Published: 59 articles

TAO July 2019–Canticum Divinum

Recently, I had a chance to teach an adult education class on the history of hymns. Putting it together was a lot work, so much so that I began to think of it as my (very long) Lenten journey. My wife, who is a professional educator, was a life-saver. Her creative ideas pushed me beyond my usual lecture format. She is current with the creative teaching strategies that are making schools more interesting than we remember. My adult learners thrived. We delved into how the Psalms were sung, why early hymns are so doctrinal, how hymns’ purposes change over time, and how Christian Contemporary Music is becoming a font of creativity. It’s true what they say, the teacher becomes the learner, and I learned more than I ever imagined possible.
The history of hymns is also the story of our faith. They reflect the story of the church as it has changed throughout history. When cultures changes, the church also changes. Worship reflects change in the church, and evidence of change shows up in the words of prayers, in the communication styles of its sermons, and in its musical expressions. Despite many changes, hymns remain the people’s music–one of the most direct ways we have of connecting with God.
We expect a lot from our hymns, don’t we? Their primary role, of course, is to lift praise to God. To accomplish that lofty purpose, hymns must help us make an interior connection. There’s an art to that. We expect our hymns to reaffirm scriptural passages, make theological points, and uphold deeply held beliefs. We also want our hymns to bond the community together, to articulate its shared purposes, and to motivate churchgoers toward worthy ministry projects. The multiple purposes that hymns serve create a dynamic that supports and enhances other liturgical actions–sermons, baptisms, communion, etc. It takes careful thought to make the best choices for weekly worship. So, why is it so easy to take hymns for granted?
As worship leaders, we cannot allow the singing of hymns to become anything less than vibrant. Effective organists spend hours developing creative hymn materials to bring them alive. How effective hymns are in the development of your congregation’s faith comes down to YOU. When you are engaged with hymns, it will show in your playing. You simply must make them your top priority.
The key to renewing your engagement with hymns is to find new ways of looking at them. Hymns are rich in history. If you already have a book or two on the history of hymns, dust them off. You don’t have to read the whole thing, just dip in to learn more about this week’s opening hymn. One classic, The Story of Our Hymns by Ernest Edwin Ryden, is now available as a free download on Kindle. Two more books for your library are: A Survey of Christian Hymnody, by Reynolds and Price (Hope Publishing Company), and Sing with Understanding, by Eskew and McElrath (2nd edition, G.I.A). Many denominational publishers provide a companion volume to their hymnals, and they can be valuable resources as well. Exploring a hymn’s history is a good way to enrich your appreciation for its meaning.
A more direct and personal way to delve into the heart of a hymn is to use a variation of Lectio Divina, which I call Canticum Divinum. Lectio Divina (or Holy Reading) offers a way of deepening the prayer experience. Just as Lectio Divina uses short passages of scripture for reflection, Canticum Divinum (Holy Singing) chooses hymn texts instead. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:
1. Pray for guidance. Read the hymn aloud (singing is optional).
2. Listen quietly for a while. Allow yourself to slow down.
3. Read the hymn a second time, this time being aware of any passages that stand out or “nudge” you.
4. Again, listen quietly for a couple of minutes, remaining open to subtle intuitions.
5. Read the hymn again, slowly, allowing for stronger resonances.
6. Allow the Spirit to guide you to new awareness, insights, or reflections, and allow yourself to sink more deeply into prayer.
7. End your prayer time with a prayer of gratitude and dedication for the day ahead.

Through Canticum Divinum, we gain access to deeper perspectives on life and on music. Letting go into this process also involves facing the emptiness of waiting for an unknown outcome. But, waiting, listening, and trusting get easier with practice. As with all things spiritual, a surprise is always possible–music frequently shows us the delights our creator has in store for us.
Canticum Divinum is just one of many portals that invites you to further explorations. I am convinced that opening to your own creativity is the best way to keep engaged with hymns. After a few weeks of study in my History of Hymns class, one member of the class wrote the words and music to two hymns. If she can, you can, too! Whether it’s a new hymn text, a reharmonization, or a chorale prelude, finding and expressing the essence of hymn will be a big boost to your morale. When you are aligned with your music, you free hymns to do their work–touch the hearts of worshippers.
Touching the hearts of worshippers has been an important focus for my “The Practical Organist” columns. Together, we have explored the many facets of music and worship leadership, but it is time for me to say goodbye. The pleasure of writing for you, my beloved AGO colleagues, began when Past National President John Walker, invited me to author this column. I am grateful to him, as well as to TAO Editor, Todd Sisley, for his collegial support, and to our Executive Director, James Thomashower, for his friendship and encouragement. I also owe a very large debt of gratitude to my wife, Betsy, and my son, Nick, for their constant support, creative conversations, and eagle-eyed editing. I can only echo the words of Garrison Keillor, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch!”

TAO June 2019–The Promises of Summer

Nature teaches us about promise. There is a promise when winter gives way to spring. Snow melts and green emerges. Vibrant floral colors breathe life and hope into us. Now, late spring is about to give way to summer. Warmer weather and longer days are coming. Shady lawns whisper promises of relaxation, recreation, and renewal. Unfortunately, whispered promises do not a summer make, so it will be up to me to make nature’s promises come true.
Hope for days of freedom and rest depends entirely upon gaining control of my calendar, carving some time out of rusty routines, and filling that time with things that balance the rest of my active year. If I am going to linger over a good novel in the shade of some benevolent tree, I must know the time and the place of my sojourn–and the book’s title. I love summer reading, because it is my opportunity to explore other worlds–to enter a character’s life, to reflect upon the thoughts of a deep thinker, to learn from another’s experience. Here are some wide-ranging suggestions for your summer reading list. I’m sure there are several you will enjoy. I promise!

