Questions for interviewing an organist
  • Hi all. My church is interviewing organists, and we're putting together a list of interview questions. Thought I'd throw out what we have right now, and see if anybody has some ideas on what to add or take away. ANY and ALL feedback is very welcome!

    It's always hard to know exactly what to ask, because every person is different. Our goal is to find out as much about their personality, skill set, conflict management, leadership skills, and musical vocation/ministry as we possibly can in just a few questions (not easy!). Here is what we have so far:

    ** Goals **

    1. What traits set apart a good organist and a bad one?

    2. Describe the role of the organist in church music and what functions he/she serves.

    3. What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

    4. What are your professional goals for the future 5 years? 10 years?

    5. How do you feel about describing church music with the word "ministry"?

    ** Skills **

    1. What is your experience accompanying a choir?

    2. What is some of your favorite repertoire for preludes, postludes?

    3. (Audition will include playing two verses of two prepared hymns, sightreading a third hymn, and a few repertoire selections. If they're selected, they'll be asked to play a Mass at an upcoming weekend.)

    ** Relationships **

    1. When your opinion conflicts with the pastor or the music director, what do you believe is the best way to navigate that?

    2. What leadership qualities do you like to see in a music director? In a pastor?

    3. What are the aspects of a church music program that are essential in supporting you as an organist?

    4. Have you ever been verbally attacked by someone unreasonably? How did you handle it?
  • Ignoto
    Posts: 126
    I am not an organist (I am a choir member), but I think it is great that you are taking such care to interview organists in this manner.

    You might want to think about including a question that asks about how familiar the organist is with the Liturgy (and the relevant liturgical documents, including the GIRM and Roman Missal).

    As a choir member, I have observed that occasionally organists can be uncertain about when to come in or what to do at certain points of the Mass, especially when something less-common occurs, such as a Sequence or a Baptism during Mass.

    I think you touch on that concept a little in the "Goals" question #2 and the "Skills" question #1, but you might want to consider asking a specific question.

    I am glad that you included the Relationships section. I think the questions you ask are very apropos in helping to ascertain a service-oriented person who has a healthy regard for the hierarchical authority structure within the Church.
    Thanked by 1dad29
  • mrcoppermrcopper
    Posts: 640
    Your questions go admirably deep and wide. I hope your church, your music, and your remuneration are adequate!
    Thanked by 1ClergetKubisz
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Well, this shows that church ministry interviews have yet to betray the influence of the the last decade or more of corporate practice in using behavioral questions and probing EQ. In particular, questions to gauge interpersonal behavior should not be abstract but should elicit much more fact- rather than concept-based discussions with a series of questions like: When X has (or has not) happened, What did you do (or not do) and What was the result? Other examples:

    1. Describe a situation where you successfully did things a very different way than you preferred doing.
    2. Tell me how you handled a difficult situation with another member of the staff or a congregant. How did you deal with it?
    3. What kinds of information do you use to uncover problems? (Factual vs interpersonal vs intuitive et cet. – different kinds of information are available for use….)
    4. Describe a situation where you had to over-commit yourself – what happened?
    5. Tell me about a time when you came up with a solution to a problem only to discover that a larger problem lurked behind it.
    6. Describe a mistake you made that you were NOT able to correct. What was the impact on you?
    7. Give me an example of a situation where you had to persuade someone to do something entirely through written communication. How did you persuade them?
    8. Describe a situation where your words or actions were misunderstood by a member of the staff or a congregant – how did you handle it?
    9. Have you ever decided to delay presenting an answer or idea to a pastor or member of staff because it wasn’t the right time? Why?
    10. Give me an example of critical feedback or guidance you received on your work quality. How did you put it use?
    11. Tell me about a project you were unable to complete on time.

  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,005
    How late do you stay out dancing on Saturday nights?
    How many extra sets of car keys do you have handy?
    Do you use just one alarm clock or several?
    What are your favorite hangover cures and why?

