Upcoming Performances

August 12, 9:00 am
Featured recitalist, Organ Historical Society Convention, Temple Concord, Syracuse, N.Y.

August 28, 8:00 pm
30th anniversary concert, Casavant organ, Appalachian State University

October 3, 7:30 pm
Guest recitalist, Valdosta State University

October 12, 5:00 pm
Evensong recitalist, Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, Houston, Tex.

October 19, 3:00 pm
Guest organist, Hymn festival, Francis Street First UMC, St. Joseph, Mo.

October 31, 8:00 pm
Annual Halloween Monster Concert, Appalachian State University

November 9, 4:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Independent Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.

December 7, 6:00 pm
Annual Messiah Singalong, Appalachian State University

February 20, 2015, 7:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Shandon United Methodist Church, Columbia, S.C.

June 22 and 29, 2015
Featured recitalist, Conferences on Worship and Music, Anderson Auditorium, Montreat, N.C.

June 23, 2016
Featured recitalist, somewhere very exciting, TBA!

May 28, 2017
Evensong recitalist, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, N.Y.

Monday
Jul282014

Spoken like a pro

The Rev. Kenny Lamm, senior consultant for worship and music for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, maintains a blog on worship and music. A fellow Facebooker shared one of Kenny’s recent posts, and I can’t let that pitch go by without taking a swing at it. I have known Kenny for many years, so I’m comfortable adding my own perspective and taking him to task here. So open your Bibles and your hymnals and Kenny’s blog in another window, and let’s get this service started:

Kenny says, “Worship leaders…are changing [the] church’s worship…into a spectator event, and people are not singing any more.” Well, YEAH, it’s a spectator sport and has been since the Ark of the Covenant and before. Walked into a Medieval European cathedral lately? There is so much to see in the architecture and appointments that you will always see something new each time. But in our modern churches that specialize in “contemporary” worship (hate that word, but history has not produced a better one yet), there is virtually no architecture to admire. And so our lights and graphics have become quite the visual feast (the only thing to look at, really) – so it's our own fault that people just look and don't participate, or at least look and not listen. Screens are hypnotic, and if the projector fails during a service, in some churches there won't be much left to take in. But being a spectator and not singing are two different phenomena. Looking at something is different from choosing not to sing along, and not singing along is a choice toward which many people are routinely driven today by worship teams. But when I attend church at, say, Esztergom Basilica or the Bavokerk in Haarlem, there is plenty to look at and there are plenty of kind and sincere people all around, and I can feel quite close to God without understanding a single word being said. Nothing wrong with worshipping with our eyes.

Kenny says about pre-Reformation worship, “The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin).” In many cases, the musicians were professional only insofar as they were professionally led and very well-rehearsed. Latin notwithstanding, presenting well-prepared church music is a good thing.

Kenny says, “The Reformation gave worship back to the people, including congregational singing which employed simple tavern tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people. Worship once again became participatory.” One must be careful not to “nutshell” the Reformation too much. It was about far more than any one issue, and it was brought about by far more than one person. And although Luther got tunes from wherever they needed to be gotten, many of them came from aristocratic soirées, not from drunken brawls. And the tunes were NOT simple; matter of fact, the watered down versions we have today (by Bach, of all people) are far simplified from the rather vigorous rhythms of the originals.

Kenny says, “What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading – enabling the people to sing their praises to God.” And there is his thesis. He blames the re-professionalization of church music for shutting out the congregation. I’ll disagree passionately by saying that if anything, worship music has deliberately shunned professionalization, to its detriment and that of the musical health of its congregations. We need professionals all around us, in all spheres. And it is possible to be a professional musician and a compassionate Christian.

Kenny says, “Worship is moving to its pre-Reformation mess.” Sounds kind of alarmist to me. We’re way ahead on the Reformation issue of the vernacular in worship. And it took hundreds of years for the Reformation to finally gain enough ground to get started. And here we are hundreds of years after THAT, and our current sudden silence in the congregations took only about 30 years to come about. So it’s imminently fixable.

Kenny continues with nine reasons he feels congregations aren't singing anymore:

1. “They don’t know the songs.” I believe more accurate would be that they are not being allowed time to learn the songs, and they are not being presented with enough information to do so. Worship songs are not hard to learn. Any song on earth consists of text and melody, but our screens offer text only, thereby leaving out around 65% of the information required to sing a song. That's an easy fix on the screens, but it will probably require a professional musician to do it.

2. “We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing.” No argument there. Worship songs are notoriously solo-centered. It’s one of the most destructive forces against congregational singing today.

3. “We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.” True; see #2 above. But keys are easily fixed, preferably by a professional musician (there’s that word again) who knows how to transpose and to produce parts for the band. But we used to sing even higher in our hymnals, before worship songs came along. That is easy to explain: we got bigger. People were shorter and smaller in the 19th century and earlier – bodies and voices were smaller, therefore, higher pitched than today.

