Welcome to The LDS Organist Blog

The purpose of this blog is to help pianists learn to become true organists. Many individuals believe that if you play the piano you can play the organ, but the instruments differ greatly. While this blog is specifically geared towards members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much of the information shared can be utilized by all. I hope that the information I share here will help you become an effective organist in your ward, stake, or other congregation.

Feel free to browse and search this blog. It was started in January 2010 and while new posts aren't added very often, this blog contains a wealth of information and is a wonderful resource for all organists. If you're a new reader, you can find the first lesson here: Before We Begin: Acquiring the Essentials. Also, please "like" the corresponding facebook page, which is updated more often. A link is provided on the right sidebar, or you can click here.

Thanks for visiting!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Anxiety and Nerves




I recently received a question from S.D.:

I just finished playing for my 3rd Stake Conference this weekend. I had practiced everyday for over three months.  I knew the songs well and felt much more confident in my pedaling.  

I was pretty calm on Saturday Night's meeting but on Sunday, I felt more anxiety at the amount of people and of course hands and legs stiffen with anxiety and I really had to concentrate to keep things going.  I was able to cover okay, yet I was so disappointed because I had prepared so well.

When I received the call the size of the crowd was the biggest intimidation to me.  I have played the piano for years and accompanied a lot of groups, yet the organ is new, I have felt less in control of sounds and adjustments, therefore, I am nervous of making mistakes and that brings about the anxiety.

Have you ever experienced this or have any suggestions on how to work it out? This past two weeks I have been listening to talks on overcoming fear and having faith and done all I could think of to prepare.  I know I did okay, but I was wiped out when I was finished just dealing with my stress.  I hope to learn a little more on how other organists might prepare to overcome this type of fear or stress, so I can deal better with the next conference.
Have any of you felt this way? I certainly have! I'll share some ideas here on what I do to work through anxiety, but I'd love to hear from my readers as well!

What you're experiencing is very normal, unfortunately. There are several things that I've used to try to get past those nerves! Here they are, not in any particular order:

  • Recognize that your body doesn't know the difference between fear and excitement. When you start to feel those nerves kicking in, tell yourself that you're really excited to be able to play: Either because you have a really cool registration, or you can't wait for the congregation to be able to be united as one voice, etc. Try to turn that potentially scary emotion into a positive one.

  • Play in front of people more often. This is a difficult one, as in our church playing the organ is something we can't really do unless we're called. You can get involved in your local chapter of the American Guild of Organists, or see if you can be a volunteer temple organist on a regular or semi-regular basis (if your local temple has organists, and is close enough for you to serve there). Playing in the temple every other week helped me more than anything else!

  • When your brain starts playing head-games with you, shut it down by saying, "I don't care!" I learned this one from tabernacle organist Andrew Unsworth. "I don't care!" saved me when I took my CAGO exam.

  • Cut yourself some slack. It doesn't have to be perfect! There was only one perfect person to walk the earth, and it's not you. Making mistakes is okay! Figure out what you're the most nervous about, and see what you can do to circumvent that issue. It can be simplifying your first hymn introduction by beginning with the melody in octaves, or with just the melody stepping into the other parts.

  • Shrug off mistakes. Mistakes happen, but don't let them derail you. Don't give them any room in your brain. Always look forwards, never backwards when you're playing.

  • Worrying about your upcoming "performance" will make your anxiety grow. Now that you've learned some great coping techniques, try not to stress as the date comes nearer. I know that's hard to do! Also, don't just prepare for that one huge event, play and learn other pieces, too, and intersperse them as you practice to take some of the pressure off. 

  • Trust your preparation. I'm sure you're heard the saying, “When the time for decision arrives, the time for preparation is past.” Well, when the time to play the organ has arrived, your preparation is over. TRUST YOURSELF.
The Inner Game of Music is a great resource. I read it a long time ago, so I don't remember much about it, but it's definitely worth a read.

