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, September 26, 2016

Let the People Sing!

A couple of years ago, while researching how to encourage congregational singing, I came across an article with the title, "Let the People Sing!" and that phrase has stuck with me. It seems many varied denominations and congregations struggle with congregational singing. My congregation struggled with singing as well when I was asked to be our regular organist two years ago. Now, they will even sing unfamiliar hymns with volume and expression.

How did we get to this point?

First, as soon as I was asked to play the organ I did my research.  I read everything I could find about encouraging congregational singing.  I studied every resource at my disposal, and drew upon all of the training I could ever remember receiving. Then I came up with my personal philosophy, for my individual situation, most of which I believe can be applied to all congregations with an organ-led worship service.

1. Music needs to be more present.

What does this mean? This phrase was always at the forefront of my mind, and I worked to understand what it means for music to "be more present."

First, I decided that it meant that I needed to be more deliberate with all of the music I provided, from prelude and postlude to the length and quality of the introductions, the volume of the organ, and the registrations and registration changes.  It also meant having the congregation sing the "extra" verses at the ends of the hymns, and not routinely cutting hymns or verses, citing lack of time. In my congregation, music needed to be present and treated as important.

This first step in this process was to embrace the attitude that music is vital to the congregation's worship, and we should make no apologies for it; whether music is found in introductions that may be longer than normal, or for an organ prelude that continues to a resolution, even if the bishopric or clergy member has already risen to begin the meeting. (Please note that is very important to time your prelude to end at the agreed upon meeting start time, and to resolve the piece in a timely manner, even if you haven't reached the actual conclusion of the piece.)

The second step is to prepare, prepare, and prepare! Do everything in your power to make the musical aspect of your worship service effective and powerful.

The final step is to evaluate, make any needed changes through prayer and reflection, and try again. Work towards a slow yet steady improvement over time.

2. Music needs to be worthy of attention.

Prelude and postlude needs to be planned in advance and practiced until it is worthy of the congregation's attention.  Even if this music simply consists of hymns played directly from the hymnal, there are ways to enhance their musicality, making them beautiful and appropriate to set the tone for worship.  First, experiment with different registrations.  Prelude, with very few exceptions, should not be played with the same registration or volume utilized to accompany congregational hymns. Registration during prelude should vary from piece to piece, if not verse to verse.  Make prelude something special, something worthy of attention that will invite the congregation to ponder, reflect, and prepare for worship.

Likewise, the introductions to the hymns themselves should inspire the congregation to desire to sing. While many hymnals have bracketed suggestions to indicate possible introductions, these brackets are just that: suggestions.  I've found, personally, that many of these introductions are too short to allow the congregation time to shift gears from listening to participating, then pick up and open their hymnals to the proper hymn number and prepare to sing. Keep an eye on those who sit on the stand near you.  If their hymnals are not open and ready to go at the end of your introduction, or if the congregation's volume quickly increases through the first few measures of the hymn, your introduction was probably too short.

Dale Wood, who was a renowned composer, organist and choral director, created a collection of "Festive Hymn Introductions," and in his forward he gave sound advice that I have taken to heart:
 Hymn playing should never become a routine and commonplace thing. A conscientious organist must continually inspire the congregation and not allow the singing to become monotonous and prosaic.
Make sure that hymn singing in your congregation is a new experience every time (I highly recommend clicking that link and reading my article, "Hymn Singing Should Not Be Boring"). Follow the hymn text as you play. Study the hymn text in advance. Be familiar with the poetry of the hymn. What is the message of the hymn?  What is the message of each individual verse? How can you, as organist, highlight these? What is your registration plan? Where in the verses should the organ "breathe" and where should the organ sustain?  How can you use the resources at your disposal to paint the message of the hymns with your registrations, registration changes, and creative or free hymn accompaniments?

Will your plan be effective? Will it support and encourage the congregation in singing with the Spirit?  Will it solidify the message of the hymn and touch hearts? Will it draw undue attention to itself, thus detracting from the message of the hymn? Will what you did last time be the right plan for this time?  If not, what changes do you need to make when you accompany the hymn this time?

