Sunday, June 17, 2018

Back to the BCP

I stayed with the Roman Catholic breviary for about three weeks.
The deciding factors for my return to the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office are three:
- Continuous reading of Scripture, including the Gospels as well as Old Testament and Epistles
- Continuous reading of the Psalmody, including the untidy bits
- The "Rite One" traditional language, and the Authorized/King James Biblical texts

There was a point to Cranmer's reform of the Offices, and not just the benefit of putting them into the vernacular. In the Anglican forms, I think that one gets a better overall formation in Scripture than one would get from the Roman Catholic version, simply by the repeated reading of whole books of the Bible over the years, and reading them from an actual Bible, not broken up into little bits and disconnected from the rest of the Story. There is not enough continuity in the Roman Offices to get a sense of any of the Scriptural books as a whole. And (as I said in the previous posting) no Gospels, beyond disconnected single verses in the Hours other than the Office of Readings. That could all be corrected by additional study outside of the Hours, but I can see that I would not make the time to do that.

And I am an old dog; I do not easily learn new tricks. Better for me to stay with what has brought me thus far.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Liturgy of the Hours: another approach

I have been praying the Daily Office according to the use of the Episcopal Church for most of my adult life. Daily Matins in the Rite One traditional language is part of what made me an Episcopalian, when I was in a congregation where weekday Matins was significant, with eight or ten people gathered every morning. And I hardly need mention Choral Evensong, which is pretty much the rest of what made me an Episcopalian.

It may thus be surprising that I am trying something different. As of this past Monday, the day after Whitsunday, I have moved to the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. An experiment, one might say.

Some years ago, I was with my sister at a thrift store in suburban Maryland. There on the shelf was a complete four-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours, eighty cents per volume. As I learned, it had been in the care (I almost wrote “belonged,” but such things do not “belong” to anyone) of Alfonso Sanchez, S.J. – a Jesuit. From the looks of these volumes, he did not mess around; they are thoroughly well used. As they should be: Roman Catholic clergy and religious are bound by solemn vow to the observance of the Hours. But not laymen; that was left for the genius of Cranmer, who envisioned a church where everyone from peasant to queen would daily gather for Matins and Evensong in their parish churches and chapels. It has not turned out that way, unfortunately.

Once before I dipped my toe into these volumes for a week while on vacation, hastening back to the familiar Comfortable Words of the BCP when I returned home. But now that I am no longer responsible for leading public Matins in the church (excepting Sundays), the door is open for me to try this at greater length. So, on Monday, off I went: Volume III, Ordinary Time weeks 1 through 17.

Some preliminary observations:
- The rhythm of the day is different, heavily front-loaded (if one does the Office of Readings back to back with Morning Prayer, which I gather is common). Not so much in the evening; there is Evening Prayer, but it is much more lightweight than Anglican Evensong. One could place the Office of Readings there, I suppose; it can happen at any point of the day or night.
- The language is thoroughly pedestrian: ICEL texts for the liturgy, New American Bible for the scriptures, the Grail Psalter. It is a far cry from the BCP Rite One, but would probably flow naturally enough for someone inured to BCP’s Rite Two. The level of non-inclusivity for language about humankind is striking for someone who has been in a different environment for years, but these volumes date from the 1970’s, before that became a significant issue in most places. The ones I have may indeed be obsolete; I do not know if these texts were revised when they renewed (and greatly improved) the Mass translation a few years ago.
- There is a lot of Psalmody. Three psalms (or parts of longer psalms) at each office, including the Little Offices during the day. Overall, there is a four-week cycle which (at least in Ordinary Time) carries on independently of the cycle of Sundays and weekdays. Excepting on feasts and saints’ days, of which more below. I have not looked, but my suspicion is that some of the psalms show up more than once in the four weeks, otherwise it would feel more equal in weight to the Cranmerian system of reading it all through beginning to end every month, which system I have followed all these years. [Edited to add: There are a good many Canticles added to the mix, some of them familiar to Episcopalians from Rite Two Matins, many others in similar vein from Old and New Testaments. There may be enough of these to add 30% or 40% to the Psalter, and account for why the amount of psalmody feels like more than the BCP. It is definitely a lot more than the psalmody appointed in the BCP's Daily Office Lectionary, a six week cycle based on similar principles as the Roman Catholic approach, aiming to place psalms where they best fit in the rhythms of the day and week]
- But they leave out some of the juicy parts. I was shocked to learn some years ago that the Benedictines (and presumably others) omit the verses about your dogs drinking the blood of your enemies and the happiness of those who bash infants against the stones. And so they do; we had Psalm 69 this week – much of it, that is; not all.
- And there is not much Scripture. For all of the Hours excepting the Office of Readings, there is one little snippet, one or two verses in the manner of what we have in BCP Compline. Fine for meditation, but not much meat to it.
- In the Office of Readings, there are two lessons of more proper length, similar in size to the BCP Daily Office lessons. But no Gospels! Best I can tell in Volume III, not once in these seventeen weeks, other than little snippets in the other Hours. The norm is a lesson from the Old Testament or Epistles followed by a reading from the Church Fathers, generally relating to the Scriptural lesson just read or (on saints’ days) to the commemoration. I hope that I am mistaken about the absence of the Gospels. I am nervous from stepping so far away from Holy Scripture, which has brought me thus far in conversion of life.