Reflections and Devotions
A Glad Obedience Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox Press)
Here is a reminder that our hymn singing matters and how it differentiates the Christian community from the surrounding culture. From Psalms to classic and contemporary hymns, Brueggemann underscores the importance of our music ministries.

O Clap Your Hands Gordon Giles (Paraclete Press)
Devotional reflections and prayers accompany recordings of thirty choral masterpieces by Gloria Dei Cantores. Highly recommended.

Praying with the Arts M. Louise Holert (Infocus Publishing, Abbotsford, BC)
This devotional book is filled with gorgeous color reproductions of classic sacred art, guided reflections, scripture, and prayer. Organized around the liturgical year, suggestions for further creative interactions offer gateways for deeper personal engagement.

Music Study
The Music Lesson Victor Wooten (Berkley)
World famous bassist, Victor Wooten, is a music mystic on the order of Carlos Castañeda. In a series of fictional encounters with a lackluster student, he teaches lessons that are worthy of everyone’s consideration. You will find fresh ideas to challenge and inspire you.

Music Quickens Time Daniel Barenboim (Verso)
These reflections on music’s ability to help us understand human nature could only have been written by a true maestro who has spent a lifetime reflecting on the power of music and its place in the world.

The Skin Above My Knee Marcia Butler (Little, Brown and Co.)
A memoir of honesty and profound beauty, The Skin Above My Knee is the story of a young oboe prodigy finding strength to overcome a difficult past to fulfill her artistic destiny.

A Mixture of Frailties Robertson Davies (Penguin Canada)
An unschooled singer is selected for a grant to study with some of Britain’s most gifted teachers. Follow the evolution of her career from a backward innocent to a cosmopolitan artist.

Appassionata Eva Hoffman (Other Press)
An American concert pianist becomes romantically entangled with a secretly-radicalized Chechen government official. Woven within the story, is the author’s own passion for music, her lyrical descriptions revealing insight into the meaning music brings to life.

The Ensemble Aja Gabel (Riverhead Books)
Four young friends, bound together by the inexorable demands of their membership in a top string quartet, cycle through the ups and downs of each other’s lives as they navigate the competitive world of classical music.

Every Noted Played Lisa Genova (Gallery/Scout Press)
From the author of “Still Alice,” a powerful, touching novel exploring a concert pianist’s descent into ALS and its impact upon his marriage. Deeply touching, ultimately redemptive.

Bellweather Rhapsody Kate Racculia (Mariner Books)
Located in a hotel-past-its-prime, a horde of high school music student has gathered for a music festival. Suspense builds when murder-suicide is uncovered, one echoing a similar incident fifteen years earlier.

The Big Music Kirsty Gunn (Faber & Faber)
Set in the far north of Scotland, the story of a multi-generational family show how music, especially bagpipes, weaves into the cultural context of the Scottish Highlands.

Corelli’s Mandolin Louis de Berniére (Vintage)
Set on a Greek island in the early days of World War II, a doctor’s daughter is courted by two men on opposite sides of the war. Their allegiances are tested as the effects of the war are increasingly felt by everyone.

Strings: A Love Story Megan Edwards (Imbrifex Books)
A long lost Guarnerius violin is in the hands of Ted Spencer, but it came at too high a cost. Strings of a different variety have gotten in the way of his true love: family, career, fate. Can the legendary instrument play a part in the recovery of his life?

The Music Shop Rachel Joyce (Random House)
Frank, the lonely, wounded owner of a music shop experiences the healing power of music as romance blooms with one of his customers.

Goodbye, Paris Anstey Harris (Gallery Books)
Grace has given up performing music to make string instruments. Her long-distance affair with David comes to light when his heroic action on the Paris Metro pushes him into the limelight. Friends keep Grace together as she works her way out of heartbreak.

The Wanderer Sarah Leon (Other Press)
Composing an homage to Schubert, Hermin is interrupted by the appearance of his former student, Lenny. Tension arises as they grapple with the ghosts of their past.

Just for Fun

Organ Jigsaw Puzzles
Internet-based website provides hours of relaxation puzzling over photos of world famous organs. Access at

