The Ward Organist

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Organ Report: March 26, 2006

Prelude: Organ Chains book #4

Opening Hymn: #5 High on a Mountain Top

This is one of those bold, majestic hymns that I like so much both to play and to sing. The first measure can be a little tricky in the pedals - that arpeggio doesn't necessarily fall naturally under the feet. I tried it a couple of different ways, first playing it simply right-left-right-left, starting with the left foot, so that the right foot ended up playing G, setting things up naturally for the rest of the hymn. The other "fingering" (footing?) that I tried was playing R toe-heel, L toe-heel, R heel-toe. This felt a little more awkward, but at the same time actually sounded smoother.

This hymn was also an opportunity to pull my favorite mixture stops and really let the organ fill the room with sound. One really nice way to create a dymanic feeling to a verse in a hymn and keep pushing the hymn forward (only when the text and the mood call for it, of course) is to pull the mixture stops on the swell, couple the swell to the great, and drop the swell expression pedal all the way down. When you first start the verse, you'll get the full sound of the great, and little swell, if any. As the verse goes on, you gradually push the swell expression pedal forward until, near the end of the verse, it meets the level of the great expression pedal. This will gradually bring in the mixtures and create a wonderful brightening motion-like effect in the sound of the organ. Try it!

Sacrament Hymn: #99 Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee

Oddly enough, I don't recall ever playing or singing this hymn before. Maybe it's just a mental lapse, but this hymn was completely new to me. You learn something new every day, I guess.

From a technical perspective, this hymn is reasonably simple. The tenor part is child's play, and the pedals are a simple I-IV-V with a few passing tones filled in. This actually, in my opinion, would make it a good practice hymn for someone who is just getting used to playing the pedals (after "How Gentle the God's Commands" - learn that one first).

Special Musical Number: "A Window to His Love" by Julie de Azevedo

Our wonderful ward chorister/choir director, who is a musical theatre professor at the local university, sang this. I accompanied him on the piano, not the organ, so it doesn't have much relevance to this blog, but I just wanted to say that it's a nice piece of music. "Mormon pop" is typically cheesy and forced, but this one I appreciated - a nice one to add to the repertoire of anyone who regularly sings and/or plays in church.

Closing Hymn: #267 How Wondrous and Great

This is another great majestic hymn - It's not often we get two of these in one meeting. It has two slightly technical elements that many musicians on many instruments should be aware of. The first is the dotted-eighth/sixteenth note pattern that appears in the second and fourth lines. There is a tendency to turn that into a set of triplets, because that's how a congregation will tend to sing it. Resist the tempatation! Rhythmic accuracy is the most important part of accompanying - even if you have to choose between playing the right notes and playing the right rhythms, choose the rhythms!

The second thing is the pickup notes in the second and fourth lines - this stemmed quarter note with an eighth note dropping out of it is a classic organ/piano figure, and is often played incorrectly as two eighth notes. Be sure to hold the quarter note for its full value. If you were singing this hymn, as a soprano you would sing a quarter note E. As an alto, you would sing the two moving eighth notes. The organ needs to reflect that, or we lose the melody, and it begins to sound choppy.

Postlude: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by J.S. Bach

It just seemed like a good time to play it again.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Organ stops by the numbers

A reader named Lela shared the following:
For every organ that I have played, I would go through the pre-set settings and find one or 2 that I thought would sound appropriate for the meeting. This has worked fine for me until recently. Somebody changed the settings! I got to church last week ready to start the prelude music, pushed my usual "7" for the settings, and all the stops lit up!

I managed to pick a few that sounded relatively ok, but not knowing what the "2", "4", "8","16" etc and the other items written on the stops mean, it's hard to intelligently choose an appropriate sound.

Can you give us all a little lesson on this? I usually play the treble clef on the swell, the bass clef on the great, and I usually turn on the bass coupler so I don't have to worry about the pedals as I really don't have much time to practice except on my piano at home.

The numbers on the organ stops indicate the length of the pipe that would sound when you depress the "middle c" on the associated manual (keyboard).