And that brings me to what may be the most significant point for my ongoing use of these books: it presumes a context that does not exist for me, of daily attendance at Mass, which is where they are assuming you will hear the Gospel. It presumes that one will more properly feed upon Holy Scripture outside of the Hours, for example in Lectio Divina at some point during the day. I could do this, and must if I continue this path. But the thorough reading of pretty much all of the Old and New Testaments in a two year cycle, with the Gospels more often than that, is one of the treasures of the Anglican/Episcopal approach, seen all the more clearly by comparison to the Roman Catholic method.

In a similar vein, there are no Creeds, and no confession in the Liturgy of the Hours. Again, it presumes that you will have the Credo at Mass (at least on Sundays and major feasts) – and the Catholics have their own way of dealing with Confession, which for a religious or clergy, is indeed Confession with capital “C.” Not a general confession said by all together in the liturgy.

After two or three days I began to find my way through the services well enough. Then came the first exception: the memorial of the Venerable Bede, Priest and Doctor, May 25. The saints’ days are in a different part of the book, with their own texts, and much flipping of pages. Part of the propers come from the Common of Doctors of the Church (page 1763 and following) or the Common of Holy Men, Religious (page 1858 and following). Or for what they call “memorials” and we call “lesser feasts” one can go ahead with parts of the normal daily texts. But not all. I sat down at home for Morning Prayer that day, a Friday – when I had overslept; it was already nearly sunrise when I did this, and I needed to get on the road to the church and my duties – and I almost threw up my hands and quit. It was complex, and took much longer to find the right things, I was in a hurry, and not very recollected spiritually.

Whatever form is followed, the Officium is like that sometimes.

But the second reading at the Office of Readings (once I got to it) was a wonderful letter on the death of Saint Bede, by Cuthbert, which made my day. Oh how I want to be someone like that!

One gains appreciation for what Cranmer meant in his preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (our BCP, page 866) where he wrote that in the medieval Office “… that to turn the book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” I said an “Amen” to that on Friday. The Daily Office in the Anglican/Episcopal manner can be prayed by any layman who can read even a little: I remember a young gentleman back on the island where I first encountered these things who could indeed barely read; his schooling had ended with the third grade. But he could puzzle out the scriptures in the Authorized Version and the liturgical texts in the Rite One language well enough to read lessons at Matins and sometimes serve as Officiant, and he found it worth his while to do so. It is a person like him that Archbishop Cranmer had in mind as the foundation of the Anglican Church. In the Roman Catholic form, one must be considerably more determined, ready to pore over the rubrics and flip lots of pages, or receive good instruction, or best of all, the modelling of one’s elders in the religious house where one is discovering this manner of prayer. To be fair, the normal garden-variety Ferial Day is not that hard to follow in the Roman books – but there are a lot of saints’ days.

One last surprise: the hymnody. Large amounts of it: a hymn at each of the Hours. I am a little disappointed that the great corpus of Latin office hymnody is largely absent (excepting Night Prayer, where several of the greatest office hymns are given in Latin as well as English), but on the whole the selections were well chosen, with good representation of then-modern authors such as Fred Pratt Green and Fred Kaan. It surprises me how “Protestant” the hymnody is; there is little difference from what one would find in a Presbyterian or Methodist hymnal of the period. For example, the hymn for Morning Prayer on the memorial of Saint Bede was "For all the saints" (page 1864) by the Anglican bishop W. W. How, tune Sine Nomine by the English agnostic R. Vaughan Williams. But for the Latin office hymns, our Hymnal 1982 is a better source.

While it is convenient to have the hymn text right there with the office, I worry about having the selections fixed in place for who knows how long. Have they revised these since the 1970’s? For one thing, there has been a lot of excellent Roman Catholic work since then which should have a place here, to say nothing of hymnody from other sources – world music, for example, entirely absent from these pages. Again, that was barely on the radar in the 1970’s.

But one week does not give me the right to pass judgment; I submit my reflections with humility, knowing that much would become clear only with continued use. I hope to stay with it through the summer and perhaps through all of Ordinary Time, but not beyond that unless I have a change of heart. It is instructive, and is helping me to a better understanding of my own tradition.

[Edited 6/17/18 to add: I didn't make it even one month; back to the BCP for me, though with an increased understanding of the Daily Office in both its Roman and Anglican forms. More on this in the next posting.]