Most importantly, hymns need to played at their proper tempo!  Invest in a metronome, or download a free app that includes a metronome component.  Play through the entire hymn with the metronome to ensure that you are playing consistently and properly. Is the tempo so slow that the congregation runs out of breath in the middle of a phrase?  Is the tempo moving so quickly that the words are difficult to pronounce in the allotted time? Will the congregation check their watches, wondering when the hymn will finally end? Or will the congregation so comfortable in focusing on the words that they will give no thought at all to the tempo of the hymn?

3. Realize That You Are Developing a Relationship with Your Congregation

Whether you realize it or not, and whether your congregation realizes it or not, you are developing a relationship with each other.

Can your congregation trust you implicitly?

Are you consistent with your breaks after your introduction and between verses?  Is there a chance a member of your congregation will begin to sing full voice, all alone as you're taking extra time to change registration? Will you cut off and stop playing while members of your congregation are still singing the final notes in full voice? Can your altos or tenors count on you to consistently play their notes correctly?  Can your congregation count on your volume to adequately support their singing, even if you make registration changes during the hymns?  Will your registration change leave them singing full voice with little organ support? Will they be afraid to sing out because they don't have the trust that you will be there to catch them?

When your congregation is to sing an unfamiliar hymn, can they trust you to play the entire hymn through before they begin to sing so that they will not encounter any surprises? Is your registration strong enough on the first verse so that they feel comfortable singing out on an unfamiliar hymn? Will they be able to hear themselves sing, or will the organ overpower the congregation? Is your registration effective on well-known hymns? Do you enhance the message of hymns they know well and seek to inspire the congregation through your playing so that familiar hymns don't become boring? Is your congregation excited to worship together through the singing of hymns?

What is your relationship with your congregation?

4. When In Our Music, God Is Glorified

 Remember why you play the organ.  Remember why music exists in worship. Remember that the purpose of your calling is not to call attention to yourself. You are playing the organ to help invite the Spirit and enhance worship for your congregation.

Create Zion. The only time your congregation will be of one heart and of one mind is while they sing. Foster this experience for them. Show them a little bit of heaven every time they sing the hymns.  Allow them to worship uninhibited. And remember: People will actually sing if you let them.

Do you hear the people sing?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Frustrated Because of Your Mistakes?

How many of you heard the live version of Music & the Spoken Word on Sunday? Did the organ introduction to the opening number sound a little off to you? Richard Elliot had, in his words, a "less-than-stellar performance." So much so, in fact, that the piece needed to be re-recorded for the re-broadcast.

Normally I would never point out the mistakes of others, as I think it's not productive to dwell on them. In this case, however, I think it's good for everyday organists to know that nobody is perfect. Making mistakes is human, and even the accomplished Richard Elliott is not immune. So when you're struggling because of the mistakes you make, take heart and know that you're in good company with the rest of us! 
I've certainly made my share of gut-wrenching mistakes.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

THIS is why I Play the Organ

 I played for the adult session of stake conference tonight  Elder Doxey of the Seventy was our visiting authority.  The stake music chairman had an opening and closing hymn planned, with a musical number in the middle of the meeting.  Thursday evening, I spent about 3 1/2 to 4 hours at the stake center, practicing, choosing the perfect registrations for the hymns, prelude, and postlude, and solidifying the pieces I would be playing.

Tonight, as I was finishing up my second-to-last prelude piece, the second counselor in the stake presidency came up to me and asked if I could talk while I was playing.  Of course, I said, "yes."  He proceeded to tell me that Elder Doxey asked for a standing rest hymn, and wondered if "Israel, Israel, God is Calling" would work.  It really didn't matter what he was asking, my answer would have been yes (that's something the Bonnie Goodliffe instilled in me during the lessons I took from her)! So I did. I replied, "Yes," then added, "I'll have to register on the fly, but we'll make it work!"

