Does she have the organ turned on?

Hola a todos. I visited a church from my childhood the other night, via video. It’s a church of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — although they were not typical Southern Baptists when I served as a musician there a few times — and I remember them for their excellent church organist and pipe organ. The church asked me to do some accompanying there one Summer with their Youth Chorus. They knew of me, I guess, from being the accompanist for the High School Chorus, and the Chorus Director had an excellent reputation in town.

I remember asking my dad about this church because it was not like the typical church of the SBC. He said, “Well, they’re part of the Southern Baptist Convention.” I said: They are? I would never have guessed that. Then a relative of mine went there for awhile on a regular basis. He mentioned to me what the church was doing during Advent. I asked: Advent? What would they know about Advent? I’ve never known a church of the SBC to follow or know anything about the Liturgical Year. He said, “Yeah, they’re weird there.”

I would describe them as “High Church” Baptist, if there were such a thing, and there isn’t to my knowledge and my experience in the churches of the SBC. It’s as if this particular church tried to be more like Anglicans than Baptists, and the organist at that time may have had something to do with that by making the music more High Church.

I’ll call the organist Ms P. I don’t remember ever meeting her in person but she was always nice to me through our phone contacts. I played the organ there a few times for services, and she had no reservations about that, and she told me, “The key to the organ is in the desk drawer in the church office.” She was the opposite of the asshole organists I’ve dealt with as an adult since graduating from the Conservatory where I trained. Their approach to me — if they responded at all — was as abrasive as sandpaper. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about the majority of church organists that I’ve dealt with as an adult. (Organist Diane Bish said, “Church organists can be touchy.” That’s putting it politely and diplomatically. Why don’t you tell us what you really think about them, Diane?) I also filled in for this nice organist from my childhood at the local funeral home on occasion where she also served as organist. The music at that time at this church was among the best around, which was why I was attracted to them. This church had the best Church Choir in our area — they always won the Choir Festival competition — and Ms P’s organ playing inspired me as a teenager. Sometimes I would pass by the church and I could hear Ms P practising the organ so I’d stop by the open window and listen to her playing. She played beautifully and she inspired me. She made their pipe organ sound more like a cathedral organ. She was very well-trained.

So I wanted to hear the church’s pipe organ the other night in the video. It’s still there, well, I think it is. Who would know by the way it was played? At one point while scanning through the video, I asked: Does the organist have the organ turned on? Did the dear forget to turn it on? (roll eyes) Yes it was that bad. Being so long ago, I don’t remember if there was a red light on the console which indicates that the organ is on, but you might want to check there first, of course, unless the bulb is burned out by now! Ugh. The church’s music programme has deteriorated since my days there. The music was crap to be honest. There was a baby grand piano over on the left side — there was no piano in the Nave (although SBs don’t call it the Nave) when I played there — and the pipe organ console over on the right side. They’ve moved the organ console for some reason. I remember the console being more out into the congregation a bit and it was in a shallow pit. Not now. So, I suspect if you took up the carpet in that area, you’d see a board or something over where the pit was filled in. Why would they do that? The pipes were/are enclosed on either side of the pulpit in the wall with screens/boxes covering them. Why not have the pipes exposed? Everything looked the same except the piano is new and the organ console is closer to the back wall for some reason, which means that the organist’s ear are closer to the pipes, which were installed just above ear-level for some reason. They’ve also taken down the red drapes in front of the baptistry which I’ve noticed that other SBC churches have done. What do they have against drapes covering the baptistry when it’s not being used? Some silly new fad, I guess. So now you just see this hole in the wall back there behind the pulpit. Whereas before the drapes covered it.

The organist was playing the organ but it was barely audible. All I heard was the out-of-tune piano which was played quietly but it still overpowered the organ. I thought: Does the organist not know that those pedals (or is there only one pedal on this organ, I forget)? that looks like an accelerator on a car is the volume control? Push it down, dear, and the organ becomes louder as it opens up the expression boxes.

I read the organist’s background which was on the church’s website. Assuming it was the same organist, and presumably it was although she was wearing a COVID face shield, how can someone like that who has a Performance Degree in pipe organ play the way she plays? WTF? She was playing this pipe organ like it’s a casio keyboard. Does she know there are bass pedals down there or did she not have any bass stops down? Or is this how the church asked her to play? Podunk. As if she’s playing for a Southern Baptist funeral. (The music for Anglican funerals is not played like a dirge and hymns are played full organ; Anglican funerals are more like a celebration of the person’s life which is not how SB approach funerals).

Are people these days terrified of pipe organs? If so, why? These are beautiful instruments. What’s there to be terrified of?