Monday, May 7, 2018

Give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb

Last night (May 6, the Sixth Sunday of Easter) was our final choral evensong of the season. As is our custom, it was sung by the combined youth and adult choirs. Because most of the youth choir was at last summer's RSCM Course, we were so bold as to attempt some music that would otherwise be more than we could handle, for we had sung it at the Course.

I could write of the Howells "Collegium Regale" Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and what a privilege it was to conduct this. I hope that I will never forget the delicate shimmering beauty of the opening, at first just the youth choir trebles and altos with the adult women joining a bit later. Or the four young choirmen singing the tenor lead that begins the Nunc Dimittis. Or the magnificence of the "Glory be to the Father...", which was profoundly moving.

I could write of how fine it was to be Organist for the Britten "Rejoice in the Lamb," the anthem for this evensong, and of my high regard for my friend Jean who directed this and played for the Howells, plus a significant prelude, and urged me to prepare a careful plan for the warmup rehearsal, timed to the minute for each item that we needed, and in the event, essential.

I could write of the Smith Responses, and our teen chorister Charles who was superb as Officiant. And I could write of my friend Nora, who was Preacher for the evening. And the David Hogan "O gracious Light," and the closing hymn, "The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended," with the descant by John Scott (may he rest in peace) that we sang at last summer's Course. This proved the perfect ending to the service and was, again, profoundly moving for me and probably others.

But of all these things, what impressed me the most was the Psalmody, the three Psalms appointed for the Sixth Evening. I had thought we would need considerable rehearsal, because the two choirs do not routinely sing psalmody together, nor do they rehearse together. Nor was it a small group; with the combined choirs, we numbered about twenty-five. With psalmody, small is often best, for the ensemble is easier to achieve. And familiarity with one another's singing is essential. For best results, the group should sing Psalms together every day. Or several times a day, as the brothers and sisters of Religion do in the monastaries and convents.

We were arranged in divided choir, the adults on Cantoris, the youth on Decani. I reminded them to watch one another across the middle, and most of all to listen. We launched into Psalm 32: "Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven..." After a couple of verses, I quit playing. Then I walked to the back of the church, my arms folded so that I would not try to direct them.

They were flawless. Well, not quite; psalmody is never flawless. But they were extremely good. And they did not need me, or any direction, or even accompaniment. They could have gone right through the full set, which they did later in the service (Psalms 32, 33, and 34), but it was clear that for rehearsal, all that was needed was a couple of verses of each to remind them of the chants.

If there is one thing of which I am proud with these choristers, it is this: they have learned to sing the Psalms. David Willcocks used to say that the psalmody was what made a choir like the one he directed at King's what it was (and is). The psalms require sensitivity to diction, pacing, and most of all attentive ensemble with the other singers. I can attest on our more humble scale that much of what progress has been made during my tenure has been the result of the psalmody, both the Anglican Chant of evensong and the plainsong that is our staple for the morning Eucharists.

Getting through all of this music in good order was an accomplishment for our parish choir, young and old. But last night, I was numb to it, immediately carried off by concerns for the traditional end-of-season pizza supper (which went well), and some administrative concerns that appeared via e-mail, and by the Sunday evening routine of bulletin-making. The best I could say at that point was that I was glad it was done. But today is better; I can see what a Good Thing last night was, both in sum for all of the choir and individually for many of the choristers - and probably in many ways which I will never know, for them and for others. For a while longer, it remains my privilege and vocation to work with them and perhaps make a bit of difference. For this I offer my thanks to the One who calls us and whom we praise in song.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Simplifying Anthem Accompaniments

There are (at least) two types of keyboard accompaniments for choral music:

1) Accompaniment written for organ or piano. Some of these may require quite a lot of practice, but normally one plays the notes that are written, within the limitations of the instrument at hand.
2) Accompaniment originally for orchestra, with a keyboard reduction in the choral score. Most often, one does not play all of the notes.

The overriding principle for keyboard reductions:
“When in doubt, leave it out.”

Our goal is to produce a reasonable approximation of the orchestral score, sufficient to support the choir in its singing and to present the musical work to the listeners. Most keyboard reductions have far more material than is needed for this. To play everything that is printed would require massive technical skill and practice time.

So, leave things out. Lots of things. Reduce the “reduction” until it matches your capabilities and the time available to learn it. Get it down to something that you will be able to play fluently.

An example, from “Qui sedes” by Michael Haydn, in the fine edition by David Stein (Th. Presser 312-41692)

The choir is floating along with “Alleluias,” hardly a care in the world. The orchestra is bouncing along with an active bass line and lots of string figuration. In particular, lots of repeated sixteenth notes – easy on violin, not so much on organ. Add to that considerable leaping around – again, easy on violin, not so much on organ.

As you can see, I have scribbled over my copy until it is barely legible. I have left the bass line fairly intact (in the pedals), though there would be places to simplify it further, such as measure 65, where I was tempted to cross out the final three eighth notes. It is the upper staff where the chopping happens – I have crossed out at least one of the four sixteenth notes in every group of repeated notes, sometimes two of the four (leaving eighth notes in effect). I have chopped out lots of the inner parts, so that I can divide the remaining upper line (probably first violin originally) between the hands. And that got it to where I could play it, with sufficient practice. As printed, no way. Not even close.