Wait, let's back up a step... Most organs have 2 or more keyboards, called manuals, arranged vertically, as well as pedals arranged as a keyboard, called the pedalboard. The manuals typically have 61 keys (though some American pipe organ builders built them with 58), while the pedal keyboard has anywhere from 27-32. Near the center of each manual is a key that a pianist, organist, or just about any other keyboardist will easily identify as "middle c." It is called "middle c" because it's a C near the middle (ok, pardon the sarcasm, I couldn't resist...).

The big box that has the manuals in it and the pedalboard attached to it is called the console. The other important parts of the console are the expression pedals (sometimes called "expression shoes") and the stop knobs or stop tabs. In a real pipe organ, each stop knob or tab (we'll just call it a "stop") is attached to a rank of pipes. A rank is a series of pipes that are identical except for their length. This means that they make the same sound, but at different pitches. Longer pipes sound lower pitches, and shorter pipes sound higher pitches. Each stop is also associated with a certain manual. The rank associated with a stop will have as many pipes as the associated manual - one for each key. If there are 61 keys on a manual, then each rank associated with that manual will have 61 pipes.

Why is this important? Well, because the length of the pipe is where those numbers come from. The middle C key on a given manual will blow air throw one of the pipes in the active rank(s), and the length of that pipe is the number you see on the stop knob. So, if your knob says "Diapason 8," then the middle C is a diapason pipe 8 feet long (FYI: a diapason is THE basic sound of a pipe organ - I've never seen an organ without an 8' diapason stop. When you think in your head of what a pipe organ sounds like, the diapason is most likely the sound you hear).

Because of the way sound waves work, pipes that are powers of 2 will sound in octaves. A 4' pipe will be an octave above an 8' pipe, and then a 2' will be an octave above that. Likewise, a 16' will be an octave below the 8', and a 32' an octave lower still. The incredibly rare 64' pipe (such as the 64' diaphone profunda in the Atlantic City Convention Center) would be even lower - If you're ever in the room with one, you'll feel it more than hear it.

One last useful piece of information about stop numbers: The 8' stop is equivalent to a piano. Play a middle C on an 8' stop, then on a piano, and you'll get the same note. Play a middle C on a 4' stop, and it will be an octave higher than middle C on a piano.

As for the other things written on the stops, they indicate the type of pipe, or the sound you will hear if you turn on that stop.

Oh! Another interesting side note... By now, you should be able to figure out where the phrase "pulling out all the stops" came from. :)

Anyway, organ pipes are made of different materials, and are shaped differently to give you different sounds. Every organ you play will have a different selection of stops, though there will be a few in common (like the aforementioned diapason). I can't really go into what each stop sounds like here, simply because there's no way to describe them. I would, however, recommend that every organist take a look at the Encyclopedia of Organ Stops, a comprehensive index of every organ stop you'll ever encounter, complete with pictures of example pipes and sound clips from great pipe organs. Here is the page for the diapason.

Of course, the art of organ registration is the art of choosing which stops in which octaves sound best for different pieces of music. This comes from experience, from listening to other great organists, and is, ultimately, a matter of personal taste. Next time you're practicing the organ, turn on the 8' diapason on the great (one of the manuals), and just play with it by itself. Then add a 4' stop - maybe the one called "Octave," if there is one. Play with that for a bit. Turn off the Octave and try a different 4' stop. When you've got something you like, try a couple of different 2' stops until you get a sound you like. Now, pick a 16' stop in the pedals that goes well with the sound you've created on the great. With that, you've created your very own vertical registration. Try adding to it or changing things around, always changing one stop at a time and seeing the result.

Before long, you'll start to get a feel for the basic sounds you can get out of your organ. It will take a while to really master even a small digital organ. When Pipe Dreams (see the sidebar) interviewed Clay Christiansen, a Salt Lake Tabernacle organist, he said it took him over a year before he could fully comprehend all of the stops and variations in the tabernacle organ. Granted, that's a HUGE organ with over 200 ranks, but he's also one of the best organists in the world!