So, my faithful readers:  What do you do when your nerves kick up? Do you have any great suggestions to share?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday Song: Organ Registration: Your Own Orchestra (1972)

Okay, once again this isn't a true Sunday Song. Here's another oldie but goodie organ resource from the LDS Church. It was actually a filmstrip--do you remember those?  I loved it when I was chosen to advance the frames!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Song: Organ Fundamentals Training Video

Okay, so this isn't really a Sunday Song, but it is an old training video from 1972 with Tabernacle organist Alexander Shriner providing the introduction. The information shared is still very valuable. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Guiding Congregations Through Unfamiliar Hymns


I think we've all been there, at least once. We receive the hymn list for Sunday, and at least one of them is a hymn that no one will recognize! Or perhaps there's a great hymn that you want to introduce to your congregation. How can you, as an organist, guide your congregation confidently through a hymn that they've never sung before?

In the "Using the Hymnbook" section of the Hymnal, we are encouraged to sing unfamiliar hymns:
In addition to using hymns already known and loved, members are encouraged to become acquainted with new or less familiar hymns. Try to achieve a good balance between familiar favorites and less well-known hymns.
Hopefully these suggestions will help you, as organist, streamline this process for your congregation.

First, Familiarize Yourself

The very first thing you can do, is make that hymn your best friend. Too many times, I've been led by an organist who played the rhythms or notes incorrectly on an unfamiliar hymn, and they didn't know it. Almost every hymn in the LDS hymnal has a MIDI file associated with it on the church's website here. If you enable Adobe Flash Player, you can click the play button and hear it played, notes and rhythms perfect. Otherwise, you can click "Vocals and Music" or "Music" and get a feel for the hymn. Make sure that you get to know the hymn very well.


Second, Practice, Practice, Practice

Once you know how the hymn should sound, practice it until you can play it with complete confidence. The less confident your congregation is, the more confident you need to be. If you make a mistake while playing a well-known and well-loved hymn, such as Joy to the World or Come, Come Ye Saints, your congregation will most likely continue singing with zeal, but if you make a mistake on an unfamiliar hymn, your congregation will not feel comfortable singing out, and many members might stop singing altogether.

Third, Choose an Appropriate Tempo

Read through the hymn. How complicated is the hymn text to read and understand? Does the melody or harmony jump around? Are the notes mainly quarter notes, or are there a number of eighth notes, dotted eighth-sixteenth combinations, or triplets? What is the suggested tempo range?

While it's important to prevent the hymns from dragging, unfamiliar hymns should probably be played at the lower end of the range. Remember that our goal as church musicians is for the hymns to "invite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify us as members, and provide a way for us to offer praises to the Lord," as we read in the First Presidency Preface to the Hymnal. The tempo can either help achieve these goals, or work against them.

A hymn such as #4, Truth Eternal, is fairly basic, easy to follow, made up of mostly quarter notes, and could probably be played around 92 without leaving the congregation behind, provided the organist is properly prepared.

However, a hymn like #11, What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? is filled with triplets ornamenting sustained lyrics, and an unfamiliar text. The men carry the melody at times, there is syncopation, and the hymn text has phrases such as, "It was to be preached in power," with the strong beat falling on the bolded words, and "We their footsteps wish to tread." In choosing the tempo, all of these things need to be considered. The tempo needs to be slow enough that the congregation can read and understand the words, while also managing the complicated melodies and harmonies. This hymn is telling a story, and the congregation needs to be able to follow it. The first time(s) the congregation sings this hymn, the tempo should be the lower end of the range.

Fourth, Support with a Solid Registration

While your registration probably doesn't need to be full organ, it does need to adequately support your congregation, so they feel they can safely sing unfamiliar words and notes. Paint the hymn text, but don't choose a registration that will cause the congregation to feel exposed.

