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Are organists the most ill-treated musicians?


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#1 Vox Humana

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 01:35

Rant alert (again!)

I have no one but myself to blame for my current predicament, so I'm not asking for any sympathy, but I have been seriously wondering about this question. 

 

Firstly, I fully accept that there are some top organists' jobs with high-flying organists in them, all employed on a properly professional basis. I'm sure they have their problems, but I'm not really concerned with them. I am wondering mainly about your average professional and semi-professional organist trying to scrape an income at a more humble level and how they might compare with other musicians of similar standing.

 

As far as teaching goes, I can't say a great deal as I only do a miniscule amount and I know I have it easy.  My impression, however, is that organists are in much the same boat as any other instrumental teacher, sharing similar rewards and frustrations - but that, I suspect, is where any similarity ends.

 

If you're an organist you may have a church job.  If you are exceptionally lucky it will be somewhere where music is still wanted, valued and appreciated. However, the overwhelming chances are that all your congregation really wants is a human karaoke machine. They're not really interested in music. You could be Carlo Curley reincarnated and still no one will bother to listen to your voluntaries. While people are taking communion you may treat your hushed audience to some carefully chosen organ repertoire, but, actually, most people would much rather you just played hymn tunes for them to hum piously. You will be lucky if you are paid a realistic fee for your skills; indeed, some churches (the free churches especially) will expect you to donate your expertise as a freewill offering. Weddings and funerals may be better remunerated (though a frankly derisory sum of just £20 has recently been cited in another thread), but mention copyright surcharges and you will probably be thought uppity. If a neighbouring church asks you to give a recital, don't expect to be offered a fee.

 

Since quitting my last church 18 months ago I have found myself in increasing demand as an accompanist for local chamber and community choirs. This might sound good, but actually it's simply because there's no one else stupid enough to do it. What's the problem? Well, basically it's the things you are required to play. If you ever get given something with an original, genuine organ accompaniment count yourself blessed. Most of the time you are substituting for an orchestra, playing from a part that is, at best, arranged for piano (left hand in octaves, right hand somewhere off the top of the keyboard) or, at worst, a literal reduction of the orchestral parts without any thought for performance practicalities at all.  Recently I have noticed that the programmes are becoming progressively more problematic. My last concert featured Brucker's E minor mass. Its original wind band accompaniment sounds simple enough on recordings, but the interweaving counterpoint reduces to a keyboard part of sometimes quite horrid intricacy and the endlessly modulating chromaticism doesn't help either: the Duruflé Requiem was, literally, a lot less trouble. My next gig is a complete Messiah (Watkins Shaw edition). What on earth possessed me to agree to this one? The keyboard part, in which the orchestral parts are combined with a continuo realisation, isn't even playable by two hands much of the time.  As always, I have to re-arrange the score as I play and try to commit my solutions to memory. For a year now my whole musical life has been almost totally dedicated to learning accompaniments - all for a paltry remuneration which, although the choirs concerned would no doubt call it handsome, actually amounts to slave labour for the hours involved. I wonder what a proper professional organist would charge for this sort of work and, indeed, whether a real professional would waste his time on such things. Maybe my musicianship is at fault for not being able to sight-read these things note-perfectly and take them in my stride, but I'm not sure I would believe anyone who claimed that Messiah is easy to play on a keyboard at modern speeds. 

 

Having seen the way things are going I resolved to decline any further gigs where there was likely to be a lot of work involved. That hasn't worked either. Two concerts I have accepted for 2015 have already had their programmes changed! Fortunately the substituted pieces are all within my repertoire, so I'm not pulling out - but it does seem that, once you are booked, you are regarded as fair game for anything.

 

Go on: tell me other instrumentalists have it worse.


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#2 Vox Humana

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 04:58

It occurs to me that Samuel Wesley, who, be it remembered, was also an organist, might have agreed, at least in his more depressive states. He once described music as "a trivial & a degrading Business to any Man of Spirit or of any Abilities to employ himself more usefully."  At another time he wrote, "My Trade is Music, I confess; & would to Heaven it had only been destined for mine Amusement, which would certainly have been the case, had I availed myself of the Advantages which were offered me in Juvenescence, of rendering myself eligible for any one of the learned Professions, but it was (it seems) otherwise ordained, & I was to attend only to the Cultivation of one Talent, which unluckily cost me no Trouble to do: had there been any up-Hill Work for me in Music, I should soon enough have sacrificed it altogether."