After the opening hymn, I turned to the newly added rest hymn and the page was pristine--I had never played it out of my newer hymnal, and all of my markings were in a different one.  I quickly penciled in pedaling, then peeked at the other registrations I was using to figure out a registration plan that I could have relative confidence in.  I made the appropriate marks, said a quick prayer, then sat down.

When the time came to play, no one there would have ever known it was my first run through of the hymn in months, if not years, and my first run through on that organ.  I was blessed with an outpouring of the Spirit, and played almost flawlessly, chose perfect registrations to highlight the text of the verses, and even added in a few running bass line notes and a pedal point on the last verse to better highlight the message of the hymn. How blessed I was, to be able to turn a last-minute hymn addition into a glorious musical experience for the congregation! The Spirit was there in abundance, and I felt honored to be able to bring more to the meeting.

Following the closing hymn, while I was playing postlude, I was thanked by several members with tear-filled eyes.

Tonight's offering on the organ was a culmination of many, many years of hard work and dedication: Countless hours of practice let me to this point.  I've been "good enough" to play a good, spirit-filled service for years, yet I continue to practice, to persevere, to sacrifice, all in the name of the organ.  Why? Many times I do not have an answer.  I do it because I can't imagine NOT doing it. It's who I am: It's part of me, and has been my entire life.

Why do I continue to spend the long, tiring hours, slaving away at the organ? Why do I feel the need to continually improve myself?  Why is playing the organ such a huge part of my life?

Tonight my purpose became very clear, once again, to my soul:

Tonight I touched lives.  Tonight I did a good work.  Tonight, I helped others feel the Spirit through song as many have never felt it before.  Tonight I helped others glorify God.

That is why I play the organ.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Slow and Steady: The Tortoise Had it All Figured Out

When I first started studying the organ, I felt that the more I learned the less I actually knew.  There was a very steep learning curve, and I felt left behind. When I finished my Organ Essentials semester class at BYU, I was sure of only two things: I could NOT play the organ, and I was NEVER going to take the Organ Literature class that followed.

Life has a way of working things out, and while I never did take the Organ Literature class, I ended up devoting much of my life to the study of the organ, even picking up a number of organ students along the way.

One of the biggest problems my students face, is one I faced myself:  incredibly slow visible progress. It seems that hours and hours of practice produce a negligible amount of success, especially at first.

It's frustrating and discouraging when hours of dedicated practice seem fruitless.  To help my students, I always teach them what is actually happening.

Playing the organ involves many different skills and cognitive abilities that aren't used anywhere else.  Learning how to play with independence of line (sustaining the soprano while the alto line breaks, for example; or playing the bass line in the pedals, but the tenor line with the left hand) requires the brain to make new connections.  Recent research shows that the brain, even throughout adulthood, has remarkable plasticity. It might be difficult for an old brain to make new connections, but it's never too late for renovation!

With steady, consistent practice, your brain is making new pathways. While you often won't see remarkable progress immediately, even after numerous, consistent practice sessions, your brain is working behind the scenes, building and strengthening new neural pathways.

After many consistent practice sessions, you will see improvement.  Once the pathways are strengthened, success will come, sometimes overnight, sometimes a tiny bit here and there, but you will finally realize the result of your hard work.

Take heart:  just like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, you, too, will win the race and find great success on the organ through consistent, diligent, and dedicated practice.

Enjoy the journey, have faith that your brain is working behind the scenes, and celebrate little successes along the way.

I know you can do it!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

BYU Organ Workshop Notes and Pictures

Are you following this blog on the facebook page?  If not, you're missing out on so much!  Check it out today for pictures and notes from the BYU Organ Workshop!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Extra Time to Fill After the Sacrament Hymn?

The sacrament hymn is an integral part of preparing the congregation to take the sacrament and renew sacred covenants. This portion of our sacrament meeting is very sacred--in fact, it is the very reason we hold sacrament meetings.  As organists we have the privilege to help prepare our congregations for this hallowed ordinance.

Sometimes, the sacrament hymn is concluded before the priests have finished breaking bread. When this happens, what should the organist do?