Fifth, Introduce the Hymn Well

If you know several weeks in advance that you'll be singing an unfamiliar hymn, work it into some of your later prelude pieces each Sunday prior to singing it, or use it as your first postlude piece the week before. When it's time to sing, the hymn might feel somewhat familiar to the congregation because they've heard it once or twice before. (I've attended other denominations that actually rehearse unfamiliar hymns a few minutes before the service begins.)

Regardless of the length of the hymn, if it is unfamiliar to the congregation it is a very good idea to play it in its entirety as the introduction.

For example, with hymn #4 Truth Eternal, an effective introduction could be to play the melody of the first line in octaves, then play the second line as written.

An introduction for hymn #11 What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? could include doubling the men's melody part up an octave on lines one and two, playing just the melody of line three in octaves, before returning to SATB parts on line four.

Do whatever you reasonably can to introduce the congregation to the hymn, so that they won't be afraid to sing! Your congregation needs to be able to trust you to guide them confidently through the entire hymn, and they need to know what the entire hymn sounds like before being expected to sing it.


Finally, Evaluate, Adjust, and Repeat

After the meeting, evaluate how it went. Did the congregation sing out? Did they seem to lag behind the organ? Could you even hear them singing? Were any verses louder or softer than others?  Why? Did anyone comment that they loved the hymn, or that they didn't like it? Ask someone you trust to give honest feedback as to how it felt to be in the congregation.

What changes do you need to make for next time? What should you continue to do?

When will the next time occur? If there is a hymn that you want to teach your congregation, it is a good idea to schedule it to be sung at least once a quarter.

With the increased focus on keeping the Sabbath day holy, we introduced my congregation to hymn #148 Sabbath Day, and it was a good, spiritual experience. We sang it once a month for two or three months. Over the course of the next two years we sang it on a regular basis, about once a quarter, and it soon became a familiar hymn.

In Conclusion

Have you ever wondered what hymns the 1985 Hymnbook Executive Committee wished we sang more often? I was privileged to be in attendance at a fireside and hymn sing held March 8, 2015, in the Pleasant Grove Utah East Stake Center where the 30th anniversary of the hymnal was celebrated.  You can view this hymn sing on YouTube. It is wonderful to hear their personal experiences with the compilation of our green hymnal:




Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sunday Song: Beyond the Sunset

When we think of organs, most of us think of using them in a church setting.  However, around the middle of the 20th century, they were used in many different venues. I'm too young to have experienced most of it, but I have watched old episodes of Lawrence Welk where the organ was featured in a very different setting than religious worship!

Here Wally Hammel plays Beyond the Sunset, a beloved funeral song, on a Lowry organ.



Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning
When with our Savior heaven's begun
Earth's toiling ended, O glorious dawning
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather
No storms will threaten, no fears annoy
O day of gladness, O day unending
Beyond the sunset eternal joy.

Beyond the sunset, a hand will guide me
To God the Father whom I adore
His glorious presence, His words of welcome
Will be my portion on that fair shore.

Beyond the sunset, O glad reunion
With our dear loved ones who've gone before
In that fair homeland we'll know no parting
Beyond the sunset forever more...

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Playing for Funerals


Playing for your first (or second or third) funeral can feel quite overwhelming. I've heard from many organists who have asked for help in preparing for a funeral service. What music should be played? What happens when? What registration should be used for the hymns? Funeral services, especially in an LDS service, are fairly straightforward.

In the Church Handbook of Instruction, we learn that the music should include "the comfort afforded by the Savior's Atonement and Resurrection." Additionally, we learn:
Music for funerals might include prelude music, an opening hymn, special musical selections, a closing hymn, and postlude music. Simple hymns and other songs with gospel messages are most appropriate for these occasions.  Opening and closing hymns are usually sung by the congregation.
Having played for many funerals, held both at LDS meetinghouses and mortuaries, I've found that they typically follow a similar pattern, which I'll outline below.

Prepare in Advance

For a funeral you will need a flexible amount of prelude music (I once played for a funeral that started 25 minutes late), a piece to play while the casket and family are coming in to the chapel, music for the service which will include congregational hymns and possible accompaniment for musical numbers, a piece to play as the casket and family leave, and postlude music. If possible, ask the family if they have any requests. God Be With You Till We Meet Again is very popular as the casket leaves, but once I was asked to play There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today.

