Monthly archives "October 2015"

TAO December 2015-Hardly Working?

The Practical Organist
December 2015

Hardly Working?

My workload is about to double. How about yours? Yes, it’s that most wonderful time of the year when our congregations turn to us, expecting to be reminded that the holiday traditions they love are still there for them. Even my contemporary congregation wants to hear the carols that connect them with Christmas. They want a touchstone to the past—reminders of their childhoods and a chance to reconnect with their cultural roots. Most important, they want to pass it all on to the next generation. Really, Christmas is the church’s annual family reunion.
It’s our own fault that we church musicians are asked to work harder this time of year. Music holds the key to memory and tradition, and we are the custodians of Christmas joy. Here’s what I want to ask you: How hard are you going to have to work this year? Maybe I can help.
By now, you know almost everything you need to prepare. Make a list and start on the hard pieces now. Look at the calendar; establish some deadlines; stick to them. When you can, choose simpler music. No one is rating you on your virtuosity. And finally, practice smarter–not longer. You can learn more with slow, careful practice on a few pieces than by rushing through your entire stack of music in one sitting. Somehow, singing the melody as I practice helps me more that I thought it would. Why don’t you give it a try?
In the spirit of “keeping it simple,” here are some new Christmas titles to consider. First, a couple of two-stave, optional-pedals books from Lorenz: Carols for Organ, Volume 3, by Mark Hayes (70/1922L) and See Amid the Winter’s Snow, compiled by Douglas E. Wagner (70/1925L). Along with Marianne Kim’s new, easy-pedals The Heart and Soul of Christmas (70/1926L), these volumes offer good quality writing from well-known arrangers. Less well known are the settings of J. William Greene in Christmas Ayres and Dances (Concordia 977407). These vivacious, retro-Baroque dances would be equally at home on organ or harpsichord. Equally delightful is Raymond Weidner, who offers a set of four Variations on “In Dulci Jubilo” for manuals only (Zimbel 80101170). Here is a short prelude that sparkles!
You can find the same carol tucked into a remarkable new volume, A New Liturgical Year, Volume 2, compiled by John Ferguson (Augsburg Fortress 978-1-4514-9907-0). Just published this summer, this spiral bound anthology follows the Riemenschneider model: background information on the hymn, a short hymn introduction, a reharmonization, and then a chorale prelude. The volume holds twenty-one frequently used tunes, making it a great service playing resource for the entire liturgical year. The moderately easy chorale preludes are drawn from across the composer spectrum from Marcel Dupré to Richard Purvis. There are five Christmas carols and three Epiphany carols included. You might want to give this volume to yourself as an early Christmas present.
There are some very useful carol arrangements in Rebecca K. Owens’ Angels We Have Heard on High: 5 Organ Pieces for Advent and Christmas (MorningStar 10-175). I like the way she combines carols without becoming predictable. Rebecca also seems to have a knack for building exciting climaxes without getting difficult. Her Toccata on “Picardy” and “Divinum Mysterium” is a great example. I also like Sondra K. Tucker’s musical vision in Christmas Around the World: 7 Carol Settings (MorningStar 10-156). Creative, but not demanding, she offers wonderful settings of “Patapan,” “Basque Carol (Gabriel’s Message),” “Hispanic Carol (El Rorro”), “West Indies Carol,” and the more familiar carols, “Sussex,” “Wexford,” and “Polish (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly).” There are always treasures from the vault to share. John Carter’s Reflections on the Nativity (Hope 1517) contains very useful, middle-of-the-road arrangements that you might have overlooked. And, of course, German Carol Fantasy by Diane Bish is as delightful to play as it is to hear (Fred Bock 08739886)!
With all the focus upon Christmas, it is no wonder that we often give Epiphany less than our full attention. In my church, there is only one Sunday in Epiphany. If you have five or six Sundays to consider, count yourself lucky. There is so much good music to play. Let’s start with New Year Joy (Augsburg Fortress 9781451462555), J. William Greene’s delightful arrangements of nine Epiphany hymn tunes. What a nice variety there is here! Robert Hobby explores many of the same tunes in his Three Epiphany Preludes, Volumes 1 & 2 (MSM 10-208, 209), adding “Ebenezer” and “Hankey” to the standard “Dix,” “In Dir ist Freude,” “Morning Star,” “Salzburg,” and “Wie Shon Leuchtet. Another set for you to look at are Bright and Guiding Star, by Franklin Ashdown (Augsburg Fortress 1451462593). “Kings of Orient” and “Puer Nobis” appear in this volume.
More challenging Epiphany literature is also waiting for you. My all-time favorite is Michael Burkhardt’s Partita on “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright (MorningStar 10-202). All the movements are delightful, but the final toccata alone is worth the price!
Also definitely worth the price is Oxford Hymn Settings for Organists: Epiphany. Editors Rebecca Groom te Velde and David Blackwell have chosen twenty original pieces by familiar American and English composers, including Craig Phillips, James Biery, Alan Bullard, Aaron David Miller, and Mary Beth Bennett. There is a wonderfully wide range of standard Epiphany tunes, plus surprises in the form of “Houston”(I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light), “Shine, Jesus, Shine;” and “Be Still, for the Spirit of the Lord.” As with all things Oxford, the layout and printing are superb.
Before you get into accomplishing all there is to do this year, let me share one more idea to help lighten your load. Don’t wait to get into the Christmas spirit. Get into the spirit now! The Spirit’s work is invisible, but audible. It abides at the heart of the music you are preparing. Center yourself upon it and allow its invisible impulse into your awareness and into your fingers. Listen for the difference. You might have your own epiphany. Practicing alone is hard work, but with Spirit as your partner, you are hardly working. Give it a try!