TAO May 2019–May Madness

I never paid much attention to college basketball’s March Madness until I saw its effect upon my former senior pastor. With no other reason to account for it, this brilliant, hard-working man started exhibiting distracted behaviors just about the time Lent got into swing. Had he added extra spiritual disciplines to his devotional routine? Uh, no. What tipped me off was the faraway look in his eyes along with frequent glances at his mobile device. Confirmation of my suspicions came about when I overheard him regaling others with hoop adventures that might have been his own, except for an absence of skill on the basketball court. He had succumbed to March Madness! Let us pray…
March Madness is over, and the glory of Easter is passing, too. But, it’s May, and Pentecost’s flaming tongues are on the horizon. Pentecost is the church’s own peculiar form of spring madness, and this time, I am the one who has succumbed! My madness this May comes from new music overload. There are so many fine young composers speaking in their own tongues, I can’t list them all. There are so many well-written chorale preludes that no one can know them all. I give up!
Since the days of Flor Peeters and Paul Manz, composers in the hymn prelude tradition have proliferated. The next generation followed with Michael Burkhardt, who has set the record for the most arrangements ever, and David Cherwien and Mark Sedio and John Behnke and Robert Hobby and Wayne Wold and Charles Callahan and…you get the picture. Now another generation has come along, with even more creative works to enjoy. What do these newbies have in common? They are all church musicians creating music, just like their predecessors, for their own use, and we are the beneficiaries of their work.
My madness now fully confessed, let’s look at my incomplete list of newish composers. Since my words will not be able to fully describe each unique voice, I recommend that you go to the publishers’ websites, where you will often find sample pages to look at. Previewing before you buy will give you confidence in ordering new music from your music seller.
Kevin Hildebrand and Matthew Machemer, who are co-cantors at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, write very accessible music at an early intermediate level. Both are published by Concordia Music. Kevin has compiled ten volumes of Six Hymn Improvisations, any one of which will give you a window onto his musical world. You can see Matthew’s world through Enter His Gates with Praise and Lord of our Life. Both composers are promoting Lutheran chorale traditions, while adding mainstream hymns and newly composed hymn tunes to the mix.
As impossible as his name is, Benjamin Kolodziej, writes at an entirely possible intermediate level. His arrangements of standard hymns come with vital rhythms and shifting harmonies that delight the ears. To get a better picture of his work, Look at Gates of Beauty or Jesus Loves Me: Organ Settings of William Bradbury Tunes, both published by Concordia.
Jacob Weber, who inherited his craft directly from Behnke and Burkhardt, is another prolific composer in the Lutheran tradition. Ranging from intermediate to early advanced, Jacob has amassed multiple volumes in several series. You will find his easiest material in ten volumes of the “Musica Sacra” series where manuals-only and easy-pedals arrangements invite beginners’ explorations. His multi-seasonal “Mosaics” series, written an intermediate level, seeks to cast traditional Lutheran chorales in new and creative ways. Jacob’s grounding in the Baroque musical language shines through here. His newest volume, Organ Impressions for the Church Year, is his best. This volume, along with his four-volume “Soli Deo Gloria” series extends his hymn tune choices further into the mainstream. Recently, Concordia Music Publishers, where he is an editor, released two volumes of Three Pieces for Festive Occasions, which I have already reviewed.
The multiple volumes of the Hymn Tune Innovations of Benjamin Culli, also published by Concordia, asks for a step from intermediate to upper intermediate skills. Though they remain as solidly tonal as earlier composers, his counterpoint and rhythmic expectations are more complex. While you’re at it, you should look at his Two Triptychs for Organ, where he has given much more flair (including a quote from Debussy) to “The God of Abraham Praise” and “Old 100th” than you will find elsewhere.
More working church musicians from the house of Lorenz are also offering very useful material for you to consider. Jason Payne, keeps everything in Jubilation mode with three volumes to look at. His two volumes of Dynamic Hymn Introductions show make you want to go worship at his church! Every hymn tune is in the mainstream pocket, so these volumes are worth the investment. David Kidwell, both a symphony conductor and an active church musician, has written two very useful volumes: That Promised Land, comprising ten thoughtfully arranged African-American spirituals, and Tune My Heart, ten 19th century American hymns that everyone loves to sing. I recommend you look at these for something your congregation will find new, yet familiar.
So many composers to share! Alas, we will have to draw this madness to a close before I can get to the end of my list. I hope you will also look at the works of Roberta Rowland-Raybold, Jeffrey Blersch, David Schelat, Tom Trenney, Karen E. Black, and the many other talented composers who are responding to the spirit of creativity. The Pentecost is not over, so we can expect to see more music coming from all these composers. It’s hard to keep up with everyone, but you can keep tuned to someone new. My advice? Explore widely, but don’t drive yourself mad––you can see what happened to me!

TAO March 2019–The Wisdom of OZ

The Wisdom of OZ

Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz has charmed generations of children since it was first published in 1900. Its characters live in the hearts and minds of adults, who can easily recall images of Dorothy and her companions skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. We feel the intensity of their search for what is missing in their lives. We root for them as they are assaulted by a variety of dark forces. I still duck when the flying monkeys arrive!
Even though we know the book’s lessons by heart, it is easy to drop them when the challenges of adult life distract us. What lessons, you ask? Why, the need to live courageously, like the Lion; to think clearly, like the Scarecrow; to have a heart, like the Tin Man. And as with Dorothy, we must keep ourselves oriented towards Home, regardless of the distance from Kansas.
If you find yourself a little farther from Home than is comfortable, you are not alone. As the flying monkey population increases, so does our anxiety. Anxiety, along with its relatives, fear, doubt, and cynicism, easily leads to a disconnection between heart and mind. How quickly parts of ourselves become scattered, separated from each other. How easy to get lost on the Yellow Brick Road!
These are trying times. What is an artist to do? We are called to minister to anxious people. Music is our tool, and with it we can calm, encourage, and inspire our people. But, first, we must work on ourselves. We must have the courage to harmonize what our heads are saying with what our hearts are whispering to us. This is the work of Lent. It’s hard work, this Lenten journey. Traditional spiritual practices offer a veritable forest of methods to try. Is there a simple path to take through them? I believe there is.
With no claim that the work of the HeartMath Institute is superior to traditional spiritual practices, I invite you to consider how their perspectives might enrich our understanding of how to “listen to our hearts.” We are a headstrong people, it goes without saying. HeartMath founder, Doc Childre, draws attention to the underappreciated role of the heart in human health. He observes that negative emotions are the result of disharmony between the brain’s waves and those of the heart. The goal of his method is to bring them into “coherence,” which means bringing heart and head into rhythmic alignment––the same goal of music!
The method is deceptively simple:
“1. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and try to relax.
2. Shift your attention away from the mind or head and focus your attention in the heart area. Pretend that you’re breathing slowly through the heart for ten or fifteen seconds.
3. Remember the feeling of love or care you have for someone whom it’s easy for you to love. Alternatively, focus on a feeling of appreciation for someone or something positive in your life. Try to stay with that feeling for a time from five to fifteen minutes.
4. Gently send that feeling of love, care or appreciation to yourself or others.
5. As head thoughts come in, bring your focus gently back to the area around the heart. If the energy feels too intense or feels blocked, try to feel a softness in the heart and relax.
6. After you’ve finished, if you can, write down any intuitive feelings or thoughts that are accompanied by a sense of inner knowingness or peace to help you remember to act on them.”
The foundation of this simple technique is based upon Childre’s research that describes the power of positive emotions to calm erratic brain waves and bring them into harmony with the regularity of the heartbeat. While his instructions recommend accessing positive personal experiences, why not consider using images of divine love instead? Doing so would bring this exercise within the parameters of more traditional religious methods. As with all self-work, regular practice builds upon itself, resulting in an accumulation of experiences whose results will sustain over longer periods of time.
It will come as no surprise to you that music can also be useful in increasing the effectiveness of your experience. Childre recommends, “Find music that feels right for you. We suggest using instrumental music that falls somewhere between stimulating and peaceful. Use music that you feel helps open your heart and promote internal balance but doesn’t space you out or make you drowsy. Remember, this technique is designed to give you a relaxed but highly aware experience.”
Using music to make music better and seeking healing to heal others is not the empty promise of the Wizard of OZ. It is the way Home. As ministers of music, we are called to be leaders. We must find our way, so we can help people find their way. Do your work, so that others can hear the call of peace and joy above the monkey’s chattering. Let them feel the goodness of Love and Mercy in your music. It’s the most practical thing we can do!