4. “The congregation can’t hear people around them singing. If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud.” No argument there, but the loudness is less than half the problem. Next to #2 above, dead acoustics are a primary culprit to congregational silence today. There has always been a reason why people sing in the shower and not in the bedroom. And at Kenny’s previous church, the acoustics were lousy, and the sound system and music were oppressively loud. Speakers just shout at you; they don’t envelop you. Loud doesn’t work when the organ is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the band is too loud. Loud doesn’t work when the lead singer’s mic is too loud. And despite their insistence to the contrary, choir members don’t “get” their part by sitting next to someone singing their part in their ear or by asking the pianist to “bang out” their part. Sound must be all around a person to lead him, not shouting out of a speaker to drag him.

5. “Excellence – yes. Highly professional performance – no.” I cannot imagine how you can have excellence without some know-how behind it. I am a professional musician. And so is Kenny. And when I “take the stage” to lead a crowd, I do it better than most. What’s wrong with getting the music as good as we possibly can? What’s wrong with hiring a professional musician to lead the flock? Give of our best. Get it right. Hire skilled musicians [I Chron 15:22, I Chron 25:1-8, Psalm 33:3]. In his excellent and punch-in-the-face kind of book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best asserts sternly on page 170 that “There is no hint anywhere in the scriptures that mediocrity is excused in the name of service and ministry.” He asserts over and over that God expects us to find the best people in order to offer the best product. "Professional" is required to educate, to produce, to move amateurs into a higher worship IQ bracket.

6. “The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.” I'm not sure this is verifiable. You’d have to ask the congregation. But they’re not professionals, so don’t expect them to be able to put their finger on it immediately.

7. “We fail to have a common body of hymnody.” Actually, the songs keep changing so fast that we can’t decide what’s in and what’s out. Worship songs are being churned out so fast that it’s impossible to determine which ones will stand the test of time. It's our own fault that few non-hymnal-based churches have a reliable repository of songs to use anymore.

8. “Worship leaders ad lib too much. Keep the melody clear and strong.” This is a sibling to Nos. 2 and 6 above. The fastest fix is to get the melody up on the screen. With that, you could even do away with most of the worship leaders, which could eventually pose the question, “Why did we require multiple worship leaders wielding microphones in the first place?"

9. “Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.” This one is tricky, in part because I'm not entirely sure what Kenny is saying. But the people are looking at a screen, so it’s impossible for worship leaders to connect fully with them. But ultimately, everyone is responsible for his own worship. A worshipper shouldn’t expect to be reached without reaching out himself, and a worship team should not be expected to take responsibility for anyone’s non-participation.

-------

This post came about from some comments I made on a Facebook friend’s page in somewhat rawer language. I hope I have been more compassionate here, but this debate is important, and I have my suspicions that all this is an easy fix. Kenny has offered his summary of the problem in an over-professionalization of church music. I have offered mine in the mis-channeling of professionalization and in uninformative screens. We’re both close, but it remains for churches to embrace their own fixes.

I'm not advocating here for the removal of the screens and a return to using hymnals. That would be too drastic for the screen camp, but it would solve a host of problems being increasingly debated.

Monday
Jul212014

Thanksgiving in July

I am extremely sensitive and routinely compassionate, believe it or not. Although I speak my mind in this blog, it is usually a place to release steam, and I am then able to go back into the trenches and serve my fellow man with unhindered patience. I teach my students how to deal, how to cope, how to behave despite a low opinion of a situation or a person. But recently, my writing has been of the insistent kind that assumes any idiot would agree with anything I say. Part of my subconscious had apparently decided that I don’t have to practice what I preach. The evidence has been in this blog, which has lately exhibited an increased level of woe, gloom, doom, and complaining. I have become, in a favorite organist word, a bitch.

Two events in the past week have brought about an abrupt turnaround to this, thank God. One was a challenge from a reader who was taking all the yelling and screaming at face value, as a reader should. Sure enough, when I went back and looked at a few comments in last week’s post, I saw that I was blowing a larger smokescreen than usual. I had gone too far. I immediately reversed it and reclaimed my compassion. An insidious enemy, the assumption of superiority.

The second event that brought me back into the land of the living was the acquisition of Clyde Holloway’s Aeolian-Skinner from his house. That was a surreal process that I never expected to come to a conclusion so quickly. Many Facebook friends have assumed Clyde left the organ to me. If he had, my life would be complete, and I could die happy and fulfilled. But he did not. However, one thing led to another, and it’s now a textbook case of ask-and-ye-shall-receive. I am ever so glad I asked, and I shall live out my days in hope that Clyde would be pleased with this development.