I’ve read comments online where some people were whinging about the organ playing being too loud for hymns in their church. The organ is supposed to be loud for hymn playing. The organ is supposed to lead the congregation and be dominant, otherwise the congregation will drag the hymn to a near stand-still. You want that? I think not! The hymn will get slower and slower if the organist does not keep the tempo moving and be dominant. And having played hymns for decades for congregations, I know of what I speak. You don’t leave hymns to a congregation. Not at all. The organist must lead and the finest organist will include some creative High Church interlude improvisations between verses on occasion and a grand and glorious last version, preferably with a soprano descant on the last version sung by the Choir’s soprano section and sung with perfect intonation (no noticeable vibrato on any descant. If Mabel cannot turn off her god-awful wobbling vibrato, ask the dear (who shouldn’t be in the Choir to begin with!)) to come and turn pages for you or something. Find some way to get her out of the Choir for the descant). But a descant should only be used if the soprano section of the Choir is capable of singing a descant. There’s nothing worse than a podunk, amateurish, feeble soprano section trying to sing their way through a descant which is way beyond them and their abilities. And there is nothing worse than a descant sung with god-awful wobbling vibrato. It’s awful. We were taught at the Conservatory where I trained that all descants are to be sung with a straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato). Listen to the descant sung by the Cathedral Choir of Men, Boys and Girls of Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia for their Midnight Mass (2018). It’s the recessional hymn (“Hark, the Herald”) and begins at 1.57.11 in the video:

Notice how the cathedral’s pipe organ is dominant throughout as it should be, and Cathedral Organist Thomas Sheehan is outstanding. About the descant for “Hark, the Herald:” The Boys and Girls of the Cathedral Choir had quite a challenge to be heard over a congregation that completely fills the Nave. Production mic’d them but was slow to up the mic volume so that we could hear the descant. We hear most of it as it soars through the Cathedral. Also, there was the challenge of the delay with the Cathedral Organ being at the opposite end of the Cathedral and the Cathedral Choir being positioned in the back of the Nave. So there was a distance problem of sorts but they did splendidly overall. I think Thomas was watching Michael (the Choirmaster) in his monitor (above the music rack) closely. Michael was sort of conducting back there.

I’ve read that many churches have abandoned their (pipe) organs because they’re considered “outdated” or from another era. I only know of two churchs in recent years that installed a new pipe organ. Both in Manhattan. One being St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Anglican Communion), although I preferred the sound of their previous organ better. One of the most inspiring things for me is to hear a large cathedral organ with a highly talented organist who excels at improvisation at the console. That can cause my eyes to fill up with tears because of its beauty. Whereas, I’ve never teared from hearing any “Praise Band” in a church. It’s not that I don’t like the instruments of a “Praise Band.” Well, I have no use for a casio keyboard. It’s just that they (“Praise Bands”) do nothing for me in a Liturgy. And why use a podunk casio keyboard when you have an organ or piano on the premises. Or is it that the casio is considered “cool” because it’s more like a pop band keyboard, and the organ and piano are not?

At this SB church, they sang a hymn or two but nothing remotely inspiring.

Mi amigo/My friend grew up in a very Low Church parish of the Anglican Communion. Until he met me, he had no idea of the high-caliber of music that one could hear in certain parish or cathedral Anglican churches.

I began to wonder: Have Baptists abandoned hymn singing of “the old favourites?” What they had was about 4-5 people in choir robes holding microphones and singing music more reminiscent of pop music with “Jesus” texts to it. Of course there was the wobbly soprano which seems to be a requirement for sopranos of any type, even in some well-respected Orchestra Choruses. None of these “choristers” have ever studied voice or had any music training based on the way they were “singing,” if you can call it that. The “choral music” — if that’s what it was supposed to be — was very syrupy. I think it was intended to be “Praise Band” crap.

So then I went to the end of the video thinking “Do they have an Organ Voluntary?” Well, Southern Baptists call it the “Postlude,” but that’s where you’d hear the organ. But no, Myrtle (not her real name) had turned the organ off and Ms Podunk at the piano was playing some little ditty for — what should have been — the Organ Voluntary. So there was no Organ Voluntary. Mi amigo asked: Did the organist bull shit her way into this job — assuming she’s paid — and that’s why she sounds the way she does? Because how can someone with a Performance Degree in pipe organ play like someone with no organ training?

Southern Baptists have never had the best music — Anglicans have the best music in my opinion — but I have to say this was the most pathetic music I’d heard. I’d be ashamed to put a video like that out. So I have to assume that this is what SBs have come to?