TAO November 2015–Fallback Position

The Practical Organist
November 2015

Fallback Position

I am a summer person. This time of year, it is easy for me to fall into a fall funk. Turning the clock back to standard time means driving home in the dark. Falling leaves are not my kind of romance. Neither is that backlog of music-to-be-learned waiting on my organ bench. Honestly, it is easy for me to fall back on my tried and true fall repertory this time of year. With all the things on my to-do list, I also have to fall back on my rusty organ technique to get me through the fall. I guess you could say that it is easy for me to get into a “fallback” position. Is that really so bad? Not if we turn it into a chance to reflect on life, music and career.
This year, I have decided that I need to work on recovering some of that technique I used to take for granted. It has been a long time since I had the luxury to practice as much as I need to. Some of us have never had such luxury, and we feel it every time we sit down at the console to play. How would it be to have confidence in everything we play? What can I do to build it in myself? The answer lies in one question: “What makes you feel insecure?” If we talked among ourselves, I am sure we would come up with similar answers. Let’s talk about one of them: pedaling.
Do you fear the pedals? How often do you have to look before you leap? For many of us organists, pedal insecurity zaps our confidence and kills the joy of playing. If this is you, help is here! How do you play without looking? By developing your ability to see the pedal board in your visual imagination. Just like faith, we have to learn to trust in the invisible.
Here are some simple tips to build in confidence by practicing the basics of “blind technique.”
1. Look at the pedal board. Close your eyes and visualize what you just saw.
2. Look at the pedal board again. Explore the blank spaces between the black notes with your toes. Name and play the surrounding notes.
3. Close your eyes and do the same exercise. With your inner eye, watch your feet moving.
4. Practice in the center of the pedal board, then explore its upper and lower regions.
5. Challenge yourself to move past locating single notes. Try playing small intervals, such as thirds, fourths, etc., first looking, then with eyes closed.
6. Make this game the first three minutes of each practice session. Keep at it! The confidence you gain will show in every piece you play.