The most common practice in this situation is for the organist to continue playing until the priests are finished breaking bread.  While your Bishop may request for it to be handled differently (always follow the counsel given by your priesthood leader), if you are expected to play during this time, what do you do? How can you best invite the spirit and solidify the message of the sacrament hymn?

There are some sacrament hymns which almost always end before the bread is broken, such as hymn #184, Upon the Cross of Calvary. Then there are hymns such as #183, In Remembrance of Thy Suffering which seems to go on forever. Either way, it's good to have a plan for what you will do if you need to continue playing after the verses are sung.

Sing All the Verses

My first recommendation is: If there are additional verses printed underneath the music, talk to your Bishop about having the congregation sing them!  I remember how disappointed I was in my previous (very large) ward, when we finished singing three verses of hymn #187 God Loves Us, So He Sent His Son and the priests were still breaking bread. The organist continued playing the hymn through twice--the same number of verses that were printed below the music.  We could have continued singing the beautiful text that followed! The very last couplet is my favorite:
In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire,
Be made to bend, and I, as son,
Learn conduct from the Holy One.

This sacrament doth represent
His blood and body for me spent.
Partaking now is deed for word
That I remember him, my Lord.
If there are additional verses, my recommendation is to sing them!  Fortunately, I have a Bishop who (while not a musician himself) loves music, and recognizes the value of singing all the verses, something that is encouraged in the "Using the Hymnbook" section of the hymnal.

If there are no additional verses, or if your Bishop does not want to sing them, what can you do?

Make a Plan

 As the sacrament hymn ends, the organist has to make a judgment call on the spur of the moment:  Are the priests finished breaking bread? How much longer will it take before they're done?  Is there time to play the entire hymn again or not? Sometimes, the organist will play the first chord of the hymn, and the priests will sit down.  Or the organist will think the priests are going to finish up any second, and then the priests continue to break bread for another long minute in silence.  Having a flexible plan can help with this transition, and subtly allow the congregation to review in their minds the words they just sang.

 1. What registration are you going to use? Your registration for the post verse should be different in volume and color from the congregational accompaniment registration. Please don't continue playing with the same registration on full volume! This registration should be very reflective, subdued, and allow for reverent preparation, similar to what you would hear in the temple chapel.  I've set a couple of my divisional pistons (the pistons that only affect the great, pedal, or swell manuals) specifically for additional sacrament time.  For example on all three #1 pistons, I have a soft solo registration on the swell, a very soft string celeste on the great, and a soft pedal 16' and 8'.  I can quickly use my hands and feet to select all three #1s and begin playing an additional verse immediately following the final verse of the hymn when needed.  I also set all three #3s as a contrast when needed.

2. What are you going to play?  Can you lengthen or shorten it? Mike Carson has a wonderful fughetta for hymn #184 that does not call attention to itself and works very well in this instance.  I use it almost every time we sing that hymn.  You can email him at mcarson [at] digis [dot] net to request a copy.  Daniel E. Gawthrop has a simple, appropriate arrangement of Jesus, Once of Humble Birth (titled "Deliverance") available on wardorganist.com that I use on occasion.  I've also taken an arrangement of There Is a Green Hill Far Away from Hymns Made Easy and transposed it to the key in the hymnal to play during this extra time, adding appropriate pedal notes throughout. If you are going to use an arrangement ask yourself: "Does this arrangement call attention to itself? Is it simple and humble?  Does it allow for reflection?  Is it in the same key as the hymnal?  Can it be shortened as necessary? Does it 'feel' right this week?" Remember, as organists we need to use this time to solidify the message of the hymn in the hearts and minds of the congregation, and to provide time for reverent preparation. Many times I will just use a soft registration and play through the hymn again, the last line of the hymn again, or I will solo out the soprano line on the swell, play the alto and tenor notes on the great, and play the bass notes in the pedals.

3. What will you do if the priests sit down right as you start to play? Do NOT stop after one note!  Play a short phrase that resolves and feels intentional. Music deserves to be present, and not be an afterthought.  Don't play the entire hymn through, unless your Bishop wants you to, but make sure your playing is intentional and reflective.  Figure out in advance how to play as little as possible to still make your playing feel complete, giving an "Amen" to what has been sung.

