Progress

Overall, I think things are getting better. My sight reading is still atrocious, my control of the pedals on the organ is mediocre at best and I still do a very average job of keeping the organ volume level at an appropriate one for all. However, i’ve got a much better idea of what sounds are going to come out with most of the presets, I’m using the manuals better and I’ve even done some pieces during the offering and as introits. So we’ll call that progress.

I’m enjoying a publication called “The Organist”. It comes out every two months and features organ music which follows the church calendar. When I first looked at a copy the first pieces I saw were so far beyond me I dismissed the entire publication. However, upon looking further I’ve found some pieces that are simpler, some are manuals only and all are catalogued for where they might fit into a service. I recommend it as a great tool for a new organist.

https://www.lorenz.com/keyboard/organ/the-organist

Another resource I’m starting to look into is the RCCO, the Royal Canadian College of Organists. Again, sounds a lot more than what I am but they are there to help train new organists and offer various scholarships. Reading the description of one scholarship made me think they were intending it for young people who have piano training and want to expand. Well, I am an old man with keyboard skills and a job, is that close enough? I applied for it; we’ll see if i get a response. If I get to the next stage there’s an audition. That should be funny. Hopefully they’ll let me tape it.

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Now it’s my fault

Nothing to apologize for yet. It’s just that today marks the first Sunday service with me as the musical director. Really quite a rapid sequence of events. As of last summer, six months ago, I had no intention of playing in a church every week. I barely attended. However, not only am I entrenched as the organist I am now in charge.

In speaking to my sisters, they like to point out how excited and proud my mother would have been. She was very musical and a faithful member of St. John’s United Church in Hamilton, ON. She had a long battle with arthritis which robbed her of her ability to play the piano and organ and severely hindered her mobility and energy level. Still, whenever possible she still went to church, sang along to the hymns and listened to what the minister said. She passed away ten years ago this past Tuesday. If one believes in a heaven she’s there listening and singing along as I struggle with the organ on any given hymn.

I sang “How Great Thou Art” at her funeral. It’s been chosen as a hymn during my five month stint at the church. I still struggle with it now and pretty much refuse to sing it. I’ll play it during the Introit today as a bit of an homage. Then just try to keep up with the rest of the service.

The Announcement

No doubt this will be as big as Lebron James moving to Miami. Today there will be an announcement at the church that the musical director for the past two years has decided to move on. However, they will be no doubt thrilled to announce that a successor has been found. That would be me. Starting February 1st, I am in charge of all things musical at the church.

It’ll be interesting. Though I am getting comfortable with the week to week flow of the service and the time demands for me; I am still quite unfamiliar with music for the choir. The previous director has volunteered to help out with this process for the next few months so I should be okay but it’s still a bit worrisome.

However, it should be fun. I have to be present at all services and rehearsals anyways so it’s not a big change in my time commitment. It’s mostly that I have to be more aware of what the choir is doing and try and help them out where I can.

I’ve never led a choir before. A couple of times I helped out by conducting the Arnprior Community Choir at rehearsals when the director was ill or on vacation but have never really led a group from beginning to end. So there will surely be some satisfaction in hearing a piece take shape. I am hoping that it will inspire me to write some things as well.

I think the real challenge is going to be in the fall and winter when the Arrogant Worms record and release a new album. It will require some real time management skills in figuring out which weeks I will miss and how to program those weeks. However, I usually have a fair amount of notice on these so we’ll make it work.

In the meantime, on the organ I have set myself some goals. I have some fairly simple organ pieces that I’m going to try and master so that I have them ready for special occasions. Here is where the pedals are a real challenge. In playing certain hymns, I have been able to work in some very basic pedalling by just sticking to the root of the 3 major chords. But to actually read a line of pedal notes while reading the other hand is well beyond me at present. I can practice the left and right hands at home on a piano but there’s no substitute for being on the organ and working at it. Once again though, for now I get paid a little bit to learn the instrument. How cool is that?

There’s always something

Our church music director has broken her wrist. Not sure how or how bad but for sure she’s going to be away today. I think someone from the choir is going to try and lead today but given the small size of our choir, we really need everyone singing. So I guess I’ll try to do what I can to conduct the choir from the organ. We’ve got the organ set back a bit on the stage so it will mean a lot of head turning from the choir and a lot of head bobbing from me to cue them.

However, it’s not like I’m the first accompanist to lead the choir at the same time so I guess i should suck it up. Where it could be difficult is in two weeks. Our music director is also out back up accompanist and I have Worms gigs in Alberta. Hopefully there’s someone out there who can fill in; if we’re lucky maybe the University student who was my predecessor will be back and willing to play. Maybe I can pre-record some backing tracks!

