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First-time Hymn Players Survival Guide.


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#1 stopperman

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 15:11

Hello everyone, I'm new to the forum and perhaps a few words of self-introduction might be allowed. I am Chris , just over 60 years of age, and located a few miles southwest of Durham City. I am the organist for two churches, with occasional duties at two more. I have just retired as a carpenter and joiner.

I have been reading the posts on this forum with great enjoyment, (and recognise a name or two from other groups to which I belong). I suspect, from the tone and content of many of the posts here though , that the population of Viva Organ is generally rather younger than this old fogey, so I will try not to be too embarrassing, or to begin any sentence with "when I started out, things were very different........" Well, they were, so there! :-))

I am inspired to attempt the stuff which follows below, through the truly excellent work done by teigr in his "organ for beginners" posts a short while ago, (and which, I understand are to be continued). So here goes .........

Something I have picked up on various sites frequented by novice organists, is the extreme nervousness, often amounting to near-panic, experienced by them as they prepare to engage in hymn playing for the first time. I also read quite often of newcomers bemoaning the foul-ups they made, ( though I am sure the congregations were usually blissfully unaware).

There is this image of the 'typical' organist; fingers and feet flying around a console of five manuals, grabbing handsful of stop knobs 'on the fly' and with gigantic Bach-ish virtuosity sounding out majestically all around. There are great hymns issuing forth, effortless alternative harmonies, descants from a choir of fully trained and dedicated vocal musicians, and so on and so forth.

It's all a bit different from the nasty old 'box of whistles' and the empty choir stalls you're faced with for your first foray, isn't it?

"Do you think you could play for us next Sunday?" "We have absolutely no one else we can turn to",(really encouraging - being the last resort, isn't it?) "There's only five hymns and they are all well known, so you won't have any problems" "we heard you playing the piano, and it was so lovely that we know you will be able to manage" "And playing the organ is just the same as playing the piano isn't it?"

From this point onwards, it is your own silly fault ! You could have run away, pleaded insanity, threatened the enquirer with physical violence, explained that it was a player-piano and that you weren't touching it, and that you failed Grade 1 triangle only this very week. You could have explained that you were already booked on Sunday for bag-piper shooting in Caithness as part of your Social Responsibility Module. You could have asked why they needed an organist for a church that was a smoking ruin.. , or at least that will be one if they don't leave you alone.....

But no, gentle and generous soul that you are, you take the list of five hymns that you've never seen before in your life, put the book on the piano slide and go to work at learning them. Practising doesn't go well because you're worried about never having played the organ before, can't seem to get the church to give you access to the organ... " Oh just pop in a few minutes before the service, and you can try out the organ then" So, conscientiously, you get the dratted things into your fingers, get the melody lines at least partly into memory, and then having exhausted your whole list of friends getting someone to give you a lift to the church, you arrive perspiring, frightened and wishing you had taken the opportunity to have a wee earlier, having discovered that there's no toilet at the church.

[We've got a problem here which obtains wherever general guidance is offered - vis. Every organ is different, every stop, even with the same name is different, every church is different, every congregation is different, every clergyman/woman is (barking mad) different. Apart from that, everything is pretty much the same everywhere! Oh, and remember, it is the churchwarden who is in charge of EVERYTHING, although if the church warden is a man, it is his wife who is in charge..... and greatly to be feared.
So to get us under way, we will create a 'typical' set-up. insofar as it is typical to my experience at the lower end of the market, so to speak. We have a slightly failing parish church with a regular congregation of around thirty loyal souls. a rather battered old pipe organ of twelve speaking stops across two manuals and pedals, no choir, and an acoustic property to the building which prevents you from hearing clearly anything said into the sound system, (which was installed by Fred Flintstone).]

You kick your way through the swallow droppings in the porch, take three or four attempts to get the main door latch to operate, before it is opened from the inside by a sidesman/woman. This earnest soul says "Oh, are you the organist? I hope you are better than the one we had last week" Thus encouraged, you trip over the sisal matting, drop your music and everything else you are carrying, pick yourself up (and you just lost your last opportunity to escape, pleading sprained earlobe or something) and head off up the aisle to the organ. When you get there, you will find that although you can see the thing plainly enough, there appears to be no way of actually getting to the console. An exasperatedly sighing verger or somesuch comes up to show you how to "move this catch here in the back choirstall, slip the bolt across until it lines up with the third hole in the panel, and move the front of the church over a bit so you can get in.

