My Disdain for Church Organists

Is the AGO a religious organisation? The AGO (American Guild of Organists). As an adult and a Conservatory-trained organist, I found church organists to be unlike any other musicians I ever encountered or worked with. What a piece of work they are.

Hola a todos. Can I write about the elitist clique known as the AGO without raising my blood pressure? Well, I’ll try. I’ve been meaning to write this article for some time based on my negative life experiences with organists.

Well I honestly don’t have anything positive to say about church organists or the American Guild of Organists. They should more accurately be called the US Guild of Organists since they are mainly about the US and Canada, both of which are in North America. North America includes México. And there are three Americas: North America, Central America and South America. They (the AGO) appear to have no chapters south of the dis-United States border. Again the US is in North America. But the US arrogantly stole the name of the entire hemisphere “America” as its name and the word “Americans” as the name of its people. US Americans/USians is more accurate. Because in reality, anyone living in the Americas is an American, not just US Americans.

The AGO is a US national organisation (based in New York City) of academic, church, and concert organists. The AGO is geographically divided into seven regions and 298 chapters. In recent years, they added international chapters in Kenya, Finland, Barbados, and Shanghai. And the European chapter is the oldest international chapter. Their governing body and system of governance is of an elitist style and rather hoity-toity. They’re big on the word “Councillors.” Such as this:

The National Council is the main governing body of the American Guild of Organists. The four National Officers, three National Councillors with committees in portfolio, and the Chair of the Board of Regional Councillors (selected by the seven Regional Councillors from among their number) are members of the National Council. The Executive Director is a non-voting member of the National Council.

Oh, so they have three National Councillors with committees in portfolio, Dahling? Well good lord! Can they make it any more complicated and pretentious? All of that for a conservative organisation — of people who believe in a Floating Cloud Being — that seems to do little or nothing to help organists who are not part of their clique or to help the dying organ field? They seem to be more about structure and wasting time with (useless?) committees than they are about actually helping people, except for their “celebrity” organists. They are another essentially useless organisation that most people have never even heard of.

The National Officers of the Guild consist of a President, a Vice President/Councillor of Competitions and New Music, a Secretary/Councillor for Communications, a Treasurer/Councillor for Finance and Development, and a Chaplain. The Chaplain is an honorary national officer and not a member of the National Council.

They need a “chaplain” do they, in a supposedly secular organist organisation? WTF?

Oddly, for me I had a far better experience with church organists before I trained in pipe organ than after I trained. My fondest memories of church organists are as a child and growing up in High School with local church organists who were very nice to me and welcomed me to play the organ in their church, in part perhaps, because they knew I was the piano accompanist for the High School Chorus and the pianist for the local Rotary Club, as well as the church organist and I guess they had heard me play somewhere. In hindsight, I seemed to have had a good musical reputation in the area but I was unaware of that. Well, I knew it to a degree I guess because I was always busy with something musically and someone asking me to do something such as accompany them or to play for some Liturgy, but I didn’t walk around with my nose in the air. And I can’t stand people who do! Although I had not studied organ at that time. I was working on achieving a good piano technique first at the recommendation of my piano instructor — who helped get me into the Conservatory where I trained — who was also Organist-Choirmaster at the local Episcopal/Anglican parish. One of the local church organists in town had me fill in for her on occasion and that was a thrill because that church (it was Presbyterian) had recently installed a new, large pipe organ up in the back of the Nave. I thoroughly enjoyed playing there. It was a beautiful pipe organ. The local Baptist Church — which oddly observed the Liturgical Year; I’d never known a Baptist Church to follow the Liturgical Year and my dad told me they were a member of the Southern Baptist Convention but they surely didn’t act like it when it came to their music (I guess they could have been called High Church Baptist, if there is such a thing) — but they also had a nice pipe organ. Their organist knew of me from the High School Chorus so she welcomed me to play the pipe organ there on occasion. I also served as piano accompanist for one of that church’s choral ensembles one Summer. The organist left the key to the organ in the church office for me. I never met her in person, unfortunately. She also served as organist for funerals and on occasion asked me to fill in for her at some funerals. She was well-trained and played beautifully. I stood outside the church one Summer evening while she was practising the organ when the windows were open. Lovely sounding pipe organ, and I later enjoyed playing that organ, that had I heard from outside through the windows.

