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The Church Organist and His Duties.

The ordinary division of organists into church and concert is not a bad one, though a little thinking shows its shortcomings. We cannot expect to define the concert organist and the church organist so that the two classes shall be mutually exclusive. It is, however, true that many  men who accompany the choir or congregational singing with great efficiency are quite unable to give a recital, while the brilliant concert organist may be, and often is, a failure in church. There are some individuals, fortunate in education and natural endowment, who are able to do both church and concert work with equal acceptance. It oftener happens that a man with great technic and magnetism finds it more to his taste to concertise than to confine himself to what he considers to be the humdrum of a church position.

It is not technic, merely, which makes the concert player, but a particular kind of technic. Many church organists are able to play the most difficult compositions, but they have neither the personality which dominates an audience, nor the brilliant touch which allows every listener, even the man in the back seat of the top gallery, to hear distinctly every note in the fastest run. Rapid passages on the organ, unless most carefully played, run together, and a capable concert player, like Lemare, for instance, will detach each sound from its neighbor so that every one is distinctly heard. The experience of the concert-platform and the clear-cut technic resulting from the attempt to make every note heard in every part of a large auditorium—these are what differentiate the recitalist from the church player. We see, therefore, that the division into church and concert organist is not only a common, but also a logical one.

What are the characteristics of the good church organist? It seems to me that the first one is sympathy with a religious service. I do not mean by this that the organist must be a communicant of the church where he plays, or indeed of any church, but I do say that he must be a man whose life and habits of thought are such as to make him sympathize with the purpose of religious service. He must know that the music is for the benefit of the church. He must write the phrase “music in church” so that music shall be in relatively small letters, while CHURCH is in large capitals. I fear that too often our organist friends reverse the process and write church in diamond type while MUSIC is set up in great primer.

The next characteristic of the good church organist, it seems to me, is a good ear and fair technic. If he has not a good ear he will be unable to detect errors of the singers. He will not know whether his instrument is in or out of tune. He will be unable to select good voices for his choir, to give his singers advice as to tone production. In short, he will be entirely a mechanical man. As to technic, he must have a little more than will suffice for his actual needs. He must not find that his work compels him to play every Sunday to the top of his ability, but he must have a reserve, else he will not be able to pay attention to his choir. The ability to play brilliant preludes and postludes is the ability which is most highly thought of by organ students, but I venture to say that the power to play hymns intelligently, to accompany a choir with taste and to the satisfaction of the singers is worth far more than the ability to play a few organ pieces of the brilliant type.

In the next group, as characteristic of a good church organist, three things are very important to any man in any occupation, that is, good manners, common sense and punctuality. Good manners, because the organist is nearly always the director of the choir, and in no way can he better secure the cooperation of the choir than by treating them as a gentleman treats his friends. Then, too, in the petty squabbles which unfortunately will come up in many choirs, the only remedy is a little applied common sense. Things frequently happen in a choir which, if not ignored, will invariably lead to much friction.

A choir cannot sing well if its members are not on good terms with each other. We see the importance of punctuality, particularly with regard to the rehearsals of the choir. An organist should be able to begin his rehearsals promptly, on the minute, at the specified time and close them equally promptly. One great trouble with organists who are not vocalists is that they do not recognize the limitations of the human lungs. A choir rehearsal of an hour in length, granted a decent amount of ability on the part of the singers and the organist, ought to be sufficient for the preparation of almost any service. Choir rehearsals punctually started and punctually closed, are rehearsals where every second of time is carefully used. Consequently, the amount of work done at such rehearsals is at a maximum.

In the same way I group three other qualities which I consider characteristic of the good church organist, and these are unlimited patience, a love for the details of the service, and executive ability. In the practicing of music, which the organist presumably knows well, but of which the choir is ignorant, it often seems to the organist that the members of the choir are very slow or very stupid. Here is where he needs to exercise his patience. If he have not a love for the details of the service a great many little things will jar on the worshipers in the pews. I shall hope to speak of some of these details in a later article. And as for executive ability, the opportunities for its exercise are numberless.

It will be noted that I have emphasized the social rather than the musical qualities of the organist, but if any reader of this article will think over the good church organists of his acquaintance, he will realize that they are marked not only by the good musical qualities which I have enumerated, but even more by characteristics, such as patience, good manners, common sense, executive ability, punctuality and the like.

How can a student get an education as a church player? Three ways are commonly followed: First, private lessons with a good organist; second, lessons at a good conservatory or college of music, taking a church music course; and third, the position of articled pupil, as in England. Very much, indeed, may be said for each of these methods. I presume that most of the organists in the United States have been taught by the first method; that is, they have gone to the best organists in the neighborhood of their home and learned to play the organ. They have not specifically learned to play the organ in church, but they have taken well-known pieces, written for the organ, and learned them. At the end of a few years such a student finds himself able to play most of the standard organ pieces, such as the Bach fugues, the Mendelssohn organ sonatas, and pieces by Guilmant, Rheinberger, etc., etc. I doubt, however, if such a student has often been drilled in the playing of hymn tunes or in playing accompaniments or in extemporizing. In short, he has learned to play the organ more from the recitalist’s point of view than from that of the church organist.

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You are reading The Church Organist and His Duties. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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