TAO July 2015–Embracing God’s New Songs


I love the Psalms, don’t you? From Alpha to Omega, it has been and will always be the repository of our heritage as sacred music makers, a font of inspiration, the measure for all our creative endeavors. One of my favorites is Psalm 96, “Sing a new song unto the Lord.” Here is the promise of something new and fresh for our lives; here is our community bubbling with excitement; here is hope for the future bottled like a new vintage wine. “Sing a NEW song”– do we mean it, really?
In the past decades, we organists have to come to realize the price we might have to pay for singing Psalm 96. Frankly, we are not comfortable with the way some of us have been marginalized to make room for the new songs that Contemporary Christian Music has brought into the palette of worship resources. David Music’s April essay, “What’s Wrong with Christian Contemporary Music?” effectively neutralized most of the arguments against its use in worship. More importantly, he has built a positive case for its inclusion and provided some common-sense guidelines. Clearly, CCM is the biggest musical wave of creativity in the American church today. What do you think of his statement, “As a genre, contemporary Christian music has value for the church and contributions to make for its betterment?”
I would like to present an even more compelling reason for including CCM in your congregation’s worship repertory. We need to sing these new songs, because it is the music of the very people we want to make a home for in our churches. CCM is the music of the next generation, and the next generation needs to hear their music as much as we need to sing the traditional hymns we grew up with. It is a matter of pastoral concern that we seek ways to engage our children and grandchildren by meeting them half way. Home is where the heart is, and music is a direct pathway to the heart. So, why not sing those new songs, and play them heartily?
Rather than allowing the organ to be marginalized, I recommend exploring this music as a great way to make friends for the organ! Let’s play a prelude that welcomes new generations to church with songs they can hum. Alas, the organ faces a dilemma in gaining access to this literature. Clearly, our publishers are at least ten years behind the curve, so let’s see what is available, and then figure out some solutions to fill the gap. Lyndell Leatherman’s Hymns for Praise and Worship (Lorenz 70/1882L) is a nice, simple volume that offers several of the best-known Getty/Townend and Michael W. Smith hymns along with an effective “Here I Am to Worship.” These are tunes that easily translate into both languages of our parallel worship universes.
One tried and true strategy for keeping everyone engaged is to blend a traditional hymn with a contemporary song. Ron Sprunger’s Organ Praise and Worship (Lillenas 978083417176) offers some nice combinations that include slightly older selections such as “As the Deer,” “A New Day Dawns,” and “God is So Good.” So does Peggy Bettcher’s Praise and Worship for Organ (Hope 8131). There are varieties of mixed medleys available in Praise Organist, Vols. 1 & 2 (Word 806089423383) as arranged by Don Wyrtzen.
As you travel back in time, it becomes easier to find organ arrangements. I have found these volumes to be very useful both in morning worship and for memorial service requests: Douglas Wagner’s Sing a New Song (Hope 8022675), Seek Ye First (Hope 3236094), and Songs of Praise (Hope 8226), as well as John Carter’s two volumes of Today’s Hymns and Songs for Organ (Hope 5798764 and 8260). These are the tunes from the generation that saw “On Eagles’ Wings,” “Seek Ye First,” “Be Not Afraid,” “Shout to the Lord,” and “Lamb of God” move into the sanctuary.
It might be necessary to resort to some alternative strategies if you want to get closer to the contemporary music that is relevant today. For instance, piano arrangements of new songs come out much earlier than organ versions. A good arrangement is a good arrangement, so find a simple one in the piano literature, highlight the bass notes you want to play, simplify the accompaniment figures, straighten out some of those rhythms, and choose a couple of colorful solo stops for the melodies. 25 Top Praise and Worship Songs, Vols 1-5, arranged by Carol Tornquist (Word 806089461385), is filled with the songs you need to know if you are going to be in the know about now. A little earlier literature is available in her series, Sunday Morning Blend: Keepsake Edition (Word 080689437380), which follows the pattern of blending a traditional hymn with a praise song. Today’s big name artists are Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin. Both are well represented in The Heart of Worship, arranged by Bill Wolaver (Word 080689436383). Here are “How Great is Our God,” “Blessed Be Your Name,” and “Forever.” A couple more volumes for you to investigate are Praise…Light Jazz-Style by Teresa Wilhelmi (Word 080689381386) and Contemporary Praise, arr. Mark Kellner (Lillenas 9780834172128).
Adapting piano arrangements still doesn’t really solve the problem of keeping up to date with CCM’s top title songs. If you really want to find what the “Rockin’ Church” is up to this very minute, you need to go to one of the sources, such as web-based music service, There, you will find arrangements for just about anything your contemporary worship leader can name. Not everything will work, of course. Choose carefully to avoid heavily syncopated tunes that even contemporary congregations stumble over. I have learned to listen for “proper” music style before adapting them to the organ, and I make sure the congregation knows the song before I program it as a part of the prelude.
I confess that I am the first to be critical of this music, yet some of the songs have won me over. More lovely songs as “10,000 Reasons” and “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” cannot be found; our traditional congregation loves them. My young worship team, Luke Graham (contemporary) and Liz Virkler (traditional), works closely to craft meaningful blended combinations, which they call “mash ups.” Try “Lord, I Need You” followed by “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Here I Am to Worship” with “O Worship the King,” “We Fall Down” with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Man of Sorrows” with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We have found some single songs with crossover appeal: “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “I Lift My Eyes Up (Psalm 121),” “Jesus Paid it All,” and “In Christ Alone.” New literature is going to take time to grow on us, and we don’t always know which ones are the classics of tomorrow. We need to give them a chance.
Being faithful to Psalm 96’s encouragement for us to sing new songs unto the Lord means giving up some control to the inspiration of the Spirit. Reggie Kidd’s book, With One Voice (Baker Books) reminds us that there are musics in the church for everyone: Bach for classics lovers, trend-conscious music for the Blues Brothers crowd, and even simple folk music for those Kidd identifies as his just-folks, “Bubba’s.” Here is my best advice: be responsive to the needs of the church body and work to keep the organ engaged in worship, regardless of musical style. And finally, sing those new songs the Lord is sending your way with all the verve you put into your postludes. If you do, maybe someone new will listen to them!