With our newly gained confidence, let’s celebrate that the fall festivals are upon us. If you are still looking for something for Reformation, here is a new volume you will enjoy. Written for manuals only, J. Wayne Kerr offers Built on the Rock: Reformation (Concordia 97-7651), a volume of easy arrangements that contrast a variety of tunes (Webb, Marion, Denby, Reuter) with the standard Lutheran tunes for the day (Ein Feste Burg, Erhalt Uns, Herr, Kirken den er, Ach Bleib Bei Uns). Crossing the threshold to All Saints’/All Souls’, we have Michael Burkhardt’s Hymns for the Saints (MorningStar 10-742) and a delightful set of five easy Variations on “Sine Nomine” by Richard Proulx (MorningStar 10-810).
Thanksgiving has its own charms and challenges. While we love the wonderful tunes that go with the season, most of us are pressed to prepare for the Christmas season ahead. Here are some ideas for music to enjoy while you are practicing the choir’s cantata or the children’s musical. First, a wonderful set of four pieces by Robert J. Powell, Harvest Festival (Paraclete 01239). Moderately easy, these will make a wonderful suite for your prelude. So will Gilbert Martin’s Autumn Suite (Lorenz 70-1654L). Matthew Corl’s arrangements in Come, Ye Thankful People, Come (MorningStar 10-778), are a little more challenging, and they are wonderful. None of these is so challenging that you will have to fall back to your old standby’s.
We Americans have a problem with delayed gratification, so no wonder the church has a problem with Advent. Advent is a cultural pit stop on the road from Thanksgiving to Christmas. How many shopping lists and party menus have been written in worship on the first Sundays of December? How many churches have to explain why we don’t sing Christmas carols the entire month? My church has settled on two Sundays of Advent and two de facto Sundays of pre-Christmas. That’s when we sing “the lesser carols,” while we wait to sing the big carols everyone is waiting for. This is an easy solution. Honestly, two Advent Sundays are easier to plan, because we have lost almost all the Advent hymns—or we never knew them. How many does your congregation really sing?
See, that’s the problem with Advent: we have little to fall back upon. How can we help our people appreciate the spiritual values these few weeks offer? The number of words describing Advent’s riches (waiting, expectancy, quiet, promise, dark, longing, hope, need, repentance, preparation) often outnumbers the congregation’s hymn repertory. What do you do after you have sung “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus?” I try to find pieces and arrangements that embody in musical terms those many moods of Advent. Even if your congregation doesn’t know the hymn tune, they can feel what it is like to want something not yet arrived, to wait quietly with hope, or to anticipate joy.
Roberta Rowland-Raybold has done good work in her Winter Solstice: Carols for Organ (Augsburg Fortress). Drawing from a wide range of European, American and Asian tunes, Rowland-Raybold remains sensitive to the season while covering a wide dynamic range. Franklin Ashdown also offers a nice variety in the ten easy-to-medium pieces of his collection, Advent Awakenings (Augsburg Fortress). An equally generous portion of Advent material for manuals-only awaits you in Edwin T. Childs’ compilation, For Manuals Only, Advent-Christmas (Augsburg Fortress). An older compilation of manuals-only pieces from a variety of composers, Music for Manuals–Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (MorningStar 10-017) is also useful. Another vintage book of easy pedal pieces is O Come, Emmanuel (Lorenz 70-1687L) by Robert Lau. It contains some simple arrangements of the Advent classics, and it also includes the Basque carol, “The Angel Gabriel” and “Prepare the Way, O Zion.”
For a completely different approach to Advent, take a look at Gerald Near’s Chantworks, Set 1 (Aureole Editions AE42). Many of these pieces create that quiet, hopeful mood, using traditional Advent Gregorian melodies. Also quiet and reflective is The Morning Star by Gilbert Martin (Hinshaw HMO157). This is one of the few arrangements of “St. Margaret (Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne)” that I have found. The other three hymn tunes, “Hyfrydol,” “Veni, Emmanuel,” “Picardy,” are longer than most pieces in the chorale prelude repertory, perfect for communion.
Oxford University Press’ Oxford Hymn Settings for Organists; Advent and Christmas is a worthwhile investment for its trove of quiet pieces, but it is a much larger volume than that. There is plenty of room in Advent for celebration, and there is no end to celebration in its 38 pieces, all by well-known British and American composers. If you want to explore the rest of the Advent repertory, here it is! Celebration is also the key to a number of other composers’ work. David Cherwien has a delightful An Advent Suite (Sacred Music Press 70-1562S). So do Robert Hobby, Three Advent Preludes (MorningStar 10-019) and Wayne Wold, Light One Candle (Augsburg Fortress). These contain the bigger pieces of the season, “Sleepers Wake,” “Lift Up Your Heads,” “Prepare the Royal Highway.”
Friends, there is much to celebrate this year, and plenty of good music to explore. No need to “fall back” on the old stuff. Practice your pedals and use that extra bandwidth to prepare something uplifting to you and your congregation. Prepare the royal highway!