Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.
I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.
Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.
Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!
As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.
I’m really nervous and excited about my upcoming organ recital, which is less than three weeks away. I had 29 guests for my organ recital earlier this month. I was really pleased to have a mix of people from all three services, as well as guests who heard about the program via a listing in the local newspaper.
December’s 25- to 30-minute program has five pieces, four of which are brand new to me. While browsing through stacks of music I’ve collected over the years, I came to realize a while ago my limits in learning new music. In order to have old favorites, it’s necessary at some point to learn new ones! There are composers whose music I’ve barely touched due to an unfamiliar style or because they write incredibly difficult music. There’s both on this program.
The first two pieces by Dandrieu and Daquin are written in the post-Baroque Galant style. It’s just a glimpse at an almost forgotten era of music composition that connects the Baroque to the Classical eras. My refuge is in the Bach chorale prelude, which I’ve played for many years. The Dupré Magnificat is a soft and flowing piece with delicious modern harmonies. The Langlais is a triumphal piece that you are sure to hear me play again soon, perhaps on Easter Sunday 2019. Explore this new repertoire with me!
What, Where, and When
Organ Recital – First Methodist of Bella Vista, Arkansas
Sunday, December 16, 2018, 12 Noon
Monday, December 24, 2018, 6:55 p.m.
Carillon ou Cloches – Jean-François Dandrieu
Noël X pour Grand Jeu et Duo – Louis-Claude Daquin
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 – J.S. Bach
Magnificat IV – Marcel Dupré
Fête – Jean Langlais
Last Updated 2019-01-30 | Originally Posted 2018-11-25
I write a short monthly article for the church newsletter featuring the music I present. It’s a great opportunity to share my plans on both piano and organ, including my weekly selections and any upcoming seasonal recitals. Occasionally, a story gets left on the table, like how I came up with the eclectic mix of five Festive Fanfares and Finales that will be played during the postlude in September 2018.
Connection and the First Two Postludes
Connection is very important for organists since we play an instrument that is all about solitude. Plus, we tend to run very specific daily routes where it’s a huge surprise to see other randomly. Despite that, I’m proud to mention the personal connection for each of these pieces! The first postlude, a short toccata by 19th-century French composer Auguste Larriu, was recommended by someone who recognized me from the Facebook Organists’ Association. She is a good friend with one of my fans from two churches ago in Danbury, Connecticut. The second postlude is a rousing arrangement of A Mighty Fortress by Diane Bish. Talk about fans? She is an absolute favorite of church congregants everywhere that I have played. Though church organists may have their own list of favorites, this woman is the people’s favorite, hands down! It’s natural to want to play some of her arrangements.
Two More Postludes and a Bagpipes Joke
The postlude for the third Sunday is an arrangement of a famous bagpiper’s tune, transcribed for organ solo by Sean McCarthy. He is the longtime organist at the First Presbyterian Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, which proudly celebrates their Scottish roots. For me, it’s a chance to play a great tune without having to actually hear bagpipes. To recast the old joke violinists tell about the viola: What do you call 500 bagpipes at the bottom of the ocean? Five hundred too few! The fourth postlude is called Roulade by Gerald Near. The French title refers to the rolling structure of the piece. It’s a new piece to me that I’m looking forward to performing for the first time! I was introduced to Gerald Near’s music by Alec Wyton, who told me I should learn a bunch of his works. He was right!
Speaking about Alec Wyton, the final postlude of the month is his famous Fanfare, written for the state trumpet that is installed on the back wall of the immense Gothic Catedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan. Though he was music director there for two decades, he was serving at his final church post in the bucolic town of Ridgefield, Connecticut when I met him. We served on the board of a tiny chapter of the American Guild of Organists in Danbury, Connecticut. I eventually studied with him for a couple of months and championed his work afterward in honor of our friendship. It’s sort of a difficult piece to play without the extra third manual and a mounted en chamade trumpet, but I’ll do my best!
The next time you see some programming of a diverse set of pieces, ask the musician for the backstory. You might make a new friend quickly! I guarantee that the program didn’t happen by accident. Each connection is like a gold coin in a treasure chest!
Last Updated 2018-11-24 | Originally Posted 2018-09-04
It was a typical Sunday morning for me. At around 7:45 a.m., I rushed out of the choir room, having concluded playing for a short choral warm up. Before I got a chance to go into the sanctuary, climb the stairs to the chancel, and approach the organ bench, where I would put on my organ shoes, choir robe, and organize my music, I got stopped in the hallway. It started innocently enough. A person with whom I’ve chatted on occasion jokingly said, “you showed up today.” I playfully retorted, “well I don’t get paid if I don’t show up.” I thought that was it, but then she continued by saying, “I’m sure you have a real job.” Ouch!
Those were the words – a real job. Not: “a day job.” Not: “you must do something else during the week.” Not: “I’m sure we don’t pay you enough that this is the only thing you do.” All of these would have been totally innocuous and I wouldn’t have questioned it further.
So what does that mean? A real job? When I was thinking about careers as a teenager, I didn’t envision what exactly I would do with music, despite getting my first paying church job as a 15-year-old at a country Methodist church, and picking up another one when I was 17 at the Reformed church down the street. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these two churches would eventually merge, and I was in on ground zero of it all!
