Oct. 22, 2018

Fraternal Organ Playing, Part XII

(con't from Part XI)
Generally an organist must wait for cues to begin playing, and this is especially true when serving Masonic organizations.
This presents a number of challenges, not the least of which is that the Mason on the organ bench must know the ceremony or work at hand well enough to know 1) when to expect to play, 2) for how long, 3) what has to be performed (choral accompaniments, incidental music, repertoire, etc.), 4) what type of mood, if any, the music is expected to portray, and 5) how much advance preparation and practice will be needed, among other things.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
Let's be clear: it's no accident, ever, when the music sounds well; it's the result of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work, plain and simple.
Those listeners who think that an organist can just sit down to a colossal affair like this (photo), turn it on, and by some mysterious process a stream of inspired sound will emerge from the instrument automatically simply because the bench is being occupied -- that all a Masonic musician has to do is simply show up at the event, sit on the bench, have a good time, and go home without doing any of the heavy lifting -- that a brother with a modicum of talent can "play it in his sleep" and doesn't need as much preparation as he's claiming -- those who think such things are laboring under a very serious misconception.
Those who have themselves convinced that there's no real work involved with the musician's job should try doing it for just one year.
Everyone in the audience may have had a full, restful night's sleep the night before, but they don't always stop and think about what could be going through the mind of the musician whose instrument must lead the opening and closing Ode, perform the incidental music, or accompany the choir -- that the excitement of the next day's work may have had that musician unable to fall asleep easily or maybe waking up every hour through the night knowing that the alarm clock will ring very early the next day so he can get himself ready to leave the house in the dark to get there on time.
No one usually considers that this same brother may be trying to perform the music for us, complicated music at that, on 3 hours sleep.
They also don't stop and think that performing at the organ before an audience at an important annual or semi-annual event is very much like the Olympic games; the musician doing the performing may have practiced for months, even years, to get that song, that hymn, that piece of music just right, and the moment that musician has to produce, they have one shot at it.
They're like an Olympic figure skater doing a triple axel under the steady gaze of a curious public and a panel of judges; if the skater manages to get it right this one time in their life, they've succeeded -- it all boils down to what they do in that one moment in time ... only in the case of organists their listeners demand that they earn their wings each and every day, with every bar of music played.
Any battle that Masonic organist currently may be having with a serious health problem, the struggle they may be having with the side effects of medication, their family responsibilities, lack of sleep, distractions, interruptions, hardships -- none of that matters an inkling to an audience.
The listener typically doesn't have a clue about what it takes, what that musician had to sacrifice to get himself to this point, and doesn't care.
But that musician cares.
Listeners don't always stop and think that the same 70 year old sleep-deprived organist whom they heard make some mistakes in their playing today, while fighting to maintain concentration waiting for some wretched cue, may have practiced 3 hours on an organ bench every day for the last 2 weeks getting ready for this meeting while a great many other seniors in the audience during this same time frame were at home watching television, taking a nap, chasing a golf ball, sipping ice tea from their folding chair, playing with their grandchildren, or working their hand held device.
It often happens that the Masonic organist staring at the score sitting on the rack is made to wait a time, more or less prolonged, before he's given the cue to begin playing.
He readies himself at these times by bringing his concentration into tight focus; he begins thinking about the mood of the piece, its structure, tempo, registration, and a hundred other things while he keeps his eyes glued to the first page, ready to charge out of the chute at any second.
If then he's forced to wait too many minutes in this condition, maybe with his hands and feet poised above the keys with nothing to do just yet, something begins to happen: he tends to let up, recoil a little, and his concentration begins to wane a bit.
Then, if all of a sudden, he's given the cue to play, the music must sound immediately with no time to reset himself to begin playing; the train winds up leaving the station without him being fully ready to take off, and playing mistakes are the result.
Practice, unfortunately, doesn't seem to help with this; he still messes up even when the song or hymn is well known to him and he can play it by heart (provided he has a few moments to where he can start it when he's ready).
This is a tricky business, and there may be no real solution for it except to know that it can happen and try to do our best to either prevent it or recover quickly from it.
Here's what we say to ourselves, if and when it does happen: Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow, which will probably be a better day than today; it's better to be performing in public when the heat is on and messing up, taking our licks, learning from it, and moving on, than to be playing at home with no one else ever listening.
In a world bulging with complaining, where compliments are not plentiful, we organists simply go about our business no matter what comes; we strive for excellence and do the best we can, knowing that it's a waste of time to pursue perfection, for no matter how many times we practice a work, a song, a hymn, each time we play it there will be a difference.
The number of people -- men, women, and children -- who refuse even to try to learn something new unless they can do it perfectly are legion; they think that every attempt they make to produce something has to be the next Michelangelo masterpiece.
This is destructive to all legitimate creative activity and anathema to any practitioner of the creative arts; perfection and the folly of its pursuit is the true art-killer.
It is certain that there will be times when a Masonic organist is less than happy about the job he did because of the uncertainty of cues, not knowing exactly how long he needs to play, or for declining health, not feeling well that day, or other reasons; this is inevitable and to be expected.
The more conscientious he is, the more disappointment he may feel from his own perspective upon returning home that day because he knows in his heart that he can play far better than what people heard.
It happens to all of us ... there are no exceptions.
What he doesn't always consider is that the idea that the organist didn't do a good job wasn't universally felt from the floor, officers, and candidates who were genuinely appreciative of hearing the instrument sound under his hands and feet.
Tomorrow will be another day, a better day.
As for "the complainers" -- we speak here only of that very small, theoretical group of hard to please, perpetually dissatisfied, self-centered, self-appointed semi-afficionados who, if ever present, have nothing constructive to offer and only know how to talk about their annoyances -- such people, if offered the organist's job, couldn't do it and they know it.
Faced with the same set of tasks they would know how to do just one thing, and one thing only -- run and hide.