Gather the pieces you plan to play, and come up with a basic registration plan. This will save you time once you are able to practice on the actual organ.

I recommend trying to find time on the organ before the day of the funeral if possible.  If not, arrive fifteen or so minutes before the viewing is scheduled to begin.  Chances are, the church or mortuary will be open, the chapel will be empty, and you'll have time to become familiar with the organ. Quickly figure out your registration plan for each piece--hopefully several of the presets will provide a starting point.

Prelude Music

Many funerals are preceded by a viewing at the location where the funeral is to be held. Because of this, quite often those attending will wait in the chapel thirty minutes or more before the service begins. Sometimes family members will be piecing together their musical number during this time as well. It's important to be flexible and make sure the family is accommodated.


You can start prelude at any time, but I try to start playing once several people are in the chapel, waiting. The purpose of the prelude music is to bring comfort, and to bear testimony of the Plan of Salvation. Choose pieces, such as Abide With Me, Nearer My God To Thee, Lead Kindly Light, Each Life that Touches Ours for Good, and Children of Our Heavenly Father. Funerals for a child could also include Primary songs, such as I Am a Child of God, Families Can Be Together Forever, I Lived in Heaven, and I Need My Heavenly Father.

Be flexible. The family will enter the chapel after the family prayer and the closing of the casket.  They may arrive earlier or later than expected. In my personal experience, the family is usually a little late. Keep an eye out towards the doors for any sign that the family is coming, and make sure your processional piece is accessible and ready to go.


The Processional

Generally, someone from the mortuary will ask the audience to please rise. This is your cue to begin the piece that you've chosen to play while the casket and family are coming in to the chapel. This piece should be easy to end or extend--have places marked where you can repeat or cadence for an ending. After the entire family has taken their seats, it will be announced for the audience to be seated, and you'll need to end the piece--take care to end on the tonic chord!

Congregational Hymns

The biggest error I've seen with congregational hymns at funerals, is lack of good foundational support from the organ. Our religious culture is one of singing! Even at a funeral service, it is important to support the congregation with adequate volume and registration, as I shared in a previous article. Some organists register with more mellow and dark registrations for funerals, but I tend to let the hymn text direct my choices. Remember--we are testifying that after death we live again. Make sure your registration choices reflect the Plan of Salvation.

Special Musical Numbers

Quite often the family will take care of these, but about half the time I'm also asked to accompany at least one special musical number, typically from the hymnal or Children's Songbook on the piano. Be prepared for this possibility. In these instances, I ask if they can meet before the viewing in the chapel for a quick run-through.

The Recessional

Following the closing prayer, I usually begin playing the piece I chose for the recessional with the expression pedals fully closed as the officiant again asks the audience to rise and the pallbearers to come forward. At that time I'll increase the volume.

At President Monson's funeral, I noticed the recessional music didn't begin until after the pallbearers were called forward. Whichever you decide is up to you, but if you do start playing immediately, make sure the officiant can be heard clearly.

Postlude

Typically one or two additional postlude pieces are sufficient. Most of the members of the audience are friends of the family who will also attend the graveside service. I usually finish up the recessional piece and play one additional arrangement.

In Conclusion

Once you know what to expect, playing for funerals doesn't differ too much from playing for a traditional worship service. Good preparation and flexibility is key!

What are your favorite pieces and arrangements for funerals?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Being the One



Carol Dean

I've posted about Carol Dean many times.  As a graduate student, she taught my Organ Essentials class--my first introduction to the organ. While I got an A in this class, I left feeling completely overwhelmed. Basically, I felt the class actually taught me that I did NOT know how to play the organ--my eyes were opened to all of the differences between the piano and the organ, and I just wanted to stick with the piano, flute and piccolo. Playing the organ was hard!