DON'T PUT YOUR MUSIC CASE ON THE FLOOR ! You will be sitting about a foot higher off the floor than you are used to when playing the piano. And, once seated on the organ bench, there is no contortion you can devise which will enable you to reach your case. Actually, it doesn't really matter, because the little shove you give it to move it along the bench in front of you, will see it perceptibly gather speed, and fly off the far end into a deep corner recess, that has not seen a human presence for half a century.

Finally, you are seated at the console. All that now stands between you and the few nano-seconds that remain of your hoped-for practise and familiarisation time, is the locked, glazed door thingy that prevents access to the manuals. More exasperated sighing from the verger as s/he explains that the key is where it has always been, in the vestry, and did you not think to collect it before you came up to the organ? " You switch the organ on while I go and get the key for you"

The logic of this instruction is that the ON switch is OUTSIDE the locked area, agreed? Well, quite plainly you can see the ON switch behind the glass doors, which are locked. You have not realised the clearly obvious fact that the switch you can see, was for the old Wadkins blower which was replaced in 1932 by the 'new' Discus blower, but left the old switch in situ, as to remove it would have left a hole in the casing. The verger on his/her return with the key, explains that you have to pick up the old frayed extension lead from the floor below you and plug it into the cracked and disintegrating Bakelite socket on the wall, and then switch on.
Heart in mouth, you push the thing into the wotsit and prod the switch with a pencil. The cacophony of creaks, knocks, bangs and squeals which now ensues, is your indication that the thing finally is alive, hissing malevolently and just daring you to touch it.

Anyone still with me at this point, may be harbouring the vague suspicion that I am exaggerating events just a tiny wee bit ? You would be right and wrong at the same time. All the above is pretty much a blow-by-blow account of the first time ( 50 years ago) I went to an unfamiliar church, the first time I was to play hymns ‘in anger’, deputizing for the aged organist who had played there for sixty years, who for the last twenty of those years had been virtually stone deaf ! I was in the choir at a neighbouring church at the time, and learning the piano. (G3) ((failed)). [my piano teacher said she had never before heard an examiner shout at a candidate to “get out!! And stop wasting my time”] The thing was, he had a great bushy moustache and there was a piece of diced carrot caught in it. Couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Anyway, here’s the thing. When you find yourself in a ‘first time situation’, you will almost certainly be surrounded by kindness, generosity and concern from all around. You will find that once it is realized that you are in-experienced, probably ‘thrown in at the deep end’, people can’t do enough to make you welcome and to reassure you. You’re the musical version of the fire brigade. Plus, the fact that you are there, means that nobody else there is able to do it. You are already ahead of the game.

So, let’s get down to it. The organ’s on, the desk light is on, the heater under the bench is on – (turn it off – sweat running from your popliteal spaces (look it up), can be quite distracting, and makes the back of your legs really itchy.

If you really are doing this for the very first time, and have not played the organ before, here are your ‘get out of jail free cards’.

(i) Leave the pedals alone. You don’t need them, and in this situation they are quite unnecessary. Just push down one of the pedal ‘keys’ and make sure there’s nothing sounding, and now forget pedals.

(ii) You will be leading the hymns from the Great Organ keyboard (henceforth called “manual”), so locate that now. On a one-manual instrument you will find it quite difficult to choose the wrong one. On a two-manual organ it’s the one nearest you. On a three-manual job it’s the middle one. [ there are four and five-manual instruments, but it is the teeniest bit unlikely that you will be deputizing at Liverpool Cathedral any time in the reasonably near future.]

