Organists vs. Singers?
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,177
    I find it interesting that my experiences echoe both those of Jackson and Chuck.

    I have noticed, though, that the situation that Chuck described, where the singers are true musicians who can read fluently, etc., invariably are ensemble singers--they will take solos if under duress, but prefer to be part of a group. Their solo singing, however, is almost always flawless regarding notes, timing, affect, etc., though the occasional 'human element' slips in. (They can cantor a psalm, sight-reading during the liturgy.)

    On the other hand, I have had many dealings with the singers described by Jackson. And, also in my experience, the ones who waffle on the most about how professional, trained, etc., they are are usually the worst. They always seem to have major pitch problems, can't sight read even simple hymntunes, have difficulty with singing things on the beat (my choristers don't have that problem!), etc.; and when singing with the rest of the group, out-blast all the other singers in her section. All this in addition to a continuous need of ego-stroking. (They need the music for the psalm for Midnight Mass given to them on Easter Sunday.)
  • Charles,

    You thrived in the early Renaissance? I had no idea you were so much older than I !
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,148
    Alas, Chris, it was only in the repertoire of the Renaissance ensemble that I thrived; however, I am indeed so much older than just about everyone here that I might have just as well thrived in the early Renaissance.
  • Sorry you thought I was referring to you in that entire paragraph, Schonbergian. I am still not accustomed to each of you and in catching up on reading the comments I seem to have combined some of them. ( I was referring to comments by madorganist regarding cantors who can't seem to get things right no matter what. ) It's wonderful to hear you are such an excellent sight reader.
    You ask what was my training for--actually I was trying to be recertified in teaching so if my husband died or was incapacitated I would be able to support myself and my son (and him). I had a BA in Fine Art and a minor in ed but the qualifications had been upgraded in NYS to require a Masters for permanent cert. I was already teaching music in two Catholic schools and thought it a good idea to get some undergrads in it. The nearby college offered a crossover program for a masters so I was going to combine art and music but eventually asked to do all music because the art dept. head would not abide by the rules of the degree which allowed me to choose which courses I felt best to prepare me for the final project I had had approved. I therefore decided I'd complete my masters in music alone and was allowed to do so although I don't have an undegrad degree in it--only enough credits to be provisionally certified to teach. While I got A's in every course but conducting (a B there) both as undergrad and grad, I am not confident in my sight reading since I am short a few semesters in it--no modes; no jaz--and like to have a day or two ahead of time to go over the music and accustom my voice to it.
    My experiences do not seem to coincide with those of most of you on this site.
    The cantors I have heard singing usually don't even have strong enough voices to be up there. They belong only in ensembles. The choir I conducted for 19 years had more non-readers than anything else. The music would be altered so that the organist's wife could sing whatever rhythm she seemed to think was written (but wasn't.) She had an exceptionally lovely, strong voice but tended to go flat when singing alone. Her range was mezzo so music was altered to keep her comfortable. I managed to sing a good deal of descant because she was loud enough to counter me nicely. I worked with this organist until the church was closed by the Bishop.
    PS-except for a two day a week stint teaching grammar school music I never did land a public school job. I got a job to cantor at $20 per Mass with a one dollar raise every other year. So I do think I was not overpaid for what I could do. But then I don't think I should have to defend myself with people on a blog whom I'll never meet.
    The issue is that competent vocalists are a better match for training a choir than competent organists (who are only competent orgainists)and if incompetent then moreso. That all those hired as MD's may be able to play a keyboard but may not know much else and an experienced cantor/vocalist might be a better choice. That expensive organs and organists should not be the only priority of the liturgical scene.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,369
    I was just noticing that the recently posted job spec at Bascilica of St. Josaphat has a lot of description of the organ, but no description of the liturgical music, although the post is Director of Sacred Music.
  • Mr Hawkins -
    This is refreshing, very refreshing!
    They do seem proud of their instrument, know a lot about it, and obviously set great store (as did Vatican II) by the organ as the most important or fitting liturgical instrument.
    There is nothing wrong in this.
    I think that it is commendable that they know this is of interest to any applicants.
    You are right, though, that they should also have said something about their choir(s), their liturgy, the music that is in their repertory, and their expectations of their musical director.
    These are all of importance, and every church should be as forthcoming about their organs.
    (Too many advertisements for such positions say nothing at all about the organ - but do want everyone to know about their concert grand piano - especially if it's a Steinway.)
    Thanked by 1Heartfeltsong
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,157
    It's a gorgeous church, by the way: well worth a visit!
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,072
    @a_f_hawkins if you read between the lines, then the way the job listing is written can tell you a great deal about how they are attempting to recast the position. If you get what I'm saying.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,295
    @BruceL is correct. To paraphrase Dietrich von Hildebrand, they're in the process of devastating that vineyard. I won't be more specific in public.
  • ...more specific in public.
    I must be overlooking something.
    If this is a red flag, I don't get it.
    Can you explain?
    This opening has some tempting aspects - seems at least worthy of looking into
    (though there is much more one would want to know).
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,157
    I am told that a description of the current music program is forthcoming.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,295
    I'll send you a PM, MJO.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Many thanks, Irishtenor -
    I sent you a reply.
  • In the 80s and 90s I was a studio musician. You walk in the studio; they put some music in front of you; you play it. One take. Maybe two. If you screw up, you aren't invited back.

