Category Archives: Handy Organist Tips

The true mark of a good church musician…

…is playing what you hate as if you love it. I think I’ve said this before, but it’s very important to remember and remind yourself (and myself) from time to time.

When you’re an organist or pianist, you’re occasionally (sometimes often) going to have to play music that you think is terrible. I had one recent Mass where I hated almost everything, beginning to end. Such is life. You won’t like everything, of course. But until you’re picking all the music, you won’t get the chance to play only stuff you like.

But even if you hate something (and lists of things I don’t like to play are all over this blog), there are plenty of people who are inspired and drawn closer to God by the music you hate. It’s not about you. Complain about the songs later, if you must. But during Mass, you owe it to the congregation, the church, the Church,  yourself, and, yes, God to do this right.


Handy organist tip #6: Play angry

I was in a very foul mood over the weekend. Why isn’t important, but when you’re an organist, you have the opportunity to do something about it. After all, with centuries of organ music available, there ought to be a few brooding, angry pieces sitting around that you can play.

Then again, why not go with the obvious?

One rule: It’s probably not a good idea to wear a cape and half-mask and pine for Emmy Rossum (or if you’re a little older, Sarah Brightman) in the process.

Pining for Emmy Rossum is totally understandable, for the record.

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Handy organist tip #5: That sun is so bright, I gotta wear shades

When the sun is making it hard for you to see your music, and you are given the option of placing a large piece of science-fair posterboard behind your music or wearing sunglasses, wear the sunglasses.

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Handy organist tip #4: On going to confession

Confession is a valuable sacrament, of course. I go with some frequency, because the sacrament definitely does me some good. That having been said, I try to avoid going to any pastors who employ me and know me fairly well, for a couple reasons:

1. I don’t want to inadvertently put them in a position where they might accidentally violate the seal of confession, especially if I confess something that leads them to question whether I should be employed there. (I don’t think I’ve done anything like that, but, you know, just in case…)

2. It’s awkward. Yeah, I know it shouldn’t be, and I know they’ve heard seemingly everything, but these folks know the best of what I have to offer, and it’s not much fun to show them the worst, even if they don’t think it’s such a big deal.

Luckily for me, I work in Chicago, and the parish downtown has confessions all day. So I tend to go there instead. As for others, there’s a decent chance there’s another nearby parish with confessions at a convenient time. Or if you can find a spiritual adviser who is a priest, it’s probably better to work with him.

Handy organist tip #3: On “Ave Maria”

Is it a Marian feast? Then always have a copy of both the Schubert version (y’all know that one) and the Gounod one (you might not know that one as well) at the ready. Because if he or she knows it, your cantor will want to do it.

And this is the book I use, with a bunch of good settings for different voices.

Handy organist tip #2: How to play “Amazing Grace”

How sweet the sound.

When you’re playing “Amazing Grace,” regardless of where it is in Mass* or how much time you actually have, you will play all five (or however many you have) verses. Because there are very few hymns that everyone knows, and this is one of them. Although when I did this recently as a recessional hymn, I made sure the cantor announced we were doing all five, to ensure the priest saying the Mass didn’t take off. And oh, did everyone sing all five verses, loudly and majestically. Now, as a reward for reading that, here’s Elvis Presley singing “Amazing Grace” with the verses in a different order than I’m used to.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that “Amazing Grace” isn’t suitable for Mass, thank you.

Handy organist tip #1

A smartphone makes an excellent paperweight when it’s superhot out and the choir has turned on the industrial fan in the choir loft, because the air conditioning isn’t really effective in a choir loft.

Can’t have it on during Mass, of course, but at least it has other uses than Internet, phone, map, etc.

Yes, without the smartphone, I would have had a horrible time keeping the pages set. Still have to work out what to do when there are page turns, though.