too old. Isaac was a day dreamer. Jacob was a liar. Leah was ugly. Joseph was abused. Moses stuttered. Gideon was insecure. Samson had long hair and was a womanizer. Rahab was the town prostitute. Jeremiah and Timothy were considered too young to be useful in the ministry. David had an affair. Elijah was depressed and suicidal. Isaiah preached the Word of God while naked. Jonah ran away from God. Naomi was a widow. Job went bankrupt and lost everything. John the Baptist ate bugs. Peter denied Christ. The Disciples fell asleep while they were praying. Martha was a worrier. The Samaritan woman at the well was divorced…many times. Zaccheus was too small. Paul was too religious. Timothy had a stomach ulcer. And Lazarus was dead. Yet God used them all…even the dead Lazarus!

Then second, Elder Eyring’s counsel from October 2002 General Conference came to my mind:

There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed. One of the ways you will be attacked is with the feeling that you are inadequate. Well, you are inadequate to answer a call to represent God with only your own powers. But you have access to more than your natural capacities, and you do not work alone.

The Lord will magnify what you say and what you do in the eyes of the people you serve…What you say and do will carry hope and give direction to people far beyond your natural abilities and your own understanding.

Okay. I get the point. God does not let a little human inadequacy stand in His way. We can’t “stump” God. When we are less than our best selves He doesn’t look at us and say “Oh…hmm…well I didn’t know that was going to happen. Nothing I can do now!”

That’s not how He works. God is there for us. Always. He stands ready to help. We just need to ask.

The bottom line? Playing a larger instrument in stake conference is somewhat new territory for me. I feel inadequate. That’s okay. We all are in some way. God doesn’t need people who claim to be the best, only people who are willing to let God work with them and bring out His best.


Don’t Forget to Breathe!

My teenage organ student—a talented pianist—and I sat at the organ bench together. He was new to the instrument, but had gotten the idea of legato touch down very well. Too well, it seemed. As he played through his well-practiced hymn the characteristic choppiness of pianists at the organ was pleasantly absent. Unfortunately though, there was not one single break between any of the notes. It was a good thing taken too far.

I complimented him for his ability to play smoothly, then explained the concept of taking breaks, of playing the text as if you were singing the hymn, of letting the organ breathe. He listened carefully as I played the hymn, taking my hands and feet completely off the keys at times, letting the organ ‘breathe’ as if it were singing the hymns with the limitations of human lungs. He understood and was able to repeat what I had done, but after a time turned to me and said, “I don’t like having silence in the middle of the hymn. Won’t that be distracting to the congregation?”

His response reminded me of this quote from Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel:

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.

And so it is with the organ. The well-timed moments of silence separate the organists from the organ players. But it is a little unsettling at first, if not downright scary, to let go of those keys and hear nothing in the middle of a congregational hymn.

Thinking of the organ as a wind instrument rather than a keyboard instrument may make the concept easier to understand and incorporate. And the human voice is one of the finest wind instruments we have. My first organ teacher taught me to approach the hymn the same way a trained vocalist would, studying the text of each verse and noting appropriate places to breathe. Here’s an example of how I mark a hymn to help me remember where to place my breaks:

Sometimes these breaths are just brief pauses. But often they need to be long deep breaths. For example, in the first verse of Come, Ye Children of the Lord I would release for just an eighth rest between Lord and Let while allowing for a full quarter rest (yes, a full quarter note value of silence!) after accord. In the 2nd verse I would not break between be and When in order to help retain the continuity of thought in the text.

If you’re not convinced that silence is an important part of organ music, next time you listen to general conference or Music and the Spoken Word check it out. Listen for the ‘breathing’ of the organ. Notice when the breaks come. Are they short pauses, or bold breaks? What is the relationship between the silence and the musical phrasing? Between silence and the text phrasing?

If you’re not used to it, this silence may seem deafening during practice time in an empty chapel. But the end result is amazing. When the hymns are played with appropriately placed breaks, it is as if the organist and the congregation are joined together in singing, worshiping in unity.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalm 133:1

If Moses Had Google

Warning! Warning!

This is not a very serious or musically enlightening post. And to tell you the truth, it really has very little to do with LDS organists or even music in a general sense. I just wanted to share one of my favorite funny YouTube videos. But I feel obligated to at least try to have something sort of organistic or LDS-ish in my posts, so here we go…

This weekend marks the beginning of both Passover and General Conference. Which means that while the LDS organists of the world (with the exception of five) are enjoying a weekend off to listen to a prophet, another branch of Israel is also taking some time off to show respect and honor to one of their beloved prophets.

And that’s my serious thought for the week. (Not much I know…but, oh well. If you want more, you may just have to write your own blog!)

Now to the fun part…check this out:

Happy Passover/Conference Weekend!