[Unrelated tip: in measure 64, pedal line, after the third beat, I wrote in “PN”. That stands for “Pivot Note,” and tells me to shift my feet and legs to a different part of the pedalboard. I learned this decades ago from Carl Weinrich, formerly organist at Princeton University, who described this in The Diapason. I commend it to you. You might also notice that I have written in all of the fingering and pedalings. I commend this to you as well.]

Another example: a notorious passage from Handel’s Messiah (“For unto us a child is born”), in the Watkins Shaw edition:

At rehearsal letter G, the first and second violins are playing merrily along in parallel thirds. Fine for them; not impossible at the keyboard, but well beyond what I can do. I have not crossed out so many notes here as in the Haydn because it would have been illegible, but you can see what I have done from the fingering – for each group of four sixteenth notes, play the two-note sonority for the first and third notes, and a single note for the second and fourth. Just like that, it becomes playable. The other changes on this page are hopefully more subtle – chop out repeated notes (e.g., right hand, in the measure before G), cross out some notes from the middle parts and assign others to the left hand (top system second bar), strategically assign some of the bass line to the left hand instead of the pedal (two before G).

I have even added some notes, finding it necessary to fill in some of the chords in the left hand (top system last measure, and at G).

There was a time when such shameless hacking away at the careful work of editors (and there are none better than Watkins Shaw! Compare this with the old T. Tertius Noble edition for a lesson in making a fine keyboard reduction) burdened me with guilt. “You worthless lazy incompetent slug! You can’t even play a simple accompaniment. Surely everyone else zips through this stuff with ease. They probably sight-read it.”

Well, many days I do consider myself to be worthless, lazy, and incompetent. But somehow I have to get through this thing with the choir if we are going to sing it. And I have to chop away at it to get it to where that is possible. Either that or hire an orchestra.

That thought is why I am writing this essay, with examples. Trust me: “everyone else” does not zip through this stuff. The best I can tell, the sort of work I have described is normal. So I no longer permit myself to wallow in guilt. Neither should you. Do what you have to do to make the accompaniments playable. By you. In the practice time that you have. If you are one of the rare people who can rip off eight bars of sixteenth notes in parallel thirds in your right hand, go for it, and I tip my hat to you. If a page like either of the examples I have given causes you to shudder with dread, sharpen your pencil, sit down at the keyboard, and see what you can do.

When in doubt, leave it out.

[Afterword: There is a third kind of accompaniment – reading from open score, making it all fit at the piano or organ on the fly as you go. It is said that Franz Liszt could take a brand-new score by the likes of Wagner or Bruckner – in manuscript, not nicely printed like what we normally face – sit down at the piano, and sight-read it at tempo.

I can only bow my head in wonder, praising the God who put musicians like that on this earth.
Soli Deo Gloria.]

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What wondrous love is this

When I was sinking down, O my soul;
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.
It has been a long while since I have posted a recording online; I think that it was before Advent, and here it is near the end of Lent.

It has been a long while since I have practiced sufficiently, and I am not there yet; just four hours this week, two of them on Saturday. Much of that has been the result of non-musical events, but some (especially of late) has been plain old Resistance.
Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death. (Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art,” p. 15)

Maybe it is the three-month lapse in my work, just barely scraping by musically from Sunday to Sunday.
Maybe it is my sense that I am no longer reliable in my playing.
Maybe it is my efforts to work in a different manner, efforts still in their infancy and hindered by lack of practice.

Maybe it is the clavichord, which has been my lifeline. More days than not, my ten or fifteen minutes of improvisation after Matins on the quiet little instrument in my office has been my only time at a keyboard.

Maybe it is a turning point.

I played well today, on those four hours of practice. I played well last week, on five hours, four of them on Saturday. Good solid hymnody, good improvisations, decent playing of repertoire pieces for postludes. No falling apart from the “yips.” My practicing, such as it was, has been careful and good, interspersed with Alexander laydowns.

I am too close to the improvisations to discern accurately whether they are any good. They have recently been quite a ways outside of my past manner of playing, at first not so good but much better the past few weeks. It is scaring me to play them; it is frightening to play anything at all, repertoire pieces or improvisations or even hymn tunes. Not stage fright, and mostly not fear of falling apart in midstream; rather, it is fear of the unexpected directions my music seems to be leading.

And it is not just my work at the organ and piano. A few weeks ago, the youth choir sang the Byrd motet “Ave verum corpus” for the church service. It was amazing. Every one of their rehearsals this spring has been amazing, the adult rehearsals too. Again, this is not my doing.
This process of self-revision and self-correction is so common we don’t even notice. But it’s a miracle. And its implications are staggering. Who’s doing this revising anyway? What force is yanking at our sleeves? (Pressfield, p. 125)
Here is today’s piano improvisation, on the shape-note tune Wondrous Love, posted on SoundCloud.
To God and to the Lamb I will sing,
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I Am,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

Friday, February 23, 2018

About those wrong notes, Part Two

Mostly, it is the Startle Reflex.
That is why I have the “yips,” and the mangled playing that results.