Finally, the last thing Lela askes about is which hand goes on which manual playing which part. The answer: it doesn't matter! The absolute easiest way for a pianist to play a hymn on the organ is to pull the 8', 4', and 2' principals on the great, then a 16' principal in the pedals, turn on the bass coupler (assuming your organ has one), and play the hymn on the great exactly as you would on a piano. If you're a pianist having your first experience with an organ, do this and you'll be able to accompany a congregation competently. Build from there.

How do I do it? As a basic rule, I play the soprano, alto, and tenor on the great, and the bass in the pedals. I mix this up often, playing a solo on one manual with the rest in the great or swell, or even playing all four parts on the manuals with a pedal point (a harmonic device that dates from pre-baroque organ playing) in the pedals. There are no rules about which part gets played where by which hand. As long as it sounds good, it is good! Keep in mind, of course, that a basic principal sound if often the best choice for accompanying a congregation. When in doubt, principals on the great. Branch out from there as your practice and experience allow.

Hopefully this is a satisfactory, if long-winded answer to your questions, Lela, and hopefully this information will be of use to beginning organists everywhere!

Back from limbo...

OK, I've taken a little time off as life has been largely consumed by the tour, but while the tour is not over yet, I think I've managed to reorganize my life to the point that I should be able to keep up with this blog again.

Last sunday was stake conference, so I didn't have to play, though before the saturday evening adult session, Marcus, the organist for the session, told me he needed to go rehearse a musical number for a little while, and asked if I wouldn't mind playing prelude. Of course I wouldn't. I just improvised on a couple of hymns - I don't even remember which ones now - whichever the hymnbook happened to open to.

So, let's begin anew with what I promised Lela well over a month ago... In the next post.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Organ Report: Feb 5, 2006

Prelude: Organ Chains book #5

Opening Hymn: #82: For All the Saints

Our ward sang this for the first time in recent memory back in December. At that time, the chorister took a moment at the podium to explain how the hymn is read, since the third and fourth verses are written separately from the first, second, and fifth. When I saw that we would sing this again today, I was curious as to whether the congregation would retain it or not. I am pleased to say that they did, and it sounded quite good.

From an organist's perspective, this hymn is unique because it really requires you to learn two different arrangments of the same melody, and use them almost interchangeably. I think that presents a unique challenge, which I enjoy.

Sacrament Hymn: #117: Come Unto Jesus

This hymn is easy to play, and most congregations ought to be able to sing it easily. There are a couple of pitfalls worth mentioning, however. One is the fermata in the last system. I don't think I've discussed fermatas in this blog yet.

Fermatas can be interesting beasts. They represent a complete departure from established rhythm, and with a large group of people, that is difficult to control. A ward constitutes a large enough group of people that a fermata can be dangerous. This is the moment when the chorister gets to prove himself.

Most congregations don't watch the chorister. There may be a few individuals in a congregation who do, but unless you happen to be in the Julliard School of Music ward (no, I don't think there really is one), 99% of the congregation sings with heads buried in hymnbooks, following the organist as their lead. There are three exceptions to this though: The beginning of a verse, the end of a verse, and a fermata.

It is key, for these three reasons, that the organist be able to see the chorister. This is especially important when it comes to fermatas, as there is often not a "natural" timing for them, whereas the timing of the beginning and end of verses often is quite natural.

The second pitfall here is the moving suspension and passing tone in the penultimate measure. There is a tendency to want to play the two notes as notes of equal length, either as two dotted-quarter notes, or as two equal notes in the space of a single dotted quarter note. I've heard it played several times both ways, and both ways are incorrect. That's an easy pitfall to avoid, and rhythmic accuracy is always appreciated by the congregation, even if they don't consciously realize it.

Closing Hymn: #279: They Holy Word

First thing's first: I cannot play the last two measures of this hymn without thinking of Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat from Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats.

That said, this is a nice closing for an inspirational meeting. It's not particularly difficult to play (watch the 4-note scale in the pedal at the beginning though; it can be tricky to get the "fingering" just right), and has a pleasant message. I used a "stringy" registration for this - based more on viola and celeste stops than on principals, just adding a bit of subtle principal for the last verse. Tempo-wise, we were a bit on the slow end today, probably right around mm=64.

