The singing organist: a rare beast or a unique adventure?
  • aldine
    Posts: 31
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  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I call it the "nightclub act". Repugnant is a good word for it, too.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I used to sing, when younger. But age and the climate in the allergy capitol of the world, have destroyed the voice I used to have. I still play, but had the good sense to quit singing before others said they wished I would.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 787
    When I first started, I told the pastor that I wouldn't sing anything. For one, I'd never done it before and playing the organ by itself was hard enough at the time. Second, I had never done any singing before. I'd still prefer it if I could go back to not singing, but circumstances change. At the next parish, there was a distinct lack of cantors, so the pastor asked me to start doing it at some of the Masses. So while it may not be preferable, it's yet another thing that isn't worth arguing about with the pastor. If he asks (or it's necessary for some other reason) just do it.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,369
    When I've seen this done, I've thought it was lacking. Even though the organist could both sing and play, it seemed to me that he wasn't attending well enough to the Mass. You can imagine why. There is only so much attention that anyone has. Liturgical music is always multitasking anyway, and one is always looking at several things at once, and singing and playing, words and music, vocalization and playing--that's all most people can do. It's too much to be that PLUS be the point person for timing and decision making, which you would need to be.
  • jpal
    Posts: 365
    I have wondered about the prevalence of this practice ever since Jeff started making these. I understand the many reasons why it's not preferable, but "repugnant"? Whether it resembles a "nightclub act" would, I think, depend on how (dis)tastefully it is done.

    I know some singer-organists who could do a much better job alone than many cantor and organist teams currently active.

    Besides, if anyone's got the chops to do this well, and they are positioned inconspicuously, most people won't even be able to tell.

    (That said, a better option might be to just to sing everything a cappella...)
  • I find myself in this situation all the time and it's difficult. Somethings always suffers when I have to play and sing at the same time, especially with hymns that go beyond 2 verses, since it's hard to read the music AND the lyric lines. With hymns I know by heart, there is no problem and it comes naturally, but with most hymns, I have to read beginning with the second verse.
  • I'll admit it; I'm one of these repugnant people. I don't cantor and play at the same time, but I do sing when I play. I can't help it.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,227
    I am also one of these repugnant people. I regularly cantor and play at the same time.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,478
    Repugnant here too. I swear that it is the factor to me being a less-than-mediocre organist. I'm not a great singer either... sigh... but I have a decent choir! We have an organist and he's wonderful. He really dislikes singing, though he's great at it. That probably why he's a fantastic organist.
  • BethE
    Posts: 14
    It is good to sing and play because then you can really follow the text. The organist should phrase each verse to highlight the punctuation of the different lines. Singing while playing also helps the organist to give breaths for the singers.

    I don't mind cantoring and playing the organ at the same time. It goes better if I have actually rehearsed all the verses. It is a better option than having cantors that can't sing.
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  • I have been placed in this situation many times too. It has usually been at churches that did not want to spend money on paying a cantor. The sad thing is, it takes bread off someone else's table, and often times they could very well pay for the cantor.

    I just had a colleague call me a few weeks ago to do a wedding, and the couple surely had the money to pay for a vocalist, as they were ordering up all kinds of goodies to go along with the wedding, (i.e. several photographers, videography, etc...) They expected that I would play and sing the wedding for the same price to just play the wedding. Needless to say, I had to refuse the wedding standing on the principle of the matter. It isn't fair to the 3 ladies/1 guy on staff that do cantor, and could really use the money. Luckily as I was canceled for that wedding, a paid funeral popped up. God works in mysterious ways.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,227
    "It is a better option than having cantors that can't sing."

    From your lips to God's ears, BethE!!
    Thanked by 2[Deleted User] Ally
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I really don't foresee any circumstance in which this practice could be desirable.

    Ok, so you don't have a cantor. Cantors chant the psalm, right? So step away from the console, towards the edge of the loft, and chant the psalm. There's no need, in today's day and age, to use accompanied psalm settings. Yes, some of them are nice. But the settings by Oost-Zinner and others work extremely well in the absence of a dedicated cantor and organist. I do that all the time. And use a Gregorian Alleluia - I use the popular tone VI one every time I sub. A capella, it's the most enthusiastic singing I hear out of any congregation.