    I realize that, unlike recording studios, the doors of Catholic churches aren't being beaten down by qualified cantors. Still, it's an attitude, an attitude that can be encouraged by those in charge and adopted humbly by those asked to sing.

    Sight reading well is not magic or an innate skill granted to the lucky few. It is learned by study and practice.
    Thanked by 3madorganist CHGiffen JL
  • study and practice.
    This is true up to a point. Without a natural gift, great or small, a person can advance only so far and no further. I think that all of us who teach, whether it be an instrument or the voice, can vouch that there are some, quite a few, actually, who cannot excel for want of natural talent. No matter how much some these practice they will never excel because they haven't the talent to do so. They may or may not achieve a limited proficiency but will never become 'performers' - and should not be expected or invited to do so. I read an article in a trade magazine a few years ago which asserted that with 10, 000 hours of practice anyone could become a concert artist. This is absurd. Without a natural gift even 100,000 hours of practice will show only a small degree of proficiency. Whether one desires to be an MD, a machinist, an artist, a musician, or whatever, a lack of 'giftedness' in that area will lead nowhere. (Otherwise, I could become a mathematical genius or a master of the calculus, which is laughable!) That's not to say they shouldn't try to go as far as they can if they wish.

    One can always tell those with an aptitude and those without. It is obvious in their performance that the particular singer or player is performing with true native emotion and artistry that comes from within. Of the playing of those who lack this natural gift it will always be evident that their performance is mechanical and that they played slower or faster, or more loudly or softly here and there because their teacher told them to - their playing is like a paint by number picture.
    Thanked by 3CharlesW Carol CHGiffen
  • madorganist
    Posts: 906
    Without a natural gift, great or small, a person can advance only so far and no further. I think that all of us who teach, whether it be an instrument or the voice, can vouch that there are some, quite a few, actually, who cannot excel for want of natural talent.
    Good observation, and I believe it's true in many disciplines. What sets apart the real musicians even at an early age is that they use music as a means of expressing emotion. I consider it an aptitude rather than skill or even talent.
  • Sorry to disagree, but perhaps I disagree, at least up to a point. I'm not claiming -- of course! -- that anybody can be a genius at anything. At the same time, the topic came up in the context of cantors who cannot master a simple Responsorial Psalm after one or two readings. To continue the rhetoric of absurdity...that's absurd.

    Anybody who is singing regularly in front of others, as some sort of 'vocal leader', should be able to sightread anything that the congregation is expected to repeat on one hearing. Indeed, I think that's a minimum (probably below minimum) expectation of sight-reading ability for such a person. Only one who simply cannot sing in tune is actually incapable of learning it. My 2c.

    I'm not a fan of the word 'talent'. In principle, I do not deny its existence. In practice, "I don't have the talent" is too often an excuse for "I don't have the fortitude to practice". (I will acknowledge, though, that there is also a lot of ignorance out there about how to practice. Even in music schools, often the students are told to 'practice' without being given much guidance about how to practice. How bizarre, given that they are expected to spend so much time doing it.)
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,933
    I tend to use the words aptitude and affinity rather than talent. Some don't have the aptitude for music and don't have an affinity for it. To most, music is something you listen to, not produce. I have encountered too many who studied some music but never became good at it.
  • As I said earlier, there are responsorial psalms and there are responsorial psalms. The stuff in Respond and Acclaim is easy enough for most to "get" after two tries although if you aren't familiar with it, by the time you get to it in the Mass, if you haven't any music reading ability, you are likely to forget some of it especially while concentrating on the text. So many cantors are volunteers who have nice voices and sang in chorus but don't sight read. They read the text and remember the rest.
    I doubt that most cantors grew up learning music the way most other musicians did. If you took an instrument you have had to learn to read the notes probably from third grade on. Much of the trouble with singers is that as kids the music settled quickly in memory and reading notes wasn't even an issue. The music/choral teacher played the piece on the piano and you echoed it back. Nobody said "stop memorizing and read the notes." I ended up in a theory class as a HS senior by accident and had to start reading.
    General music never taught much in that area. You had to take band. (I didn't.)
    I guess there's no point in hoping MD's will find a way to help their cantors when it sounds like they are much happier being upset that they don't get the trained vocalists they feel they deserve. Hey, guys--they don't get paid---at all for the most part. You do.
    Let me ask you a question--Do any of you learn a new piece by sight singing it or do you play it on the organ first? If the organ, I would like to challenge you to try not using it to learn for a week and only sight read something new. Now grab someone with whom you are totally uncomfortable and sing it for them. No cheating!
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • TCJ
    Posts: 966
    Sight sing? Sure, all the time. In fact, I found that my singing really improved when I stopped playing something on the organ first and tried singing it without accompaniment. I typically sight-sing through the propers of the Mass as my method of learning them these days. Rarely do I ever assist myself with the organ.

