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The Organist’s View

Note by Laura Sykes, Lay Anglicana.
In response to my post called ‘Can Lay Worship Leaders and Organists Make Music Together‘  I invited the organist, Kathryn Rose, to submit her reactions in the form of a guest post on this blog. She too has a blog, The Artsy Honker.

I am an organist. I think I have a good working relationship with my vicar. For our choir, as well as for my organ-playing skills, it would be inappropriate and unrealistic to choose music on a week-by-week basis depending on what the vicar has decided to preach on. I draw up a music list a month in advance and send it to the vicar, we have a chat about what is required and debate whether there need to be changes. That certainly diminishes any sense of being a human juke-box. I’ve been given a great deal of freedom in some areas, but I remain conscious that the incumbent really does have the last word. I bear in mind that this also means he bears any responsibility for things which turn out to be grossly inappropriate! I’m new to this parish as well as to the instrument and I do value the vicar’s advice as well as acknowledging his legal position as the one with whom the buck must stop. In turn he recognises that I have far more musical training and experience than he has (even if I am relatively new to playing the organ) and does not ask for the impossible or disparage my musical ideas, and that goes a long way toward me being happy to be flexible on some things. I try to be generous, and so does he, and it seems to work out.

I am fortunate in that the vicar does have musical taste that is similar enough to mine that I am not often asked to play something I loathe, and that we understand each other fairly well in theological terms. I am sure that in a parish with a very evangelical worship style I would be deeply unhappy! Context is very important. Similarly, in some contexts it might be appropriate for the minister to choose hymns the day before, based on the sermon — though I suspect that is rare and that in many places where this is routinely done the quality of the liturgy suffers because the musicians have not had adequate preparation time.

I think a lot of friction between ministers and organists is due to unrealistic expectations on either side, not recognising the reality of the resources available or the needs of the congregation.

For me, this is a labour of love, and a ministry. I am doing work that is liturgically important, theologically important, having had no formal theological training. I am responsible, to a degree, for pastoral leadership of the choir though I have no formal pastoral training. My musical training (which started in childhood) was not paid for by the good old C of E the way most ordained ministers’ theological training is, my work as an organist prevents me taking more lucrative work elsewhere, both because of the specific times and because of the ten to twenty hours per week I put into parish work. I am paid on a per service basis for playing, but it is very much an honorarium, and my impression is that this is the case in most parish churches. There are many places where the organist comes in and “makes a fist of it” while working a full-time day job (and in some cases this is appropriate — again, context is everything!), but that doesn’t really change the fact that there are a good number of organists for whom this work is a vocation, not a job, and who apply considerable professional and personal resources to serving God through leading the choir and congregation in musical aspects of worship.

So, being an organist can be a ministry, and it can be a lonely one. I am blessed to have a good working relationship with my vicar, but I know there are ministers who somehow cannot take an organist’s ministry seriously. The congregation I work with is mostly supportive — there will always, always be people who complain about any music they “don’t know”, but I also get positive feedback, which helps a lot. Sadly that is not the case everywhere. The choir are small but mighty and they are absolutely wonderful in terms of trusting my leadership and encouraging one another, which is absolutely crucial as most of them do not read music at all; I have known of choirs which undermine rather than support their organists, or situations where someone in the choir will try to play the vicar and organist off against one another. I can easily see how in a less supportive situation it would be easy for an organist to feel taken for granted, or to feel that the others involved in leading worship simply do not care about the liturgy. That’s a heavy burden for anyone. The church provides little or no support for organists, the RSCM provides some training but without a supportive church it can be unaffordable and it is always fairly technically focused (which is great, but offers little recourse for an organist who feels undervalued). Organists are likely to get frustrated, bitter and controlling in such situations, and though some can be particularly difficult I would encourage anyone with “organist trouble” to take a step back and look at what systemic factors may be contributing to such distress. In the case of an organist who has outlasted several clergy this may be very difficult to determine but I think it is worth an honest effort.

“At the same time, members of both professions normally enjoy being centre-stage and have a flair for performance — and in churches, as in any other theatre, there can generally be only one star.”

Perhaps the reason we manage as well as we do at St Andrew’s is the deeply held conviction that indeed there can be only one star at church, and that is not me, or the vicar, or a visiting priest or preacher, but God. If that is forgotten then I respectfully submit that a parish may have much worse problems than organist trouble.

Kathryn Rose, Organist.

4 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I attended a Sung Eucharist last Sunday, I love the Singing, the music and the Choir. The problem perhaps is that the Choir as a resource is tiny, only 8 members and most of them are retired, one I know is 91 and still actively singing.

No one new is coming forward to join, and the Musical Director, who shares his time between three Choirs does not have the time, other then through these services to attract new talent to this vital ministry. My singing voice is so poor that I am not a candidate.

The other issue we have identified is that a Sung Eucharist in traditional language seems to turn off the younger element, who go off to attend a more relevant family service with lots of Songs, not hymns? I make that definition as there is a subtle difference in my view.

So, in my limited experience, I can see the need for music and choral singing, but I don't have a clue on how were build up, restore, sustain the history of music in our parish.

Any suggestions would be welcome, as I actually think that we might be out of ideas.

21 June 2011 21:08
Kathryn Rose said...


The best advice I can give you is to find some kind of way to start a children's choir. Perhaps an existing choir member can teach some songs to kids in Sunday School once in a while and see if there is any interest that way?

21 June 2011 22:28
UKViewer said...

That's something which is a possibility. Our CofE primary school has a choir, but the reality is that being rural, children come from a wide range of local villages, therefore attend different churches.

The school choir performs in church for their school assemblies, and has also performed at the Cathedral.

I wonder…………

22 June 2011 06:33
MadPriest said...

I realise that it is very time consuming but in my opinion the ideal way to plan the music of a church is for the worship leader, organist (or whatever) and, if there is one, the leader of the choir, to come together to decide on the hymns. The worship leader is usually word orientated and meeting together allows a greater number of hymn texts to be used because the musicians will be able to suggest tunes that they and the congregation know when the set tune for a hymn is unknown or just plain bad.

At these meetings the worship leader can explain the theme he or she wants to dominate the service (which may be different to the recommended theme). Then I believe it to be good manners for the worship leader to allow the musicians to choose any anthems etc. as well as the music played before and after the service. However, a worship leader may sometimes have to convince the musicians that what they, with their classically attuned ears find pleasant, may sound like a boring cacophony to the congregation. Both worship leaders and musicians must never lose sight of the fact that they are doing it for the congregation which, if they are not pleased, will not bother turning up again.

22 June 2011 07:21

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