An Easter service some might want to forget
(A church organist 1 reflects on a morning that was, in large part, a series of disasters.)
To start things off, I played the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s MESSIAH as an organ solo for the prelude. I’ve played it countless times both as an organ solo and accompanying choirs. I could play it in my sleep. I don’t need the music although I always have it up there as a sort of security blanket.
Off I went with a big Hallelujah!
Something I had not counted on was back spasms.
Saturday, a couple of us had spent the day moving stuff from a rented storage unit over to a better location. It was a long day of hard work under a hot sun. There was furniture, boxes of stuff that we’ve never unpacked since we moved. At the end of the day I was exhausted and I hurt from head to toe.
When I got up Sunday morning I was still a bit sore and creaky, but felt okay.
A church organ in a balcony 2
“In my ‘rear view mirror’ I saw a lot of people's heads whirl...”
— an organist in a balcony is separated from the action
Well, as I was playing along with Mr. Handel, suddenly I was seized with a tremendous back spasm. If you’ve ever had one you know what it feels like – like someone has just stabbed you with a big knife. My torso jerked and lurched in reaction to the searing pain. My hands flew off the organ keyboards and back down again, but not where they left off. I hit a loud, crashing dissonant cord, the organ bellowing in protest. In my “rear view mirror” I saw a lot of shocked people’s heads whirl around and look up at me in terror! The pain subsided a bit and I was able to continue on without further mishap until the very end.
After I blasted out the last “HAA-LEEEE-LUUUU-JAHHHHH” on full organ, I lifted my hands up. After a beat of quietness, I reached to press the “Cancel” button to retire the stops. Just then, my back spasmed again, causing my hand to slip and hit the bottom keyboard. A loud musical “SPLAT” issued forth, spoiling the triumphant ending.
Next disaster (2):
The Rector – a very capable and decisive woman with a passion for liturgical innovation – decided to completely rearrange the church for the Big Day. All the seating and furniture in this church are movable – we can have a standard setup where the altar is up at the end of the chancel in a traditional position, with seats in rows down the nave. Or the altar can be moved down to the main floor in the center for “church in the round.” Or it can be placed in the crossing (the area between the chancel and the nave) and so on and so on. The Rector decided for yesterday to bring the altar down to one side of the chancel where the choir usually sits. That meant that they had to be relocated from their usual perch at the side of the nave over to the other side, sitting on the front row of the congregation with everyone else.
My choir folks are “seniors” – all of them – and none take to change either easily or gracefully. One in particular. As soon as she walked into the church she started grumbling and complaining about being moved (“We ALWAYS sit on the side...”), and of course her negative spirit spread like odorous flatulence to the others.
When I was trying to explain how the logistics of the service would work, they kept talking and grumbling instead of listening.
Since their backs would be to me (the organ is in a loft at the back of the church), the Rector decided that she herself would come up and give them their cue to stand up when it was time for them to sing. They were to walk in an orderly manner to the front of the crossing and then turn around to face the congregation as they sang.
Since the choir members hadn’t been paying attention when I was explaining what to do, they were lost and confused when the time came for them to sing. The Rector walked over to give them their cue. They just kinda looked at her, like, “What are YOU doing?” She had to tell them in a loud stage whisper, “Stand up, and then walk up to the front and face the congregation.”
Well, they stood, but then started wandering around like a flock of lost sheep, one going this way, one going the other, all the time “bah-bahhhing” about having to move around. The Rector finally took them by the hand, one at a time, and led them up where she wanted them to stand.
Then after they sang, it was a repeat-in-reverse of the same ordeal to get them back to where they were supposed to sit. It was an awful mess and looked very amateurish and tacky.
Next disaster (3):
A soloist was to sing a long and complicated “Big Horns” anthem: a dramatic number entitled “Jesus is Alive!” She’s sung it before, so she felt confident that she could sing it yesterday without going through it with me. Even though I had requested that she do so. Can you say ... “Prima Donna”??
I came down to the piano (which was down front on one side) to accompany her. She stood to sing. The selection started off okay, but in the middle section she got lost and started singing in the wrong key. There’s a transition from A minor to D major, and she was singing in A major! She lost the transition and was singing a perfect fifth above the accompaniment. I started banging out her solo line in octaves and she finally got into the right key.