TAO January 2019–The Fellowship of the Pipes

The Fellowship of the Pipes

On the way to the Kansas City national convention last summer, my wife and I stopped at the home of Mark and Carol Virkler for a short visit. We are new friends, getting to know each other on their trips to San Diego after I hired their daughter as my associate director of music. Mark is a retired University of Missouri professor, and Carol is completing her 40th year as organist of their church. You could not ask for more gracious hospitality. Quick with a smile and an extra dessert, they made us feel right at home, proudly showing us their town, their campus, and their church.
Friendship solidified as we spent time in their Columbia, Missouri home. We learned just how active the Carol is at their church. Not only is she the organist, she is also active in her women’s group, has served several terms as a member of the church board, ultimately rising to “Clerk of Session” ––and, recently, she became director of music. And that’s not all––the Virklers have also sponsored several refugee families, keeping in touch with all of them.
Dreams of retirement were on her mind. She worried about who would take over the console when she steps down. Her hopes were raised when she discovered that a new choir member plays the piano and that she had been watching her for some time, wondering if she could ever have a chance to try the organ out. Carol invited her to try it out. She loved it! “I have so much I want to show her,” enthused Carol.
Our visit with the Virklers ended all too soon, but I left with several gifts that have only recently revealed themselves to me, and in the spirit of Epiphany and the Three Kings, I want to share them with you.
The first gift is that of Guild fellowship. Getting acquainted was easy, because Carol and I had so much in common. We shared stories of life in our respective chapters, a common vision, similar values, and an eagerness to share resources. We love the organ and its music. We like learning more about what makes them work, and more about its history. We seek to better ourselves as performers, and we like meeting experts, so we can learn from them. These commonalities made it easy for us become friends who share stories and concerns, as well as accomplishments. How wonderful to offer each other support for the challenges we face. The Guild’s “Fellowship of the Pipes” strengthens us for the journeys we are on. Friendship and hospitality is a gift for all of us to enjoy.
It is easy to see that Carol’s church activities far exceed the expectations of her employment. If you asked her, she would say that she’s doing what comes naturally. She has found her gifts and is sharing them. Best-selling author, Steven R. Covey, would say that she has grown into a highly effective person by living her life “from the inside-out.” Artists are people discovering their unique gifts and seeking ways to bring them forth for the good of all. Covey would urge all of us to find our voices and to use them. “There is a deep, innate, almost inexpressible yearning within each one of us to find our voice in life,” he writes. Music is our voice––the voice that gives expression to that which abides unseen within us. Our voice brings fresh spiritual energy into the world. Touching on music’s deep wells lies at the center of the artist’s inside-out life-style.
Carol’s musical energy spills over into the many other things she does in her life. Enthusiasm is one of Covey’s indicators for authentic voice: inspiring others and using it to develop a vision of great things they want to accomplish. Encouraging others is another sign of the spillover effect–– a natural outcome of the artist’s process. It was exciting to hear of Carol’s surprise in finding someone right before her eyes who was interested in playing the organ, and even more so to witness her eagerness to help this neophyte to develop her skills and to find her voice.
All of us together form The Fellowship of the Pipes, where we can find our place in a community shared interests, a place where we can find our voice, a place where we can shape the future by encouraging those who will follow us.
Ultimately, inspiring others will be the legacy we leave behind us. Those we have influenced will be the best evidence of our own accomplishments. We have a rich legacy to share. Look around you to see who is waiting to join the Fellowship of the Pipes. Someone is waiting for your invitation. Happy New Year!

