Monthly archives "August 2017"

TAO September 2017–The Impractical Organist

How was your summer? I hope you had a great one. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s already September. If you aren’t busy yet, you are about to be. Before we start yet another season, let’s pause to reflect on what we church musicians are all about. We aren’t concert artists, nor are we teachers, but there are aspects of these functions in our work. What exactly does it mean to be a practical organist? It means working in the tension between high artistic standards and weekly deadlines, between low congregational expectations and high personal aspirations, or the reverse. When both of us were on the staff of the Spreckels Organ Society, Robert Plimpton and I frequently bemoaned the power of entropy, that constant downward pressure to lower standards under demanding situations. You know what I mean; we all face our personal limitations. Let’s affirm that each of us can overcome the tyranny of entropy, even when time is precious.
The ultimate challenge is to channel our highest artistic ideals into the weekly service so that our music transforms the ordinary into something special—something that touches the hearts of those who come to worship. This is our praxis—the application of our art to the specific needs of our local church situation. As practical organists, we stand for:
• Holding on to a vision of the arts that honors its sacred function.
• Maintaining our musical aspirations as performers.
• Using our skills in service to the worship of the church.
• Appreciating and evaluating music for its inspirational value, regardless of where it comes from.
• Anticipating the needs of the service, adapting to them, and choosing music that is responsive to
those needs.
The Practical Organist is a servant to the art of music, to the church and to our people. Yet, there is a paradox concealed right there underneath our pedalboards: what makes us effective practical organists are some very impractical impracticalities. That is to say, something very impractical undergirds, nurtures, and supports us in our practice. These are things of the Spirit itself. By its very nature, the Spirit is generous, abundant, and lavish with its gifts. As sacred musicians, the Spirit freely shares its gifts with us, so that we can channel those gifts to the people under our care. What a remarkable gift we are given!
As sacred musicians, our primary task is to receive the Spirit’s energy and to amplify it through our musical art. “Oh, come on now!” you say, “I have my own problems to deal with. I just need to get through Sunday and on to the week ahead.” Yes, practicalities can smother our ideals. In fact, the greatest obstacle to becoming the best musician we can be might be our own self-defeating thoughts and attitudes. Rather than amplifying the Spirit’s gifts, we can squash them without even realizing the effects of our mental outlook.
How can we learn the work of generating spiritual energy? We are not the only ones investigating this basic question. Recently, the field of positive psychology has added some new insights through its research on cultivating well-being. In his 2012 book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Martin Seligman explores how a sense of well-being adds personal value and meaning beyond the usual pursuits of happiness and pleasure. In it, he cites five significant factors in developing a sense of well-being. Summarized by the acronym, PERMA, the factors are Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. He offers four simple exercises to reinforce and amplify our sense of well-being:
• Identify Signature Strengths
Reflect upon a time when you were at your best. Write a story about your experience. Reread your story each day and ask yourself, “What personal strength did I display then?” Getting touch with the best parts of yourself, look for opportunities to use one of your strengths daily for at least a week. Begin to organize your life around them, and expect to see positive reflections of yourself in the people and circumstances of your life.
• Find the Good
Set aside time at the end of the day to write down three things that went well that day. Find an answer to the question, “Why did this good thing happen?” Turning your attention toward the good things in your life changes your focus away from everyday lows toward the positive things that we often overlook.
• Make a Gratitude Visit
Think of someone who has been especially kind to you, whom you have not properly thanked. Write a letter describing what he or she did, the impact it had upon you, and how you remember their effort. Then arrange a meeting and read the letter aloud. Enjoy the joyful conversation and the uptick in your positive emotions.
• Respond Constructively
The next time someone shares good news with you, make an “active constructive response,” instead of a more passive, “Oh, that’s nice.” Active constructive responses prolong the discussion by extending the good news with reactions that extend the conversation, such as savoring the moment together, encouraging them to share their news with others, and suggesting ways to celebrate the occasion.

According to Dr. Seligman, building new mental habits will add momentum to your life while marginalizing less productive ones. When you are generating positive spiritual energy, your congregation can’t help but notice. You will enjoy your practice time, you will enjoy the people around you, you will enjoy leading worship. In short, a happier you makes a happier congregation!
Aren’t we blessed to be practitioners of the greatest positive energy generator known to mankind—music? When we practice our art with enthusiasm, that is, filled with Spirit, we are the first to receive its benefits. (My son, Nick, can read my mood when I have been away from the keyboard too long.) Even though our music making lives may seem to be far from the ordinary practicalities of life, let’s live as impractically as we can—it’s the most practical thing we can do!
Some of us are limited in what we can bring to the worship service. Hymn tune literature may be all you can offer. If so, more abstract literature would be completely impractical. Dare to look with me at some new material that you will enjoy, whether you play it in worship or just for yourself.
Music from the Psalms (Lorenz 70/2031L) is Robert Lau’s creative contribution to the two-stave literature. My goodness, he knows how to use the simplest materials to create vivid liturgical moods! Robert has arranged seven well-chosen psalms into two suites, in case you need to extend your prelude a bit. You might use the same strategy to group a couple of Robert Powell’s new Six Voluntaries for Organ (MSM 10-177) into something useful. These intermediate pieces show another side of this versatile composer. He dares to write musical counterpoint! Because he never lets it become academic, they really are a pleasure to play. So is a new work by Alfred Fedak, Fanfare, Reflection and Dance (MSM 10-216). Each of these three pieces bring traditional Baroque forms up to date, with only intermediate technical expectations. The “Fanfare” is announced by 16th-notes in the pedals, answered by chords in the manuals. “Reflection” is a gentle chaconne, creatively recycling the same chord progression across the entire movement. The infectious “Dance” is a joyous romp alternating between 5/8 & 2/4. The excitement builds from the first measure to the last.
There is also excitement in the newest music from Carson Cooman in his Organ Music, Volume X (Leupold WL600300). You will find not only nine preludes and fugues, but also four canzonas, along with two partitas for Christmas. Carson allows his fertile imagination to range far and wide, but within limited technical and registrational demands. As always, he is inspired by the freedoms of neo-classic harmony and exciting rhythms, even as he recalls many compositional techniques from the past, both Renaissance and Baroque. Do not limit your use of these to your students, whose ears will open to new possibilities. Your ears will perk up, too! This volume has provided me many hours of pleasure, just by reading one piece a day. It has given me several unusual preludes and postludes to intersperse among the more ordinary trumpet tune and toccata fare.
Finally, let me be the first to unveil the presentation of two separate transcriptions of Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite 1. The first one to arrive on my desk was Dennis Janzer’s version (Leupold WL600298) of these four familiar works, “Balletto,” “Gaillardia,” Villanella,” and Passo Mezzo e Mascherada.” The second comes from the work of editor, Kevin Uppercue (E.C. Schirmer 8431). At first glance, their work looks almost identical; however, a second look reveals a significant number of differences. Perhaps the best version would be a selective use from both editions. The Janzer version uses thicker textures, but more practical solutions for some of the problems Respighi’s orchestral score presents. Mr. Uppercue uses less notes, but often opts for solutions that result in some unnecessary difficulties. These works are an instant hit with audiences, regardless of medium, so they are worth the work to prepare them. My advice? Go with Janzer!

Dr. Christopher Cook is Director Emeritus at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego, California. Recently retired, he enjoys mentoring worship leaders, as well as teaching and coaching music. You may access previous “Practical Organist” articles on his blog, “Practical Organ Music,” at To order the plexiglass page holders mentioned in last month’s article, please contact him by e-mail:, or send your check to the address above.