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#3 Latin pianist

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 06:16

I find the original post quite sad. In my gloomy moments, I do feel unappreciated, especially when I've played for a whole wedding, and at the end it's the soloist for the signing of the register that everyone dashes up to congratulate, and I creep out of the church alone.But most of the time I feel privileged to be able to earn money doing something I enjoy.Some of the churches I play at use a karaoke machine when I'm not there, and they hate it. They're delighted when I play for the services. These are small rural churches. Maybe you should offer to play at some in your area. When I think about it, I seldom get thanked at my own church, though I do know they appreciate the music, but I get a huge fuss made of me at these country churches. A real boost to ego!
I play for a choir, and used to play for a choral society, and I know what you mean about arrangements, but I used to enjoy the challenge of the arrangements at the choral society. Now I just do the choir, and sometimes find the accompaniments too simple, but I love watching the way the conductress trains the singers.
As for other instruments, I would imagine that it might be easier to find work with piano or organ than other instruments. Also, I bet some orchestral parts are really boring. There's a downside to all jobs.
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#4 Swell Box

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 08:23

If you're an organist you may have a church job.  If you are exceptionally lucky it will be somewhere where music is still wanted, valued and appreciated. However, the overwhelming chances are that all your congregation really wants is a human karaoke machine. They're not really interested in music. You could be Carlo Curley reincarnated and still no one will bother to listen to your voluntaries. While people are taking communion you may treat your hushed audience to some carefully chosen organ repertoire, but, actually, most people would much rather you just played hymn tunes for them to hum piously.


As we have said here many times before, congregations do, in the main, enjoy and value good music during services. It is the Clerics and Readers who seem to prefer karaoke machines; human or otherwise.

Communion voluntaries and anthems seem to have gone out of fashion in many places, making way for banal ditties from Mission Praise at what should be a most sacred time; although I would concede that they probably do help to stop the congregation from chattering.

Similarly, I know that well chosen and played preludes and postludes are still valued by many, but all too often it is a case of the congregation Vs. the organ unless something loud is played. In this regard I suppose we have to accept that the elderly people who make up the bulk of congregations nowadays like to please themselves, and may also be hard of hearing! It could also be that a Sunday morning service is their only social contact during the week; other than perhaps a chin wag at the Doctor's surgery. :)

SB
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#5 Stephen Barber

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 08:50

Rant alert (again!)

 

 

Since quitting my last church 18 months ago I have found myself in increasing demand as an accompanist for local chamber and community choirs. This might sound good, but actually it's simply because there's no one else stupid enough to do it. What's the problem? Well, basically it's the things you are required to play. If you ever get given something with an original, genuine organ accompaniment count yourself blessed. Most of the time you are substituting for an orchestra, playing from a part that is, at best, arranged for piano (left hand in octaves, right hand somewhere off the top of the keyboard) or, at worst, a literal reduction of the orchestral parts without any thought for performance practicalities at all.  Recently I have noticed that the programmes are becoming progressively more problematic. My last concert featured Brucker's E minor mass. Its original wind band accompaniment sounds simple enough on recordings, but the interweaving counterpoint reduces to a keyboard part of sometimes quite horrid intricacy and the endlessly modulating chromaticism doesn't help either: the Duruflé Requiem was, literally, a lot less trouble. My next gig is a complete Messiah (Watkins Shaw edition). What on earth possessed me to agree to this one? The keyboard part, in which the orchestral parts are combined with a continuo realisation, isn't even playable by two hands much of the time.  As always, I have to re-arrange the score as I play and try to commit my solutions to memory. For a year now my whole musical life has been almost totally dedicated to learning accompaniments - all for a paltry remuneration which, although the choirs concerned would no doubt call it handsome, actually amounts to slave labour for the hours involved. I wonder what a proper professional organist would charge for this sort of work and, indeed, whether a real professional would waste his time on such things. Maybe my musicianship is at fault for not being able to sight-read these things note-perfectly and take them in my stride, but I'm not sure I would believe anyone who claimed that Messiah is easy to play on a keyboard at modern speeds. 