After I trained in organ — I minored in organ for three years — at the Conservatory, I dealt with nothing but difficult organists. I learned to approach them with “kid gloves” from bad experiences with previous organists. Over time, I began to lose patience with church organists but I tried not to let that show. I kept asking myself: What is wrong with church organists? Why do they act the (belligerent) way they do towards me? I haven’t done anything to them. They are unlike any other musicians I’ve ever dealt with. They are such assholes to me. Why? Thinking back on it, even most of the organ majors in the Conservatory were difficult to be friends with for some reason. I never knew why. They were not like most of the other students or like the many musicians that I accompanied. It was almost as if they thought they were better than others, and I can’t stand people like that. They were stand-offish and quite conservative. That seems to be part of “the church organist” stereotype. I only got to know one of the organ major students as a friend (sort of) and she was — like many, if not, most females — an emotional mess most of the time. Similar to my experiences with other females as friends. Although most females don’t seem to know that about themselves.

A bit about my experience with females: They’re so emotionally-driven and “drippy with love,” and their overuse of the word “love.” They’re also prone to crying on a whim over the most trivial things. Guys don’t behave like that. Then some females turn the waterworks off the moment they get their way. They’re very manipulative. I’ve asked female relatives about that and they seem oblivious and or in denial to their erratic, unpredictable moods. With most females, you never know what mood or moods she’s going to be in at any given moment. I’ve found that to be true with female friends as well. A female can change her mood like a light switch minute by minute and are completely oblivious to it, and it’s often connected with her female plumbing and hormones. Most guys know exactly what I’m talking about. They refer to “the bitch.” The females pretend not to know what I’m talking about. It’s the females who choose denial about themselves. Not all, but I’d say most. And another thing: Why does a female require that her guy always hold her hand in public? Is she that damn insecure in their relationship or does she see him as “daddy” and needs for him to protect little dainty her like daddy did and hold her hand crossing the street? And why does she walk one-half step behind the guy — often with her hand latched on to his arm like it’s a leash — as if not his equal? When she goes to kiss her guy, why does she put one foot up behind her and stand on the other? Isn’t that intended to “be dainty?” Damn odd. I once asked a PhD level psychologist about this and his experience in psychotherapy with females. All he would say was, “Oh they’re different” and he didn’t say it in a positive manner or facial expression as he rolled his eyes, comparing them to guys. Part of the reason I brought this up is because most of the difficult organists I’ve dealt with have been females.

After graduation from the Conservatory and when I no longer had a church job (by choice), no one would allow me to use the church organ to practise even when I offered to pay the church, including churches whose organist I knew to be a member of the local chapter of the AGO. I mostly got silence as a response from them. How’s that a way to treat your fellow organist and a fellow musician? And do you all pretend to be Christians since you’re organists in Christian churches? That’s who I contacted. Yet your behaviour towards another organist does not demonstrate your supposed Christian beliefs and of your living the life of Jesus. I don’t think Jesus would ignore another organist and outcast him and essentially tell him to “Fuck Off.” That’s not the way Jesus worked from what we know about his life from learned theologians. I suggest that most of you organists are Christian frauds, like most of the fake-Christians in the pews. Christian in name only. People call themselves anything these days, but that doesn’t make it so.

I remember having this accompanying job where I accompanied a singer. He performed in a church on one occasion and I played their organ. Well, when I met with the organist before the Mass, she launched into this lecture of what I should and should not do on “her” organ. I thought to myself: Another fucking piece of work. Having received that lecture many times, in a resigned manner I calmly responded to her by saying, “Yeeeeeeeees. I’m well aware of all that. I trained in organ at the Conservatory where I studied.” I wanted to tell her to piss off. As Our Rose said in the British comedy Keeping Up Appearances, “Some women can be bitches.” After this organist heard me say, “at the Conservatory where I studied” that seemed to shut this woman up. Sigh. I swear, I’ve had enough of these people! What dreadful people many/most? church organists are. They are a special breed of assholes quite frankly and I still don’t understand why. Why do they act like such disgruntled, miserable people? It’s not my problem that they hate their church job and the salary is low and or they have problems with the clergy who often know little or nothing about music yet too often dictate to the Organist-Choirmaster what s/he will do with the music.

