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!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Something funny...



(I know most of my posts have been videos lately--I'm contemplating a few articles/lessons for the near future. Stay tuned!)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Clay Christiansen Leads a Life of Music

On April 16th, the new Church News section of LDS.org posted the second article in a series of three on the Tabernacle organists. This article is entitled Clay Christiansen Leads a Life of Music.

Here is the accompanying video, followed by the text of the article:


Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Clay Christiansen can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be a musician. He recalls as an eight-year-old boy watching his aunt play the organ in their newly finished meetinghouse.

“I didn’t get to play [the organ]—I just sat and watched,” Brother Christiansen said. “I was so envious of Aunt Jean . . . and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it.”

By the time Brother Christiansen was 11, he was able to play the hymns on the piano. Because organists were hard to come by, he was asked to be the organist for the opening exercises in priesthood meeting even before he was ordained a deacon.

Although Brother Christiansen has continued over his lifetime to play both piano and organ, becoming attached to the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir led him to focus on the organ. When he was 13, he began taking weekly lessons from J. J. Keeler, who started the organ program at Brigham Young University. He studied with Brother Keeler for nine years, until he graduated from BYU with a degree in organ performance.

Watching and hearing Brother Christiansen play complicated pieces on the organ—with feet and hands flying and quick reaches to pull or close organ stops—might be enough to inspire any aspiring organist. But acquiring these skills came through hard work and dedication.

“In the beginning, both feet did not want to play, and my left hand wanted to be doing the same thing that my feet were doing—playing the same notes,” Brother Christiansen said. The key, he said, is to practice, which he still does for two to four hours each day.

But practicing, even for someone as skilled as Brother Christiansen, can become tiresome, especially, he said, when he is working on a piece that is particularly active and demanding, or when sitting on a hard bench for long periods of time. “Then it’s good to get up, walk around, take a drink of water, take a deep breath, and come back to it,” he said.

Brother Christiansen’s practice has paid off—he has received invitations to play on a number of famous organs in Europe. But no matter where he goes, the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, is home.

“Like most LDS organists, [I had] a dream of someday playing at the Tabernacle, but that was tempered by the reality that there were only three full-time Tabernacle organists, and you couldn’t stake your life on the chances,” Brother Christiansen said. “It was a complete surprise when they asked me.”

It was 29 years ago, while he was teaching students at St. Mark’s Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City (where he had been employed as organist choirmaster for 10 years) that he received a visit from the head Tabernacle organist, Robert Cundick.

“Brother Cundick asked if I could step down with him for a minute,” Brother Christiansen said. “He asked me how I would feel about coming over and being a Tabernacle organist. A few days later he appeared and said, “You’ve got an interview with President [Gordon B.] Hinckley (who was then one of the Counselors in the First Presidency) in half an hour.”

Twenty-nine years later, playing the organs in the Tabernacle and the Conference Center are still surreal experiences to him. “I enjoy it as much as I ever have,” he said.

Brother Christiansen says that the thing he loves most about music is the sound—and the effect it has on its listeners.

“There is something about the sound that attracts,” he said. “I think it’s because it tugs at the heartstrings. There is a unity in beautiful harmony that I think reminds us of the harmony of heaven, from where we all came—our heavenly home. Music reminds us of home, I think.”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Song: Jesus Christ is Risen Today

Today's bonus Sunday Song is Easter Hymn, also known as Christ the Lord is Risen Today, played by "Jim," an organ installer with Forbes Organ Company in Alabama playing a new Allen Quantum Organ.

Sunday Song: He Is Risen

Happy Resurrection Morning!

Today's first Sunday Song is Doug Bush's free accompaniment to He Is Risen, played by yours truly:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter!

That Easter Morn, played by yours truly. This was part of a hymn sing I played for, with an interlude between the verses. I made this quick video last week and thought I'd share:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Easter Morn Introduction--video

On Friday, April 15th I shared with you a free introduction to That Easter Morn. Today I'm sharing a video clip of this introduction. Enjoy!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Andrew Unsworth Fulfilling an Organist's Dream Job

On April 7th, the new Church News section of LDS.org posted an article entitled Andrew Unsworth: Fulfilling an Organist's Dream Job. It's an interesting article to read.