TAO December 2018–Abiding Tidings

Unless you have experienced personal loss during the season, loss is not something you typically associate with Christmas. Since my Dad’s death in 1989, December 1st has become a darkened gateway to the season of light. We sang “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide!” at his memorial service. Only recently, at another memorial service, I realized that this elegiac hymn also contains a little bit of Christmas in the last stanza: “…shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Christmas celebrates the entry point of the eternal Presence, the Spirit that abides in and among us, the Spirit that dispels the gloom of worldly care. Perhaps the prayer of presence in E.S. Eliot’s “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” is more familiar this time of year, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart today.” This is truly a Christmas “Abide in Me” prayer. May the Divine Presence abide with you and in the music you offer this Christmas season!
While Advent admits the darkness of our human situation, Christmas is about Joy! Waiting for Christmas is a universal trial for children, whose eyes gleam with anticipation. In my experience, people want to sing Christmas carols from Thanksgiving on. Bad news–Grownups, too, must wait! So, Advent has become an exercise in delayed gratification. Organists always want to match suit with congregational customs. So, if you are looking for good Advent music to present, here is Robert J. Powell’s new Five Advent Preludes (Paraclete 00531), a useful volume of easy-intermediate arrangements, including “Sleepers, Wake,” “Savior of the Nations,” “Comfort, Comfort Ye, my People,” and “Helmsley.” Also written on two-staves, Grimolado Macchia’s People, Look East (Lorenz 70/2030S), is a little more challenging. There are exciting Advent toccatas, along with a sensitive pastorale on “Gabriel’s Message” for your exploration.
Regardless of when the waiting is over, the international character of Christmas music is waiting to delight everyone. This lovely book of seven carols, A Ring of Carols (Lorenz 70/2045L), covers many of the most familiar countries. Alfred Fedak’s easy, two-staff writing remains creative and engaging throughout. Truly international in vision is David Sims’ Wondrous Birth (Augsburg Fortress), where each carol receives a creative setting along with a hymn introduction and a fresh harmonization. With this volume, you can enlarge the range of your library: Philippines’ “Kalinga,” Japan’s “Mabune,” Iona’s “Columcille,” mix with France’s “Besancon” and “Un Flambeau,” and the American spiritual, “Rise Up, Shepherd.”
I am pleased to see well-known composer, Daniel Gawthrop, provide Joy to the World (Lorenz 70/2106L), a volume of intermediate pieces for the season. Along with extended arrangements of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” for congregational singing (you can easily extract portions for service playing purposes), he has written a jolly set of variations for “God Rest Ye, Merry” and two quiet settings of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with 4’ pedals carrying the melody. Perfect for communion!
Also on the quiet end of the spectrum are Two Christmas Preludes by Byron Adams (E.C. Schirmer 8690). Rich flowing textures create a serene, meditative atmosphere for “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” and “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.” Truly, the Spirit abides in this music! The Spirit is also revealed in two new volumes of music for violin and organ by Daniel Burton. Both retain his characteristic gentle touch, while exploring a varied range of movement. Nowell, Nowell: Eight Traditional French and English Carols (MSM 20-105) and Four Traditional German Christmas Carols (MSM 20-127) are easy on the organist and only require an intermediate violinist. Both of these books may be downloaded on the MorningStar website,
Truly festive music is the touchstone of the season. I highly recommend Kristina Langlois’ creative combination of “God Rest You, Merry” and “Noel Nouvelet.” This is one of those pieces that is as much fun for the audience to listen to as it is to play! Other pieces in Postludes for Organ on Festive Tunes (Augsburg Fortress), include another extended fantasy on “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,” as well as a shorter, but equally dynamic “Lasst uns Erfreuen.” Early advanced players will relish the riches that David Cherwien has included in his Partita on “Creator of the Stars of Night” (MSM 10-438). Here are five movements displaying the range of his imagination, from a flowing 9/8 setting, to a gentle pastorale, through a highly chromatic passage over a pedal cantus firmus, a luxurious chorale, ending with a fiery toccata that ends much too soon.
Christmas isn’t over until it kisses Epiphany on January 6th. How about Three verses of “O Morning Star” (Concordia 97777818) to celebrate the new year? The first Andante explores some very colorful harmonies, while the second movement deftly illustrates the text, “A ray of purest pleasure,” with gentle rocking motions and pure D-major harmonies. Composer, Christopher M. Wicks, has saved the fireworks for the last movement, “What joy to know,” with a variety of 16th -note passages, both scalar and chordal, where your organ’s best pedals sounds can sound forth on the hymn tune.
Whatever darkness looms in your life, may “Break forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” be our prayer. Let the Spirit of music be a gift to yourself and to your congregation. Abiding Tidings of the season to all!

