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!

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