Getting that organ is much like my keeping my father’s 1970 Lincoln Mark III. The organ and the car represent two people whose presence I can still feel by now owning these things that were important parts of their lives. I suppose it will be a while before I start calling them mine, rather than calling them "Dad’s Lincoln" or "Clyde’s Aeolian-Skinner."

Those two events this week were humbling. I am reminded that I have no real reason to complain about anything. I may be disappointed in my state economy and my state legislature’s continuing evisceration of education and in not getting that bigger studio, but I still have a job doing what I was trained to do, with a full stable of students. I may now be in debt from acquiring Clyde’s practice organ, restoring Dad’s Lincoln, or paying for a new transmission on my own car this week, but I am fortunate to be able to make the payments. I may not have been considered attractive enough to have a career manager, but I still get to go play for appreciative audiences 2-3 times per month. I may not like the screens in church but I am still able and invited to play for church for congregations who still want to use the organ.

And so I am thankful to have been brought back this week from an old path of bitchiness I learned to follow as a younger man. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Clyde Holloway’s memory by continuing to preserve the Aeolian-Skinner that he was so careful to preserve. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Dad’s memory by restoring his car the way he always wanted to. I am thankful for the opportunity to honor Dick Woods’s memory with his choir members each year. I am thankful for the students who seek me out.

And so if you have life, health, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then stop complaining. Did you hear that, Joby?

Sunday
Jul132014

Going dormant

***This post has been heavily edited from before. If you have been Facebooking about a rawer, more rant-ive post, the current version speaks in a more compassionate tone, the same tone I try to teach my students. The earlier version was me in a heated moment, which should not have seen the light of day.

__________________________________________

 

Some reactions are so automatic in years past that they do not lose their potency when they come up again.

I left regular church employment three years ago, but just in the past three days nearly all of my church "triggers" converged into a perfect storm. My visceral reactions were at the same level today as if I had never taken a step away from church work. It's kind of like that good friend with whom you can always catch up on things in just a few minutes. Only different.

This weekend, I agreed to help out an organist who wanted to leave town for a friend’s funeral. My duties included a wedding; weddings proved to be my biggest emotional trigger in years past. The stress that many people bring to their weddings is sky-high, and much of it is avoidable. I always fancied myself above all that and congratulated myself for staying cool. But after a few years away, this past weekend proved to me that I am just as emotionally high-strung as any nervous bride or her soon-to-be mother-in-law. My primary stressor was always a fear of screwing up -- it wasn't about making a mistake, but rather disappointing any people who were already on edge. Once an organist plays the wrong piece or plays it in some fashion other than the recording everyone is used to, he becomes the object of disappointment and maybe even hate mail. This is stress that I bring to the table, and I have never been very good at letting go of it. My powers of service playing are formidable, but they usually co-exist with a childhood fear of, "Please like this, and therefore like me." Now you know.

Now, this wedding just past had a healthy dose of many things I like in a wedding: modest bridal and bridesmaid attire, well-dressed witnesses, traditional music, short ceremony, no soloist, etc. But some triggers were in full force: 1) A nervous instrumentalist was worried about available rehearsal time, especially since I couldn't be present at the wedding rehearsal. 2) The guest minister wanted me to play the wedding party and mothers out at the end and then stop so he could invite everyone to the reception. 3) there were some yuk yuks scattered throughout the ceremony that I always feel reduce the solemnity of the occasion. If a minister feels the need as a matter of course to put everyone at ease with non-holy humor, then we bring too much stress with us as a matter of course. 4) The groom mumbled his vows. I get nervous when I see that -- I always wonder if a mumbler believes what s/he is saying. 5) The guest minister decreed that the service was now over, even though I had more music to play, all of which I like to think is part of the service.

Then on Sunday, I played for church for the same organist friend. The service had lots of things I like: a single service (traditional), sturdy hymns (all stanzas), faithful choir, good pacing, etc. But the triggers were as strong as ever, most of which I have blogged about before.

During this same weekend, I read the latest from another blogger, who I feel misses the point on why congregations don’t sing very well any more. He blames the “professionalization” of music; I blame the lack of musical notation on the screens, which is always a hard sell against "but no one reads music."

With this fresh wave of old triggers came an unexpected glimmer of new understanding. Perhaps I have been so uptight over the years because so much of this has cropped up in church since my childhood and would be all too easy to reverse (if anyone would like to do it Joby's way). Perhaps I have been so uptight because I don’t want anything I do to be seen as foreign and therefore regarded as a screw-up. Surely I am as guilty of the emotional wrenching that I blame brides and their mothers for.

But as always, it’s time to get over it. Some things are just not my responsibility. It’s time to go dormant with this crusade! Oh, I’ll still play for church when I can – there is still no greater thrill than playing and hearing congregational singing, screens or not. But I’m still learning to take the rest of it in stride. Life goes on after triggers!

