May. 18, 2016

Fraternal Organ Playing, Part III

(con't from Part II)
There's a quick guide we can offer for those who can play the piano or electronic keyboard and who have been asked to play for a fraternal meeting or ceremony for the first time.
The purpose of music in fraternal work is to add dignity, to provide a structure and atmosphere to the ceremony, and to help everyone take part by singing the words of Odes.
You might first want to get together some music from your youth; those marvelous simplified editions of Golden Hours and other selections that have popular tunes and hymns are ideal.
Go for something easy ... where you feel comfortable with the music.
Time each piece or hymn; see how long it takes you to play it, so that you can easily turn to a shorter or longer selection, when needed; write that duration down.
Alms collections and ballots, for example, typically take longer than a perambulation from one station to another on the floor; conducting the incoming sentinel or tyler to the door during installations in large venues might also take longer, etc.
You might find it better to choose an unknown tune or little known passage for this, something that the brethren won't notice, in case your rendition of, let's say, "The Sound of Music" is less convincing than that of Julie Andrews'.
When you're practicing the "Star Spangled Banner" don't forget to learn "O Canada" as well; there could come a time where you need to have the Canadian National Anthem in your hip pocket also.
A word of caution here (there are so many cautionaries in music):
The Star Spangled Banner is the most butchered piece of music in Western civilization; don't let it drag, don't use rubato, and keep the tempo fairly even; keep in mind that it isn't a lounge ballad to be jazzed up; it may have been the last thing many brave men and women heard in their mind just before they died in battle; it may have been the first thing they heard in their mind when they woke up from being severely wounded in combat; play it as you hear it performed every Memorial Day at the wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, i.e., with dignity and a full sound; practice it at home just like you're going to perform it in public, get it into your pores, but bear in mind that it isn't your property to mess with, nor is it anyone else's to mess with; it belongs to every American; the more we fiddle with it, the more we run the risk of robbing it of its dignity, disrespecting the flag to which the anthem refers, disrespecting every veteran who fought to defend what it stands for, disrespecting every citizen who's standing there, has their hat removed, and their hand over their heart, and disrespecting those present in uniform who have come to a military salute; if your rendition doesn't raise the hair on your arm when you play it [See blog, Musical Frisson], then you need to work it until it does.
You should also make it your business, gradually, to learn a medley of all 5 songs of the American armed services, in the correct order according to Defense Department protocol for public performance [i.e., Army Hymn, Marine's Hymn, Anchors Aweigh (Navy), Air Force Hymn, and Coast Guard Hymn (Semper Paratus), in that order], as there could come a time, at a moment's notice, when you're asked to musically honor all the veterans present.
You should also learn the so-called Navy Hymn (Eternal Father, Strong To Save).
A repertoire of 80-100 of the best known hymns from the hymn books, several processional marches, and some short written music (quiet versets, interludes, or passages from your favorite organ compositions) for incidental use [See blog, Incidental Music] would round out your necessary core of repertoire needed for this type of playing; all of this can be worked on, over time.
You should also not be afraid to improvise a short extension of the hymn at hand, in case you're needing to play an additional 30 seconds, let's say, and you're coming to the end of the hymn [See blog, Improvisation, Parts I-V]; if you're too scared to continue that extension in 4 parts, you can simplify things by reducing the voice lines down to a single line and see which of those lines can be used to start something new; you can even play the theme in octaves, for variety.
As for the organ at hand, try to experiment with the instrument when you're not surrounded by well wishers; find how to get the sound right.
Make a note of a loud setting suitable for processions and several more quiet settings suitable for background music.
Before the ceremony, if you can, play quietly to gain confidence with the instrument; this will also provide a contrast when things start.
For processions, choose music in 2/4 or 4/4 time, as music in waltz (3/4) time or jig (6/8) time might be a bit confusing for some brethren to march to.
Play boldly and with conviction as soon as the brethren are called to order; this sets the scene.
Remember the incoming procession goes on after the presiding officer (Worshipful Master) has reached his chair, so don't worry if the music isn't finished yet; keep going ... then repeat, but more quietly, if additional time is needed for the other officers to reach their stations; if the music doesn't end with a suitable cadence, then fade away.
As for the Opening and Closing Odes, immediately find your next piece of music.
The main problem with the Closing Ode is that some presiding officers ask for only the first verse, only the last verse, or maybe all the verses; make sure you hear that instruction.
Incidental music, also known as "wallpaper music," is the general background, master-of-all-work, "anything" music that sets the mood, creates the atmosphere, and covers perambulations and other non-speaking periods in a ceremony [See blog, Incidental Music]; you can make your own selection of easy-to-play incidental music; be quietly confident.
An important tip is to know when to shut up; try to keep your eye on the presiding officer's gavel, particularly remembering that if you're watching him through a mirror, he's going to do this with his left hand; if he gets near picking it up, diminish the volume and get ready to stop, but immediately turn to the next music and have it ready.
Also, select the next setting, so that you're loud when you want to arrest the attention of brethren and quiet when you're just setting the atmosphere for the next part of the ceremony.
After a few minutes of sitting idle on the bench, we have a tendency to recoil and relax; at these times we tend to lose our focus.
It may then startle us at some unexpected moment when the presiding officer wants the musician to lead the assembly in singing "Happy Birthday" to someone in the crowd or make some other kind of unexpected musical demand, and it becomes evident that we're half asleep.
We may then find ourselves having all of a couple of seconds to get the sound selected and begin playing.
It takes a little experience to be able to switch ourselves back on like this, to develop the fluency to bring on a musical offering at a moment's notice and arrive at a mid-point between ease and tension so rapidly; it's actually very athletic when we can develop the ability to do this smoothly [See Balance in Organ Playing, Parts I-III].
The best preparation for handling this type of situation is by never relaxing completely while we're on the bench, always maintaining some level of focus (even when we're tired), and by practicing (and memorizing) what we think we might never need and having it under our fingers whenever we're serving the organization.
The rest will come with experience.
(con't in Part IV)