I resigned from one of my positions as Organist-Choirmaster for that reason. The priest and I butted heads. It was an Anglo-Catholic (High Anglican) parish, and after awhile the priest started telling me what settings of the Mass he wanted to use. They were not settings I felt were appropriate for High Church. They were rather Low Church. I was also using Anglican Chants for the psalm settings and he wanted to change that to these simple little ditties he found somewhere, that, once again, were not High Church and they were awful musically-speaking. I thought: You want to use that? I wanted to use the time-honoured settings used by the local Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. It was not like the parishioners didn’t like my repertoire selections. No, this problem was with the Rector. The parishioners were very nice and kind to me, and appreciative of my playing. Every Sunday I had members of the parish come up to me during coffee hour and tell me how much they enjoyed the music and how joyful it was — which I very much appreciated; that was so nice of them and I could tell that they were sincere — and that was my intent. I did a lot of improvisations and interludes between verses of the hymns to keep them interesting rather than the same thing every verse, so it wasn’t the parishioners who didn’t like my Anglican Cathedral music. It was the priest who knew nothing about music, as usual, who wanted to change the music and use settings which were closer to a guitar Mass settings, without the guitars.

Sigh. And they at the AGO expect to promote the organ and the art of organ playing with their cold, chip-on-both-shoulders, belligerent and off-putting attitude that so many (if not most) organists have?

After I no longer had a church job and at that point was not interested in having one because I got tired of having every Sunday morning and other times of the week tied up with church. When I approached church organists, I told them a little bit about my background including my training. That was intended to let them know something about me and that I was well-trained (although I didn’t say that; that was to be assumed by them reading my background) and I was not going to “break their organ” or change their precious presets or toe pistons. Mi amigo/My friend asked: Do you think that your Conservatory training was intimidating to the organists that you contacted? Probably. It shouldn’t be, but it may have been in the context that the organist thought that I was trying to “come in through the back door” to steal his or her church job when I had no interest in a church job, but they didn’t know that. When I was teaching, I found that some people were intimidated by my Conservatory training. A relative who knows nothing about music read my music bio. She said she was intimidated by the language “Conservatory-trained.” She was also intimidated by my Orchestra Chorus experience where I listed that I performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington and Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus with the National Symphony Orchestra and guest international orchestras, as well as in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall with Margaret Hillis’s/Vance George’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus. I thought: What am I supposed to do? Lie about where I trained despite that expensive tuition and lie about my performance experience just because someone feels intimidated by it? That’s their problem. Or not list it at all? But by not saying anything, that can give the impression that one is trying to hide something. I think other musicians experience this. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why one of my piano professors referred to herself by her first and last name only rather than “Dr” (she has a DMA – Doctor of Musical Arts), but perhaps she found that people were intimidated by her Doctorate degree. I know of a Choral Director with a DMA but he also refers to himself using his first and last name only. I think many (if not most) church organists felt threatened that I was trying to take their job. Are church organists really that insecure in their positions? Perhaps so. And there aren’t that many organists looking for church jobs to cause church organists to feel so threatened.

Organist Diane Bish has had her share of experiences with difficult organists. She has said, “Organists can be touchy.” Diane is being far, far too kind. I wish she had really told us what she thought about them in no uncertain terms. I’m sure she ran into some real pieces of work when she and or her producer (Mary Roman) were trying to schedule a taping of her superb programme The Joy of Music in various parishes and Cathedral Churches.

At the Conservatory where I trained as a piano major, and voice and pipe organ double minors (3 years as opposed to the required 2 years), my organ professor asked me if I would consider being an organ major, to change my major from piano to organ. I was flattered by his suggestion and his confidence in me as an organist. But I thought about it and talked with my parents about it, and decided to remain a piano major, which I think disappointed my professor.

