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!

Does Anyone Watch the Music Director?

Watching this amazingly expressive child in the video clip below got me thinking about various musical religious practices. Check it out. I’d love to work with a music director with that much passion!

Religiously speaking, I love The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormon or LDS church).

Musically speaking, there are a few things that baffle me. Like, why is there someone up in front of the congregation waving their arm every time we sing a hymn? Choirs, I can understand. But congregations?? I don’t get it.

In my experience, the LDS church is the only religious organization that has someone do this. Some churches have cantors that lead congregational singing. But they lead out with their voices, not their arms. And it seems less like musical directing and more like being the lead voice in a group sing-along. You know, if at least one person sings loud enough the vocally shy are more likely to participate.

More often than not, the organist fills the role of the music director—setting the tempo, leading the congregation with a clear introduction, a well-timed pause, a nod of the head and off we go.

Personally, I play better when I can follow the lead of a competent music director. I love the synergy and the feeling of unity that comes with that kind of teamwork. But there have been more than a few times that the music director has told me, “Just do whatever you want. I’ll follow you.”

I’m wondering how it works with other organists. So, I put together this highly scientific poll to find out how often LDS organists are able and willing to follow their arm-waving music directors. If you are now serving, or ever have served as an LDS ward organist, you are invited to take the poll below.

For more highly scientific organist polls go to the Polls page.

Wisdom from Our Leaders

When a co-worker learned that my organ solo scheduled for sacrament meeting last Sunday got ‘rescheduled’ one minute before I was to perform in order to allow the final speaker his fully allotted time, he kindly shared this quote and suggested I share it with my bishop:

What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.

Adam S. Bennion
Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Well said, Elder Bennion!

The Filter Theory

Of all the Easter Sundays I have celebrated, this year was the most un-Easter-like ever. Without little ones around, I felt no pressure to have easter baskets filled with colored eggs, marshmallow chicks and chocolate bunnies. The closest thing to an Easter dinner was the little bits of ham that found their way to onto our stuffed crust DiGiorno. And I didn’t even get to play O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown (music from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) in church.

Surprisingly, we only had three congregational hymns in this year’s Easter service—All Creatures of Our God and King, He Is Risen! and Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. Want to take a guess as to which one was the sacrament hymn? C’mon, I’ll give you three tries.

You’re right, it was He Is Risen!

It seemed a little strange to be clipping along at a dignified tempo of 96 with a bold (but not overbearing!) registration, solid singing from the congregation and priests breaking bread at the sacrament table. It was like my favorite Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other…one of these things doesn’t belong.”

I didn’t choose the hymn. I even questioned the music chairman’s choice, citing the directive that sacrament hymns should refer to the sacrament itself or to the sacrifice of the Savior. But the bishop wanted it for Easter. And I decided that as long as I could play it at the intended tempo, with organ settings to match, I would be fine with it. And I was…mostly…

The really odd part for me about the whole service was the closing hymn. I had prepared Mike Carson’s arrangement of Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. One advantage of playing a unique arrangement is that most people won’t realize if I don’t play it perfectly. Musical trainwrecks are obvious, of course, but skipped notes and minor blips are generally not distracting to the average congregation. There were a few measures in the reharmonization that weren’t as solid as I would like, but felt that I could make it work. Apparently I was over-optimistic. I kept it moving. No trainwrecks this time….barely….

Now, I realize that playing a hymn imperfectly is not particularly odd. (Well, maybe it is for you, but not for me!) However, what I think is strange is what happens after my playing falls short of what I would like it to be. For the past seven years I have noticed that when my playing is the roughest, the congregation showers me with compliments on how beautiful the music sounded. At first I thought they were just trying to cheer me up; that they knew I didn’t do well and thought I needed a little encouragement. As I became better friends with the members, I realized that they really meant what they said—that my worst playing actually sounded beautiful to them. That’s when I came up with “The Filter Theory.”

My theory would probably be called “grace” in other churches. (I know, a lot of Mormons have a hard time wrapping their mind around that doctrine, but hear me out.) You see, I believe that God knows my heart and my desires as well as my weaknesses and limitations. So when I practice the best I can but fall short of my desires during the service, the Spirit steps in between me and the congregation and filters out any kind of distraction that my playing may bring.

It reminds me of the song “If You Want to Steal My Show” by TobyMac.

If You wanna steal my show, I’ll sit back and watch You go
If You got somethin’ to say, go on and take it away
Need You to steal my show, can’t wait to watch You go
So take it away

But the thing is—and we’re finally getting to the oddest part of all—is that when God ‘steals my show’ like that, people end up thinking I did something good. God does all the good stuff. We try to give Him the glory, but He just shines it back on us again.

Hmmm…maybe the day wasn’t as un-Easter-like as I thought…