Those Naughty Organists

I read with some bemusement an article in the Telegraph. Beware the wrath of the church organist, it warns, and goes on to list various musical infelicities.

Slipping unexpected tunes into music is practically obligatory, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I will play “We’re walking in the air” as a recessional voluntary when it is actually snowing (or at least for the first Sunday snowfall of the year); this past Sunday, I played variations on “The Sun Has Got His Hat On.” This is gentle humour, not wrathful revenge, and I am often thanked for it by congregation and clergy alike; sometimes people even make suggestions, and if I think they’re appropriate I’m very happy to oblige. Like any humour in churches, pastoral sensitivity is required and there are bound to be occasions where it goes wrong. I’ve heard wedding sermons with actually offensive jokes in them (not, I hasten to add, at St Andrew’s!), and I’m disinclined to make much of those rare occasions where a recessional turns out to be a little too close to the bone.

I’m more discreet with music during services, but if there is a hymn quoted in the sermon, I will try to work it into the improvisation after the Communion hymn. If there is an obvious theme for the day (a few weeks ago it was sheep) I will play something relevant. This isn’t humour as such; more drawing attention to connections between things. People learn in different ways and the tune of a hymn, for some, can reinforce something they’ve learned, or help them see a passage in a new light. And again, these allusions and musical puns are not always my idea: I’ve had the Dr Who theme requested for an All Age service involving a time machine before now.

I know that joke about the difference between organists and terrorists. I won’t repeat here the reciprocal equivalent for the clergy: it isn’t kind, and like its counterpart it is generally untrue. I’ll just say that organists and clergy both tend to care about liturgy, don’t always see eye to eye, and display the full range of human error in their interactions with one another; yes, this means that some working relationships can be difficult.

But let’s get real. If we were dealing with wrath, here, we wouldn’t be talking musical jokes. I play the loudest thing in the building — no, the loudest thing on the block — and if I wanted to be disruptive, the 16′ CONTRA FAGOTTO is at my disposal. Of course I would not use such weaponry in an argument with clergy or congregation: I would consider it unprofessional, very poor musicianship, very poor leadership, very poor discipleship. I can’t think of a single organist I know who would behave in such a manner.

I note that the Telegraph article has a link mid-way down the page to an “article” (I would call it an advertorial, really) for a sort of hymn karaoke machine, marketed to stressed-out vicars with a shortage of musicians and not enough musical training themselves to be able to lead hymns with confidence. I’ve seen various other versions of this spiel before, and it’s a bit tired, to be honest. Could it be that the “ooh, scary mean organists are going to MESS UP YOUR CHURCH” tone of today’s article is intended to provide a little boost to this apparently cost-effective solution?

I respectfully submit that live music, albeit appropriate to the context of the church in question and realistic for its resources, is usually going to be a better long-term investment.

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