Postlude: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, by J.S. Bach. This is a ward favorite, and if I don't play it for 7-8 weeks, someone will ask me to play it again. I think this was week #8 since its last appearance.

Organ Report: Jan 29, 2006

Today was the missionary farewell for Linda, a good friend of my family who will be leaving next month to serve on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Prelude: Organ Chains book #5.

Opening hymn: #3: Now Let Us Rejoice

I had the privelege of singing in the choir during one session of the Nauvoo temple dedication. This was one of the hymns that we sang, and it has never quite been the same hymn since. The most dramatic change is the tempo: the recommended tempo is 100-120, but in our ward, the traditional tempo for this hymn is right around 176. Stylistically, we see this hymn as a fast waltz in one, with a fairly heavy emphasis on the downbeat of each measure. Got a piano (or an organ) handy? Try it - you'll like it. I wouldn't suggest surprising a congregation with this the next time it comes up for sacrament meeting, but with a choir, it can be very effective, and over time you can gradually increase the tempo with a congregation until they too feel the fast waltz.

At a recent broadcast of some sort from Salt Lake City (it may have been general conference or something else, I don't recall), this hymn was sung. It was probably played right around the recommended tempo - probably about 110. One of the less musically literate members of the ward leaned over to me and said "is it me, or was that really slow?" I had to smile to myself as I said "Yes, but it's because our ward sings it faster than most," and she replied "Well, I like our way better."

Today, however, I very nearly crashed and burned playing this hymn. As I've said before, I like to do registration changes in between verses. I believe it adds interest. When I was planning the registration, I discovered that the swell stops that I wanted on the third verse somewhat overpowered the great. Easy fix: bring down the swell expression pedal to make a well blended sound. When I moved my foot to do this before the third verse, I didn't quite get it in the right place, and instead of bringing the swell down, I brought both the swell AND the great down, and the congregation started singing the third verse with almost no organ whatsoever! I had everything adjusted correctly by the second measure of the hymn, but not without being rather embarassed at my mistake.

Sacrament Hymn: #176: Tis Sweet to Sing

This isn't a commonly sung hymn, at least not in our ward. The words are familiar, but are usually sung with the melody found in hymn #177. While I do enjoy that the hymnbook contains a few hymns in which the same words are used with different music, it can often create hesitance in the congregation when the less familiar of the two is sung. I think people feel like they're not singing it right, since what they remember singing doesn't sound like what the organist is playing. I think that this was the occasion today, as the congregation didn't seem to be singing this with the usual level of confidence. From an organist's perspective, this is an easy hymn to play, but I'm curious as to how people would suggest going about familiarizing a congregation with two different arrangements of the same text. Some of my ideas include using it as prelude and/or postlude so that it becomes a subconsciously familiar melody or having the choir sing it the week before it is to be sung by the congregation. Any more great ideas?

Intermediate Hymn: #266: The Time is Far Spent

While not technically difficult, this hymn actually presents an interesting stylistic challenge to the organist. I am one who advocates the use of a smooth, legato touch on the organ whenever possible. However, this is not possible when there are repeated notes as there are in this hymn. This hymn is doubly interesting because those repeated notes are mostly eighth notes and go by rather quickly. The trick is to play them long enough that they can be sung, but short enough that the articulation is maintained.

I've often read that when you have repeated notes in cases like this, you should divide the note in half, making the first half played and the second half a rest, so the repeated eighth notes would actually be a pattern of sixteenth notes and sixteenth rests. This seems to work well in this hymn, allowing enough detachement for the phrase to be appropriately articulated, but enough substance for the congregation to comfortably sing along.

Also worth noting is the rhythmic variation in this hymn: There are many times when a dotted eighth note is followed by a sixteenth note, and other places where there are simply two eighth notes. I've heard a lot of accompanists mix these up, usually by adding dotted eighth-sixteenth patterns where they don't exist. This can be easily avoided by paying attention to what's written and practicing slowly and deliberately with a metronome.

