Sunday, March 5, 2017

More than White Noise - Organ Prelude Edition

Once upon a five month period of time, I taught music in a Youth Rehab Center. The superintendent was chatting me up one day and asked, "Do you play music in your home?" I assured him we did. The kids are always practicing. I'm forever practicing. And then don't get me started on family band.

The superintendent then explained to me that his son is married to a "Mormon" girl and the in-laws' house is always quiet. I defended the faith by telling him that even in my parent's home music was always being played. My mother taught piano. My sister's played stringed instruments and sang. We all practiced piano and organ. The summer months were spent learning ukulele, guitar, and accordion.

I didn't realize this wasn't what he meant regarding music and quiet until he said, "From the time I get home until the time I leave either a radio, record player, or tv is playing."  When compared to this, I suppose one could call my home quiet.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't one of those blogs that is anti modern music. My household has a family Spotify plan. I personally have an Amazon Prime account with a good collection of music from classical to Broadway to Rock and Roll. In my home you may at anytime hear Northern Cree or Hamilton or John Denver or Nahko and Medicine for the People playing through my large screen television or on somebody's bluetooth speaker. But it is not on all the time.  We have music on when we are cleaning, or dancing, or sharing. Still, more often than not, the family sits in quiet and visits, or reads, or studies.

In my opinion, the music my superintendent was describing isn't music at all, but white noise. It is a sound filler attempting to make a place seem less lonely, less boring, or less empty. In some homes white noise plays 24 hours a day. I've known people who can't sleep unless the tv is on all night long.

Story two. Many, many years ago, my family lived on a reservation. We moved into a 20 year old HUD home. This home had not been treated well over the years. It had the reputation of being a party house. Rumor had it that people only stayed in that house long enough to get kicked out. I found that if I left the TV on, the kids would start fighting. If I left the radio on as background noise, there would be contention in the home. But if I was very careful about what we watched and when we watched or listened, we could keep a very sweet spirit in the home.

OK. Now that we have a common platform of shared history, I am ready to start my rant about Organ Prelude music in LDS sacrament meetings. Wait -- one more story. I was sitting in a fast-and-testimony meeting where an older woman was testifying about her grandchildren. She told them she was taking them to church. As their parents also took them to church, the grandkids were unsure which church she meant. "The eating church or the singing church?" they asked. I was sorely disappointed to discover that the LDS church was "the eating church".

Over fifty years ago, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Adam S. Benion said, "In the Church we need better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it." Music in most sacrament meetings has not improved since then. I fear that many members of a congregation view singing the hymns of praise as a duty rather than a delight. I further worry that many of these members hear organ prelude music as white noise -- noise to fill the empty space while members visit and concern themselves with worldly cares. Like my home that needed special care to invite the holy spirit, special care is needed from an organist to not only invite the spirit, but to also inspire the congregation to remove their worldly baggage and prepare themselves to receive a spiritual communion.

Organists are quick to point fingers at the congregation. Organists fulfill their duty and play, but nobody listens. From this despair I believe many organists downplay their efforts. Believing nobody is listening, it stands to reason that preparation is futile. I see many organists accept cold-read tunes played rote from the hymnal as appropriate prelude -- page 100 blandly followed by 101, then 102 and so forth. This breaks my heart. If the organist doesn't express a delight in playing the hymns, the congregation doesn't stand a chance.

I have found some success by playing hymn arrangements sparsely mixed with arrangements of hymns not found in the hymnal and hymn-like classical pieces. I don't play these pieces to show off my prowess. I play these pieces because I believe that my efforts matter. I believe that if even one person is moved by my prelude to ponder upon the hymn and to turn their thoughts heavenward, I have succeeded. The nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me is not, "You are a fantastic organist." It was, "I never see you stand and bear your testimony on Fast Sunday, but I hear you bear it every week as you play the organ."

And then there was today. A sabbath miracle. It was Fast and Testimony Meeting. The chorister chose to sing "Thy Spirit Lord has Touched our Souls," for the closing hymn. I have a great arrangement of that hymn. I wanted to play it right before the meeting started. I also planned to play it again as a refrain at the end of the meeting. This arrangement is difficult, but it has been in my repertoire for years. Because of its difficulty level, I counter balanced it with some simpler arrangements I have. At five (maybe six) before the hour, I began playing "Thy Spirit Lord". It was shorter than I anticipated. When it ended I still had three more minutes.

I let silence fill the chapel as I re-opened my easier arrangements. Just as the silence fell the Bishop walked onto the stand. The congregation settled. They thought the meeting was about to start. I played two more arrangements before the Bishop stood. The congregation didn't make a peep for the entire three minutes -- Reverence Sustained!!!

Fast and testimony meeting was sacred and special. I can't credit that to the organ, but it did pave the way.

For those who say, they don't have the skills to play more than the hymns for prelude, I am listing resources:

  1. The LDS church is aware that many organists are pianists learning a new instrument. This site offers training, free arrangements, and simplified arrangements.
  2. Laurel Hunt Pedersen is an LDS organist. She has arranged dozens upon dozens of LDS hymns. She has them in collections that can be used throughout the year. These are free downloads.
  3. Jackman music has a series called The New Organist - Low Practice Prelude. There are 10 volumes in this series. These arrangements are easier than playing the hymns and they still pack a punch. They are currently selling for $7.16 a piece
  4. The arrangement of They Spirit Lord Has Stirred My Soul that I played today is a Kasen arrangement. This series of prelude books is simply entitled Postludes and is also available from Jackman Music.
  5. Hymn arrangements can also be created from the hymnbook. Try soloing a voice other than the soprano, tenor works very well. Play the tenor line on the Swell with solo voicing while playing the soprano and alto softly on the great. Play different verses with contrasting registration. Use reeds to invoke a sense of sacrifice and suffering, use string celestes on verses invoking the sublime. Use flutes for clear simplicity.

Above all, prayerfully prepare. Choosing and practicing prelude and hymns should take as much time as preparing a talk or lesson. Who among us would walk into their Relief Society or class of 12 year-olds, open the manual, and cold-read the lesson?