    And no one needs a microphone for hymns. The organ leads the hymns, not the cantor.

    Maybe if you have a vocal solo prepared that you can reliably accompany and sing, this could be an option. But I really think a voluntary (and/or a Gregorian proper) would be a more desirable option.

    Again, this practice is far from best among several very-easily-realized options.
  • From Palestrina, to Bach, to nearly every Master of the Music in a major parish or cathedral, one was expected to be proficient in chanting, playing, composing and arranging. This was the common outline of study for anyone majoring in sacred music. If you want to teach others to do it, you'd better be able to do it yourself. Believe me, it isn't repugnant, it's considered a prerequisite for any trained Director of Music.
  • aldine
    Posts: 31
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  • Ally
    Posts: 226
    Another one here - I often just sing when I play anyways...partly because I used to have to cantor and play all the time.

    Sure, maybe not desirable in the most ideal situation. The fact is that it must be done in many less-than-ideal situations. In fact, it was a requirement for every MD/organ position I've interviewed for.

    Also, I'm sure some of us are on the road towards that "ideal situation" but can't quite push that far yet.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I recall the famous picture of Bach playing the organ; but I don't recall a microphone in his face.

    Or his famous quote, "Welcome to the Lutheran Community of St. Tom's. Please join me in welcoming our presider with hymn number 543, On Eagle's Wings..."

    Yeah, the people doing the nightclub act are RIGHT THERE in the line of Bach and Palestrina. I remember too the first piece of Leonin's Magnus Liber, "Testing, Testing, Is This On?"
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    And I do realize that many organists ARE required to do this by priests who have no concept of taste. I have no issue with someone seeking to keep their job, though I've usually found that most churches don't pay well for such doubling-up.

    For a priest and music director of good taste to willfully continue such a practice, however? I don't see it.

    I do take some issue with the idea of "on the road to the ideal." I understand what Ally is saying, and it's a good point. But in this case, I've laid out two easy and successful alternatives: a capella psalm/Alleluia, and hymn singing led by the organ. These aren't some Sisyphean task which must be carefully planned, prepared, and worried about. Show up today and do it. The quality of your music performance will instantly improve.

    I live across the street from a delicious pastry bakery, which I will probably visit before leaving for church. I could sit in my parked car, fretting about fuel calculations, wear and tear, the possibility of a breakdown, saying "I'm on the road! I'll get there eventually!" But it's right across the street. All I have to do is walk there, same distance as walking to my car.

    So, too, is basic good taste in music an equally easy destination to arrive at. And equally delicious.
  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    I'm also one of those repugnant ones... But honestly, (not to toot my own horn...) I think I probably sound better than many Catholic cantors, :-P ... Secondly, I actually find it easier in some ways to just sing instead of having to deal with a cantor (rehearse the psalm with them, coordinate when we're stopping the hymn, or what if I want to do something "fancy" like lengthen the song by re-doing one of the verses, or repeating the refrain, not to have to worry about someone else being late or absent, etc.) The only time when it's *awful* is when I'm sick and can't sing! Then I'm really in trouble! :-0
  • I'm of the opinion that all organists should sing as they lead hymns. That does not mean that they should cantor, but they should sing so that they can be aware of the text, phrasing, breathing, eighth note runs in melody lines that deserve a little pulling back and pitch/rhythm differences between verses.
  • Gavin, you are the only person in this entire thread that has mentioned a microphone at all. We're just talking about singing.
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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I sing along with the choir, but my cantoring days are definitely over.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    We all know what's being discussed, Andrew. If it's just singing while playing, I'll fess up to that. I sing while practicing to better learn my repertoire. Or sometimes when I get carried away with a hymn, I may sing along, though that significantly impairs my playing!

    But there is a wide-spread practice in American Catholic churches where the organist plays Mass, singing the congregation's music into an amplified microphone. This practice needs to end. Today.
  • Amen.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 787
    But there is a wide-spread practice in American Catholic churches where the organist plays Mass, singing the congregation's music into an amplified microphone. This practice needs to end. Today.