After some introspection, I realized about a month ago that the Startle Reflex, alongside Impatient Haste, was at the root of my difficulties.

In terms of the Alexander Technique (which is where I learned of it), whenever one is startled, several physical things happen. Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, adrenaline happens. The neck tightens in a spasm, throwing the head forward – the exact opposite of the Technique’s basics of “Neck free, Head forward and up.”

Whenever one plays a wrong note, the Startle Reflex results. It may be subtle, momentary, but it is there.
One must quickly return to balance. Think “neck free. Head forward and up.” Breathe.

The essence of my practice method outlined in these pages – of any worthwhile practice method – is to avoid wrong notes from the very first reading. Slow practice. Practice with the rhythms. Small bite-sized bits of music, a few measures or a phrase at most.

But wrong notes happen, and with them the Startle Reflex.

I learned that I did not allow myself to recover into a relaxed state of poise before repeating the bit that went wrong. I was not rushing back into it – a temptation to which I was subject for decades, to my detriment, playing the passage again and again with no pause as if by immediate re-play, I could erase the fact that the mistake ever happened.

But I was not fully relaxing. I entered the playthrough with a tiny bit of excess tension, a tiny bit of heightened blood pressure and pulse. And by repetitions (even with the correct notes in the second playthrough, and the third), I built this tiny bit of tension into my playing of the passage. Every time I played it from then on – even years later upon returning to the piece - the underlying tension was part of it.

In similar manner, when I worked on “the rhythms” and I was in a hurry (which is most of the time, for there is never enough practice time), I was not allowing enough time on the notes of repose (the long notes that begin and finish the rhythmic groupings). It was subtle; I would estimate just one or two milliseconds, but again, it was there, constantly in the pieces where I was working especially hard. Practicing in this manner for an hour, a second hour, a third, day after day, I was building in a subtle underlay of tension. The tension, the slight unease and hurry, would be a part of my manner of playing the passage from then on.

And in the added energy of live performance before God and everyone, all of this would come to the surface, causing my brain to “short-circuit” for a moment, just long enough to throw me off track and demolish a couple of measures of passagework.

I am working on this. I think I am making progress, but it is slow. Between every repetition, breathe. Get fully settled, poised. If there is a wrong note, stop immediately. Breathe. Get fully settled. Then play the bit again, calmly. The calm is almost more important than getting the right notes the second time. Leave enough time on each rhythmic group to fully settle before going on to the next. My evensong prelude for February went pretty well; that was encouraging.

But I am not putting in enough time on the bench. For personal reasons, I have not practiced regularly since Christmas. All too many weeks, it has ended up being just two or three days a week – a couple of times, just Saturday, and one Sunday that will remain nameless, none at all. I had hoped to at least have a Sunday warmup, but did not even manage that, my first playing of the day (and the week) being live improvisation. These matters (along with Advent before them) have likewise resulted in my absence from the Music Box for nearly three months.

David Allen (the author of “Getting Things Done”) wrote somewhere that he is often asked “How can I prioritize my work?” He always asks back “What’s your job?” In Christian terms, “What is your Vocation?” (Allen expresses it as “Why are you on this planet?”) My vocation had a significant shift at the turn of the year. So far this year, music, and especially keyboard music, has been a much smaller part of it.

I am not at present happy with myself as an organist, or pianist for that matter – my piano improvisations these two months have been decidedly substandard, as have the ones at the organ. But I have been pleased by some of the choral music of which I have been a part, especially the Mathias anthem “Let the people praise thee, O God,” the Choral Evensongs for January and February, and our Youth Choir’s recent visit to St. James, Chicago. There was some Real Music in these services. I hope there will be more, perhaps even yet some it through me at the keyboard.

Jesu, juva.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Church Music: an essay

A lot of young church musicians do not survive the transition from school to church. Some of the fault is with the way organists and choral musicians are trained. They are schooled almost exclusively toward the goal of becoming the finest performers possible at the organ, and toward working with highly skilled young adult choristers, all of them with fabulous voices and quick and active minds. They sing and play only the finest literature; the pipe organs at their disposal are of the highest quality. They work at minutiae to bring their work to the highest possible standard. Unless they are very fortunate, they learn very little about working with children, or with teenagers, or with amateur adult singers of all ages, more elderly than otherwise. They learn nothing about "contemporary music" (meaning “anything with guitars”) except that it is to be avoided at all costs. They learn nothing about working with difficult clergy or parishioners, which probably is the downfall of more young church musicians than any other factor.