Closing Hymn: #263: Go Forth With Faith

This hymn is Called to Serve's little brother. It's the other great missionary hymn of the church, and in my opinion, ought to be sung as often as Called to Serve. The pedal work can be intimidating at first, but once again, slow deliberate practice will solve that problem easily (I feel a future post coming on the merits of slow practice and metronomes).

This is also one of those hymns where you can let the power of your full organ shine, opening up the mixtures and the third and fifth -tuned stops near the end, creating a sound that really does inspire the congregation to "go forth."

Given that today was a missionary farewell, Postlude was an improvisation on Called to Serve.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Organ Report: Jan 22, 2006

OK, this post is about 5 days late - this has been a fairly busy week, especially at the beginning, and it just occured to me that I never actually did fully post this. I apologize for not getting this out on time.

Prelude: Organ Chains book #4.

Opening Hymn #83: Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehova

This majestic hymn has some fairly active pedal work that alternates between arpeggios and scales. I found the first line (and the second line, which has exactly the same pedal line as the first) to be a little tricky. I never could decide exactly how I wanted to play it, especially the ascending scale in the second measure - sometimes I played it alternating, sometimes left toe, left heel, right heel, right toe, and even a couple times as a glissando with just the right toe. Frankly, none of those approaches ever felt 100% comfortable, which is why I kept switching. I would be interested to know how other organists would approach this passage.

Sacrament Hymn: #197: O Saviour, Thou Who Wearest A Crown

I remember being on a mission, and going to the mission office for one reason or another. The mission president, a fan of great music, was playing Bach's St. Matthew Passion on the stereo in his office. He wasn't just playing it, but he had it turned up very loud, and was just sitting and meditating to this beautiful hymn. It was not the first time I had heard it, and I knew where it was from, but on this day, for some reason, it pricked my heart and I fell in love with this beautful, passionate hymn.

Of course, the hymn that I heard that day is not quite the one in our hymn book.. The music is the same, although the words used in the St. Matthew Passion are different:
Acknowledge me, my keeper,
My shepherd, make me thine!
From thee, source of all blessings,
Have I been richly blest.
Thy mouth hath oft refreshed me
With milk and sweetest food,
Thy Spirit hath endowed me
With many heav'nly joys.

(Translation by Z. Phillip Ambrose)

Bach uses the chorale five times during the St. Matthew Passion, and also in the Christmas Oratorio. The melody is not originally by Bach, but is from a secular love song by Hans Leo Hassler. It's also the basis of Paul Simon's "An American Tune" (which is ironic, since it's quite clearly German in origin).

The chorale is a Christian standard, used in most Christian denominations, though in most sects it's most often known as "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," with words by Bernard or Clairvaux, ultimately translated into English by James. W. Alexander:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.


Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

(Text available in its entirety at

Incidentally, I would love for a ward choir to use this as an Easter musical number with either an adaptation of the original Bach libretto (perhaps there is a translation more suited to singing than the one I have) or with the traditional Christian lyrics. Perhaps I will speak with our ward music chairman and see if that might be possible.

Intermediate Hymn: #136 I Know That My Redeemer Lives

This is another hymn with a special place in my heart. It's difficult for me to play this without getting teary-eyed, and it's been a long time since I've been able to sing it all the way through without getting choked up. I love this hymn because the message is so simple and so incredibly personal. So often our hymns are in the first person plural: "Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehova," "Sing We Now At Parting," "We Give Thee But Thine Own," etc... This hymn does not state that We know that our Redeemer lives, but I know that my Redeemer lives. To hear a body of people make that bold statement of knowledge of the Savior is, to me, deeply moving.