    This I agree with. I suggested to the pastor at the previous church that we get rid of the microphone. He wasn't too friendly to that suggestion unfortunately.
  • But there is a wide-spread practice in American Catholic churches where the organist plays Mass, singing the congregation's music into an amplified microphone. This practice needs to end. Today.


    There we agree. I suppose I'm the one that didn't know we were talking about that.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,478
    This topic is amusing! I sing hymns while playing them, but cantor a cappella. I only do this for weekday Masses or the occasional funeral, if another cantor is unavailable... And no microphone at the organ thank-you!
  • For all of my life I have suffered from sheer terror at the prospects of either publicly playing the organ or singing. Through default (retirement of our former organist), I am now in the position of doing both of these things, and have stumbled upon the elixir for my ailment: When I play the organ, I am so terrified, that I forget about my fear of singing, and vice versa. The competing fears cancel each other out, to the point where I can function as a musician. Good grief! Do accountants start sweating when they see numbers on a page? It's quite an affliction.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 787
    For all of my life I have suffered from sheer terror at the prospects of either publicly playing the organ or singing.


    I'd bet this is a lot more common than it seems. I was way more than nervous about singing, but I'm fairly used to it now so it doesn't bother me. Same with playing the organ. However, if I am put in front of people to do either I'll probably start feeling nervous again. That's the great thing about organ lofts -- nobody sees you up there.
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • aldine
    Posts: 31
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  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    Hm. I have a few things I would like to say to the above, but since I've been reminded to be charitable and helpful, yet there's something wrong with this forum to have that be repeated, I'll refrain.
    (the italicized should be in purple font, which I have no idea how to do...)
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,784
    @marajoy: Hi! To use purple lettering, add tags around your text like the following:

    <font color="purple">Here's the text in purple</font>


    @castlewood: I'm sorry that some of the talk was a little overwrought, but the thread was still a good one! Welcome to the forum!

  • aldine
    Posts: 31
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    Thanked by 2Gavin canadash
  • kevinfkevinf
    Posts: 1,132
    @castlewood Why should you apologize? Your question was worthy and it provoked some good discussion. Some have strong opinions here. One must read carefully and discern trends and see "through" the answers that are received.
  • The glory of God is man, fully alive: singing, playing, directing, praying, leading His people to prayer. And only under the most dire conditions should that be through a microphone, in which case the microphone is respected as an instrument. There are some acoustical situations where some amplification is the only way to be heard in a grossly compromised space (like an oversized auditorium/banquet hall with a low ceiling). Amplification never takes the place of training for resonance or blend: the microphone is most often abused by solo singers for the former, and by choirs for the latter.

    This was a good thread. I sing, play, and conduct a lot. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I would say if you can do all three - sing, play, conduct - more power to you. If you can't, don't spend any time worrying about it. At my age, I am grateful to still play and conduct. Someone else can do the singing.

    We have one "contemporary" mass per week - I don't know why they call it contemporary, since it is straight out of the seventies. The singer/guitarist croons lovingly into the microphone. What he doesn't realize, or won't admit, is that his vocal skills and voice quality have declined over the years. There is something to knowing when to quit.
    Thanked by 2canadash Mark Husey
  • As my opinion, organist - such kind of musician who should play solo organ works, play with an ensemble or orchestra, or accompany one or more singers or instrumental soloists, but not sing himself.
    http://greenavis.com/
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • lautzef
    Posts: 69
    Thank you, Samuel Dorlaque. Singing and playing the organ at the same time (while directing a schola) has been a requirement for a well-educated music director for centuries. If I hadn't somehow acquired these skills, there would have been plenty of miserable Sundays at Immaculate Conception (and plenty of unsuccessful rehearsals). As for microphones in one's face, that is a totally different matter, and I agree with the prohibition most people have voiced here - but don't confuse that with a set of skills that has been a time-honored and necessary part of being an organist since who knows when.
    Thanked by 2kevinf Richard Mix
  • Singing and playing the organ at the same time (while directing a schola) has been a requirement for a well-educated music director for centuries.


    Are there any published teaching aids for this?
  • lautzef
    Posts: 69
    I am not sure. The way I learned it was like the old-fashioned way to learn swimming - somebody throws you in the water and you start flailing around. Of course I did have the individual skills. But the trick is putting them all together - I am sure you will do fine! Think of all the people who have learned to do this; you can do it too.