(iii) Look at the stop knobs on your right for the group labelled ‘Great’ or ‘Great Organ’. Unless the instrument is particularly unusual, you will see a stop near the bottom of the group called [‘Open Diapason 8’.] Note where it is, but don’t draw it. Now look for the stop called ‘Principal 4’, or it might be ‘Octave 4’. Draw this and leave it drawn until you are ready to go home.(and No, you can't go home right now ! ) This is your 'lifeline' stop. If all else turns to bat droppings, you could, just about, lead hymns with this stop alone...........It would not be 'pretty'...............
(iv) The stop you've drawn, as you will have discovered, plays an octave above 'piano pitch'( You could refer back to teigr's posts for an explanation of this.) , and to be acceptable in most circumstances, it requires a bit of 'ground' to walk on. Look for [Stopped Diapason 8], (Ideal). If there isn't one of these, try looking for such as Waldflute 8, or Hohlflote 8, or Claribel Flute 8, maybe Rohrflote 8. Draw one of these, and together with the Principal/Octave 4, you will have a setting that can carry you through all five hymns with a reasonable credibility. [I make no apologies here to experienced organists, or to serious students of the instrument - this is not about you, nor would I presume to make it so.).

Play a short passage and you will find you are hearing a true organ sound - not exciting - not overpowering - not colourful. Just clear, non-scary and something you'll be able to live with until something better comes along. Remember, complaints from the congregation about the organ being too loud, outnumber comments about it being too quiet, by a factor that would be familiar to astronomers. The maxim that "less is more" might well have have been coined specifically for novice organists.( and a goodly few more experienced..... yes alright, and including me, truth be told).

So, how are we going to lead a bunch of hymns with two ranks of pipes, shaky hands and a spreading pool of perspiration?
I think you'll agree that this post is already quite long enough as it is, so we'll continue in the next one which is already in train and will be posted tomorrow evening. [d.v.]

kindest regards,
Chris B.





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#2 Oddball

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 17:17

I look forward to it!

Great reading. I've dabbled a bit in Organ, but no-one's asked me to stand in. I think I definitely WOULD try to run away if they did...! smile.gif
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#3 Dulciana

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 19:06

I haven't enjoyed a post so much for a long time! laugh.gif
As they say, the best humour is well cemented in truth!
Looking forward to tomorrow's instalment.
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#4 Rosemary7391

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 19:34

biggrin.gif love it!! I've only played an organ once, but I'd love to play again - though perhaps not playing hymns....
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#5 maggiemay

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 19:45

Great stuff Stopperman, and welcome to the forums !
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#6 Teigr

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 20:24

Welcome to the forum!

Love your first post. :-)
Looking forward to next installment...

I'm VERY lucky, in that I've missed the "thown in at the deep end" experience that happens to most people. My first "go" at playing a hymn for a service was under the supervision of a real organist, who stood by the bench and acted as registrant, so all I had to do was keep playing (though I figured that if I got into a catastrophic muddle somewhere along the way he was close enough and alert enough that he could just intervene and take over, though thankfully it didn't come to that).
My next service included playing a hymn 'unsupervised' - real organist was going to go and sing in the choir for the Communion hymn as there was no bass that day, so he gave me specific instructions about tempo and about what registration to use for each verse. It was absolutely terrifying, knowing that I was the only person at the console and that there was no 'safety net'.

Some people might think that hymns are less scary than playing solos. After all, with a congregation singing along (and, if you're lucky, a choir too), you're less exposed, right? Wrong. The congregation probably have some concept of how the hymns are supposed to sound - chances are they don't know your voluntaries. And you have to play hymns at a speed that people can sing them, and you can't slow up when you hit a tricky bit and you can't just meander off into a little improvisation until you get back on track if you get lost or make a mistake. Voluntaries are a piece of cake compared to hymns! Plus you get to choose your voluntaries (well, normally you do - for my first service the real organist told me which one to learn), whereas hymns you just have to play what you're given.

QUOTE

When you get there, you will find that although you can see the thing plainly enough, there appears to be no way of actually getting to the console. An exasperatedly sighing verger or somesuch comes up to show you how to "move this catch here in the back choirstall, slip the bolt across until it lines up with the third hole in the panel, and move the front of the church over a bit so you can get in.