Here is the accompanying video, followed by the text of the article:


Andrew Unsworth, one of the three full-time organists on Temple Square, was born into a musical family, so it isn’t surprising that he would become a professional musician. The surprising part may be that as a child he grew up listening to and playing along with organ records—at his own request.

The organ isn’t the first instrument a typical child might choose to dream of playing. However, from the first time he heard the low bass sounds of the organ, he knew exactly what instrument he wanted to play.

Because playing the organ requires using hands and feet, Brother Unsworth played piano until he was tall enough to reach the pedals. “At 14 I switched over to the organ and haven’t looked back since,” he said.

Career Crisis

After studying organ performance and pedagogy as an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, USA, Brother Unsworth felt that he faced a bit of a career crisis.

“As a kid I would watch the Tabernacle organists play,” he said. “I envied the instrument and I dreamed of actually someday working here on Temple Square, but there are only three full-time organists here and I figured that’s not the kind of thing you can bank your life and career on.”

Realizing there might not be many opportunities for organ performance, he went to graduate school and earned a PhD in music history from Duke University in North Carolina, USA, preparing to teach at the university level.

When Brother Unsworth learned that an organ performance position was open at the Catholic Church’s Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, he applied and was appointed.

Finally able to seat his knowledge and training on the organ bench professionally, Brother Unsworth was able to “cut his teeth” as an organist. He learned how to play big services and accompany choirs on-the-job at the cathedral.

“I really enjoyed playing at Cathedral of the Madeleine,” Brother Unsworth said. “The instrument is very nice. The acoustics of the cathedral are in some ways ideal for organ. The music that the choir does—and that the organist is expected to play—is top rate; it’s amazing.”

Though he enjoyed his job with the cathedral and a brief stint later teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, USA, he never forgot his dream of working on Temple Square.

“I had some spiritual experiences at the cathedral,” he said, “but I always felt a little bit torn. . . . While I admire and respect [everyone I associated with at the cathedral], I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I wanted to be able to use my talents in the service of my own religion.”

A Difficult Dream

After spending 30 years as a Tabernacle organist, John Longhurst, known especially for composing the music to “I Believe in Christ” (Hymns, no. 134) and for his role in acquiring the organ in the Conference Center, retired in 2007.

With a Tabernacle organist spot now open, Brother Unsworth was in the right place at the right time. After many interviews, playing tests, and composition sessions, he was appointed as the 13th full-time organist to serve on Temple Square, beginning his service in July 2007.

Performing with the Tabernacle Choir for the last three years, Brother Unsworth has continued his progression as an organist. He has most enjoyed the opportunity to learn from and play with the musicians he works with.

“The other organists are among the finest people and musicians that I know, and the other choir staff—the musical directors, the choir, and the orchestra members—are fantastic people. It’s a privilege to get to work with them,” he said.

The job on Temple Square offers many experiences, most of which have taken time to grow into. It isn’t easy to accompany the 360-member, world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, especially when they usually practice only once a week.

Brother Unsworth feels he is still becoming accustomed to the Tabernacle organ and its 11,623 pipes. He has also had to learn to play on the Conference Center’s 7,667-pipe organ.

“I’m still learning to play with [the Tabernacle] organ. Sometimes, I’m experimenting with the organ and I don’t get it quite right. I miss the one chance I have to get it right,” he said.

The pace is frenetic for a Temple Square organist. In addition to accompanying the choir, Brother Unsworth and the other Temple Square organists also perform in one or two recitals each week, go on tour with the choir, and arrange music. But among all the duties of a Tabernacle organist, one performance seemed more terrifying than anything else to Brother Unsworth.

“When I was first appointed I didn’t sleep for a couple of days, primarily because I was thinking about what it would be like to play for general conference,” he said. “However, the first time I did it, I took comfort in the fact that the spirit of the meeting was so strong that it compensated for the jitters that I was feeling at the time.

“And since I’ve played conference a number of times since then, I take comfort in the fact that the Lord takes an interest in conference. He wants conference to go well. We work hard to prepare, but then we rely on the Lord to help see us through.”

