to sing or not to sing…the power lies with the organist

Posted on January 1, 2011. Filed under: General Church Music, Music in Sacrament Meeting, Organ Music |

I am first and foremost a pianist, but I absolutely LOVE playing the organ.  I believe if a congregation is not singing, at least 50% of the blame goes to the organist.  If the organist plays with confidence using correct registration and volume the congregation will sing out.  I have seen evidence of this in Sacrament Meetings all over the world.

There are two Arizona wards I attended last year that I’ll use to demonstrate the importance of a good organist.  The first ward was small, maybe 100 people total in Sacrament Meeting.  Their organist had been an organ performance major years ago.  She played on a tiny organ but used an intelligent combination of stops that was inviting to the congregation.  The members sang as if they were truly praising the Lord with all their heart and soul.   The second ward was enormous, at least 600 people in attendance at the Sacrament Meeting.  The organist used all flutes in her registration for all the congregational hymns, playing softly, at a slower tempo than the metronome markings in the hymnbook.  She used the bass coupler instead of the foot pedals which kept cutting out every few notes (a problem with bass couplers).   The congregation sang at the soft volume of the organist, those who were even singing.  I was amazed at the many people who didn’t even open their hymnbooks.  This left me wondering what would have happened if the organist from the tiny ward were playing for the large ward?  Would the tempo, volume, registrations, and confidence of that organist help invite all members to participate in the singing of the hymns?  I believe it would.

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12 Responses to “to sing or not to sing…the power lies with the organist”

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Its like you read my mind! You seem to know
a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
I think that you can do with some pics to drive
the message home a little bit, but instead
of that, this is great blog. A fantastic read.
I’ll certainly be back.

I live in an Arizona ward and have a music calling. Unfortunately it is not that of ward organist, a calling which I have had many times and for years and years. I use tricks to get people singing and it has been quite notiecable by different Bishops and also at Stake Phd. meetings etc. What I am sad about is how many pianists don’t really understand basic organ accompaniment rules, such as DO NOT Double the bass note, play it only with Pedal, or playing with Tremolo on. The other peeve is the organist who apparently is employed at the local meat market as the hymns are adeptly butchered each Sunday. I try to sing along, but my wife, a trained professional singer, refuses when it gets too choppy even to catch a breath. The Bishop doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the problem when he says in reference to the struggles the congregation has singing when he says:, ” well, she is quite protective of her Organist Calling”. Well, just venting but I know this situation plays out in wards all over the world. We can’t as organists just throw our hands at the keyboard and “hope for the best”. A skill is developed over time. A great organist is felt rather than heard.

You hit on a pet peeve of mine, people becoming protective of their callings. Something is very wrong when we are forced to tolerate substandard music in our meetings simply because someone is protective of their music calling. I too wish we had fewer lazy musicians in the Church and more who were willing to magnify their music callings, learning how to play correctly or lead correctly, etc.

Wow–I am a little embarrassed by all of your remarks in this post–most of us “organists” have had no training other than the BYU online freebies. We try our best-practice each week. LOVE the bass coupler because no real training has been available or affordable. After several nauseating weeks of my first round as the “organist” I begged the bishop to let me play on the piano. I knew I was torturing the congregation and myself but had no one to turn to for help. Maybe instead of blaming the organist for being lazy–those who KNOW–could lend a charitable hand and teach others. I have read and purchased many tutorial books, done online programs, even attended the BYU education week organ class for the entire week…I’ve been the ward organist for 20 years and still can not call myself “an organist.” God Bless those with formal training who are willing to share. I enjoy this forum and have learned a lot…but please stop listing pet peeves and knocking the poor folk who have accepted callings-knowing their talents were limited-but their love of God and service to man is endless!

I am curious where you live because I find it astonishing that in 20 years, no stake or regional trainings have been available to you and that you have been left to teach yourself via online resources. The most important responsibility of the stake music chairman is to provide training to the musicians in the stake. If I were in your position, I would be talking to my stake music chairman and to stake leadership if necessary, to get some organ training going on in your stake. If your stake is not willing to provide training, ask your stake president to contact nearby stakes to inquire if they are providing training for their organists and to find out if you can be invited to join in their training sessions. It is true that most organists are just pianists attempting to play the organ. This is why training is so essential. If we as organists don’t receive proper training, congregations are left to endure the bass coupler for years. It is my opinion that the bass coupler should be used for those just starting out on the organ or for substitute organists, not for people who have been the organist for many years.

Another way we can better our skills is to take organ lessons. I have lived all over the United States and have found private organ teachers everywhere, some who were ridiculously inexpensive. There are also local colleges in most cities that offer organ lessons or classes. BYU has a summer organ workshop that I want to attend one of these years. It is for organists at every level. There is always room for improvement and we can always find ways to better our organ skills, whether we are a brand new organist, or have been playing for decades.