4. What if you stop too early? This past Sunday, I played an entire post verse for hymn #173 While of These Emblems We Partake, and one priest was still breaking bread.  Assuming he would quickly finish, I repeated the last phrase, and he was still going!  It would have sounded "wrong" for me to play something else at that point, so I stopped and allowed for some silence as he finished.  Don't feel like you have to continue playing if your preparations were too short, or if you misjudged the amount of time it would take for them to finish.  It's better to allow for silence than to detract from the spirit by scrambling to fill that time, or beginning again after stopping.

5. How are you going to lower your volume?  I've found that when I am sensitive to the organ's volume level, and take the volume down significantly for these post verses, the congregation audibly quiets, the spirit intensifies, and everyone is better prepared to partake of the sacrament. How are you going to accomplish this volume change?  Practice your plan!  Will you close your expression pedals?  Will you make the volume change solely through a registration change? Will you do both at once?  Make sure you are comfortable with the method you choose, and make sure you can make the change very quickly and seamlessly!

Always Remember

Remember, you are preparing the congregation to participate in the sacred ordinance of the sacrament. 

Remember, your Bishop has stewardship over how this extra time is handled.

Remember to prepare with the Spirit, "which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom" (Doctrine and Covenants 39:6).

Remember, as we partake of the sacrament we promise to always remember our Savior.  Remember Him as you prepare to prepare your congregation to participate in this sacred ordinance.

Thanks for reading!

You may also be interested in this article: Real Life: Continuing to play after the sacrament hymn is over

Friday, February 27, 2015

Watch that volume, even if it's a funeral!

The purpose of this blog is to help organists learn and grow so they can better fulfill their calling and magnify their opportunity to play for worship services. As such, when my personal experiences bring suggestions to mind, I like to share them here, so that we can all learn from each other.

I had the opportunity to attend the funeral service for my uncle this morning. It was an emotional occasion, but one that brought a lot of my extended family together for a treasured reunion.

The funeral was held in a beautiful, old mortuary.  The chapel was quite narrow, but very long.  I ended up sitting near the back with my brother, a couple of my aunts and their husbands.  As we took our seats, just prior to the beginning of the funeral, I mentioned that I couldn't hear the organ prelude music from our seats.  My aunt commented that she couldn't even hear the organ as we entered, near the front of the chapel. I considered letting the organist (a stranger to me) know, but there wasn't time before the family entered.

Lesson #1 from today: While a subdued organ prelude is very appropriate for a funeral, make sure your organ playing can be heard! If you are playing in an unfamiliar space, it is a very good idea to ask someone to be your ears, and let you know how the organ sounds from the rear portion of the space.

When the introduction began for the opening hymn, I was a bit concerned, as the organ was again very underpowered from where I was sitting.  This concern was well founded, as the rear of the chapel finished the hymn a good six to eight beats behind the front of the chapel--and the organist twisted in her seat to watch us finish singing the first verse.

Lesson #2 from today: If the people in the rear of the chapel are singing significantly behind those in the front, it probably means they can't hear the organ adequately.  If this happens to you, try increasing the volume by opening the expression pedals or adding stops for the next verse.  Remember: Even congregational hymns for funerals need to be supported with adequate organ volume, especially if you do not have a music director. Fortunately, we did, so we had to rely on our eyes instead of our ears for the remaining verses and hymn (the closing hymn was equally soft).

It was a wonderful funeral, and while the lack of organ volume didn't detract from the service, it did inspire me to share this experience with my readers.

Organ volume is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to determine from the console. If your electronic organ has both console and external speakers, turning the console speakers off (there is usually a stop tab that does this) can help you get a better feel for the volume in the room.  However, nothing works better than another set of ears providing feedback.  And remember--the volume in an empty chapel will be louder than in a chapel full of people, who absorb the sound.

The buddy system isn't just for field trips--give it a try!

Thanks for reading.