While I was in music school, I was solely focused on piano. Sure, I got asked to substitute for a church service here or there, or play for a wedding or a memorial service. However, it wasn’t until a Baroque trumpeter, then just a fellow student at Purchase College, wisely said the following: “I predict that you will make more money on the organ than you will ever make playing the piano.” Though that wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to hear, I had a sense he might be right.
I luckily found a really accomplished organist, whose main job was theory professor, who offered to give me lessons for free. Though I had previously known how to turn on the blower and operate the drawknobs or stop tabs on a console, I wasn’t an organist. I played at the organ! While many pianists compete to find pianos on which to practice at music school, I had the pick of several amazing pipe organs in the music building and across the street in the performing arts center. I could practice just by arranging to get a key or making a phone call.
Perhaps you have never seen an organ console. Below is the one I play each week. As a bonus, I took a picture of the organ itself, which correctly termed, is the thing that makes the noise, versus the console, which just instructs the organ what noises to make. While this console is pretty basic compared to many more elaborate ones, there are relatively few people who know how to play one, including most pianists who are either too cool or scared (or both) to do so. While I’d admit that my dashboard is nowhere near as complicated as on larger instruments, it is still somewhat intimidating. Does this help to qualify playing the organ as a real job?
Although there is no minimum degree organists must have, you will find that many accomplished ones have a Master of Music (M.M.) degree like I do. Others typically have a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree, though there are some overachievers, like the music director at First UMC of Bella Vista, Larry Zehring, who has a Ph.D. in Music. That’s a fairly rare degree among musicians, since most who call themselves doctor earn the less academically rigorous and more performance-based Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) degree. I wonder how many people realize that church musicians are typically just as educated as clergy, who to be ordained have to obtain the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, in addition to jumping through a set of hoops decided by denomination. Is that enough education to qualify one for a real job?
To be fair, there are very few people who work just one job in music, including those fortunate enough to land full-time church work or a college professorship, both of which typically come with full benefits. My job is just a part-time one, roughly 12-15 hours per week, without any of those benefits, and unfortunately without a cost of living increase in the past six years. Many churches are struggling, including the one where I work. I get that in some ways I’m lucky to still be paid to be there. However, while I’m at church, either on the organ bench practicing or playing for a service, or on the piano bench playing for the choir or preparing one of my Piano Postludes, I never think about whether what I’m doing is real or not.
It was close to noon on that same Sunday morning in which I spent a lot of time reflecting on what this person said. I was playing the final hymn of the late service, and it happened to be the tune AURELIA, composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. You probably know it by the words The Church is One Foundation. Samuel Sebastian Wesley is one of my favorite 19th-century choral composers. He descended from a line of composers, including his father Samuel, coined the English Mozart, and his grandfather, the hymn writer Charles, who is the brother to the founder of Methodism, John. I found comfort in being a part of this history in my playing, even if I was the only one who sensed the significance. That was real to me!
I’m currently a fellow in a program called Artist INC, being held at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. This is the second year that the program has been offered locally, after being founded a number of years ago in Kansas City, and running in quite a few cities scattered throughout the middle of the country. After just two sessions, with six left to go, I’ve already heard many other artists speak of their struggles. There are all kinds of struggles, but a quite common theme is lack of respect of our chosen profession.
Although the majority of participants in the program are visual artists, we all struggle to make a living through our work, and to convey to those around us that what we do is a real job. But this is no pity party. We come to learn. We need to become better engaged within our artistic circles. That can sometimes be more difficult than addressing our patrons, clients, and fans. A central focus is to look inward, to take some of the same skills we’ve used at becoming disciplined in our art and becoming disciplined in other aspects of our career.
Perhaps Sunday morning’s comment came at the right time. If nothing else, I have a great story to share with my fellows at our next session!
As you might imagine, there is an abundance of wonderful organ music for Lent and Easter. It would be pretty easy for me not to learn any new music for the season, and just recycle what I already have. But that doesn’t serve my goal to learn a lot of new music while I’m still young enough to do so. Plus, there are entire composers whose music I’ve avoided due to the difficulty or strangeness of it. Now is the time to build a few of these pieces into my repertoire.
Certainly, one composer whom I’ve avoided is César Franck. His music is not the most difficult to learn, but his works are long, have lots of tricky sections, and require lots of registration changes to be effective. There are other composers like Edwin Lemare, Marcel Dupré and Jean Langlais who seem to delight in how many notes they can throw on a page. With them, there are no easy pieces, even ones marked at slow or moderate tempos.
I’ve learned to choose only a couple of difficult new pieces a season, so I can do them well. The Pastorale and Prière of Franck are two of these. For everything else, I look at lists from prior years and choose a variety of pieces and difficulties to make sure that I don’t spend too many nights toiling away at the console.
So, as the pensiveness of Lent breaks into the jubilation of Easter, the keys may change from minor to major, but the work continues! In order to document my work, I’m recording and posting some of these recordings to my own Website. However, they are just for my monthly newsletter subscribers. It’s free and easy to subscribe (please do) and unsubscribe (but I hope you don’t).