Monday
Jun302014

Happy and gay? Part 2

I heard from a couple friends regarding an earlier post on gay organists. They had good things to add that need to be repeated here. And since no one else is taking up the subject for research, this lowly blog is the forum for now, folks!

In the earlier post, I wrote that gay musicians are sometimes ousted from the very institution they give their lives to serve. But I am reminded that the church mistreats far more than just gay people. Adulterers, gamblers, porn lovers, and horrible people who just don’t believe the right things – all these are called out when found out, and many of them, therefore, hide their true nature in some churches. Deviations from some congregations’ beliefs are often called out as “sinful,” while the whistle blower twists the knife by insincerely hastening to add that the church will love that sinner no matter what. Yeah, right.

I also asserted that if a congregation is open and affirming, then gay can be happy. But I have been reminded that if a congregation is open and affirming, then straight can be happy, too. The congregation’s engagement in the proceedings is key. Congregational indifference can be as deflating to any musician as congregational homophobia can be to a gay one. (One reader said, “Straight people have feelings, too!”)

The discussion could continue here in several directions, such as congregational indifference, why some church musicians work so hard for so little sometimes, or why some gay musicians work so hard incognito. Might as well say a bit about all of those:

Congregational indifference: Does your congregation sit and listen to the postlude? Does the choir? Do any of them treat you the same way they would treat a lounge pianist with a tip jar, by making outlandish requests for Sunday and for their weddings, no matter how inappropriate? How “plugged in” are they to the music you provide? Just this week, I attended church at St. Mark’s in Philadelphia, where the entire congregation sat down and listened to the closing voluntary, during which the altar was dignifiedly stripped. It was a miraculous liturgical moment, as was the improvisation.

Why do church musicians work so hard? Sunday after Sunday, Eucharist after Eucharist, Evensong after Evensong. Directors and their choirs show up and work all evening one night per week, then perhaps all day on Sunday. The director plans recital series, Sunday music, extra concerts and services, etc. They deal with tyrannical clergy and fickle congregants and a paycheck that only occasionally pays all the bills. When do they eat? When do they compose? When do they practice? When do they get a break? I gave up my church work to devote more time to teaching and performing. Correction: I gave up church work because I didn’t have time to do all three careers at once. And now, if I didn’t give up one of the other two careers, I couldn’t imagine applying at a church ever again. But I love to play for church; I love to hear lusty congregational singing; I love to accompany choirs. But I can’t stand dealing with the inner workings of the office Mon-Fri, and I can’t stand being required to be intimate with fellow staffers during weekly staff devotions. And I certainly can’t stand weddings and being treated like a saloon pianist with a tip jar. A reader recalled a memory of being told something like, “When you work in a church, you’ll understand why Christians were thrown to the lions.” For me it was a no-brainer as to which career to let go of on a regular basis. And so I ask again: Why do church musicians work so hard at their craft, week after week? And why do some gay ones work so hard for an institution that could destroy them for coming out?

That’s easier to answer after seeing and hearing so many fine church musicians last week in Boston at the American Guild of Organists convention. The choirs sang angelically, and the directors and organists showed clear evidence of careful preparation and profound musicality. They honed their craft and “did themselves proud” all week. As I listened, I realized: Duh – they do it for the MUSIC. Church music is absolutely the most beautiful music ever rendered by the hand of man. I recall asking a friend why he continues to do Evensong for such small crowds, and he answered, “Because I love Evensong.”

Good answer.

Sunday
Jun012014

My last days with Clyde Holloway

My interview with Clyde Holloway just came out in the June 2014 issue of The American Organist magazine. After that interview, I was newly inspired to learn more, do more, memorize better. I was even inspired to learn more Messiaen.

I would like to have heard more details about Clyde’s every church job, every school. We didn’t talk much about his training, and so I did not ask about all those little details that so many interviews cover about studying with this or that person. No, I wanted to hear more about those revivals that he and my other teacher H. Max Smith used to play for on the piano and organ. I would love to have heard more about what a drill sergeant Jack Ossewaarde was to work for. I would love to know if Jack’s Dutch name had anything to do with Clyde choosing to study in the Netherlands on his Fulbright. But I never asked.

The last time I saw Clyde was following my recital at Houston Baptist University, September 13, 2013. I closed that recital with one of his specialties, the Sowerby Pageant. After the recital, he said, “You play too fast.” I thought he was referring to general tempos, but he apparently was referring to the Sowerby, because he went on to say, “Sowerby wrote the notes to be exciting; they are perfectly exciting just the way they are. You don’t have to push and pull the tempo to make it more exciting; that just overblows it. You should play it strictly. I played it in Sowerby’s presence three times, and he said I played it better than anyone!” (In his prime, Clyde played a lot of things better than anybody else. I wish I could have heard more of it.) And as it turns out, he was right about Pageant’s tempos; I’m a believer now. Every time Clyde spoke, there was something to learn from him.