Well, they’re nothing like Anglicans that for sure. I butted heads on occasion with Anglican priests but usually the musical standards remained high. I did resign from one position because the priest wanted to use these — what I considered — Low Church psalm settings instead of Anglican chants, and we were High Church/Anglo-Catholic so I didn’t go along with his choice of repertoire. Then he hired an associate priest who seemed to think he was some authority on selecting music for the Mass. So we didn’t get along either. I kept stressing I preferred to use the repertoire and high-standards one heard at the Cathedral Church (Anglican Communion). But the priests were determined to have their way so I resigned and then I went to the Cathedral Church’s Choir of Men and Boys. When I resigned as Organist-Choirmaster of the parish, I was very touched by the many parishioners who came up to me and said how much they had always enjoyed the music — they told me that every Sunday as well — and that they hated to see me go. It was very kind of them. I hated leaving them too.

At the SB church from my childhood in the video, the organ did sound in tune unlike the piano, so I assume the organ is still being maintained. Sounds like it’s still working well, what little I could hear of it. The current organist didn’t play it beyond a mezzo-forte, if that. As for the pipes being enclosed, I think that’s to keep them cleaner.

Before the renovation of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the original Filene Center organ had the pipes enclosed. They were behind the wall in the back of the stage that opened up. The pipes were only exposed when the organ was being used in a performance. I remember being in the Choral Arts Society of Washington Chorus on stage and up behind us on the Chorus risers we’d hear the sound of the wall opening up. It was the wood “drapes”/panels being opened to expose the pipe organ for our performance. After the Concert Hall renovation awhile back, the new organ in the Kennedy Center has the pipes exposed.

The organist at the SB church in the video seemed afraid of the organ. How can someone with a BM (Bachelor of Music) in Organ Performance be afraid of the instrument? When I played there on occasion, the sound of the organ filled the room. The same for Ms P, the former organist.

I remembered two other churches in the same town. I wondered if there was any info about their pipe organs, one of which I also played. The Presbyterian Church had the best pipe organ in town after the church was rebuilt due to a fire. The church had a fire and as I recall was essentially burned down, so they built a new church entirely of brick. It was quite pretty. The new pipe organ was rather large — almost too big for the church I think — and it was installed when I was in high school up in the back of the Nave in the Choir Loft (although Presbyterians call it “the sanctuary”; in the Anglican Church the Sanctuary is a specific area around the free-standing altar. It’s not the entire room.) Even though the walls were brick for the new church, the floors were carpeted. The pipes for the new organ were exposed.

The difference between city churches and rural town churches is that the latter couldn’t care less about the music or the organ. They’re more like Catholics. So there’s usually nothing on their website — if they have one — about the organ.

But major city churches are usually very proud of their pipe organs and have information about the instrument. Most town churches don’t bother showing a picture of the pipes or organ console unlike the city churches. It really boils down to a lack of respect for the music, organ and organist in the smaller churches.

There was nothing about the Presbyterian Church’s pipe organ, or if they’re still even using it. A year or so ago, I searched this church and remember seeing a baby grand piano up near the altar which was not there when I filled in as organist on occasion. I’m wondering if they’re even using that pipe organ these days, or just using the piano. How could they have a pipe organ that nice and relatively new in the big scheme of things and not use it?

The Episcopal Church in town — part of the worldwide Anglican Communion — showed the Quire area and a side view of the organ console on their website. The pipes were enclosed — similar to the Baptist Church down the street — but their pipes are high up above the Quire stalls. My former piano instructor who helped get me into the Conservatory where I trained was Organist-Choirmaster at this church. When she was there, the organ console was in a deep pit in the floor of the Quire area, but they’ve since raised it for some odd reason. What was wrong with where it was?

But yes, these days it’s difficult to get any information on what the smaller churches (town churches) are doing with their pipe organs or if they even have a Choir. The music seems unimportant to them, other than images of guitars, drums, (digital?) keyboards, microphones. All forming the “Praise Band” and singing about Jeeeeeeeeeeesus. Ugh. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Update: It occurred to me sometime after I wrote this article, that the apparent reason that the organist is playing the organ so quietly is because her ears are right at the pipes, because some idiot moved the console. When I played there, the console was somewhat out near the congregation in a shallow pit, which worked perfectly there. It was put there so that the organist would not be near the pipes. I’m not sure when the organ was installed. Maybe it was Ms P’s intelligent idea as a trained organist that in order to play Full Organ, the console should be away from the pipes. (When I played Full Organ there for hymns during baptisms, the Full Organ sound didn’t bother my ears at all because I was far enough away from the pipes. In fact, I didn’t even give it any thought until now.) Then after Ms P retired and is no longer there, someone who knows nothing about music or organs apparently, decided to move the console back close to the wall where the pipes are installed, even though the pipes are higher up next to the organist. But the organist I wrote about in this article must be afraid that her delicate ears will be damaged by playing the organ at a volume level greater than ppp. Sigh. People!