You graduate. You get a part-time position in a typical parish. The organ is a Baldwin electronic, circa 1970, with several of the pedal contacts corroded into dysfunction. The choir is, well, a typical parish choir: let's say eight persons, one of whom is under the age of sixty. There is one baritone who can sing tenor, sort of, in a pinch -- but he works every other Sunday morning. There is one other bass, age seventy-six, who has had three heart attacks and now has a large, wobbly voice because his cardiovascular fitness is barely enough to allow him to walk into the choir room. And he does not see very well. The other six are women. One of them played clarinet in her high school band (that was in the 1950's), so she reads music, sort of. The others all sing "by ear." Sort of.

A variety of vocal and other problems are in evidence; "white" tone, bleaty vibratos, no head voice. One woman has vocal nodules (as it proved) which she got, she tells you, from when she was in a mental hospital after her husband died "and I screamed, night and day." Another woman (the one who is under sixty) is epileptic, and more likely to have a seizure when she is stressed -- like, for example, in the middle of the anthem during the Christmas Eve service the previous year.

Since you have never worked with any singer who has any vocal problems whatsoever, you are at a loss. You want the choir to sound like your college choir, which had sung the B Minor Mass that spring before graduation. You want to do music like that: Bach and Palestrina and Schutz and Byrd and Tallis and all the rest. But the music library consists entirely of illegal Xeroxes, and one of your first moves is a day of carting it all off to the recycling depot.

"We would like a children's choir." That is what they told you in the interview, and is one of the reasons you accepted the position, for you studied the RSCM method at college and observed the excellent choral program at the local Episcopal parish near the campus. They neglected to mention that there are currently no children in the parish. None. There is not one soul in the parish under the age of thirty-five. And the community, a small Pennsylvania town, is dying; unemployment is near twenty percent, and anyone who was able moved away years ago, so there is not a plethora of children anywhere in town.

"Hmmm.... I guess I'll have to put that on the back burner, for now."

And here comes Sunday morning with that Baldwin. You have never played an electronic organ, much less one of that vintage -- early transistor/printed circuit, where every "stop" sounds pretty much the same, and pushing down a whole row of stop tabs does little to change the sound, either in volume or timbre. You pull out the Bach Orgelbuchlein; it sounds horrible. You try a Mendelssohn sonata movement: ditto.

You are, again, at a loss.

I will spare you a discussion of the Vicar, who is entirely innocent of any sound training or experience in liturgy, homiletics, or, most of all, music -- though he considers himself an expert in all of these fields. His idea of good church music is "On Eagles' Wings." His idea of good liturgy is when he "improvises" the Eucharistic prayer, or "paraphrases" the Gospel reading from memory, leaving out some of the important bits. The first words spoken in the liturgy each Sunday are a cheerful "Good morning!!!!"

But I had best not spare you the Contemporary Service on Sunday evenings. "We have a praise band," they said in the interview. It proves to consist of three Boomer-age lady guitarists (now in their seventies) who think they are the second coming of Joni Mitchell. They know the basic three chords and play with what is commonly called the "Catholic strum." That is all they can do; they cannot handle other chords, or other strumming techniques, or (heaven forbid) finger-picking. You did not take Guitar Methods 101 at school -- indeed, it was not offered -- so, again, you are at a loss. But, being a good soldier, you join them on the electric piano (a twenty-year old Clavinova with a few dead notes), and do your best. You learn the eight songs which are the complete repertoire of the Service. About a dozen people show up on Sunday evenings, mostly ex-Cursillistas. The Vicar is in his element, loving the "casual informality" of the atmosphere.

After a year or so of this, many a young church musician decides that a career in restaurant table service and dishwashing would be more to his liking. Or maybe truck driving.


The secret, if there is one, lies in that woman who wants your help in learning how to somehow sing again after screaming her voice away in the mental hospital. And that bass, who has sung in choirs since childhood and loves music and has watched his voice, his strength, and his health disappear, and is just trying to hang on and finish what he has carried thus far, a life which the Psalmist described thus: "I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being." And that woman with the epilepsy, who loves God -- indeed, God is her sole reliance -- and wants to sing, and does not want to make a scene this Christmas. But if making a scene is what is going to happen, she is still going to be there, because it her choir, and her parish, and most of all her Lord who was born that night.

Despite yourself, if you are lucky (or better, "blessed"), you care about these people. It is not because you are supposed to (though you are); you just do. You can't help it. You recognize that you have been given the responsibility of helping these individuals grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ. The tools at your disposal, such as the Baldwin and the choral library, are not the best, but they are what you have.

You pray a lot.

There is nothing else for it; you pray so much that you become known for it. You teach the same things over and over, and it appears that it makes no difference -- but, sometimes, after many repetitions, it does. You send cards to your choristers when they are sick; you visit them in the hospital when you can (an aside: this is much harder to do than it used to be, because they often do not permit people like choral directors, who are neither family nor authorized church professionals, to so much as discern what room the person is in, or even if they are in the hospital at all.) I emphasize that this is not because you are supposed to, or with any end in view (such as building your choir); you can't help it.