    I'm not that good of a singer, either. I'm sure many MDs around here could sing circles around me.
  • Carol
    Posts: 848
    Heartsong, you have described me quite well. I am much more of an ear singer than a sight singer. I did take an instrument for a short time, but I am definitely not a sight singer. Therefore, I must practice by picking out the melody at the piano which I do until I can competently cantor. Over time I have gotten more confident at sight singing, especially if it is step-wise. I am a volunteer at Mass, but do get compensated for singing at funerals. I also have been singing in a college choir where most do sight sing and parts are NOT pounded out. Some organists are better teachers and accompanists than others, as with most things in life there is a continuum. I do have to agree with those posters who feel that being trained as an organist is an advantage as a Music Director for a parish. Sorry you don't feel the same way. I hope you have a really talented Music Director in your near future so you can feel that you are being utilized to the best of your ability and that you can enjoy a mutually respectful relationship.
  • I understand that many people who grew up only singing were never taught to sight read, or even, necessarily, to read music. That's a shame, really. It is a valuable skill. I commend it without reservation to all singers. With just a little guidance (easily found in books and probably online) and some practice, it can be learned.

    FWIW, I never play things on the organ, piano, ukulele, etc., before singing them (and I am first and foremost an instrumentalist, so playing on a keyboard is both natural and tempting). I find that I learn the chants, especially, more quickly and sing them more confidently that way. (I'm not saying that the same would be true for everybody -- people learn differently; it is true in my case.)
  • To affirm and elaborate on MichaelDickson's comment just above here -

    Sight singing is really, basically, a matter of reading intervals from any arbitrary pitch (meaning not necessarily the instrumental pitch as printed on the page). Any pitch will do. From there one calculates with varying degrees of fluency all the other pitches by discerning the distance between them (their 'intervals'). Anyone who can 'carry a tune' can learn to read music in this way. Even those people who are sitting in pews do this unconsciously - they have learned roughly to discern how far up or down to go based on the distance betwixt lines and spaces. An instrument is not necessary for this skill because once one knows how to sing a fourth or whatever and has remembered what one sounds like one doesn't need to hear it on the piano. (Now, making real music out of the deciphered notes is another matter requiring varying degrees of musical and poetic aptitude.)

    (As an aside - one can teach oneself to remember A by playing it every time one passes the piano, playing it and singing it - after a while it becomes recallable by memory. Armed with this memorised A one can sing any other note by its relative distance from A. This is 'relative pitch' as distinct from 'absolute pitch'.
    Absolute pitch is sometimes erroneously called 'perfect pitch', which is a misnomer because it implies that there exists an ontological or objective relationship between A and 440 - there doesn't. Tying our A to 440 is pure convention, an arbitrary assignment. Plus, historically there have been numerous assignments of A to differing numbers of vibrations per minute. None of them are 'perfect'.)
  • ryandryand
    Posts: 1,640
    MJO, what do you make of those gifted with absolute pitch who recoil in pain when a note is out of tune? I ran into a few in college who made quite the show of how (allegedly) sensitive they were to tuning issues. Amusingly, an “in-tune” piano or equal temperament ensemble never seemed to bother them - although mathematically out of tune!
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Yes, ryand -
    I, too, have encountered people who have absolute pitch who throw a fit when a motet is transposed. They should learn to transpose, just like certain instrumentalists do. I, myself, have absolute pitch but never was terribly bothered by the need to transpose something. This is especially true in chant, in which the tonic is most of the time arbitrarily chosen, pitch-wise. I do understand, though, that when something is transposed it presents problems to those who actually hear what's on the printed page and are confused when what is being sung isn't what's printed there. Organists, who are often called upon to transpose, have little problem in doing so (it's part of their education!) even though many of them have absolute pitch. It's really a matter of solfege.