During the second verse, when we got to the place where she had gotten herself lost the first time around, she looked at me with a sort of “deer in the headlights” expression. The hilarious look on her face made me get tickled and I totally lost my concentration. The accompaniment for this song is elaborate and “frilly” and the accompanist really has to pay attention.
Well, I got lost when I got “the tickles”. Suddenly I had no idea what I was playing, nor in what key. That, of course, totally threw off the soloist who didn’t know what to sing, so she just started going “Hwar-hwar-hwar” like a seal – desperately glaring at me with a frantic expression. After a couple of measures, I got my wits about me and got back on track. I actually went back and started that whole section again, pounding out her solo line in octaves again to make sure she didn’t get lost this time.
It was a real mess. After church I went over to her and said, “Now you know what can happen when you don’t rehearse beforehand.” Of course, she got her knickers in a knot and fumed, “It was YOUR fault – YOU’RE the one who got lost.”
Next disaster (4):
There’s all this new theatrical lighting in the church and an elaborate control system for it. Yesterday was the Big Unveiling. The guy running the control board didn’t know yet how to operate the controls. We had lights of various colors going on and off at odd places throughout the service. At one point he hit some button and the church was plunged into darkness. Then there was the ubiquitous presentation by Liturgical Dancers. Although the dancing was lovely, they got all sorts of odd effects from the lighting man. Stuff like, the lead dancer would be in front “striking a pose” ... drenched in a garish wash of magenta light. The small-beam spotlight that was supposed to be illuminating her head was off-kilter, beamed directly at the crotch of one of the ensemble dancers.
Next disaster (5):
There’s an old man in the church who is a real pain-in-the-butt know-it-all. Oh, I could tell you stories for days. He suffers from a dreadful case of Selfimportantitis. During congregational singing, he sings loudly and off key, trying to “lead” the congregation. Trouble is, he’s not taking the tempos I am, and he frequently “ad libs” the melody line, confusing people. Well, he was in rare form yesterday. Even with a full church, I could hear him bellowing away. Every hymn was an awful mess – him on one tempo, I on another, the Rector on another, and the befuddled and crochety choir members singing God only knows what.
The undercurrent of this situation is the Rector’s insistence that we sing all hymns in an “upbeat” manner. She has been at me about this for a long time now. It’s very frustrating. She even starts “conducting” the hymns herself, sometimes, or else starts her own screeching in order to get the tempos more “upbeat.” (Do please note, I really do not play excessively slowly.)
Meanwhile, the bellowing tenor’s antidote to “singing the hymns so doggoned fast” is for him to presume to take the lead and sing at a pace that he considers appropriate. Yesterday was just the worst. The more stops I pulled to drown him out, the louder he bellowed. I could see the Rector shooting him some dirty looks, and there may be some ear-boxing in the man’s immediate future.
After church I went over to him. I knew the time had come when I had to address this head-first.
I said, “May I speak to you for a moment?” I told him, “Today we had a very large turn-out for church. Yet even with so many people, I could clearly hear you singing very loudly above everyone else, even above the organ. Big problems ensue when you try to take control of the tempos and phrasing by out-singing everyone else and the organ. I set the tempos according to specific direction from the Rector that we sing everything ‘upbeat.’ You were singing more slowly than I was trying to play. I am sure you do this because you believe you are being helpful, but please know that you are not.”
He tried to interrupt me with his “The hymns are too fast” schtick. I headed him off at the pass and said, “If you wish to take exception with the tempos I am taking, then that is something you need to discuss with the Rector. Meanwhile, please do let me do my job – which is leading the congregation in singing. You’ve really got to stop, until you’re hired on as the music director.”
Similar discussions with him in the past have not gone well, so I just walked away very quickly as my words sunk in, before he had a chance to get his wits about him and respond. As I went out the door I hear him muttering and sputtering to himself.
I will say, however, the wonderful part was that our church was full practically to overflowing and we did have a glorious service all in all, despite the “America’s Funniest Home Videos” moments. I haven’t seen that many people there in many moons.
1 The events described in this story really did happen. However, for obvious reasons, I am not permitted to reveal names or locations. The narrative has been edited.
2 This is a photograph of the organ loft of Bjursås church, Diocese of Västerås, Falu kommun, Sweden. The image is here merely to illustrate the situation of an organist playing in an organ loft, far from the liturgy below. Photo by Håkan Svensson, used under licence.