Many church organists seem to live under the illusion that they personally own the organ in their church so it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get them to slide their posterior off the organ bench. They are very immaturely possessive of “their” organ. Even when dealing with a trained organist, the church organist’s approach can be that s/he is going to “break the organ” or change his/her presets, which I always assured them I would not do in my introductory letters asking if I might use “their” organ for practise time.

I suspect that Diane Bish is not like the pieces of work organists I’m speaking negatively about. I think she would welcome anyone to play the organ. The same goes for Paul Jacobs at The Juilliard School. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him but he seems like the nicest guy, but to my knowledge he’s not a church organist. He’s busy at Juilliard. Also Benjamin Straley (former Organist at Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia) and Thomas Sheehan (current Organist at WNC). None of them are your typical, uptight, stuffy church organists. They are four superb organists who come to mind who I sense from them would gladly give another organist the opportunity and thrill of playing the parish or cathedral church organ. People like that are the genuine artists among us and secure with themselves. It’s the insecure and immature people who act difficult, probably because they’re concerned that another organist will “show them up” as the expression goes. Well, I was never interested in “showing anybody up.” That was never my intent and it never crossed my mind. I just wanted to work on some mostly French organ repertoire to consider giving an organ performance. I wanted to perform the Widor Toccata, Jehan Alain’s Litanies, some organ works by Herbert Howells, and others. But, that was not going to happen because of the difficult assholes of the AGO.

I mentioned Diane Bish up above. I guess that caused a coronary arrest for some people reading this. I know some people don’t like Diane, are critical of her and or don’t like her playing. As far as I’m concerned: Diane, Mary Roman (her producer) and her production crew did an excellent job on The Joy of Music. The main criticism of Diane is that she was too flashy in her performance attire and or didn’t play things as they were written in the score. I was there for her music and her artistry. I couldn’t care less what she wore. Only the shallow and superficial people are obsessed with that type of thing. As for her not honouring the wishes of the composer in the score, I watched all of her programmes many times and I only noticed two occasions where, in a couple of measures of a piece, she didn’t play it according to the authentic edition score that I have. What pieces do I have in mind? One piece was the last couple of measures of the Dubois Sortie-Toccata, as I remember. The other was the Widor Toccata where — from what I could see from the camera angle — she didn’t hold that awkward top C in the left hand thumb down on the upper manual at the end of that piece each time she played it. That top C in the left hand thumb is awkward which may be why she didn’t look like she was holding it down (her LH thumb was sticking up) because the organist has to lean way over to the right to feel comfortable playing that. And the LH is on an upper manual to begin with which makes it a bit more uncomfortable depending upon how one is sitting and the height of the organ bench. Also, the length of one’s arms can play a factor here too. So, assuming she wasn’t holding the top C down, did anyone notice but me? I don’t think so. I suspect if one didn’t have the score and had never played the piece, one wouldn’t have known of these slight changes she made, and I don’t know why she made them, but a couple of measures in a piece that aren’t exactly per the score doesn’t stop me from enjoying her playing. She studied with Jehan Alain’s sister (Marie-Claire Alain) in Amsterdam, so maybe the slight changes Diane made really came from Ms Alain? I don’t know. It doesn’t really concern me. Having played the Dubois, I knew that it didn’t quite end the way Diane ended it, but that was her thing. Well-trained musicians — and Diane is obviously well-trained — try to be as faithful to the wishes of the composer and honour the score as closely as possible. I’m not going to nitpick Diane over a couple of measures in one or two pieces, and people who do so need to find a new hobby such as maybe flower arranging or they need to find something to polish to take their mind off of Diane and nitpicking her playing. If you don’t like her playing, there’s a solution to that: Watch somebody else, until you find something wrong with them to nitpick them to death, you useless trash. I’ve had it up to here with the self-appointed, know-it-all classical music armchair critics — who ruin classical music for a lot of people — who have nothing else to do in their pathetic lives than to sit around nitpicking classical music performances to death. And one often gets the impression that these arm chair critics have never studied music or any instrument, yet they consider themselves an “expert.” Why not give us a link to your performance of the piece to show us all how it’s supposed to be played, according to omnipotent you! Ugh. I can’t stand these trash.