That was the last time I saw Clyde. But it wasn’t the last time I spoke with him. A few weeks later, he was working with a classmate of mine, Ann Frohbieter. Ann was preparing to travel to “my house” at Appalachian State to play a recital and to lecture on Jewish organ music. Clyde was helping her prepare registrations on an unfamiliar organ so that she would not be so far behind the curve when she got to my instrument. And he called me about five times that night to ask questions about my console so that they could work within those parameters where they were at the time. The problem was that he was working with her on a 72-rank Aeolian-Skinner from 1949, and I have a 51-rank Casavant from 1984! Huge difference. But I later figured out that he was probably re-living some pleasant memories of preparing huge pieces on huge instruments. I suspect it didn’t help Ann much, but it probably helped Clyde immensely, and since he died about a week later, I don’t begrudge any of it.

Right up to the very end, Clyde was giving and teaching. I had hardly a conversation with him that I didn’t come away with just a little bit more knowledge about our field or a little more insight about his generation. Sometimes, I would avoid talking to him because I didn’t have time for a long story or didn’t want to hear a lecture about how I should be doing something differently. [He and I did disagree on how some things in the organ world work, but I disagreed with him quietly.]

Clyde loved people, and he loved talking. The tributes paid to him in the wake of his death have been moving and loving. He was such a force in the profession that sometimes it was hard to think of him as a real person. And even though I studied with him toward the end of his prime, I nevertheless got the best of his teaching, and I also caught glimpses of both his personality as a lonely-ish fellow and his force as a world-class performer. As I’ve said before, there is very little I do in my work that doesn’t remind me of a teacher or a mentor, and I hope that his training won’t fade in my work or my own teaching.

Tuesday
May132014

Wearing the cloak of respectability lightly

Ah, Commencement. A time to celebrate. A time to enjoy the upcoming freedom of summer. A time to enjoy the quietness of the town before summer school starts and the seasonal residents arrive in droves. Also a time to observe how society has changed since last year’s Commencement. Although my heart is usually broken by my observations, the ceremony is still good each year. I have to say that this year, our crowd was very well behaved. But this is a blog, and so we’re going to pick it apart, anyway:

There was the usual hooting and hollering for this or that graduate (is that related to the sophomoric hooting and hollering for a groom who finally ties the knot?). There were those graduates who wore shorts and flip-flops under their gowns (one of the oldest and lamest tricks in the book). There were the usual graduate(s) who painted messages on their mortarboard (again, lame).

I’m a fun loving guy, but I get serious when it’s time. I may sit backstage and crack jokes about these organ shoes making my butt look big, but when it’s time to walk out and play, I leave the Bozo nose out of it. I’ll play a great recital, and then I’m ready to go eat Mexican food and tell adult jokes. My dear friend John Yarrington still tells the story of me playing a recital one day and on the next holding up one end of the sofa he bought while walking behind the truck. Well, I’m me. I’m “good help” and a lot of fun, but I have worked hard enough for long enough to know that I play pretty darn well, and I don’t apologize for being respectable on the stage.

I believe it’s that word “apologize” that derails us most often. Passive apology, such as painting words on your mortarboard. Or the clergyperson who doesn’t want to be perceived by his youthful charges as stuffy, and so he wears Birkenstocks under his vestments and approaches the liturgy with a casual air of “y’all come.” Or the clergyperson who begins the liturgy not with “Blessed be God…” but rather with “Good MOOORNing! and WELLLcome to HOLy EUCHarist, RITE ONE!” as if we were at the world premiere of a long-lost Bernstein musical. Or the student who doesn’t want to be seen as responsible among his peers because it’s not cool. Or the brightest minds capable of great things but can’t keep up with their daily schedule. Come on, folks. It’s okay to get it right and be proud of it.

This past “May the fourth” fell on a Sunday. Someone was agonizing on Facebook over how to work Star Wars themes into the liturgy for that day. I told him, “It’s church, not a frat party. Leave Hollywood out of it.” (On the other hand, I myself did put South Park tunes into all services one Sunday. But they deserved it. Read about it here.) One Sunday many years ago, the Warden of the Vestry got up during the announcements and sang a song about the Rector “turning 50 in the morning,” sung to the tune of “Get me to the church on time.” I have seen moving liturgy brought to a mushroom cloud at the Peace by a troupe doing a frivolous skit about the upcoming country day fair. You’ve got to be kidding me.

But I know what it's like to be a prophet in his own land. I have been accused of being “so far above us now” when I played a fine recital on the home turf. But you know what? Screw ’em! It’s who I am now, and I will encourage anyone struggling with it themselves to wear the cloak of respectability lightly, except when it needs to be buttoned alllllll the way up.

