“She makes it sound so easy,” I thought to myself, shrouded in the organ music that filled the nave of the church. Clenching my eyes shut a little tighter, I attempted to more intently contemplate my prayers, while the leather of the prayer kneeler furrowed beneath the weight of my short, chubby legs. But how could I? The music was much too alluring to focus on anything else; ironically, what was meant to help facilitate the meditations of my heart only served to captivate my attention. To little-boy Nello, who was just beginning to uncover what wonders music has to offer, the organ was an enigma. Its large pedalboard, separate rows of manuals (keyboards), and seemingly countless number of knobs and buttons left me scratching my head and wondering what sort of person could master what surely seemed like an instrument reserved for the musical elite. One morning after Mass, I finally mustered up the courage to approach the music director to find out what she had played earlier in the service. I sheepishly asked my question -- I was a self-conscious lad -- and expected to hear a long title in an indiscernible foreign language by one of the immortals of church music. But no such response was given. No, her answer was much simpler. “Oh, that?” she said coolly. “I improvised.”
It’s no secret that most jobs come with a set of trade secrets, and as I gradually grew into being a competent player, I learned the organist is no exception. Now, I can’t speak for every church musician’s particular handling of their craft, but I can attest to some of the norms that come with the territory. Let me tell you this: things are not always what they seem.
Let’s start with the most obvious facet: the music. I was always impressed with our organist’s ability to have new music to play every week before and after the service. I wondered how her repertoire could be so extensive with only a week’s time to work something up. Well, organists like to keep things green by recycling. If you put in hours of time perfecting something, you’d want to get the most mileage out of it, right? Now, it’s in bad form to play the same piece within a few weeks, but it’s downright sacrilege to play it two weeks in a row. By strategically recycling a core repertoire, however, I’m able to always have a standby set that is already under my fingers, allowing me time to work on something new. There are also plenty of books of simple hymn arrangements I can trot out whenever I’m in a pinch.
Speaking of being a pinch, there are plenty of uh-oh moments that aren’t accounted for mid-service. This was truer when I was starting out, but I occasionally get a call to play at a church whose order of service I’m not familiar with. When these moments of excruciating awkwardness happen (e.g. communion isn’t over yet and there are no more hymns listed in the bulletin or the offertory is taking longer than usual), you have to act quickly. Always being ready to improvise is a necessary skill to have. Oh, and if you miss a hymn, you’re probably out of a job.
Tempo. It’s the number one request I get from pastors and laypeople alike. Some prefer a specific speed, and it’s usually faster. They figure people are already pinching themselves to stay awake, so having brisk tempi might help the overall flow of the service. But whatever you do, be consistent. Would you like it if someone you were driving with went suddenly from 20 mph to 80? I didn’t think so. More often than not, people won’t be aware if something is a little faster or slower than usual as long as it’s steady throughout.
If you have any business to take care of, do it before the service. I’m speaking, of course, about when nature calls. One fear we organists have is being stranded in the bathroom when we should be playing the next part of the service. I’m serious, it’s a really terrifying thought. This is why it’s just better to take care of everything beforehand. If there is an emergency, the ideal time is the sermon. During these times, we are most thankful for the long-winded pastor.
On the subject of the sermon, this is usually the self-mandated break time for organists. Some organists sit attentively listening during this time, but most are staring at their crotch. That’s right, some of us, myself included, are texting. If you think that’s bad, I know a couple of guys who go outside and have a smoke. Before you cry blasphemy, think about it: we hear the same exact message two, three, four times in a row. It’s difficult to feign interest after a while!There it is. Some of the quirky habits of your local church organist, straight from the source. One more thing: the next time you’re at church, carefully listen to the organist’s improvisation, because you might hear something resembling Katie Perry or Lady Gaga. It’s how we amuse ourselves.