It's a relatively easy hymn to play, although registration can present an interesting dilemna. This hymn can easily be registered in two different ways. It can be very peacefully done, with subdued strings and flutes, with a fairly horizontal registration, perhaps adding a few more 4' and 2' stops to keep things moving forward as the hymn progresses, creating a very soft atmosphere. OR, it can be registered as a bold and powerful proclamation to the world - a proclamation of the living Christ, with the more principaled and brassy registration. I've done it both ways on several occasions, and I don't have a particular preference. It seems to depend on the mood I'm on, and whether I feel like I'm making this declaration of faith to myself (peaceful, pensive), or to the whole world (bold, majestic). This time, I was most decidedly in the bold, majestic mood. The last phrase, with mixtures added, resounded off the walls of the chapel, and the testimony of the living Christ was again affirmed in my mind and heart, and hopefully in those of the members of the congregation as well.

Closing Hymn: #153 Lord, We Ask Thee Ere We Part

This prayerful hymn provides a nice contrast to the boldness of the intermediate hymn. Its simple prayer that we may all remember and be blessed by the teachings of the day is humble and repentant.

This really is a simple hymn to play as well, and probably a good second or third hymn for a beginning organist to learn (In my opinion, the best to start off with is "How Gentle God's Commands - I'll write on that sometime in the future). After today's sacrament and intermediate hymns, this hymn was quite unremarkable, but was a simple and humble way to end the service.

Postlude was the Largo from Handel's Xerxes.

After postlude, a kind sister in our ward came to me as I was leaving the chapel and said "You know, you are one of our better organists." In a ward with such a rich musical history and a long line of very talented organists, I don't really think that's true, but it is nice to know that members of the congregation appreciate what the organ can bring to the service. At least, if nothing else, I know that mistakes that I make do not detract from this sister's experience during sacrament meeting, and my playing may even enhance that experience, and that makes me feel good.

Friday, January 20, 2006


One of the interesting things about pipe organs is that they are part of the distinct architecture of a building. What LDS organist doesn't recognize this image?

The tabernacle organ facade is so familiar to the saints and so synonymous with worship music that it was duplicated, with some more modern stylistic updates, for the new conference center:

Most organ facades have a shape that makes them recognizable as an organ. Every once in a while, however, someone does something truly unique. The 2004 Rosales, Glatter-Götz organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA is one of those unique architectural creations that makes you step back and rethink the way an organ is supposed to look. Here's its startling facade:

If you look carefully, you can see a rank of trumpets just above the console, facing the audience. I don't know how many of these visible pipes are speaking pipes, but it is a striking organ.

This organ was featured by Pipe Dreams on November 1, 2004. You can listen to it at

If you've seen other unique, unorthodox organ facades, I'd love to see them! I'll post the ones I like here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Organ Report: Jan 15, 2006

Prelude was again from Organ Chains book #5. As I wrote last week, just one of these books is good for 4-5 weeks of preludes without any repetition. Just start where you left off last time, and keep going until it's time to start the meeting.

One thing that I have found varies from ward to ward in the church is the transition from prelude to the beginning of the meeting. In some wards, whoever is conducting the meeting stands at the microphone and starts speaking, and the organist stops playing when they start speaking. This is musically very unsatisfying because the organist often stops playing in the middle of the song, which often leaves the music unresolved. It's doubly so if the song is a hymn or other familiar tune, where the congregation expects to hear it to the end.

The other common approach (and the one I enjoy in my ward) is one of good communication between the speaker and the organist. As the time to start the meeting passes, that individual looks over to me and makes eye contact, essentially saying "we're going to start." I nod, acknowleding the communication. What this signal means is that this will be the last "tune" of the prelude (with the organ chains books, it means to finish out this hymn and then stop). When whoever is conducting feels they have 30 or so seconds before the end, they will stand at the podium and wait until the music finishes. This has the remarkable effect of quieting anyone who may still be conversing in the chapel, and allows at least a few seconds for the music to invite the spirit into the meeting. When the music ends, the speaker begins speaking.

This works out very well, and is both musically and spitirually satisfying. If you are in a ward where the common start of sacrament meeting is more like the first method than the second, I would suggest seeking the support of the bishop in allowing the music to help create a reverent atmosphere in the chapel.