You figure out how to get the best possible results out of the Baldwin -- a task for which your academic training has given you no preparation whatsoever -- and you play with care and integrity for every service. You learn how to play your eight Cursillo songs with the "Joni Mitchell girls" -- and you find that, despite yourself, you care even about them. And the people who show up at the Sunday evening service. You find that they, with the handful who attend the traditional morning service, are the lifeblood of that little town, fighting to keep it alive.

And, just maybe, the hardest of all, the Vicar. You come to recognize that he is as clueless as you are, and that is the source of much of his bluster. To him, this is a dead-end parish in a dead-end town, and a dead-end for his career. No bishopric or cushy suburban parish for him, because now that he is middle-aged, all of a sudden the ideal bishop is in his forties. His seminary training prepared him for the work of ministry about as well as your conservatory training did for church music, and he has been trying to figure it out "on the job" ever since.


Lest you think that this essay is autobiographical, it is not. For one thing, my first post-graduate instrument was an Allen, not a Baldwin. And I have never lived or worked in Pennsylvania. And I had worked as a part-time church musician for some years before going to graduate school; this was of inestimable value. Nonetheless, I made many, many mistakes. I still do. Two of the persons I described are more-or-less based on choristers with whom I had the privilege of working at previous parishes where I have served, and who taught me much by their glorious witness to the power of God.

And I have entirely given up on hospital visits.


Perhaps you stay in the parish, despite everything. One day, a vestry member says "Gee, maybe we should think about a pipe organ!" Over time, you assemble a choral library of sorts. Your choir grows from eight to eleven. A family with children moves to town and joins the church; you incorporate the children into the choir (and figure out how to work with them in this setting), and now the choir is fourteen persons. A new Vicar comes, and she is a little easier to work with, partly because she sang in a church choir when she was a child and it was essential to her vocation.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps you play that Baldwin to your dying day. Perhaps the Vicar retires, and the parish cannot afford to hire a replacement. Perhaps they cannot afford to keep you on staff, either. Perhaps the place closes down altogether. Perhaps the whole community closes down.

None of this matters. What matters is each one of those singers, and the people out in the pews, and even that Vicar. Their spiritual growth and welfare matters. On the Day of Doom, the Baldwin, the illegal Xeroxes, the guitars, the vestments, the church building, even the town in which you lived -- all of it will have been calcined to dust. What will remain is the people, your brothers and sisters, standing with you and singing the glories of the Lamb. You are given a small part in preparing them for that Day.

No one said it would be easy.

(Adapted slightly from my old LiveJournal, Nov. 25, 2009)

Friday, November 24, 2017

About those wrong notes...

Item: postlude at the All Saints’ Day service (Fantasia on Sine Nomine, by Craig Phillips). I came apart during a passage about three pages from the end.

Item: postlude on November 19 (Toccata: “St. David’s Day”, by Ralph Vaughan Williams). I lost it at the top of the final page.

Item: postlude on Thanksgiving Day (Nun danket alle Gott, by J. S. Bach, from the Leipzig Chorales). I came apart at the top of the final page.

All three of these were serious mishaps, where I lost control of the playing for a measure or more. All were in fairly difficult passages, which I had thoroughly practiced and considered well-prepared. It was the Bach that scares me, for that is a piece I have performed scores of times. After the liturgy, I got back on the bench and played the piece perfectly, with complete comfort. It is always challenging and needs preparation, but I am confident that I can play it.

Until now.

If I were a golfer, I would start muttering about “the yips.” A bit of poking around finds that yes, the condition affects musicians as well as golfers and other athletes. It is described in places as a “focal task-specific dystonia.” It most often affects experienced players who have been doing the same thing for decades. It afflicts 1% to 2% of musicians at some point in their careers, men more than women. One article lists some common triggers, among them “a sudden increase in playing/practice.” That could be it, for I pushed hard through the latter part of October to prepare for the week that included All Saints and Choral Evensong.

There is no cure. Intensified practice, the musician’s (and athlete’s) first impulse when something is not right, is not helpful. There are treatments, such as Botox injections; I am not going there. There are “tricks” of various sorts, some of which I will try. It is going to take some experimentation, maybe a lot of it. And perhaps it is nothing, just a string of wrong notes. But three times in a month seems a bit much, and this feels different from the thousands of wrong notes I have played over the years.

For the present, I think that I will do the following:
- Quit playing repertoire of the sort that has triggered these collapses.
- Probably quit playing Evensong preludes. Excepting the principal feasts, this is the only occasion where I play “big” repertoire. At the least, I have crossed out the “Great” C minor prelude and fugue scheduled for January, a repeat of the Vaughan Williams Prelude and Fugue scheduled for February, and the Mendelssohn Fourth Sonata scheduled for March. I might try improvisations for evensong instead of playing repertoire.
- Avoid difficult music for the Eucharistic voluntaries on routine Sundays.
- Focus more of my practicing on improvisation, and do more of it in service playing.

