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Category - "Organists":

Organists and Churches

Those who have been following the discussion about the relationship between organists and ministers may like to see two posts in particular from Dr Huw Clayton’s blog: ‘Organists’, from 23 August 2010, and  ‘Organists and Churches‘ of today, 23 June 2011, which comments on the discussion on these pages:

…Of particular interest is the suggestion that clergy, lay readers and all relevant musicians should actually meet to discuss the liturgy and theme for a service, then try to match the music to it. I’ve been to a number of meetings like that, and they can work.

However, there are snags. They begin when there is no incumbent in the church, or when the incumbent has about six churches (and yes, I do play in a benefice where the incumbent has six churches) and therefore cannot pick the music for all of them except on rare occasions. It then devolves onto whoever is willing and able to do it – that might be the organist, lay reader, choirmaster, even the churchwarden. Moreover, under such circumstances the incumbent doesn’t always have time to decide on a ‘theme’, and you have to second-guess from the lectionary as to what it might be…

It’s rather sad that there is such a clash of egos in so many places that prevents systems like this from working. Perhaps the best way forward is simply to talk more often in a bid to gain mutual trust and respect – with or without full-blown meetings. And if that can’t be arranged, then really, the question should be asked as to whether the organist is right for that church – with or without the desperate shortage of organists at the moment.

(Do follow the hyperlink to read the whole article)

The illustration, which is mine, is by M V Plante, via Flickr and issued under Creative Commons Licence

The Lectionary, Music and Words: The Via Media

‘Mad Priest’ is not so mad after all
The Revd Jonathan Hagger may call himself mad, but he knows a hawk from a handsaw and (despite his tease) a tart from a Tartar. Maybe he is ‘but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly’ he seems to me to have the wisdom of Solomon himself.

As I read Kathryn Rose’s beautifully expressed piece on the point of view of the organist, I saw my own problems with ‘Drisella‘ in quite a different light. She may have been a tiresome woman (she was) but I do begin to see the situation from her standpoint.

Our not-so-mad priest identified in the comments on Kathryn Rose’s post that the problem was chiefly one of communication, together with a little good will.

… 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…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.

This dollop of common sense needs to be circulated to every parish church in the land, in my opinion.

Of course, knowing what the answer is is not the same as being able to apply it. But it is a start.

Thank-you, Jonathan.

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.

Can Lay Worship Leaders and Organists Make Music Together?

The relationship between the clergy and the organist is laid down in canon law:

B 20 Of the musicians and music of the Church
1. … the functions of appointing… and of terminating the appointment of any organist, choirmaster or director of music, shall be exercisable by the minister with the agreement of the parochial church council…
2. Where there is an organist, choirmaster or director of music the minister shall pay due heed to his advice and assistance in the choosing of chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings, and in the ordering of the music of the church; but at all times the final responsibility and decision in these matters rests with the minister.
3. It is the duty of the minister to ensure that only such chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings are chosen as are appropriate, both the words and the music, to the solemn act of worship and prayer in the House of God as well as to the congregation assembled for that purpose….

In ‘Weary and Ill At Ease‘, Robin L D Rees wrote in 2001:

In recent years, many have written of a breakdown in relations between clergy and organists. While still organist at Exeter Cathedral, Lionel Dakers [later director of the Royal School of Church Music] was already expressing his concern:

There is something in the make-up of clergy and organists which on occasion impels them to behave both irresponsibly and irrationally. Obvious to all are the repercussions of two apparently responsible adults, both in prominent parochial positions, being unable to see eye to eye. Much harm can be done to the cause of the Church by the inevitable tongue wagging which accompanies such incidents.

Ruth Gledhill wrote in The Times on 22 September 2005:

Too many clergy use organists as “human jukeboxes”, demand impossible working hours and refuse to bow to their superior musical knowledge…Now two leading organists have produced a guide…Robert Leach… has written the book with Barry Williams…[they] estimate that two thirds of the country’s organists refuse work in churches because of problems relating to the clergy…

The book, Everything Else an Organist Should Know, gives advice on what to do when relations break down with the vicar…

And they urge organists to be realistic about the abilities of their choirs. “Four old ladies, three children and a grumpy old man cannot sing the Hallelujah Chorus.”

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.

“The minister must not treat the organist as a human jukebox, and the organist must recognise that the minister has final authority in matters of worship,” Mr Leach says.

In our illustration, St Cecilia looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but she also looks as if she were taking her instructions direct from the Almighty: if it takes a brave incumbent to intervene in this cosy conversation, for a lay worship leader to do so is brinkmanship of a very high order.

The first organist I encountered on becoming a Lay Worship Leader was called, shall we say, ‘Drisella’. (The alias is necessary to protect the -possibly litigious- guilty). She had seen off many priests in her time, and presumably anticipated I would present no problem. A month in advance, I emailed Drisella (very politely) with my choice of hymns for the service I was due to take. The reply was instant, and deadly. She would make her choice, based on the theme and hymns suggested in the Royal School of Church Music’s ‘Sunday by Sunday’ booklet.

You will immediately detect the flaw in this arrangement: any theme that I might glean from the lectionary readings might or might not coincide with the RSCM’s interpretation. Although the theme is occasionally obvious, it often isn’t, and there is the added difficulty that, as a lay worship leader, I did not want to fall into the heffalump trap of expounding on doctrine. I appealed to the priest-in-charge, who saw my point and agreed to back me. His sole condition was that it would fall to me, not him, so to inform Drisella. I took a deep breath, and (perhaps rashly) telephoned her. The reaction was electrifying, if ungrammatical:

‘You’re trying to get one over on me with the vicar!’

She then refused to play at any service taken by me. Luckily, at that point my dear husband (and churchwarden) intervened. Although the last time he had played the organ had been in Dacca Cathedral in 1971, he would fill the gap. And so he did, for the next three years, the lovely man. At that point, a new priest-in-charge arrived: to the relief of all, Drisella did not survive the initial conversation about their future relationship.

We moved to a rota system, whereby a series of local organists took on, say, ‘the third Sunday of the month’. There was no ‘Prima Donna’, only a foursome who took it in turns to play in various benefices in the deanery. All that was needed was a little good will, with no jockeying for position. Harmony was restored. All for the greater glory of God. Amen.

1. The main illustration is ‘Organist und mesner’ by an anonymous Italian painter, 18th c via wikimedia. ‘Mesner’ = sacristan. The two seem to be to be eyeing each other distinctly warily.
2. The second illustration is ‘Saint Cecilia’ by Simon Vouet c. 1626 via wikimedia.
3. You can read Ruth Gledhill’s story in full if you click the hyperlink, as it was written before the pay wall.
4. Kathryn Rose, of the Artsy Honker blog, has been invited to post with her reactions at The Organist’s View.

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