Opening Hymn: #85: How Firm a Foundation

What a great hymn! We sang verses 1-4 and then 7, and on the last verse, I added a pedal point (I'll discuss how that works sometime in the future) and then brought up the mixture ranks for the last couple of lines. I must admit, it may have been a little loud, but it certainly was appropriate to the words, affirming the boldnes and strength of God:

Fear not, I am with thee; Oh be not dismayed,
For I am they God and will still give thee aid.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, Upheld by my righteous,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Sacrament Hymn: #146: Gently Raise the Sacred Strain

Something very interesting happened about halfway through the first verse of this hymn: The great expression pedal slipped (no, not my foot, the pedal - it kept doing this for the rest of the meeting, and will need to be fixed). In a nutshell, expression pedals control volume, so when the great expression pedal slips downward, it makes everything played on the great manual (one of the keyboards you can see on the organ console) quieter. Since I was using the great manual at the time, it made a very awkward sound, and drew my focus away from the book in front of me, and I played a couple of wrong notes. With a little improvised footwork, I was able to recover with only a couple of wrong notes in the pedals, but I must admit I'm not very satisfied with how I played even under the circumstances.

Intermediate Hymn: #81: Press Forward, Saints

Given what happened with the great pedal during the sacrament hymn, I decided to do something I don't usually like to do: I cheated. The organ in our chapel has a bass coupler, which takes the lowest note being played on the Great, and makes it sound as if it were being played on the pedals. This allows a hymn to be played with a reasonably good sound by someone who cannot do the footwork required by the hymn. This hymn has some complexity in the bass, so I opted to turn on the bass coupler and play it all on the great, keeping one foot on the offending expression pedal to keep the volume consistent. It worked out nicely, and I doubt anyone in the congregation realized I was cheating. The stake high concilman who spoke afterwards was even quite complimentary.

Closing Hymn: #156: Sing We Now at Parting

Surveying this hymn during the high councilman's talk, I decided that I could keep a foot on the expression pedal and still play the pedal part, so no cheating with the bass coupler this time.

For postlude, I had planned to play the Largo from Handel's Xerxes, but the high councilman changed my mind. As he was speaking, he drew on the primary song Nephi's Courage. He said he couldn't remember the name of the song, but he loved the words of the chorus:

I will go, I will do,
The things the Lord commands.
I know the Lord provides a way;
He wants me to obey.

As he was talking about this and quoting it again and again, I peeked into the organ bench to see if, by chance, I had a primary songbook. I did. I snuck it out of the bench and found the page with that song on it, gave it a once-over to decide on registrations, and then laid it out on the bench to use as postlude. I always enjoy having the music stay relevant to what has been said by the speakers. I'll save Handel for another time.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Google group for ward organists

I just discovered a fairly recently created discussion group for LDS ward organists on Google Groups called LearningOrgan. It seems to have a fair number of contributors, and there seems to be a good mix of beginning and advanced organists, all of whom are willing to contribute their knowledge and experiences. I've joined in the discussion, and hope you will too!

Organ report: Jan 8, 2006

January 8, 2006

Prelude today was from Brent Jorgensen's Organ Chains book 4. One thing I like about the Organ Chains series is the mileage you can get from them. Each book has some 30 hymns, with short modulation interludes between them that allow you to play one continuous, non-stop prelude. If you play a 10 minute prelude (the Church Handbook of Instructions instructs that "the organist or pianist usually plays hymns or other appropriate music for five to ten minutes before and after a meeting."), you will play about 6 of these hymns. The next week, you can start somewhere else in the book, and play a completely different set of hymns. If you play 6 hymns per week, and the book has 30 hymns, you can go 5 weeks without any repetition, and that's with only one book. I can't say enough about how wonderful these books are for prelude music.

