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!