Wait, I suspect that would be the road to putting myself out of a job. Wonder if any churches do that already? Kind of makes sense.

Getting into the Swing

I’ve been at this job for two months now so I think I’m getting into the swing of things (the World Series is on so baseball metaphors are fair game. Or fair ball.) I have a good idea how the typical service will flow and what most people expect musically in the service.

There’s a couple of real challenges. As I’ve said previously, my reading is pretty average, especially with more complex arrangements. I can improvise fairly effectively if I’m familiar with the melody and chord structure but when I’m reading the left hand am unable to do much more than keep up. Bach I am not. With four hymns, at least one anthem and and introit and blessing, the volume of new music each week can be a little daunting.

Then there’s the organ.

The organ is still a massive challenge for me. I have a better idea of what the presets on the organ will sound like and typically stick to them. I’ll try to use different sounds during a hymn and make it as interesting as I can. But the bass pedals are still frightening. I can’t really use them without constantly peeking to make sure I’m going to hit the right one and can only use them in socks. I’ll have to eventually acquire some actual organ shoes but for now I’ll just be sockman (Could have been a decent Halloween costume). The only issue is that when I move to the piano some of the congregation can see my feet. Loafers?

This week’s service is another communion which has significantly more music. Fortunately I am familiar with many of the hymns this week so it has required a bit less rehearsal and I’m planning on using pedals this morning. It could be a busy day; with daylight savings time ending I expect there will be more in attendance so it would be nice to have a good week and maybe convince a few more people to come out more regularly.

However, I recently watched a documentary on the life and music of J.S. Bach. During his career, he had a charge where he was the music director of a church and was expected to compose that volume of music each week. Not just play and perform it, but actually write new music each week. This, in an era where all the music was hand transcribed and copied. So really, I’ve got it pretty easy.

First Major Screwup

Not really that huge but I thought it was funny. So we’re doing a hymn that I kind of liked (We Are Pilgrims, number 595 in the Voices United book for those of you following along at home). It’s pretty much all quarter notes over the same bass note in each bar. So I figured here’s my chance to really rock it out. I put on preset 2 which seems to have some good sounds for each manual; played verse 1 on the great, verse 2 on the choir, verse 3 on the swell, then kicked up the swell pedal and tried to really bring it home on verse 4. Put a little ritard on the end, thought to myself, “That went well!” and smiled. Then people started singing. Some of these hymns have verses under the music and then additional verses at the bottom of the page. Like this one. Two in fact. I’d kind of already blown my limited number of organ tricks. So I just kind of caught up and played normally to the end. I guess the good news is that I’ll probably never make that mistake again.Picture0006

Solo practice on the Organ 1

Went in for my first time to just play with the organ. Worked only on this week’s hymns, trying to see if any of the presets can work. My immediate problems are:

  1. Volume. I’m having real problems trying to keep the volume at a reasonable level. Last Sunday, though the weather was poor, we still only had about 60 people at the service. Most of the presets I tried would crush the congregation. I need to keep each manual on one or two stops maximum.
  2. Pedals. They’re hard to play unless I’m looking down. And then I kind of forget where I’m at in the piece. However, if I just keep to whole notes and the basic bass of the chord, it sounds pretty cool.
  3. Then if I use the pedals, I don’t know what to play in my left hand. I’m used to banging out the bass line in my left hand. I need to get used to doing something else. Basic chording works great; just have to do it.

Still it was kind of fun. My plan is to do at least one hymn on the organ this week. Maybe the standard offering and Lord’s Prayer as well; though the latter sounds really good on piano.

Lesson 1

This week has been a bit easier in terms of the content of Sunday’s service. As it isn’t a communion service, there are just the 3 hymns, an introit, a blessing and an anthem by the choir. Still a fair amount of music for me to learn in 6 days but not nearly as much as last week. Plus, one of the hymns uses the tune of “Morning Has Broken” which I know pretty well; though the version in the hymn book messes with the chord structure I’m familiar with. If I get lost, I suspect I’ll revert to the one I know.

Having a bit of time this week allowed me to have a lesson with my friend Scott Auchinleck, musical director of Glen Cairn United Church and also the Kanata Choral Society. Scott learned the organ while doing a music degree at Bishops University and has used this experience at many different churches and situations. We got together on Wednesday of this week and Scott was generous enough to not only show me the basics of the organ, but also brought several books of both instruction and content. I look forward to plowing through these books.