When I served as Organist-Choirmaster in Anglican parishes, I welcomed anyone to play the organ, although no one ever approached me to ask to play it. The instrument didn’t belong to me, so who was I to say who could play it and who couldn’t? No one is going to break it and one meets with a guest organist first to begin with and can get a feel for the person.

So, is the AGO a religious organisation? Some organists have speculated about this. It seems like the AGO is a religious organisation of sorts. At least a semi-religious group. Because some or most of their membership are organists in churches, temples and synagogues? I was a member for awhile — really got nothing out of it; it seemed like a rather elitist organisation with the usual local “celebrity” organists as members and none of them willing to allow another organist/non-celebrity to use their organ for practise purposes. Most of the church organists I contacted via letter did not have the courtesy to respond to my enquiry. How nice and “Christian.” I remember seeing bible verses in their monthly newsletter which I found a turn-off. That’s when I began asking: Is the AGO a religious organisation? What are bible verses doing in a newsletter of an allegedly secular organisation? And I remember that the style of their newsletter looked more like the style of a Protestant church bulletin, especially the font they were using. It looked very conservative.

At that time (this was some years ago) — and I suspect it’s much worse now — there were very few, if any, organist church jobs anywhere where one would want to work. No church had a nice organ where there was an opening for church organist. And the salary was rather low, even by AGO guidelines. And since AGO organists don’t encourage other organists in any way, shape or form to keep their artistry up at the organ to performance level — you can’t perform if you don’t have an instrument to practise on! — there’s no wonder that the organ field is slowly dying.

One local church organist — another major piece of work — gave me permission to practise on the church organ. He seemed like a nice guy until we met. I specified in my written request to him that I was going to do some personal recording. It was nothing commercial. Well, when I arrived at the church this asshole got bent out of shape because I had brought mi amigo/my friend with me who was going to run the small recording device I brought. “Who’s he?” the organist asked. “You didn’t tell me you were bringing anyone.” I said: Well it didn’t occur to me that I needed to since he’s with me. What’s the problem with one extra person who will be quietly sitting there turning the recording device on and off? This church organist went off on me in rage. I didn’t put up with his nonsense. We got into a major argument and being sick of church organists and their nasty attitude, I let him have it verbally. I wasn’t putting up with his nonsense. I couldn’t understand his “logic.” I said, “Well he’s here. Can you ‘approve him’ now?” He said: That’s not the point and he launched into another tirade. Insanity. I hadn’t expected anything like this and after awhile I left and never returned. All of that dysfunction simply because I didn’t tell him that another person would be with me. Loco./Crazy. I think any sane, rationale and reasonable person would have said: Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s nice to meet your friend and enjoy your recording session. (That’s what I would have said to anybody).