That leaves some areas of concern: what am I going to do with anthem accompaniments? There are several of them which are difficult for me in the next few weeks, starting with a Michael Haydn anthem for Lessons and Carols, December 3. So far, I have had no problems of this sort with accompaniments, even the difficult ones, so I will hope that my brain considers this enough of a different task so as to be completely separate.

And what about the principal feasts? We’ll have to take them as they come, and lean toward easier music rather than more difficult. For example, I am done with the Phillips piece that I played on All Saints: never again.

I gather that the condition comes and goes unpredictably. That gives reason to occasionally dip my foot back into the deep water and see how it goes.

Steven Pressfield writes: “For the professional, the stakes are high and real.” This is my paid employment, and I am now considerably less fit for it than I was a year ago. “A musician is only as good as his last performance,” as they say. For now, I think that I can still earn my keep; I can play the hymns, train the choirs, do the other parts of my job. When you get down to it, playing organ literature is the least important part of what I do.

For a while now, a photo of Keith Jarrett has been on my “door.” It is there mostly because I seek to emulate his long-form piano improvisations, but now I have another reason: he has overcome a disorder that kept him from playing – even privately, at home – for years.

I have been blessed with good health and no serious injuries or physical problems with my playing. Most everyone who does this professionally runs into one thing or another somewhere along the line. Now it is my turn.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wachet auf, and a YouTube update

Some while back, I posted a rant about Microsoft and the demise of Movie Maker, which made it easy to prepare MP4 files for YouTube. It turns out that in this instance, my steaming about the Evil Powers at Microsoft was unfounded. One can, with slightly more difficulty, get the job done with another Microsoft product: PowerPoint, at least in its 2016 version (which is what is on my computer). PowerPoint is not something I normally use, which may be part of why it has taken me two months for this idea to occur to me.

As a trial run, I prepared this YouTube clip of my piano improvisation from last Sunday. It is mostly based on the chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, which in turn is based on last Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (St. Matthew 25:1-13). Because we were to shortly sing another song based on the same story, I included it as well: “Give me oil in my lamp,” starting at about the 6 minute mark in the video.

As for the PowerPoint procedure, here it is – for, in defense of my slowness of mind, I did not find anything along these lines in a Net search for how to do this. Then again, maybe it is so obvious to everyone else that no one has felt it useful to explain it.

• Run PowerPoint.
• In the headings at the top, choose “Insert”
• From the ribbon below the headings, choose “Pictures” (or other things, such as photo albums, or further to the right, Video)
• At the right end of the ribbon, labeled “Media,” choose “Audio.”
• That gives a little drop-down with two items; choose “Audio on My PC” which opens a File Manager box where you can locate the audio file that you want.
• After some few minutes, one ends up with a PPTX file – that is, a PowerPoint presentation – with your chosen Audio file under the photo(s).
• It needs one more tweak: there is an audio control/volume icon in the middle of the picture, which you don’t want in the YouTube file. Right-click on the icon to select it, and choose “Send to Back.” This puts it behind your picture.
• Now you can save the file. Under the “File” heading, choose “Save As,” and in the box that pops up, find “Save as type.” It has a long drop-down list, which includes what we want: MPEG-4 Video (*.mp4). Choose this, give it a filename (which will appear at the beginning of the video) and hit “Save.”
• After another longish while, you now have an MP4 file, which can be uploaded to YouTube.

Despite finding a way to do it, I do not expect that I will often post to YouTube.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Declaration of Religious Principles

The following was formerly the Declaration of Religious Principles of the American Guild of Organists. The AGO no longer appears to adhere to any religious principles, though many of its members do. This statement is old-fashioned in its language, and perhaps its concepts, and I emphasize that it no longer reflects the “mind and intention” of the AGO in any official way.

I find that this document, at one time available from the AGO as a poster, is not available on the Internet. To remedy that and in hopes that it may be of encouragement to some, here it is:

Soli Deo Gloria
Declaration of Religious Principles

For the greater glory of God, and for the cause of worthy music in this land, we, being severally members of the American Guild of Organists, do declare our mind and intention in the things following:

We believe that the office of music in Divine Worship is a Sacred Oblation before the Most High.

We believe that they who are set as Choir Directors and as Organists in the House of God ought themselves to be people of devout conduct teaching the ways of earnestness to the Choirs committed to their charge.

We believe that the unity of purpose and fellowship of life between Clergy and Choirs should be everywhere established and maintained.

We believe that at all times and in all places it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to work and to pray for the advancement of Divine Worship in the holy gifts of strength and nobleness; to the end that God’s House may be purges of its blemishes, that the minds of all may be instructed, that the honor of that House may be guarded in our time and in the time to come.

Wherefore we do give ourselves with reverence and humility to these endeavors, offering up our works and our lives in the Name of Him, without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Amen.