I hate trying to play orchestral scores - the good thing, though, is that you can play whatever you like and leave out awkward bits. (I have obviously never been as meticulous as you!) I have never played the Duruflé and certainly never will now - don't think I could, anyway. But surely you must have played Messiah many times?


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#6 rainworthgord

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 08:51

 


If you're an organist you may have a church job.  If you are exceptionally lucky it will be somewhere where music is still wanted, valued and appreciated. However, the overwhelming chances are that all your congregation really wants is a human karaoke machine. They're not really interested in music. You could be Carlo Curley reincarnated and still no one will bother to listen to your voluntaries. While people are taking communion you may treat your hushed audience to some carefully chosen organ repertoire, but, actually, most people would much rather you just played hymn tunes for them to hum piously.

As we have said here many times before, congregations do, in the main, enjoy and value good music during services. It is the Clerics and Readers who seem to prefer karaoke machines; human or otherwise.

Communion voluntaries seem to have gone out of fashion in many places, making way for banal ditties from Mission Praise at what should be a most sacred time; although I would concede that they probably do help to stop the congregation from chattering.

Similarly, I know that well chosen and played preludes and postludes are still valued by many, but all too often it is a case of the congregation Vs. the organ unless something loud is played. In this regard I suppose we have to accept that the elderly people who make up the bulk of congregations nowadays like to please themselves, and may also be hard of hearing! It could also be that a Sunday morning service is their only social contact during the week; other than perhaps a chin wag at the Doctor's surgery. :)

SB

 

It's not just organists who suffer from the elderly hard of hearing. I recall when we had an elderly couple in our Evensong congregation many years ago, in the 1970s at the time when Evensong congregations were falling away rapidly. On more than one occasion during the sermon an audible 'I don't think much to his sermon tonight' could be heard - it even had the vicar in stitches.

My current vicar, although from an evangelical music-group background, is very good at ensuring that my opening voluntaries are listened to quietly, but she needs to be, because congregations nowadays don't treat coming into God's presence in his house with any sense of awe and wonder. So she will occasionally print on the weekly notice sheet, something along the lines of 'Once you have entered the church please remain silent and allow the organ music to direct your thoughts towards the presence of God'. And if that doesn't work or the old bad habits creep back in, she'll remind them, ever so sweetly. I love her to bits (Christian love, that is!)


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#7 MDSS

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 09:03

I find the original post quite sad. In my gloomy moments, I do feel unappreciated, especially when I've played for a whole wedding, and at the end it's the soloist for the signing of the register that everyone dashes up to congratulate, and I creep out of the church alone.

 

Says it all!

 

I'm afraid my interest and love for the organ has been severely dented these last few years, due to endless harassment, under-appreciation and ridicule. I started a long time ago with such ambitions and hopes, but the reality is pretty gloomy for the many organists who give their time and skills to play for the standard churches across the country.

 

Being an organist is simply not a glamorous title in this day and age, and I refuse to waste any more time and money on an art I see slowly coming to an end. It just isn't worth the hassle.


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#8 Norway

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 09:30

I think that anyone doing something on a voluntary/ semi-voluntary/ or even paid basis as part of a culture runs the risk of being under valued by others who have never had to do whatever it is, because they quite often see it as fun/ something which is owed, (for some bizarre reason!) I can imagine a voluntary football coach experiencing the same problem (keeping humpteen youngsters in order in all weathers and giving up every Saturday can't be easy).  

 

Some people will continue to take and take, so the only thing that will change things is the overloaded people setting clear boundaries, and the other participants in the culture (particularly those in charge) realising and appreciating the efforts of the football coach/ band master/ organist/ tea brewer/ cleaner/ teacher. The latter is not very likely to happen because if people haven't actually done something themselves, they cannot fully appreciate the difficulties. So in the event of being undervalued, it will come down to individuals setting boundaries (not easy for kind hearted people who are lacking in self confidence).


