Mar. 28, 2018

Hymns, Part IX

(con't from Part VIII)
At times anyone can get a little dumbfounded about what to do (photo).
Many years ago, very early in the experience of this church organist, when he was playing for a worship service one Sunday morning during the Advent season, a young nun in the front row who taught music in the nearby elementary school unexpectedly turned around during the opening hymn and began waving her hands to direct the congregation at a tempo much faster than it should be taken.
The organ, of course, must lead, but she evidently felt the tempo should be faster, which wasn't the case at all; the organ wasn't dragging and neither was the congregation; she seemed not to know that the congregation is never conducted during a worship service because it distracts the worshipers from their devotions.
She was literally hauling the congregation by the scruff of the neck from line to line of the hymn with her arm waving without giving them any time to take a breath.
The fact that the tempo of hymns needs to be nuanced in the service, never rushed, that singers need a split of a second between phrases to breathe, none of that seemed to register or even matter to her.
When she failed to return this organist's phone calls (why he never found out) he took the matter to the priest, who told him it was up to him to work things out with sister; the priest also added that HOW THIS ORGANIST WENT ABOUT DOING THAT WAS ALSO UP TO HIM.
If the pastor would have weighed in on it (which he had every right to do since supervision of the Mass is a pastor's responsibility) he could have talked with the good sister and explained to her that the organ under the control of the organist at Mass will do what it needs to do, that the organ MUST lead, and that, while her dedication to teaching and her work with the children in the school is admirable and much appreciated, there will be no more conducting the congregation during Mass as this tends to distract the faithful from their devotions.
If he had done nothing else but simply mention to this well meaning sister that a congregation at worship during the Mass should not be musically conducted by anyone under any circumstances it would have probably kept everything on track and prevented the derailment which was to happen the following week ...
The next time this organist found himself playing for a service was for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; the opening hymn was Adeste Fidelis in the key of Ab Major, 2 stanzas.
Sister took her place again in the front pew and, right on time, she turned around during the opening stanza and started waving her hands at a tempo that had some people out of breath and the rest of them 2 beats or more ahead of the organ.
This organist's thought was, it can't get any more messed up than this ... or ... can it? ... maybe it's time for a little demonstration.
Remembering what the priest had told him, the way this organist handled it was, he abruptly dropped the key of the hymn to F Major by transposition -- an unrelated key 3 half steps below -- for the 2nd stanza without a modulating interlude to get the congregation there -- something an organist should never ever, repeat never, do.
When this happened everyone stopped singing, of course, because their sense of tonal center had evaporated into thin air.
Sister was in shock and began waving her hands frantically to get the people to catch up, to no avail; it was a Silent Night for them right through the whole 2nd stanza.
Shame, shame on this organist for showing sister just how bad things can get messed up when everybody's trying to do their own thing.
This organist figured he was dead meat; somehow he made it to his car; sister never showed up at any organ Mass this organist played after that, for the next 2 years, and it just wasn't the same without her; things went fine.
So, while this seemed to solve the problem at the time, this kind of solution really can't, or maybe shouldn't, be recommended; it's too disrupting to the conduct of the service not to mention jarring to the nerves, and this organist figured there must be a better way to deal with things like this, better communication on the part of the organist maybe.
This begs a 2-part question: 1) how to get the pastor more involved in what happens musically when there's an obvious problem with the hymn singing that begs to be solved, and 2) how to deal with well meaning but interfering micro-managers who won't let the organist do his/her job.
Fighting fire with more fire like this carries its own dangers (it can get the organist bottled up and choking to death if they're not careful), but in this situation a couple of things can be suggested:
One option would be to just play louder; this carries the risk however, when the instrument is of substantial size, of swamping everything which could lead to an official reprimand, if not dismissal; when the instrument is very small this may not even be possible, as there may be no more stops left to draw that could enter into combination.
Everything in organ playing is balance, and that would include giving the congregation enough organ to provide ample support for singing ... not too little, not too much [See blog, Balance in Organ Playing, Parts I-III].
Another possibility would be to rehearse the congregation for about 10 minutes before the service in each of the hymns to be sung, one stanza only, from downstairs if need be, which will be a reminder to everyone present that the organ, as worked by the organist, is to lead the singing and the congregation should take its cue from it.
The fact that the pastor may not wish to be directly involved in matters like this is understandable; it's human to want to avoid conflict which, when that conflict continues, is not good, but it's not always bad in the sense that it leaves organists free to employ their own creativity in finding ways to resolve it, should it occur.
And, we need to understand and be patient with those clergy and religious who are involved with teaching the early grades in parochial school, who are in the habit of exercising control of the group to have rule in their classroom when trying to work with shorter attention spans; children typically are in more of a hurry to do everything, and when we're used to working with them we need to remember to shift to a lower gear with adults, especially in a worship service so that the praise they offer in sacred song can involve each and every one of them, proceed with clarity, and remain meaningful.