Dear Organists and those who are valiantly trying to be such.
Some basic tricks for new organists-

1. While sitting at any keyboard anywhere or mentally “air practicing” , go through
a hymn leaving the Bass line out. ( ATB only) Get comfortable with this and take your time.

2. Once you are confident with the ATB configuration, go sit at the organ and
get comfortable just playing the Bass line with left foot.

3. When you have your “bearings” on the pedal board, SLOWLY start adding the ATB portion. Resist the temptation to add the bass note with your left hand.

4. You will get excited when you start feeling the hymns this way. Your accompaniment
will be much richer AND less cluttered. It also will feel easier than you ever thought and will
become 2nd nature. Also the congregation will hear the parts more clearly and be more at
ease singing.

5. Enjoy playing with renewed confidence and competence.

Dan in Mesa

Dan, did you mean to type play Soprano, Alto, Tenor only?
and I appreciate your advice and support.

Yes! I started out as a pianist, and I’m quite competent, but it was terribly embarrassing to play the organ. When I was first called, I could afford 6 weeks of organ lessons, and there really are no free/inexpensive options here. Living in the east, it’s difficult to drive far to get to a church building often. With young children and jobs and schooling, it’s even more difficult. Let’s give people some slack! Maybe kindly offering assistance would be more helpful. I hope this writer never attends my ward critiquing instead of loving those who are trying to serve. And just maybe people who choose not to sing are excercising their agency 100%.

“Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven”. As organists, who are really pianists, we do have to sacrifice for our calling. We are taken for granted quite often, have hymns changed on us last minute, and are required to get ourselves to the chapel to practice the organ each week to be prepared to play for sacrament meeting. When I lived in Pennsylvania, the chapel was a 30-minute drive, on icy roads in the winter, and in order to practice the organ I had to make that drive with two babies. Yes, it is a huge sacrifice if we are to play well. When we receive the calling as a ward organist, we ought to have the mindset that our playing can either add to the spirit of the meetings or drive the spirit away. That is a huge responsibility. Are we willing to make that sacrifice in order to provide a means for the members in our ward to feel the spirit as they sing the hymns and listen to our well-prepared prelude and postlude?

As a Stake Music Chairman, I provided many organ training workshops for the organists and pianists in my stake. We can’t simply expect organists to improve with practice, without first receiving proper training. I would hope that all Stake Music Chairmen are doing the same. If you are in need of more organ training, talk with your Stake Music Chairman and encourage the planning of some training sessions taught by the most competent organist in your stake or region. The BYU organ department came to my region a few months ago and offered a 2-day training for organists of all levels. It was fantastic. They do this in various areas upon request. In Ohio, a massive regional music training conference was held recently that among other things, provided training for organists. I thought that was a fabulous idea.

There is always room for improvement when it comes to our organ playing. We don’t need to remain at the same level of playing year after year. How about we all go the extra mile in our organ calling and work hard to better our playing. I have been trying to do just that, getting to the chapel frequently to practice and volunteering to play in the temple. You would think it would be easier for me now that all my kids are school-age, but actually it’s not with my crazy busy life. It was easier to drive the 30-minutes with babies.

Yes, all Organ-Mates out there. If you leave the left hand bass note out and ONLY play it with
your Pedal (left foot) you get a MUCH cleaner sound. Otherwise by doubling the bass line it will
get quite muddy sounding. SAT but no B in other words.

Enjoy making enjoyable music and people WILL sing a lot more.


Thank you, Dan, for your ATB suggestion! That is one of the best helps I have read in all my search for helps to play the organ. After playing 4-part harmony on the piano for 50 years, it’s HARD to drop that bottom note when I play the organ! But I can practice isolating ATB on my piano at home, then when I get on the (30-minute-drive-away) organ at church–usually with only once/week chance to practice–it will be easier for me to play it the way it should be played.

Dear Judy and other “Organ-Mates” on the cyber-audience .
I’m really glad my tip is catching on. Yes it is much cleaner sounding to leave that bass note out of the left hand. Another little tip which I have used since my twin brother and I at age 16 began playing hymns in Sacrament meetings on alternate Sundays: Mental Practice. Envisioning in your mind playing SAT with fingers and your left foot on the Bass line. This will go a long way in boosting your confidence. Over time your muscle memory will take over and your left foot bass line will go automatically to the correct spot. You can also do “air practice” on a table top with your left foot swinging at intervals. When you get your time on the actual Organ your time will be optimized.

Happy Holidays and
Happier Hymning

Dan in Mesa AZ

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