Awards

The American Guild of Organists is a professional organization for organists in the United States. At the time of its founding in 1896 there were not many universities that offered degrees in music. Because of this, the guild offered the opportunity for its members to take examinations of their musical skills and earn certificates, demonstrating their abilities and competence to potential employers.

Many universities now offer degrees in music, but the guild still offers these exams for its members. As a member of the guild, Brother Unsworth hoped to demonstrate his ability and took the exams in June 2010 at the University of Utah.

The two-day exams, a comprehensive assessment of one’s musical abilities, test an organist’s performance abilities in transposition, improvisation, and harmonization. The exams also feature written facets, such as analysis, composition, and ear training.

“They were tough, so I was very pleased when I was notified in July that I passed, and not only had I passed, I won a couple of awards,” said Brother Unsworth.

He received the Associateship certificate, awarded to the organist with the highest exam score on his or her particular certificate, and the S. Lewis Elmer Award, awarded to the person with the highest score of any of the 82 test-takers. Winning one award is a tremendous accomplishment, but winning two awards is a rare feat.

“I was flabbergasted, to be honest,” Brother Unsworth said.

Conclusion

Brother Unsworth could not be happier performing his dream job and doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon. The job can be difficult at times, but the opportunity to play for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has him counting his blessings.

“It’s thrilling,” he said. “There are times when I’ll play the second half of a choir rehearsal, so the choir is all there, the director is there, and I walk out and see everyone standing there and I think, ‘Holy cow. What am I doing?’ I still pinch myself that I get to do this.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Song: All Glory Laud and Honor - Palm Sunday

Highlights of Palm Sunday and the hymn "All Glory Laud and Honor" from Trinity Lutheran Church, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, from April 5, 2009. The organ's specifications are found here. Feel free to stop the video after the organ solo, if desired:

Friday, April 15, 2011

That Easter Morn Introduction

PLEASE NOTE: The first version posted was missing a "D" in the last measure. Please ensure you have three D's in the last measure. Thanks!

I have a treat for you today! Here is a free introduction to That Easter Morn:
Here is the arrangement, free to you over at Google Docs.
198 Introduction

Enjoy!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Song: All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name

All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name performed by J. Cleaveland on the Calvary Grand Organ, Charlotte, NC. (MP Moller Opus 11739 V/205)

This hymn tune is known as "Jehovah, Lord of Heaven and Earth" in the LDS hymn book.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Slow and Steady

I leaned a hymn for stake conference where I soloed out the melody some time ago and was excited to play it. However, the more I "practiced" the worse it got, until I couldn't play it at all. I didn't know where I went wrong! I ended up not being able to solo out the soprano after all, and was disappointed that despite all of my practicing, I went downhill.

A few months later, I had to learn a difficult free accompaniment for a Christmas hymn sing, and started slowly with a metronome. I worked diligently and patiently and was able to play the two verses of free accompaniment with confidence and few to no mistakes.

I've been working up a piece for an Easter hymn sing that's very, very difficult. First I practiced the manuals alone with a metronome. I started with the sixteenth note at 50 bpm. When I began to feel comfortable with the manuals and had worked it up to about double that tempo, I began practicing the pedals with the right hand, then the left hand, then combined. I think I had to start the tempo even slower than the sixteenth note at 50 bpm.

It's been a very slow process, but it's the only way I'd be able to learn this piece. No matter how hard the piece is, it can be conquered, slowly and steadily.

I'm currently playing the piece with the sixteenth note at 200 bpm and am dropping to the eighth note at 100 bpm. I only have to double my speed one more time and I'll have it!

Pardon my extraneous movements (I'm working on them), but here is my progress so far:

I've learned that taking the time to practice and learn a piece correctly doesn't really take any more time than practicing too fast and learning mistakes that need to be unlearned. The problem with my soprano solo was that I was trying to flub my way through it, and it backfired on me.

Practicing with a metronome offers measured improvement. Today I increased a piece 20 bpm in one short practice session. When I get discouraged with how little time I feel I've had to practice, I can actually see how far I've come. A metronome allows me to make good progress in short spurts of practice time.

Give it a try!