*grin* So true!
Is it bad to admit that at one church, I climb over the back of the choir stalls? ;-)

QUOTE

You will be sitting about a foot higher off the floor than you are used to when playing the piano. And, once seated on the organ bench, there is no contortion you can devise which will enable you to reach your case

If you're sufficiently young, skinny and flexible you /can/ get stuff off the floor still, but you'll look VERY silly in the process. Where you really /can't/ get stuff from is the floor under the pedals. If you drop your pencil into the pedalboard, just forget about it. Don't borrow two pencils from the choir's pencil jar, lie on your tummy along the bench, stick you head and arms under the console and try to pick it out from between the pedals using the other two. It won't work and people watching will snigger, plus you'll probably hit your head on the underside of the console on your way back up, which will make them laugh.

T.


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#7 maggiemay

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 21:49

*grin* So true!
Is it bad to admit that at one church, I climb over the back of the choir stalls? ;-)


at the church where I had my first organ lessons, that was, in fact, the only possible way in.
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#8 BerkshireMum

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 22:09

QUOTE(stopperman @ Oct 25 2007, 04:11 PM) View Post

Remember, complaints from the congregation about the organ being too loud, outnumber comments about it being too quiet, by a factor that would be familiar to astronomers. The maxim that "less is more" might well have have been coined specifically for novice organists.( and a goodly few more experienced..... yes alright, and including me, truth be told).

Chris, I have so enjoyed reading your post. I was first asked to play our church organ about five years ago and was absolutely terrified. I spent hours practising on it before the first service, and didn't know which stops to use at all. What saved me were the presets, which at least gave a range of volumes so that I could play more loudly for the big hymns and more quietly for the thoughtful ones.

The only part of your post I take issue with is the bit I've quoted. Ours is a Methodist church, so perhaps folk like to sing out more, but the first three times I played people complained that it wasn't loud enough in the hymns. I finally twigged that organs sound much louder when there is no-one but you in the building, and that it's generally good to play one level up from where you think.

Looking forward to the next instalment! smile.gif
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#9 barry-clari

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 22:17

That was a fascinating and enjoyable read! smile.gif smile.gif
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#10 Teigr

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Posted 25 October 2007 - 22:41

QUOTE(BerkshireMum @ Oct 25 2007, 11:09 PM) View Post

What saved me were the presets, which at least gave a range of volumes so that I could play more loudly for the big hymns and more quietly for the thoughtful ones.


My "usual" organ has some helpful presets on the thumb pistons. My first adventures in making changes while actually playing were with the swell pistons while playing on the great (with the swell coupled, so it wasn't a pointless exercise). Can now manage piston changes (on either) at the end of a line, and manual or drawstop changes between verses. Manual or drawstop changes within a verse are still a bit dicey, so I wouldn't try them during a service yet. If I'm on the swell or have them coupled, I can also get a bit of variety during a verse just by using the swell pedal (for a manuals-only rendition - I don't think I'd have the confidence to try that while playing pedals).

The organ in my village church doesn't have any thumb pistons (on either manual) and the drawstops are on the jambs (my usual organ has them just above the swell manual, so it's easier to access them there), so I'm kinda stumped as to how to effect any sort of variety within a hymn there (at least, in a reasonably safe manner). Even manual changes are awkward on that one because I find the Great much stiffer than the Swell, so I would prefer to play a hymn solely on the Swell.
Havn't played the organ in a service there yet, but it's only a matter of time...

QUOTE

I finally twigged that organs sound much louder when there is no-one but you in the building, and that it's generally good to play one level up from where you think.


Agreed. Though it also depends on your level of wussiness. I have to play /several/ levels up from where I think, cos I'm a snivelling coward and am scared that if I pull out any more stops there's a real risk that the congregation might actually be able to hear me.
A normal pre-service run-through starts with me playing through stuff very very quietly until the organist arrives. Then he gets me to pull out what I think I should use. Then he pulls out several more stops and gets me to play. I manage one chord and stop dead in my tracks because I'm so startled by how much noise I'm making. He assures me that that's what I'll need when the choir and congregation are there, so I give it another try.
Use the same settings in the service and it doesn't sound nearly as loud then, with a church full of people. (Which is good, cos I don't think that coming to an abrupt halt after one chord would go down too well during the service...)

T.
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#11 Rosemary7391

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Posted 26 October 2007 - 08:20

QUOTE(maggiemay @ Oct 25 2007, 10:49 PM) View Post

*grin* So true!
Is it bad to admit that at one church, I climb over the back of the choir stalls? ;-)


at the church where I had my first organ lessons, that was, in fact, the only possible way in.