The choir also provided a prelude (with organ accompaniment) hymn, sung right at the beginning of the meeting. The hymn was #139: In Fasting, We Approach Thee. Our regular choir director is out of town over the holidays, so I have been splitting his duties with a few other people. I decided on a whim this morning to have the choir sing this hymn as part of their warm-up, and I liked the sound so much that I asked the Bishop if we could do it for prelude. It went well, though between the third and fourth verses, I accidentally pushed the wrong capture action piston and got a very unexpected registration. It was not an inappropriate sound, so I opted not to change it (which would have been even more distracting to choir and congregation both). No one seemed to notice - there's a lesson to be learned there: When no one knows you're wrong, you might just as well be right, so don't telegraph the fact that you made a mistake with your body language, facial expression, or (the worst) saying "oops!"

Opening Hymn: #58: Come, Ye Children of the Lord

This is straightforward hymn that is an LDS favorite. Its expression marking of Exultantly calls for a fairly full sounding registration. It's important to pay attention to expression markings, lest by poorly selecting the registration of the organ, you make a happy, exultant hymn sound like a funeral dirge. I like to change registrations in between verses, or in some cases, in the middle of the verse, building towards the end of the hymn. This helps build interest and keeps the congregation engaged in the music.

Sacrament Hymn: Behold the Great Redeemer Die

In contrast with the opening hymn, this one is marked Reverently. I take a small issue with using that word to describe the expression of any hymn, because it seems to incinuate that other hymns are to be sung irreverently. I don't think church music should ever be irreverent, but perhaps it's a matter of defining the word reverent.

In any case, this hymn is decidedly not Exultant, and calls for a much more melancholy registration.

One of the difficulties of this hymn is the four measures beginning with the last two measures of the second system. Dropping the bass and tenor out of the music provides a nice contrast in the hymn, but is difficult in congregational singing because most of the men who sing in that range aren't really following their written part, but rather singing the melody. When they reach this segment and the organ drops out of the lower range of sound, they feel like they are left exposed, and are likely to become self-conscious about their singing. There are a couple of ways to approach this problem. One is to simply ignore it and play the hymn as written. There is great merit in playing anything precisely as it is written - at least you know you didn't do it wrong! Another approach would be to add the melody in the pedals, which gives the men a more comfortable pitch to latch on to, and allows them to feel more comfortable singing those measures. Alternatively, you could add a simple bass line to the segment - I would suggest dotted half notes playing Bb, Eb, F, Bb. Any of these approaches will work and are perfectly appropriate to the hymn in this context.

Choir Anthem: We'll Bring the World His Truth

This was done with piano accompaniment, and I conducted the choir, so it's mostly out of the scope of this blog. It was nice though, and Melissa, who played the piano, did an excellent job despite being asked to play it at the aboslute last second (that is, halfway through that morning's choir rehearsal, about an hour before church started). I do enjoy working with some very talented people in this ward.

Closing Hymn: #165: Abide with Me; 'Tis Eventide

This classic Christian hymn is an excellent way to end a service. Its focus on the Savior and desire for his presence reflects how it must have felt to be one of the men mentioned in Luke 24:29. "They urged Him strongly, 'Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over'."

Prayerfully is the expressive decription of this hymn. This, to me, means the registration should be fairly horizontal - a nice blend of 8' stops and a few 4' stops. Minimal 2' stops. I actually recycled the exact same registrations I used for the last three verses of the sacrament hymn.

Technical Aside: Organ registrations can be described as being horizontal or vertical. A horizontal registration is one that uses more than one stop in the same octave - that is, more than one 8' stop (where middle C is the same pitch as it is on a piano), or more than one 4' stop (where middle C is an octave above the way it sounds on a piano), or more than one 2' stop (you get the idea). Converseley, a vertical registration is one in which only one stop in each octave is selected: one 8' stop, one 4' stop, and one 2' stop. It used to be considered bad taste to use horizontal registrations, as the pipes were likely to be slightly out of tune with each other, and the resulting sound would be unpleasant. However, with modern tuning technology, especially with digital organs, this problem has been overcome, and it is no longer an organist's faux pas to use a somewhat horizontal registration.

Postlude: Improvisation on another classic Christian hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers

I felt a need for something lively and rousing after the somewhat sleepy closing hymn, so I decided at the last second on this energetic call to arms. Registration was more like the opening hymn - a bright, full, vertical sound - than like the last two hymns.