By divine design, after getting married, my husband and I moved into her stake in Provo, and I was again able to study with Carol when I was called as ward organist on the beautiful Bigelow pipe organ there. As a new organist, I didn't appreciate this rare opportunity to play on such an instrument.


After we purchased a home and moved away, Carol was there for me, always willing to come teach me skills--many that I didn't even know I needed! Her compliments were many, and I felt like she believed in me far more than I did. She was forever encouraging me to teach others, but I felt inferior as an organist, and felt I needed to learn so much more, first.

Being a Mentor

In 2012, as a member of the nominating committee she recommended me to serve as secretary in the Utah Valley Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I felt completely unqualified, and wasn't even a member of the AGO yet, but I accepted with great trepidation.

Joining and becoming involved in my local chapter of the AGO gave me support and training that I didn't realize I needed. Just interacting with other organists provides a sense of community. I learned so much from my interactions here.

Finally, towards the end of 2013 (16 years after Carol's first urging), I accepted my first organ student. I'm afraid I really didn't know what I was doing at the time! Patricia was my patient "guinea pig," and I appreciate all that I learned from being thrown into the position of private teacher. Since then I've maintained a small private studio, and love the opportunities I get to train others to love the organ as much as I do!


In May of 2017 I took my Colleague exam through the Salt Lake Chapter of the American Guild of Organists on a three manual Rodgers/Casavant hybrid. Despite all of my preparation and learning, I still felt inadequate. After learning in June that I passed, I immediately sent Carol this message:
I owe my start on the organ to you. As my very first teacher, you got me started with a solid foundation on the organ.  Your nomination of me as secretary in the Utah Valley chapter got me involved in the AGO for the first time. Thank you so much for your faith in me, and for pushing me when I felt I wasn't good enough. Without you, I never would have become an organist, let alone a Colleague in the AGO.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


Now, Carol isn't the only teacher I've had on the organ. I've learned so much from Don Cook and Bonnie Goodliffe, as well as from instructors in many trainings, workshops, and conventions I've attended. However, I consider Carol to be my mentor.  Just recently I shared with her:
The other day I was pondering on where I am today as an organist, and it really is because of you. You believed in me, and thought highly of me--even more than I did of myself. You encouraged me to serve as secretary in our AGO chapter, even though I really hadn't been an active member. You asked me to help in the organ lab at Super Saturday and take my first organ student (even through I really didn't know what I was doing at the time). You made all the difference in my life! The organ is vital to my emotional health, and you made it all possible. When I told you that it was because of you that I earned my CAGO, it really was true. Yes, I put in a lot of hard work, but you got me started on the path, and you encouraged me to stretch higher and further than I thought I could.



Building Each Other Up

Why am I sharing all of this with my readers? How does this story affect you?

In a social-media-fueled world that's increasingly becoming less tolerant of anything other than perceived perfection in all areas, it is so important for us to recognize the good in others. We all struggle with feelings of inadequacy. We know we aren't perfect, and all too often we fall into the trap of thinking we aren't good enough.

Carol Dean believed in me. While demanding perfection, she was always quick to think the best of me and my efforts, even when I "knew better." We need people who believe in us, especially when we struggle to believe in ourselves.

I didn't believe in myself. In fact, less than two weeks before I took my CAGO exam, despite all of my practicing, and despite all of my progress, this is how I felt:
Have you ever decided to do something that is so far not just out of your comfort zone, but above your ability? Something that makes you stretch further than you think you can? Then life happens and prevents you from working on your goal for an extended period of time, but you're up against a hard deadline? My deadline hits Friday, May 12th, and I'm feeling defeated...
But here's the thing: I was good enough!  All along, I was good enough.  And I didn't believe in myself.

Let's do as Carol has always done: strive to build each other up. Let us each express confidence in each other. You CAN do this! You ARE capable.

Believe in others, and believe in yourself.

Be the one person that others can rely on for support. Be the one person that believes in yourself.