Is my Church the only one which you can just walk right up to the organ console and sit on the bench? Although you do still have to find the key for the manual cover.
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#12 Deborah

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Posted 26 October 2007 - 08:32

QUOTE(Rosemary7391 @ Oct 26 2007, 09:20 AM) View Post

Is my Church the only one which you can just walk right up to the organ console and sit on the bench? Although you do still have to find the key for the manual cover.

No, although at mine you do need a small set of steps (or maybe a springboard) to get up to the bench from ground level.

So true about the manuals being kept behind glass doors, although this is probably a good thing rolleyes.gif ph34r.gif
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#13 BerkshireMum

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Posted 26 October 2007 - 08:56

QUOTE(Rosemary7391 @ Oct 26 2007, 09:20 AM) View Post

Is my Church the only one which you can just walk right up to the organ console and sit on the bench? Although you do still have to find the key for the manual cover.

My church organ is exactly like this, but that's because in the '60s the console was moved from under the organ to a position much further back, to enable the then organist/choirmaster to direct the choir whilst playing the organ. I know ours used to have glass doors before that, as many still do.
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#14 Teigr

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Posted 26 October 2007 - 09:23

QUOTE(Rosemary7391 @ Oct 26 2007, 09:20 AM) View Post

Is my Church the only one which you can just walk right up to the organ console and sit on the bench? Although you do still have to find the key for the manual cover.


Nope.

My usual organ:
Need a key to the vestry (church itself unlocked during the day, but connecting door locked from the other side - have own key to the external vestry door, which is my route in whether the church is open or not). Flip the organ switch in the vestry and get the console key off the hook nearby. Unlock connecting door (key is attached to it). Console is on a dias behind the dec choir stalls and there's a step at each side. Scramble up and onto bench, unlock console and fold the cover back to create music desk. Press "on" button.
Anglepoise lamp comes on when you flip the vestry switch.
Bench can be moved backwards and fowards a short distance. I used to move it in a bit, but decided I needed to get used to taking things as they come as sometimes you find yourself someplace where you can't adjust the bench at all.

Organ where I have some lessons and some practice time:
Need door code (which I have). No key to rememebr to take with me and no need to play "hunt the keyholder". Once inside, just need to open the console cover (it's not locked and it kinda slides up), move the music desk into place and turn a key on the console. If darkish, need to turn on the anglepoise lamp.
Console is at floor level and not tucked away behind anything.
Getting out again can be interesting cos I don't know where any light switches are, so I put everything else back and pack my stuff up before turning off the anglepoise then feel my way carefully back out to and along the hallway. Havn't yet arrived there in the dark.
Bench easy to move in and out, as much as you like.

Other organ where I have lessons:
The offical route to the console (which is behind the can choir stalls) is a major detour through the vestry and involves one or more keys and a narrow doorway. Then there's another key to unlock the wooden doors across the front of the console. While my teacher goes that way, I take my boots off, dump my stuff on the back row of the choir stalls, sort out my sheet music and climb over the back of the rear stall.
Church is always open when I go there, organ is always locked.
I think there's a switch to flip somewhere in the vestry, but my teacher always turns the beastie on anyway.
Bench is balanced on some old books. Can be moved in and out a little, but it's tricky.

Organ at the village church:
Need to arrive in one of the 2 hour slots (3-4 a week) when the church is open, or during the 2 hours on a weekday morning when the church office is open (and borrow a key from there), or play "hunt the keyholder". Console is at floor level behind the can stalls, but no climbing necessary.
Have to squeeze past one end of the bench and stick arm right behind a pillar to flip a switch on the wall. Open up the glazed doors on the console (not locked, but several fiddly little bolt things to undo), press the discus on button. Desk light comes on when you flip the wall switch.
Bench has two chunks of 2'x2' that you can stick under the ends if you want to adjust the height. Can slide it in and out a very little bit.

T.


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#15 mwl1

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Posted 26 October 2007 - 11:57

None of the organs I play are kept locked. I was most surprised upon finding that most people do lock their organs. I suppose it makes sense.

One of the organs I play requires you to climb up a ladder and through the organ to get to the console. It's on a gallery....

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