If you don’t have an organ at home — and everybody can afford to have an organ at home or in a small apartment, correct? (sarcasm intended) or a church job, one can forget organ performance. It ain’t going to happen because the members of the AGO Cult are not going to help you in any way, shape or form. Period. They don’t want you to threaten their church job, which is how most church organists seem to view a request to use the church organ for practise purposes. And often the clergy hold the same views. Many clergy are anti-music. They have no interest in the music in their church. That’s especially the case with (Roman) Catholics. And many, if not most, parishioners in Catholic churches have no interest in the music either. To them it’s all about “The Spoken Word.” I had sensed that from Catholics from my limited musical experience with them, but it was confirmed during the years that I watched the Masses from La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Many of the viewers of their Liturgies online were very outspoken that they had no interest in the music of the Mass. Some were really quite disrespectful in their comments on U-toob of the choristers and organists. From what I observed, I sensed that the clergy at Notre-Dame had a bit more respect for the music than your average podunk Catholic Church. That might have been because they did have a Choir School at Notre-Dame before the fire, although oddly it was rare that any Choir sang for their Masses. Don’t try to figure that out. It was usually a quartet or octet that sang for their Masses. Whereas in the Anglican Communion, the Choir School (the few that there are today) provide the Choir (parish or Cathedral Choir) for the major Liturgy each week on Domingo/Sunday as well as for Evensong. But that’s not the way it worked at Notre-Dame, which I found quite odd. I thought that maybe KTO-TV was not uploading the Festive Choral Mass to their U-toob channel. But one of the former choristers at Notre-Dame made a statement saying that the only time the Full Choir sang at Notre-Dame was for Navidad/Christmas and they all looked forward to that. So with a Choir School the only time the Full Choir sang in the Cathedral was approximately once a year. Loco./Crazy. That’s what one expects with a parish or Cathedral Church without a Choir School. Their Children’s Choir was consistently the best. They sang with perfect intonation and excellent diction. The Adult Choir usually did not sing with perfect intonation. And with them, one also heard heavy-vibrato used in Renaissance music. That’s unheard of! When this was pointed out to one of the choristers, he said “You are correct. Vibrato should not be used in Renaissance music.” But nothing was done about it. Then what did we hear the next week in Renaissance music? Heavy-vibrato, as if they were trying to emulate an Opera Chorus. It sounded awful. On the odd occasion, they would sing Renaissance music without noticeable vibrato — it seemed to depend upon which choristers were there/on-call — and on those occasions the Renaissance pieces were quite beautiful. The male Choirmaster for the adults seemed to let the adult choristers sing anyway they wanted. So if someone was studying opera in the Choir School, they used their “opera voice” in the Choir rather than — the way it’s supposed to be done — their “choral voice.” By using their “opera voice” the choral ensemble did not sing with perfect intonation, one of the foundations of choral excellence. So I gave up on Notre-Dame because of their inconsistent choral standards, and I knew they were not about to change regardless of what anyone said about them. I realised that unfortunately a consistent level of choral excellence did not exist at Notre-Dame, which I found surprising for such a world-renowned Cathedral Church.

Except for occasional wobbling in the tenor section, here (below) is an excellent performance of the Kyrie eleison, a setting by Louis Vierne, sung by the Full Choir of Men, Women, Boys and Girls. (If I were the Choirmaster I would have said to the tenor section: No noticeable vibrato, please, tenors. Perfect intonation cannot be achieved with noticeable vibrato in any voice part, SATB). This was sung for a special memorial service in the Nave. That’s why the Full Choir was there, on this rare occasion. You’ll notice the two organists in Notre-Dame. The Grand Orgue — up in the back of the Nave — was played by one of the three Titulaire Organists and the Choir Orgue was played by one of the three Choir Organists. Go to 14.44 in the video to hear the Vierne. Although I’d advise to start from the beginning to hear that glorious High Church organ improvisation, watch the very High Church procession complete with incense as it should be, followed by the processional hymn (The Doxology; I’ve not heard The Doxology used as a processional hymn before but it works well) complete with descant sung by the Boys and Girls of the Cathedral Choir. Despite my problems with the music at Notre-Dame, they did have the best High Church Liturgy I have seen anywhere.

As for these AGO people: They are such good, warm and friendly “Christians” aren’t they? (Sarcasm intended) Christian in name-only is more like it. So they essentially say to an organist enquiring about practising on the church organ: Piss Off. Go away. The clergy might be interested in allowing you to practise on the church’s organ if one is a paying-member — meaning a tithing member — of their Christian cult, their church. If not, their bottom line: Bug off. They’re not interested.

Few churches are replacing their ageing organs with new installations. Some major city parishes are getting new organs (pipe or digital), but many churches are now succumbing to the fundamentalist Praise Band fad. Catering to the lowest common denomination. And it’s, in part, because of this mentality, that the public see pipe organs and organs in general as some outdated creature of the past. One of the churches that I grew up in no longer has an organ. They’ve gone to Praise Bands and casio-style keyboards with hand-clapping and fundamentalist-style “praise Jesus” arms in the air. Disgusting.

One can thank the AGO for this since — as I see it — they are directly responsible for the organ’s demise because of their elitist approach. Most are certainly not at all activists for the organ or for the promotion of time-honoured organ music or for the organ and — as I’ve made quite clear up above — they don’t encourage others to play the organ in the church.

I think of the AGO as a cult really. Of course the AGO would disagree and or live in denial about that, but the truth hurts, doesn’t it? And do they ever wonder why their membership is so pathetically low? Ultimately, they are directly responsible for their own demise. Chau.—el barrio rosa