Tuesday
May062014

Help Yourself X: Trigger a mutiny

Want to really throw your congregation off the track? Then try some of these harmonizations. It worked for me!

As with all the PDFs in this tagged series, you may click, print, and use these files freely. But cautiously and judiciously.

Ein' feste Burg

Gloria Patri (Greatorex)

Lobe den Herren

Nun danket alle Gott

Old 100th (rhythmic)

Monday
Apr282014

European ways

I'm back from my latest visit to Europe. This was my first time to attend the Annual Meeting of the European Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Each year during Easter week, the chapter members convene in some predetermined corner of Europe to visit and play organs. It's all set up by a volunteer chapter member. This year, the corner was the Alsace/Lorraine area of France, including the cities of Saint Avold, Strasbourg, Metz, and others. During this trip, I learned some new things and re-learned some old things, listed here in no particular order:

Europe is still my favorite place to visit for architecture and organs. To go somewhere and be able to gain access to organs in a group and not have to deal with making contacts myself is the best way to travel, hands down.

Speaking of hands, I got to lay hands on some beautiful instruments. See the photos here.

You can stand in virtually any spot in Europe and point in any direction, and you'd probably be pointing at a church, wherein will probably be a pipe organ. It is perfectly thrilling to be in a land where the pipe organ is such a normal part of life.

Issues in church music are similar all over the world, apparently. While Americans deal with tyrannical clergy, bad music, dwindling congregations, terrible acoustics, mediocre pay, and shameful architecture, Europeans deal with governmental red tape, tyrannical clergy, lousy pay, dwindling congregations, and unheated churches.

For some Americans, doing church music in Europe is as rewarding as doing academia in America. Only without the need for a higher degree. So more power to them.

European church musicians are not as exhausted after Holy Week and Easter as Americans are. I can't think of any American church musician who would have the time or energy to do something like this tour during the five days after Easter.

Europe is getting fat. McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Domino's are shamefully ubiquitous, and the Americans aren't the only ones partaking of the bounty therein, apparently. And "normal" restaurants now rarely serve anything that isn't fried or sautéed. Produce is not to be had except in grocery stores, but that's kind of true here, too.

The dollar stinks against the euro. Again.

AirFrance and Delta are in bed together, but AirFrance has more legroom. When faced with the choice between space and service, take the space.

While TSA is obsessed with shoes, belt buckles, and liquids, Europe is obsessed with carryon weight. For the first time, I was pulled out of line in Paris and "asked" to weigh my carryons, which were over the limit. And so off to baggage check I went. There's a first time for everything. Lessons: a) show up early; b) don't take too much pride in your ability to pack in exclusively carryon bags; c) weigh it -- twelve kilos is the total limit.

There is a veritable smorgasbord of lines to choose from at Charles de Gaulle. Few are marked well, and none is correctly referred to by airport personnel when giving directions, in any language. And most lines split into multiple lanes, then re-converge into one. It's worse than a highway tollbooth.

But the memories that linger the longest are always the pleasant ones. Mine will be about the new friends that now abound. It was a pleasure to meet and spend time with everyone in our 40-person group. I am especially keen to visit with a few of them again in Boston in a few weeks for the AGO convention. And I hope I can go to many more European chapter meetings. It's always worth those interminable flights.

Wednesday
Apr022014

Stiff competition

I have judged, competed in, and administered those nasty little manmade abominations known as competitions. Two of them have re-entered my thinking this week:

One is the Hayes Young Artist Competition, a full-ride competition among first-year entering students to the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University. Each year, we hear splendid playing by upwards of 12-15 students, and we always wish the judges the best of luck in determining a winner. This year, the rightful winner was named, as usual.

Then he turned the prize down to attend college elsewhere.

Which brings me to this advice to any competitor in any competition: it is the ultimate in poor planning to enter a competition “just to see how far you get.” After all, you could win. Just like marriage in the Episcopal Church, a competition “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” And furthermore, it is the ultimate in arrogance to win a major competition such as this and then decline to accept the prize. I mean, how much do you think a university should beg to give you $30,000? There were plenty other competitors who would have gladly accepted that prize or less. Don’t get me started. Oops, too late.

Okay, on to the second competition fresh on my mind. Results are in from a membership survey for the American Guild of Organists on its playing and composition competitions. The tide is turning again, as is its pattern. The opinions coming out of the woodwork are the usual ones: too many judges, too few, too much prescribed repertoire, too little, age range too young, too old, our American competitions are not European enough, there’s not enough prize money, there are too many rounds, too few, instruments used are lousy, not enough trackers, not enough digital, competitors should be able to play a WurliTzer as well as a Fisk, judges should not be current or even past teachers of competitors, blind judging, double-blind judging, fully open judging, audiences should see the competitors, audiences should not, competitors should bow and show stage presence as part of the judging package, competitors should address the audience intelligently as part of the judging package, we need ways to ensure we choose the right winner who will continue on to a major career, we need more prize money, we need to can the competitions completely and teach these kids how to play hymns better, we need to give all that prize money to struggling churches, et cetera, et cetera.