TAO November 2018–The Escape Room

The Escape Room

Halloween came earlier than ever this year. You see, back in August our friends, Mike and Andrea, invited my wife and me to experience our first Escape Room with them. A mysterious, velvet-caped guide ushered eight brave souls into the “Dreamscape Room,” with just an hour to decipher the room’s hidden clues leading us safely back to reality through the locked portal. She warned us that our failure to succeed would abandon us to an eternity in the shadow world. The fantasy elements were fun, but we were given no directions or guidelines—we had to, literally, read the room.
For the first part of the hour, confusion reigned among us, as we uncovered symbols without connections and puzzles without contexts. Rebuses, hieroglyphics, mirrors, hidden switches, keys without locks, and swirling images on the ceiling eventually converged, so we could connect the meaning behind the clues. Finally, the combination to the locked portal gave way, and we escaped doom with eight minutes to spare. Would I brave another escape room? You bet! We celebrated at a nearby restaurant, where the camaraderie was terrific. What did we learn? Winning feels good, but the reward is solving the puzzles in a limited amount of time.
Sacred musicians have our own kind of puzzles to solve. One of my favorite puzzles is, “What shall I play next week?” Weekly bulletin deadlines can leave us with the feeling of being locked in a Liturgical Escape Room. The first step in avoiding the sense of doom that envelops those who fall behind is to plan and practice ahead. What to play? The Practical Organist is here to help!
Learning new music keeps us engaged and builds our confidence. But, finding appropriate music at a just the right level can be complicated. Happily, publishers are becoming more conscientious about commissioning well-written music on the easier end of the scale. Let’s look at some manuals-only things first. Kevin Hildebrand is into his fourth volume of For Manuals Only (Concordia) where he has chosen an interesting mix of traditional Lutheran chorales and new-ish hymn tunes such as “Earth and All Stars,” “Rise, Shine You People,” and Marty Haugen’s “Joyous Light.” He is very good at providing creative introductions and interludes that highlight the hymn melodies.
Creativity is never far from John Dixon’s fingertips, especially in his new volume, From Calvary’s Hill (Lorenz 70/2017L), where traditional Lenten/Easter tunes receive a sympathetic two-page consideration. Other optional-pedals volumes include Postludes in Two Minutes or Less (Lorenz 70/2109L), where Richard Williamson provides material for organists whose congregations’ desires for coffee trumps any artistic offerings you might want to make, and Ruth Elaine Schram’s Prayludes of Praise (Lorenz 702082) provides hymns linked into medleys with flexible start and stop points along the way. With this volume, there will be no need to hunt for a cadence when the pastor suddenly stands up! Well-known composer, Lloyd Larson, has also made a foray into the optional pedal literature with his Be Thou My Vision (Lorenz 70/2108L), offering his winning formula of satisfying harmony and colorful voicings to this useful choice of hymn tunes.
If you are looking for something fresh and unexpected, look no farther than Craig A. Penfield’s Eight New Little Preludes and Fugues (Lorenz 70/2131). Clearly, Craig has penned this volume with education in mind. Moving from very easy to early intermediate, each well-constructed prelude and fugue will reconnect you with Baroque roots. Joe Utterback, on the other hand, will have nothing so old in a new volume that he intends to be a jazz organ primer. Each piece in his Eight Short and Easy Jazz Preludes (Wayne Leupold 600317) will bring a smile to listeners’ faces and a tap to their toes. A group of three would make a fine summer prelude.
It is, literally, a small step into easy three-staff music, such as Benjamin Culli’s three sets of Easy Chorale Preludes for All Seasons (Concordia), and the rewards of venturing there with him are great. What a nice variety of styles he has incorporated into “Cantad al Senor,” “Marion,” “Jesus Loves Me,” and “What a Friend!” The same can be said of Alfred Fedak’s Tongues of Fire (Lorenz 70/2153), especially the volume’s signature piece, “Pentecost Dance.” Matching the talents of these two gentlemen is Robert Powell, with O for A Thousand Tongues (MorningStar 10-696). Circling around the church calendar, every one of these tunes is useful. If you would like to see the contents of these volumes, I recommend going to the publishers’ websites.
Poetry comes in many forms, some without words. One such volume is The Beatitudes (Lorenz 70/2144L), the product of Roberta Rowland-Raybold’s sensitive reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. Played together, they are effective explorations of their inner meanings. Practically speaking, it would be easy to use one or more of them in Sunday services, as well as at memorial services. There is more poetry in Quiet Reflections (Lorenz 70/2113), a volume combining new music by Fenton Broden, who has chosen three psalms for dynamic interpretation, with out-of-print music by George Frederick McKay (“Three Expressive Pieces”) and Kevin Norris (“Six Lyrical Pieces”). Audiences still love these lush harmonies, and you will find them to be most useful for a variety of purposes.
The Music Room contains so much fine music, that I wonder why anyone would ever want to escape from it. I have more to share with you next month!

TAO October 2018–Merry-Go-Rounds

Merry-go-rounds are not just for kids, you know. Do you remember how magical they were? When adults find themselves running around in circles, we say that life is a merry-go-round—a sure sign that someone has lost the magic of the metaphor. There’s nothing wrong with running around in circles, as long as they’re the right kind of circles.
If you find yourself there in the whirl of daily busy-ness, hang on! The magic in the merry-go-round of life comes to those who savor the ride. Circles travel fastest on the periphery, so when you move to the center, the ride appears to slow down. As T.S. Eliot observed, the center is “the still point of the turning world.” He continues, “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” So, fellow musicians, our work, itself, is the solution to a too-busy life. Let’s center on making music that dances!
The church’s liturgical year is a circle of sorts, a cycle of events that returns year after year. And our work as musicians has its own kind of cycle. We plan, we practice, we perform. It’s easy for our sense of purpose to get bogged down in the weekly routine. So, I have devoted several articles hoping to help reconnect our work with our vision for ministry. We’ve looked at new ways to practice, too. The circle is turning again, and it’s time to consider what to practice––to find new music worth making.
As practical organists, we want to be able to meet all the needs of our music program. Weekly, we accompany choirs, lead congregational hymns, and prepare solo literature. These are the visible tasks. However, there are many invisible skills that make them possible. Weaknesses in these invisible tasks have a way of undermining our confidence at the keyboard.
To build more confidence, mastering basic keyboard skills is essential. While scales and arpeggios are important, there is more to keyboard musicianship. How about figured bass, open score-reading, harmonizing, transposing and improvising? If you’ve tried to learn them on your own, you know how frustrating it can be. There is a new series to help bridge the gap in these five challenging keyboard skills: Graded Keyboard Musicianship: Training in Core Keyboard Skills by Anne Marsden Thomas & Frederick Stocken (Oxford, 2017) is an excellent two-volume contribution which you can do alone or with a teacher. Logically organized, short lessons gently move from beginner to intermediate level, which is where most keyboard skills books on start. The authors have kept the examples short, without omitting any steps. I highly recommend these new volumes for anyone seeking help in boosting their command of these keyboard basics.
As we cycle through the church year, hymns for each season return to us. Leading them is one of our most important responsibilities. In the face of frequent repetition, let’s keep them interesting and uplifting. There are books, books, and more books of hymn introductions, modulations, and re-harmonizations to choose from. Keep your collection fresh with Daniel Gawthrop’s two new volumes of Free Accompaniments for Organ (Dunstan House). Written at an early intermediate level, most of these standard hymns have something for every verse, often including a trumpet descant. Daniel keeps his harmonies colorful, but conservative. The third volume of Samuel Metzger’s The Festival Hymn Collection (MorningStar 10-434) has just come out. My goodness these are big pieces! Just like his earlier volumes, extended introductions are set-ups for exciting singing; modulations build to bold final verses. What’s new in this volume are two-part descants for women’s voices. Quieter hymns are also well crafted. There are fifteen intermediate arrangements of standard hymns to add to your library.
The church’s business is to celebrate significant events in the cycle of life. Weddings and memorial services have their own repertories. We can all name specific pieces of music that go with each. New organists need easy access to them. If I were a new organist, I would look at the great arrangements Michael Burkhardt has provided in Processionals and Recessionals for Festive Occasions (MSM 10-455). Almost everything needed for a wedding is here, and any worship service will be more festive with one of these grand pieces.
Two new books for memorial and funeral services have come out recently. The editors at MorningStar Music have collected thirteen familiar hymn arrangements from past publications into In Memoriam (MSM 10-432). With familiar composers, Wilbur Held, Michael Burkhardt, Charles Callahan, and Robert Powell taking the lead, you can count on writing that avoids sentimentality and beautiful harmonies that do not attract attention to themselves. Designed to match the scope and quality of earlier Oxford volumes, Wedding Music and Ceremonial Music, newly released The Oxford Book of Funeral and Memorial Music contains there is something from every era. From eight short J.S. Bach choral preludes, to Attwood’s“Grand Dirge” for Admiral Lord Nelson, to standard gems from the Romantic Era, this volume concludes with two lovely commissions by Rebecca Groom te Velde: “On Eagles’ Wings” and “Crimond.” If I were a new organist looking for the best collection of standard classical memorial literature, I would start with this volume.
Life’s merry-go-round is much easier to manage when we keep one eye on our purpose. With a little practice, we might even enjoy the ride. I hope you are!