    Just thinking - I learned to lead the congregation by singing while playing the organ. Maybe put two of the skills together first (singing and accompanying would be most logical, I think) and then when that's no longer bothering you, add the conducting. I find that the biggest challenge, especially because singers HAVE to pay close attention. You have to use body language a lot and they have to be watching.
  • I need to challenge this:

    Singing and playing the organ at the same time (while directing a schola) has been a requirement for a well-educated music director for centuries.


    It was extremely rare for this to happen - historically, few pipe organs offered a detached console to permit the organist to be able to face the scola and direct. If there is evidence that I am wrong, I will welcome knowing about it. If there are teaching aids, that would be proof to support this.

    From the early 1900's on, it was common for an organist to play and sing, but not when a scola was there.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I think the singing organist is a more recent phenomenon. In days of yore, the organist was face forward into the tracker, fighting the mechanism. Some of those old clunkers didn't play as easily as the newer machines, made of better materials.
  • lautzef
    Posts: 69
    Of course I wasn't there, but why would you have to face the schola? They would more likely be beside you, or around you, just as they are today in our 1873 choir loft
    The old Felgemacher tracker was in the same position as our present organ, from what I have heard. People directed musical groups from keyboards quite a lot, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I suspect one just had to be flexible.
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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I find it interesting that organists abandoned those old trackers in droves when electronic and pneumatic actions permitted detaching the consoles. It would appear there is a neo-Calvinist streak in some organists, coming from the so-called "organ reform," causing them to think there is salvation in doing everything the hard way.

    People directed musical groups from keyboards quite a lot, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I suspect one just had to be flexible.


    That's the key, isn't it? Flexibility. Most of us have to work with what we have. I suspect that was always true.


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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,789
    Is playing a well-maintained historical tracker on a carefully crafted modern tracker, such as one from Taylor & Boody, really a matter of fighting the mechanism? The directness of the response from the pipes in a tightly adjusted tracker (properly so) and the close proximity to the pipes imparts an immediate sense of involvement with the sound that is all too often sadly lacking in displaced consoles of electric or electropneumatic organs.

    In my early years (aeons ago), the organist/choir director had no problems at all conducting from the bench of a 12 rank Kilgen two manual tracker situated "against the wall" with the choir arrayed to either side of the keyboard. That organ had an amazing principal chorus, eloquent melodia and very gentle dulciana on the Great, and wonderfully sweet salicional and lieblich gedeckt stops as well as a nicely voiced oboe on the Swell.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    I think modern materials and technology have made the new trackers much more responsive than the older ones were. I have played a few old ones that were quite unwieldy. Granted, some late 19th and early 20th century American instruments had a lovely sound. Of course, I don't want that immediate sense of involvement. I would rather hear what the congregation is hearing, or as close to it as possible.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,890
    A number of years ago I was privileged to meet M. Phillippe Belanger, Titulaire at St. Jospeh's Oratory in Montreal, and got to play the mighty Five-manual Beckerath organ with tracker action. I was amazed at how natural the machanism felt, how responsive it was - it was especially amazing when all five manuals were coupled down. You could tell that the instrument was working with you, not against you. A magnificent instrument, if you can get there, try to make arrangements to see/play it; M. Belanger is a delightful person, and very welcoming, especially to young players. (I was 18, fresh out of high school when I met him.)
    Thanked by 2canadash Gavin
  • AngelaRAngelaR
    Posts: 268
    Well, I am thankful for my singing organist today! No cantors to be found, and I am home sick. Thanking God for small blessings. He won't be singing the hymns, though -- he'll leave that to the congregation. I wish I could be a fly on the wall downstairs to see if my congregation will still sing!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,469
    Prayers for your speedy recovery.
    Thanked by 1AngelaR
  • Protasius
    Posts: 468
    Two years ago I frequently had to play an organ the majority of whose pipes and mechanics is from 1704 (mechanic of course); I never played another organ that reacted so lightly on touching the keys (not even electric organs). It is no big problem to learn singing and playing at the same time and I had to that often on this baroque instrument with my back to the altar.