I administered an AGO competition for six years, during which I learned a great deal about organ pedagogy in this country. I treasure having learned as much as I did, because it made me a rather excellent teacher in cultivating the complete performer and not just the hotshot organist. But that learning came at a price. It made me no friends among the competitors (except the winners, of course). And it kind of made me look to my successors like a steadfast defender of the status quo. For the record: I could live with the competition in its previous state, and I’ll have no problem living with it in its upcoming altered state. I think it’s admirable and necessary for the AGO to re-define why its competitions exist and what we hope to accomplish with them. But I fear the sponsors of the first prize will likely not enjoy hearing over and over that cash is more important to a winner than two years’ free artist management and a free recording project.

Well, no matter how a competition is set up, a competitor’s performance is merely a snapshot of her world in that moment. It can go in any direction from there. It is not a guaranteed home run, and it’s not a prediction of future success. A judge’s verdict could be as easily influenced by what he had for breakfast as by how well the competitor played. And Lord knows there have been winners who were never heard from again. And there have been plenty second-prize winners who have made decent careers for themselves. And there are plenty hotshots out there who have never won any competition.

I’d say winning an audience’s heart is the real prize these days. And let's not forget that mediocrity is ultimately our only "competition." We must battle it every day. Eyes on the ball, please.

Sunday
Mar162014

Naming names: a review of a new phenomenon

This will be the first time I have discussed an organist by name. But he has said that he loves the publicity he can get without having to say anything himself. So congratulations, Cameron Carpenter – this will amount to yet another Google hit when I post it.

March 9, 2014, I attended an event I was morbidly curious to attend. It was the inaugural recital of Cameron Carpenter’s digital “International Touring Organ” (“ITO”) performed in the Starr Theater in Alice Tully Hall. Organ design by Carpenter, software and sound production by Marshall & Ogletree, console by R. A. Colby. It is a mammoth array of console, speakers, speaker cabinets, and presumably heavy padding, designed to travel with Mr. Carpenter and be played anywhere. His aim was not only to travel with an organ to eliminate the need for extensive on-site practice on an otherwise unfamiliar organ but also to have available at all times an organ that can play absolutely anything from organ music to transcriptions to Mr. Carpenter’s original compositions, just the way he wants them. But in presenting the ITO as a “solution” to those “problems,” Mr. Carpenter does not celebrate its possibilities but rather laments the “reasons” to need it in the first place, presenting it and himself as saviors of the organ from obscurity and further purist restriction.

Concert instruments are concert instruments. They are designed, hopefully, to play most organ music and to hold their own against an orchestra. In the past 20 years there have been many new ones installed in concert halls, thank goodness. Many are underused, undervoiced, or overbearing, but on the whole, who cares? I’m just glad they exist. But most organs are not concert instruments. They are church instruments, and their first responsibility is to play hymns and service music for the given congregation, then anthems for the given choir, then organ music for the liturgy, then concerts. This makes any given church organ unique and tied to the building in which it resides (another “problem” Mr. Carpenter laments in his Playbill notes). But more importantly, it is tied to the people who desired it and had it installed. And although I myself am tired of some of the purist organs I encounter in some churches, I am delighted there are still churches using an organ. Who cares if it can’t be transplanted to another room? [Actually, many of them can be with proper voicing, and often are.] Who cares if it can’t play the Mahler 5th? Who cares if it can play Bach but not Franck? The artist needs to practice his art, no matter the quality of the canvas available. Taken this way, the ITO is the most expensive cop-out I have ever seen.

But it’s not a cop-out. It only looks like a cop-out when Mr. Carpenter blames its raison d’être on all these external, inane forces he laments and is presumably too lazy or advanced to work around. But if allowed to speak for itself, the ITO might be more readily accepted for what it really is – a marketing tool for one person. And since it is just that, no matter what else he ever says about the establishment, Mr. Carpenter has my blessing to use it to make millions. He has said before that he is in the business of promoting himself, not the organ. He finds it silly that organists promote the instrument in the abstract rather than themselves. He has a slight point there, but it’s also slightly off-target. The organ is so much more fascinating than a clarinet or a violin, and so we organists can use that drawing power to our advantage. [God knows I am not likely to attend a bassoon or violin recital, and I loathe voice recitals.] Young people love the organ because it’s fascinating and powerful. Mr. Carpenter has done much to draw young people toward the organ, but he has done so (correctly) by drawing them to himself and dressing like what they like to see. [However, the audience I saw at the inaugural recital of the ITO was primarily of the old geezer variety. Must have been the ticket prices that drove the youngsters away. That might need to be addressed in the future. And should Mr. Carpenter ever elect to get over the whole punk thing in his dress and hairstyle, it shouldn’t affect his popularity. If it does, then there is something wrong with the audience.]