TAO September 2018–The Practice of Practice

The Practice of Practice

Last month, we took an honest look at the faults in our practice habits and outlined a four-step process for improving them. These four steps, Analysis, Diagnosis, Correction, and Evaluation, help us to uncover bad habits, find a practice technique to solve the problem, apply it, and assess its effectiveness. Over time, using this process can help us to become more efficient rehearsal technicians. For some, this process will seem familiar, but for many, mastering these four steps represents quite a challenge. Let’s consider what learning a piece of music could be like if we had no bad habits. The following graphic will guide us through a series of interlinking steps that lead to polished performances.

REFERENCE RECORDING: The first step is to listen to a good performance of the new piece. Having heard the piece prior to practice makes us confident that we are learning the correct notes and rhythms. It clarifies the piece’s structure, and it accelerates the learning process. As our understanding of the piece matures, we might decide to diverge from the recording’s interpretation, but hearing the music before learning it is a great place to start.

NOTES: By breaking the learning process into small, easily accomplishable steps, you can take the stress out of learning music. Choose a short passage; learn the notes and learn their fingerings and pedaling before putting them together with the rhythm. Without the pressure of keeping time, we have the leisure to consider the most efficient fingering/pedaling. This is also the best time to confirm accidentals and to work out contrapuntal lines. Working in this way allows the brain the time it needs for complete, accurate processing.

RHYTHMS: Practice rhythm alone. With four limbs to coordinate, there is plenty of work to do. Again, working in small sections and at a careful tempo, tap the piece’s rhythms on a tabletop with your hands and on the floor with your feet like a percussionist. Master each staff before combining the hands, or the hands with the feet. Work for confident accuracy without pushing the tempo.

TECHNICAL INTEGRATION: Still working in small sections and at a slow tempo, combine your accurate, well-planned fingering/pedaling with your well-prepared rhythmic co-ordinations. Slow, careful work at this stage is preparation for exciting, confident performances later. Do not increase the tempo until you are able to play the excerpt accurately and without hesitation several times in a row. Use the metronome to push the tempo one click at a time.
Putting rhythm and notes together is a big task. Methodically applying a variety of techniques during this period keeps practice interesting. I recommend looking at some of the resources in last month’s column. Learning how to guide oneself efficiently through the integrative stage creates momentum that encourages more accomplishment.

SCORE STUDY: So far, the learning process has focused upon mastering the technical aspects of the piece; the goal being accurate notes and rhythms. During the note learning phase, it is also important to explore the score away from the console. Studying the score opens the musical imagination. It reveals the meaning of the piece. Score study is not passively staring at the pages of notes you are learning. It is an active search for clues as to the composer’s intention. What did the composer want to communicate? How is the piece organized? What is the “why” of the piece?

MUSICAL COHERENCE: Discovering answers to the questions raised in listening to the reference recording and in studying the score help make sense of the music. Fusing technical preparation with the meaning of the music is the second stage of integration. Expressivity is the focus. The primary question is, “How can I convey the music’s intent in my playing?” To bring the expressive content of the piece into physical gesture at the console is the happy task of the musician. Regardless of our innate talent or the quality of our training, we can always learn something from other experienced musicians. This is the purpose of a masterclass. Consider attending one!

RELIABLE REPRODUCTION: Being able to deliver an accurate musical performance is not the final goal, but it is an important resting point in a piece’s preparation. This is the time to perform maintenance on shaky passages. If you can, let the piece mature here while you gain more insight into its content and more freedom in playing it.

INTENTIONAL COMMUNICATION: The final factor in preparing a new piece of music is learning to communicate with an audience. A feedback loop exists between performer and audience. Each performer responds to the presence of listeners differently, so practicing with an audience is important. Enlist the help of a few friends.

DYNAMIC PERFORMANCE: By following the previous steps, you are ready to give a dynamic performance. Together, you and the audience are present with each other. You want to include who they are and what they bring with them into your performance. They are a part of the NOW of musical expression. Expect inspiration and let it guide you. It’s time––you are the channel––let the music flow through you!