Enjoy this recording of the music of Matthias Weckmann on the fantastic Schnitger organ at the St. Jacobi Kirche in Hamburg - a wonderful example of an historic instrument that speaks through the ages with incredible versatility.
A few years ago I attended a hymn symposium featuring a fascinating panel discussion, hymn festival, and masterclass. For the class, the students prepared hymns with improvisations, creative alternate harmonies, and discussed some of the basic guidelines for leading a worship service. At the midpoint break a women in the audience struck up a conversation with me about teaching. “Why don’t professors teach more about hymn playing?” she asked with exasperation. “I don’t understand why so much time is spent on repertoire and so little on church music.”
This is not an unfamiliar phrase heard in casual conversations after concerts, festive liturgies, and other organ-centered events. It is no surprise, as the outward face of the modern organist for many is that of the “church organist” – a very particular, narrowly defined profession that has one purpose: to provide music for the liturgy of the church. If that purpose is true, then why wouldn’t we focus all our teaching energies into training young organists for these specific duties? There is a very good reason why we shouldn’t: the modern organist is and must be more than a church musician.
This statement begs the question: what are we as organists? The wonderful answer is that we are many things according to our individual skills and interests. If you ask a professional organist how they define themselves as musicians and how they define themselves as organists, you will receive a number of different answers. I asked these questions of a few of my colleagues, and here are a few responses:
How do you define yourself as a musician?
Searching, always pushing limits of understanding and enlightenment
Hungry, needing to use composition and performance to express deep emotions that mere verbal language cannot
Part of an arts community
Part of an academic community
Part of a sacred community
I am a musician who values historical context and performance practice, yet (hopefully) adds my own personality and life's experiences to performances
How do you define yourself as an organist?
Humbled by life
Warm, as in not brittle
Leader of congregational song
Conveyer of emotion through music
An orchestrator through different timbres/pipes
A preserver of history
Support for other music (singing; continuo; collaborator)
These answers show a great deal of personal expression coupled with an acknowledgement of being a part of a larger culture to which they bear some level of responsibility. In knowing these musicians, I can tell you that their expression of musicianship and organists goes far beyond that of profession or job – it is an enormous part of who they are as human beings.
One does not have to research too far to learn that historically, organists have been considered some of the most highly trained, sought after musicians in society. They were incomparably skilled as composers, performers (which was mainly improvisation, or composition in performance), conductors, teachers, writers, organ consultants, and in some cases, diplomats. Much of this hasn’t changed. The modern Director of Music in a larger, professional church program is responsible for budgets, managing personnel (musicians and church staff), composing, conducting, performing, managing concert series, cultivating relationships with donors and then managing those donations, writing, pastoral care…the list goes on and on. These skills require an enormous amount of education, patience, and dedication in order to mature into the all-encompassing “tool box” needed for most professional organists. How then have we reached a point in the profession where other well-meaning musicians say, “You should take organ lessons so you can get a job as a church musician and make extra money”? The list of skills above should make anyone pause before making such a suggestion. While it is true that it is perhaps “easy” by comparison to make a “good sound” on the organ, becoming even a competent church musician takes years of practice, discipline, and talent. We do ourselves and those we serve a great disservice if we do not take that to heart.
This brings us back to the original question: what do we teach our students? We teach them everything we can about the instrument, its repertoire, and its place in society in its past to its potential future. We teach the basics of how the instrument is constructed, how it functions, and how to safely perform basic maintenance and tuning, if reasonable. We teach how the instrument has evolved over the centuries from short octaves to ravelement to the modern compass. They should understand what a temperament is, why they were used, why there were so many, and how it changes the flavor of the music. Students should understand the idea of performance practice, what it means, and why there is so much discussion about it in academic and non-academic circles. They should understand what tablature is and which composers used it and in which countries. They should understand that many of the pieces they play as “standard repertoire” was an example of what the composer would have themselves improvised at the instrument, and that anything published or written down in manuscript is but a snapshot of the musical activity prevalent during a composer’s lifetime. They should understand that improvisation does not solely reside in the language and culture of jazz and that the ability to improvise according to any style and genre is a basic musical skill – and is not as scary as you think! We, of course, must also know and learn these things, ourselves.
There is so much more, of course, and the sheer volume of information is often extraordinarily daunting. But in the end, it is our responsibility to foster an informed and curious generation of organists who understand their instrument and its place in its vast and incomparable history. It is our responsibility to leave the students with more knowledge and resources than their previous generations, which includes ourselves. This means we must continue to learn and stretch ourselves as much as we expect of the students. If we wish this glorious instrument to survive the cultural ravages of the 21st century, we must commit to passing on as much of its culture and history as possible. Otherwise, we equip the future with just a brief snapshot of a few seconds of provincial history and lose a vast store of knowledge and art. We, as organists - as musicians – must move beyond our perceived role as entertainers who communicate only what people want to hear to the educator-philosopher-artist who communicates that which teaches, transports, and transcends the ordinary. The world is sorely in need of the journey.
Additionally, we must all do what we can to raise the perceived level of professionalism in the field, including in our communications and relationships with each other. We must strive to educate all those who come in contact with the instrument about its versatility, artistic potential, and viability as both a vehicle that carries the vast responsibility of leading worship and an instrument worthy of its place on the concert stage. We must hold ourselves and those around us to higher standards by continuing to educate ourselves and share all that we learn so that others may learn from us. As we learn new ways to show and teach the many facets of our field and the variety of skills necessary to do the craft, we enlighten and expand the definition of “organist” in a world and culture that increasingly narrows its view of art, artists, and their function is in society.