The ITO itself: It has everything it needs to play absolutely anything, I suppose. The problem is that in spite of all that variety, I didn’t hear more than about four distinct sounds. Everything sounds alike, and none of it sounds like the instrument/s it attempts to imitate. There have certainly been strides taken to make a digital organ have the acoustic expanse of a pipe organ, but this wasn’t it. The speakers were all aimed at the audience. They might have sounded fuller by being aimed at the walls or at least in multiple directions – hey, much like a pipe organ sounds. The problem with speakers is that they produce their sound out the same little opening note after note. There is no variety to the source of the sound, whereas the pipe organ has little tone producers scattered across many square and cubic feet of space, automatically giving a sense of spaciousness. This will forever be the primary barrier to digital supplanting pipe. So let it be written. But I don’t think Mr. Carpenter is trying to replace a pipe organ with the ITO; he’s just getting something that can play anything at all. His taste in what can be played on the organ is farther ranging than most of ours. But honestly, I haven’t heard all that Bach and Widor have to offer me, and so I’m staying with them for a little while longer.

Mr. Carpenter bewails in the Playbill the fact that an organist [I’ll add pianist here] has to make friends with a new organ [piano] in a mere couple days or a few hours before performing, whereas instrumentalists get to live with their instrument 24/7 for life and always have their expression available. I disagree that this is a problem to be solved for the organist. In my case and that of many others, I am constantly affirmed by audience members how well I use the organ, how much color I get out of it, how much passion there is in my playing, etc. Making friends with an organ is an art. And it’s not difficult. And I’m good at it. And so is Mr. Carpenter. Therefore, when taken at face value, I don’t know what his problem is. The ITO does have some restrictions, just like the stationary organs it exists to surpass. It’s the same organ, the same organist each time. I was tired of it the first time and elected not to attend the second recital that day. Audiences enjoy traveling to a famous venue to hear what’s inside. The ITO is touted for its ability to come to the audience, and when it has done that once, the appeal may be over for many. And it will be horribly expensive to move and to present, which will limit its appearances to only the richest venues. Furthermore, now gone is the creativity at making a stationary organ do what the organist wants it to do. At the inaugural recital, Mr. Carpenter bragged that he will no longer be making so many program changes as he usually does on a stationary organ. I think he has done that in the past to highlight a stationary organ’s limitations, but if he’s not careful it could just look like laziness in not reviewing an organ’s spec before choosing a program. Duh. But the point is probably now moot – the ITO is now Mr. Carpenter’s constant companion, assuming presenters can afford its hauling charges.

Mr. Carpenter has been described as “revolutionary,” after his recording and DVD where he plays the left hand of the Revolutionary Etude with his feet. He has followed that same trend, playing the piccolo part of The Stars and Stripes Forever with his feet, etc. But his career is not “revolutionary.” The use of that word would suggest that everyone will be doing things that way before long. Rather, Mr. Carpenter is an island, an aberration. No one else can step in and take over. No one else can take it to the next step. But Mr. Carpenter has the same ten fingers and two feet that the rest of us do. The difference is that he plays the way he wants to, which means that all the pyrotechnics are his invention. That would be much more difficult to do if he were trying to play someone else’s way. We all have some keyboard skills that are better than others’. Mr. Carpenter has exploited his own talent, rather than develop new ones. That’s not so hard to understand, is it? Many people could play the way he does. But no one has the time to develop it, and very few have the inclination. Mr. Carpenter’s style is to play nearly all the time while spanning two to four manuals. There is a constant “thumbing down” of melodies and counter-melodies and a constant use of the piston sequencer. The rest of us have to practice playing in three dimensions, but it can be done, and I suspect even Bach did it. But when Mr. Carpenter renders, say, Franck with constant solos and countersolos where Franck didn’t write them, it just begins to sound weird, not revolutionary.

I haven’t figured out why all this is necessary. Mr. Carpenter lays a lot of blame at the feet of the establishment for the existence of his creativity. What’s wrong with just being creative and innovative? And I haven’t figured out how it could be sustainable. It is not sustainable because only Mr. Carpenter plays that way, and there is no one else coming up the ranks. It is not sustainable because no one has the desire, ability, or need to do the same. It is not sustainable because Mr. Carpenter has not exhibited a desire to teach the style to anyone else. And so it makes much more sense to accept Mr. Carpenter as a marketer of himself and not of the instrument he has chosen for his expression or that he claims to be saving from the purist’s wrecking ball. As soon as he gets bored with it and has no more lands to conquer, the show will be over. But I guarantee that Bach, Mendelssohn, and Widor will still be with us, uninjured.