TAO May 2018 – Feed My Lambs

Back to the Basics, Part IV

Feed My Lambs

I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite churches the other day. It had been years since my last visit. I love the organ there. To get to the organ console, you must pass behind the pulpit. I had forgotten about the inscription carved into the pulpit’s reading surface. There it was: “Feed My Lambs.” Clearly, it’s a word of encouragement for the preacher. But, I don’t think this message is limited to just one person in the room. No, St. John’s gospel admonition, “Feed My Lambs,” is also meant for music ministers. Let’s delve into some guidelines for building a healthy diet for the folks in our care.
We began the new year with a look at ways that we can ground our work by renewing our vision of what it means to be a sacred musician. We returned to the basics – remembering our role in using the musical arts to open and intensify the mystery of God’s presence among us. We looked at how participating in the mystery is an essential part of our own spiritual practice. For the sake of the people in our music programs and in our congregations, we talked about striving for excellence in the less glamorous aspects of service playing. We have examined the “why’s” of hymn-playing, accompaniment, and sight reading in the light of our new vision. We have discovered that the heart of our profession lies in serving others. We are called to ground our work in the sacrificial nature of music ministry. Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” If what we play and how we play it is how we feed our lambs, let’s plan our banquet with love.
Our people are hungry, so we must consider who our audience is and what their needs are. What is your congregation’s cultural background? What influences have they assimilated from their denominational traditions? Are they sophisticated listeners with a broad background in a wide variety of musical traditions, or are they somewhat less informed? Do your musical tastes align with theirs? What musical practices have you inherited with your job? At one job early in my career, I discovered that the previous organist had played only Baroque music and ended every hymn with a loud, dissonant re-harmonization that caused everyone to cringe. My course corrections made me a very popular organist! Being a friendly, caring presence is a significant part of our calling as organists.
Going back to the basics means refreshing our understanding of sound itself. One of the things I love about the organ is its long heritage. Every age has adapted organ sounds to its own “cultural ear.” Regardless of the instrument you play, we need to listen to it with fresh ears, for sound is the medium through which we convey our musical messages. Attractive, colorful registrations invite the congregation to open their ears to what we are called to say.
Here are three guidelines to consider as we look at recalibrating organ registration for today’s audiences. First, continue to study the historical traditions. We can’t ignore the past – it’s the foundation of our craft. We must know what composers imagined their music would sound like. If you can’t go on your own tour of historic instruments in Europe, listening to recordings can help you to develop accurate sound concepts. A Mini-Course in Basic Organ Registration, by Margot Ann Woolard, is available through the Guild’s New York office. The accompanying CD contains recorded examples illustrating her overview of registration basics. The national website has several short video lessons under “Organ Tutor, Lessons for the New Organist.” As the number of lessons grows, this resource will become even more useful to you and your students.
Written material on organ registration is quite plentiful. You might enjoy the short pamphlet by Sandra Soderlund, A Guide to the Pipe Organ for Composers and Others (Leupold 800003, also available from national headquarters). Every organ method has a section devoted to historic organ designs. You can look there, or at several resources devoted exclusively to the subject. My first exposure to the great big world of historical organ registration came from Jack C. Goode’s Pipe Organ Registration (Abingdon Press, 1964). Though it has been out of print for quite a while, there are many inexpensive used copies available. John Shannon’s Understanding the Pipe Organ (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009) is very useful, too. I keep returning to Cambridge Companion to the Organ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Nicholas Thistlewaite has devoted a significant portion of his general interest book to this very subject, taking care to identify registration characteristics for the literature of all the major historic schools. Registration of Baroque Organ Music, Barbara Owens’ 1999 classic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) is perhaps more specific than most of us need, but it is a treasure to behold.
Unfortunately, it is no longer enough to know everything about historical organ sound. We also need to use our own ears. Given the instrument under your fingers, what is the most beautiful sound you can produce? Not every rank of pipes is created equal – nor should they all be used. I have an obnoxious Trompette Harmonique that stays silent – so does my seven-rank mixture on the Great. Though WE may love the organ for its power, most people don’t. Gone are the days of teeth-rattling and earth-shaking! Without a good reason to do otherwise, let’s keep the organ’s registrations on a human scale – unless you are in the company of like-minded organ lovers at concerts, or alone.
The sounds we choose must attract the ear of our listeners. How will we know their reactions to our sounds if we never ask? You might start with bending the ear of a friend first. Engage them in conversation about the organ. Play one rank, get a reaction, then play another. Try some simple combinations and get more feedback. Find out what they don’t like. Such simple research is an easy way to complete the connection from organist to listener and back again. To know how others respond to the organ is to express caring and concern for all. To make changes based upon their feedback is to feed our lambs the food they enjoy. That is a recipe for success!
We must consider not only the sound of the organ. We should also consider the message our music sends. Just what is the organ saying to our worshipers? Let’s look at how we select our musical menu. There is more to choosing service music than making a cursory survey of the music at hand. A good starting question for selecting music is, “What do my people need to hear this week?” This is when your knowledge of the congregation’s worship traditions comes into play. Choosing weekly repertory comes down to three simple factors: the theme of the day, the needs of the worship moment, and the variety of pieces you have on hand. Each Sunday has its own flavor, whether chosen by the pastor, the worship team, or pre-determined by the liturgical calendar. Most often, hymn texts are your most reliable guide. Whether the hymn is going to be sung or not, a familiar melody will guide listeners’ ears toward the general theme of its words. It’s also important to consider the needs of the worship moment – what comes before and follows each piece? Does the congregation need to hear something lively, something reflective, something fortifying, or something mystical from you? Though we may not have much control in choosing worship themes, we have infinite control over our music libraries. A growing library is a sign of an active, caring organist who takes music ministry seriously. The art of music selection lies in finding the best piece for each situation. Music is an authentic response to the continuing revelation of the Spirit. “Sing a New Song unto the Lord” should be the eleventh commandment for all sacred musicians!
Escaping the repertory rut is a big challenge for most of us. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. Here are some ideas for getting an outside line to new ideas and resources. For years, Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress’s Sundays and Seasons: A Guide to Worship Planning was my best friend. Now available in print or online, it remains one of my favorites. They also offer Prelude Music Planner exclusively online. A generous helping of organ repertory ideas comes with Cantica Nova Publications, an online resource serving Roman Catholics. The Royal School of Church Music subscription publication, Sunday by Sunday, contains some terrific ideas, as well. Editors Pearson and Bryan have prepared Planning for Rites and Rituals, Year B 2018 (Church Publishing Co.) with Episcopal congregations in mind. The most ecumenically oriented resource is Prepare! An Ecumenical Music and Worship Planner 2017-2018 (Abingdon Press), by David L. Bone, which is keyed to sixteen different hymnals. While light on organ literature, it offers extensive cross-indexing that will enhance your creativity and broaden your hymn choices. Each of these is a generous buffet of ideas that will help you in planning a well-balanced, engaging menu from which to feed your congregation.
In the gospel of John, Jesus told us to feed His lambs. As sacred musicians, we have a bountiful feast to offer them. To remain faithful to our calling, first we must continue our own spiritual practice. Returning to the basics keeps our eyes upon the original vision: How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound, Alleluia! (Fred Pratt Green, 1971.) Quality leadership in music ministry depends upon our maturation into whole persons, gifted with music, and rooted in the care and concern for the people in our flock. We have a great model to follow. Go and serve as He did!

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