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#9 Norway

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 10:35

Thanks TheMuso - I just need to follow my own advice now (fully fluent in dishing it out, less good at actually doing it!) :rolleyes:  

 

And to any organists/pianists feeling unappreciated, I love and value what you do, so please keep doing it! :wub:


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#10 Hedgehog

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 11:01

Being involved in church (and other) music on a voluntary basis I endorse much of what is said above - well done Norway for being concise about the overall picture.

 

However, there is an upside to this.  A couple of weeks ago, the regular musicians (us, and the "good" guitarist) were unable to provide music for church due to family commitments.  So a quite respectable musician was called upon at the last minute, so it was accepted that it would be a bit of a make-do situation.  The next week when it was our turn, the PP commented rather uncharacteristically that "it all went very well today" - so I'm just wondering what the previous Sunday's musical offering was like!!  Moral of the story - absence makes the heart grow fonder - or perhaps an occasional, unavoidable absence makes our efforts better appreciated. :)  


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#11 Norway

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 11:13

Perhaps the musician charged a fee/ was not very good! Definitely think that the occasional absence acts as a good reality check!


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#12 Vox Humana

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 11:18

I hate trying to play orchestral scores - the good thing, though, is that you can play whatever you like and leave out awkward bits. (I have obviously never been as meticulous as you!) I have never played the Duruflé and certainly never will now - don't think I could, anyway. But surely you must have played Messiah many times?

 

Oddly enough, no I haven't.  I have played continuo for it a few times in an orchestra and I always enjoy that tremendously (I have another booking for that next year), but I've never played the whole thing solo before. Bear in mind that music was never my day job and for some 25 years I was out of it altogether, keeping my head completely below the parapet. I gather that there is an OUP edition of Messiah "made playable" and I have a copy on the way to me. I'll crack it one way or another.

Despite my moan, I do actually enjoy working for choirs, which is why I continually end up getting myself into these fixes. One choir I do accompany on a regular, weekly basis and I find that very rewarding and fun.  The one thing I don't feel is unappreciated.  Even in the church job I know that my efforts were valued - it was just that there wasn't any actual interest in real music. As for weddings, I liked to think that people did actually appreciate my playing, even if they took it for granted. My beef is more about the high-handedness with which we organists are treated. Part of it is undoubtedly my long-held objection to the organ being regarded as a one-man band rather than an instrument in its own right, but that's a slightly different subject and many other players don't have a problem with that at all.


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#13 Vox Humana

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 11:30

I'm afraid my interest and love for the organ has been severely dented these last few years, due to endless harassment, under-appreciation and ridicule. I started a long time ago with such ambitions and hopes, but the reality is pretty gloomy for the many organists who give their time and skills to play for the standard churches across the country.

 

Being an organist is simply not a glamorous title in this day and age, and I refuse to waste any more time and money on an art I see slowly coming to an end. It just isn't worth the hassle.

 

 

I sympathise with you completely. The church today really is no place for a serious musician. A day or two ago I caught a clip on our local TV of the enthronement service for a new bishop. The cathedral choir were singing a Gumby song. 'Nuff said!  I do recommend concert work with secular choirs though - if you don't mind the fact that you'll rarely get to play anything actually written for the organ!


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#14 Barry Williams

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 11:45

 

I hate trying to play orchestral scores - the good thing, though, is that you can play whatever you like and leave out awkward bits. (I have obviously never been as meticulous as you!) I have never played the Duruflé and certainly never will now - don't think I could, anyway. But surely you must have played Messiah many times?

 

 I gather that there is an OUP edition of Messiah "made playable" and I have a copy on the way to me.

 

There is a three stave arrangment of 'The Messiah' accompaniment by Marmaduke Conway.  It works well on small instruments.  Likewise, the three stave accompaniments of 'the Creation' and 'Elijah' by Robert Munns are excellent, though of slightly lighter texture.  Many popular choral works are available in good three stave arrangements, including a number of Schubert Masses, Brahms' Requiem and Stainer's 'The Crucifixion'.  These are a great help to those of us who do not have instant arranging skills.


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#15 Vox Humana

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 12:47

Thank you, Barry. I will bear those in mind.


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