So here’s a nutshell overview of what I learned. The organ I have is a Rogers Hybrid organ which means it has pipes but that many of the sounds are created electronically and then fed through the pipes rather than created by a series of reeds or flutes. There is a MIDI port underneath the console so I believe more sounds could be added or perhaps the existing sounds could be edited. There are 3 keyboards and a series of bass pedals underneath. Each of these manuals has its own series of sounds or stops which can be easily switched on or off with large knobs. The sounds have different timbres and octaves, allowing for a vast number of different sounds to be created.

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So basically what Scott suggested is for a given hymn, one presets all of the manuals with different sounds before the hymn begins. Then for each verse you can play on a different manual to give a different flavour each time. There are also variable pedals which can be used to grow the sound on each manual, again allowing the organist to increase the energy of the sound towards the end of the piece.

i think the initial difficulty for me will be to avoid going to the max each hymn. When you put on all of the stops, kick the one pedal to max which adds all of the octaves and overtones then just play a big, full major chord it’s a really massive sound. Makes me feel powerful. Maybe not the sound needed for “Morning Has Broken”. Morning might break if I use that sound every time.

Though we had a great session together, I haven’t had the opportunity to practice on the instrument since then. So I think for today I’m going to stick with the piano for the entire service. Especially since this will be my first time playing in a big gown. They have to find an extra long one for me, though I suggested a short one would be fine, I’d prefer short sleeves and I’ll be sitting…

A New Opportunity

Funny how things happen.

I had no real intention of becoming a church organist. I had not even thought about it. The closest I came to even thinking about it was during a conversation I had with Scott Auchinleck; music director of both Clen Cairn United Church and the Kanata Choral Society. Scott did a music degree at Bishops University where he became an accomplished organist and one thing that stuck with me during our conversation was, “One great thing about being an organist, you’re always going to find work. It might not pay very well…”

Quite frankly, how many musicians can say that they have an easily employable job skill? I guess all and none. One can always find places to play and then open the guitar case but to actually have a guaranteed weekly salary is pretty rare.

Fast forward to last week when I attended a wedding with some friends from my wife’s office. It was mentioned that once again, Trinity St Andrews Church in Renfrew was looking for an accompanist. They had been able to fill in the position for nearly a year with a very talented young woman who was trying to decide where and what to take in university. She’s a lovely player and singer as well, (also plays the drums!) but the church knew that it would only be temporary but were willing to deal with it. However, she is starting a new program this month and the position was open again.

So I will sidetrack here to give a brief overview of my keyboard skills. I have grade 3 piano from lessons taken as a kid. That’s about it. I can read musical notation, I know the basics of hand position and what the keys do and the pedals on a piano but that’s about it formally. However, I have played all my life. I have a pretty good ear and can pick up pop songs pretty quickly. From playing this way and from playing a lot of guitar I have a pretty good knowledge of chords and basic harmonic patterns so can kind of fake my way through many genres on both keyboard and guitar. However, being presented with a page of unknown music, I will struggle to make it musical right away. Though if given a melody line and the chord pattern I can invent an accompaniment that will sound passable.

In recent years I have tried to improve my reading by playing some different types of pieces. My personal favourite piano musics are pretty much anything by Bach especially Fugues and I have always loved Scott Joplin. I was fortunate to finally get a copy of the score of his piece “Solace” which I believe features at the end of the movie “The Sting”. It’s a really beautiful piece. This type of playing really taxes my limited reading skills as the left hand bounces around but is critical to the rhythm of the tune.

So after the wedding conversation I began to wonder whether this could work out. After all, the Arrogant Worms still get some work and it is generally on weekends so I would miss the Sunday service. Plus, I have no knowledge at all about how to play the organ. Plus, I don’t read music very well. Sounds like I’m walking back to the dugout after three mighty cuts. However, what I do have going in a positive sense is that I can read music a bit, I have a basic familiarity with hymns from my youth, and I am very comfortable with accompanying singers of all levels. I’m usually pretty sensitive to where the vocalists want to go and can try to lead them. As well, I do play a variety of other instruments and am not intimidated by an audience.

So after a chat with the minister and an interview and audition with the committee and the music director I was offered the job. I start in 90 minutes. The first service I will perform is a communion which has twice the amount of playing as a regular service. I think I’m comfortable with about two thirds of the stuff. The rest, well, we shall see.

So I though this might be an interesting method to track my journey. I fully intend to learn to play the organ and to do the best I can with the position. I suspect there will be some bumps along the way. The challenge for today is really to make it seem like I know what I’m doing, even if I make some musical mistakes. I’ll let you know.