Why I Like Being Ward Organist

Every church calling has its positives. Even the most-often-turned-down-assignment of Nursery Leader boasts perks of playing with toys, no shoes required, and mandatory snacks. The only thing better than that, in my opinion, is my current assignment as ward organist. Here are some of things I like about this calling:

• sitting in the comfy seats

• being able to stand up and move during the meeting

• job security—no one’s bucking for my calling

• observing the congregation’s reaction to the announcement of a new Relief Society president

• watching parents wrestle with their young ones and being grateful that somehow my kids and I all made it through that stage

• sharing the majesty of the reeds, the power of the 32′ stop and the warmth of the strings with people I love

• feeling the strength of the congregation singing with me

• catching smiles in the congregation after a playing an awesome last-verse arrangement

• playing a 30 minute postlude, just because it feels good and I don’t want to stop

• praising God—without saying a word

What do you like about being an organist?


Don’t Wait for the Caboose!

One of my students recently remarked, “I’ve noticed that congregations really like to slow down the hymns, so I start really fast so by the time we get to the last verse it’s not dragging too badly.”

It’s true. Most congregations, left to their own devices, will slow the tempo of their singing significantly as the hymn progresses. My observant student had one strategy. But let me offer another. It’s kind of radical, though, so be prepared….

Don’t Listen to the Congregation! Allowing the congregation to control the tempo is like the train that slows down because the engine is too far in front of the caboose. If your congregation sounds like they’re too slow, stop listening to them. Focus on your playing. Keep a steady pace and they’ll follow you.

In a post about the phenomenon of sound delay, Vidas Pinkevicius asserts that the only cure to congregational drag is for the organist to look at the conductor and not listen to the sound. Vidas goes on to say:

Actually, [sound delay] is one of the major reasons we hear some church congregation members and some organists dragging the tempo when singing hymns. This is so natural—people listen to the organ and sing only when they hear the sound. The organist also listens to the congregation and plays on time but in reality – he or she is late. The cure for it is this: keep the constant pulse, and ignore the singing. In other words, you must constantly be in a leading position and not following.

Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive but listening to the sound in the room slows you down. What happens is that you press the key and wait for the [singing]. The sound is delayed by a second, and you feel like you can’t press the next note UNLESS you hear the [singing]. So it is a circle which slows down performance tempo.

It’s just like we sing in Do As I’m Doing “If I do it fast or slow…follow, follow me.” But you need to remember, that you are the leader…sort of…I mean, there is that person up there with waving arms…but we’ll get to the music director in a minute. Let’s start with the organist.

The hymn introduction gives the opportunity for the organist to establish the tempo of the hymn. My first organ teacher taught me to make the most of this ‘moment of glory’ by practicing the introduction as much (or more than) I practice the full hymn. She also encouraged me to use a metronome in practice and at the church service. Shortly before playing the hymn introduction I switch on my metronome (in silent mode, of course!) and keep it on long enough to get the pulse of the hymn in my mind.

Now to the music director.

Some music directors try to lead the congregation like they would a choir. But it’s no secret that most congregations will follow the organ regardless of what the director does. So why is the music director even there? Well, once the hymn starts, the director is the one to help the organist keep a steady tempo. A competent, confident music director will lead the organist and the organist will lead the congregation.

I realize that competent, confident ward music directors are hard to come by. But whatever the skill level of your director, do your best to work with him/her. Work together to ‘tune out’ the congregation—to establish and maintain an appropriate tempo and become the ‘musical engine’ that pulls that long train along at a steady, consistent and comfortable pace.

Songs I Don’t Want Sung at My Funeral

I played the organ for a funeral a few days ago. The service had been planned by Earl, the 92-year-old man being honored that day. His choice of congregational hymns gave me some insight into his faith and optimism. Have I Done Any Good?—a cheerful, mormon-gospel-style hymn with a sprinkling of dotted eighth notes to keep us on our toes—was the opening hymn. And for the closing Earl had requested We Are Marching On to Glory, a less familiar tune but intended to be sung with just as much enthusiasm.

Even though I generally prefer more sophisticated hymns, I was rather pleased with Earl’s selections, particularly the closing. The chorus brought to my mind a vision of a family boldly bidding farewell to their beloved, singing with an enthusiasm to match the strength of a life well lived.

We are marching, marching homeward
To that bright land afar.
We work for life eternal;
It is our guiding star.

Unfortunately, my vision was not realized. Not even close. The chapel was large. The family was small. The hymn unfamiliar. And Earl did not leave behind a posterity of outstanding vocalists. I’m not sure there was a singer in the bunch! But most of all, while Earl was eager to move on in life and see his dear wife again, the rest of the family was really sad to say goodbye to the man. Though I did my best to keep the tempo moving along, it was the dreariest march tune I have ever heard. (Think: My Favorite Things when the Von Trapp children think that Maria is gone for good.)

I came home from the service determined to do all I could to not have that kind of musical mis-match at my own funeral. Not sayin’ I’m planning on going soon. Just planning ahead…hopefully way ahead!

Assuming that my descendants will have as much vocal skill as Earl’s and hoping they are equally unenthusiastic about my departure, I have created the following list:

Hymns I Do Not Want Sung at My Funeral

Come, Rejoice

Father, This Hour Has Been One of Joy

From Homes of Saints Glad Songs Arise

Joy to the World

On This Day of Joy and Gladness

Rejoice, Ye Saints of Latter Days

The Happy Day at Last Has Come

There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today

. . .

A Defining Moment

It had been a warm summer day. I was tired and bored and ready for the evening church service to be over. As the congregation sang the intermediate hymn, I lifted my head up from my mother’s lap in an attempt to respond to her gentle encouragement to sing. But there was a lot more meeting left to endure than my 8-year-old body felt it could handle. So I just leaned against my mother’s arm and felt terribly guilty for not joining in the song of worship.

I liked music. And I liked church. My lack of participation was not due to lack of interest nor an act of defiance. Yes, I was tired. But the stronger motivation to remain silent was that I had recently become convinced that I didn’t sing well, and I just didn’t want everyone else to know that right then.

My mother never pushed me to join in, but somehow I knew that I was expected to sing. I mean, that’s what people do at church. Looking around, it was obvious. Everyone was singing—the Music Director, the leaders on the stand, and even Brother Miller, the most quiet, reclusive man (and the oldest bachelor I had ever known) were all offering praises through song.

As the weight of my “duty” fell upon me, my gaze drifted over to the organist, Pat Ashliman. I remember noticing that she played with a look of confidence and unstrained concentration. But I also noticed that she wasn’t singing. She wasn’t singing!

“What?” I wondered, “Organists don’t have to sing?!?”

I watched her through the remainder of the hymn. Not a note escaped her lips.

The hymn ended. My mother placed the hymnal back in its holder. As my head rested once again on her lap, I whispered in my heart:  “I want to be an organist.”