    Purple Bold, baby...
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen bkenney27
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,003
    We have the following questions:

    How little can we get away with paying you?
    Are you at our beck and call 24/7?
    You know all of Gather Reprehensive, right?
    You accept our half-wit liturgist as the go-to person when you have questions?
    You know this is a labor of love so you don't expect benefits?
    How will you sing a new church into being?
    Are you a pastoral musician?
    Thanked by 1Felipe Gasper
  • kenstb
    Posts: 358
    If you are selecting a professional musician, please check his/her poker face.
    A straight face is the greatest tool we have to maintain employment...well...that and a good Tennessee whiskey. ; )
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Are you sufficiently co-dependent to internalize whatever your pastor wants?

    * * *

    The behavioral questions may seem to lack the topical meat and potatoes you'd expect in an organist interview, but they can be more effective in revealing many issues that are day to day issues in employment of all kinds, very much *not* excluding church musicians. A person with technical chops who is not a good interpersonal fit is typically not going to find technical chops winning the day.

    And, of course, what good for the goose is good for the gander: interviewees can develop their own behavioral questions directed at putative employers. (It would be a sign of emotional intelligence and healthy self-confidence* if they do.)

    * Obviously, for Catholic parishes that get hives at the very idea of healthy self-confidence, it merely acts as a prudent self-sorting mechanism.
    Thanked by 1ghmus7
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    1. What traits set apart a good organist and a bad one?

    If they use the pedals, you got a good one.

    2. Describe the role of the organist in church music and what functions he/she serves.

    Have you read the documents of the Church on Sacred Music? Do you support everything in there? If so, we will get along like bread and butter.

    3. What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

    Going to confession and communion.

    4. What are your professional goals for the future 5 years? 10 years?

    Remain employed as a Church musician.

    5. How do you feel about describing church music with the word "ministry"?

    Which church music comes under that category? Please be specific.

    ** Skills **

    1. What is your experience accompanying a choir?

    I not only accompany the choir from the organ, but I also direct the choir. I use all four appendages and my head along with facial expressions to do this. Do you want a demonstration?

    2. What is some of your favorite repertoire for preludes, postludes?

    Anything composed before the 18th Century. I have 10,000 pages of it on my computer. I don't use paper... it projects on a large monitor on the organ desk.

    3. (Audition will include playing two verses of two prepared hymns, sightreading a third hymn, and a few repertoire selections. If they're selected, they'll be asked to play a Mass at an upcoming weekend.)

    Nice. But how are they at being sensitive to what the Church requires for liturgical music. In general, HYMNS are the last option when all else fails.

    ** Relationships **

    1. When your opinion conflicts with the pastor or the music director, what do you believe is the best way to navigate that?

    Always defer. My opinion doesn't matter. I am not in charge of the parish or the music program I am just the piano player.

    2. What leadership qualities do you like to see in a music director? In a pastor?

    Backbone and both having my back.

    3. What are the aspects of a church music program that are essential in supporting you as an organist?

    Full time salary and benefits.

    4. Have you ever been verbally attacked by someone unreasonably? How did you handle it?

    All the time. I smile and say nothing, walk away and say "I will get back to you on that". I then pray the prayer of St. Michael the Archangel, then pronounce the excorsism prayer of St. Benedict (all in Latin). Then I call on the BVM and all hell flees screaming.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen irishtenor
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,895
    Your questions are generally good, however, I do agree that something specific regarding knowledge of liturgy should be included: this is the "what do I do and when?" question. An organist or pianist who knows the liturgy better will perform more confidently at Mass. This is also something that can be learned on the job, but the pastor or DM has to be willing to teach him or her and be patient in doing so: someone who doesn't have much experience with liturgy will need a lot of guidance in order to adequately understand it, especially for specific liturgies like the Easter Vigil (tons of stuff to do, odd placement of certain rites as compared to normal Mass), Easter Sunday (sequence), and Pentecost (sequence). You should probably include in any questions about liturgy something seasonal, which would probably be more valuable to an organist or pianist as opposed to the DM who must be familiar enough with everything in order to plan for it. For example, during Lent and Advent, there is no Gloria at Mass, unless it is a special feast day that calls for it, and during Lent, there's no Alleluia. It would be extremely helpful if your organist or pianist knows these things ahead of time, although they can be taught.
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,597
    If I were interviewing an organist, I would select 5 candidates and have them each play Daily Mass one week. Low Mass. Improvise or play repertoire, their choice.

    Then ask them some questions after Mass.

    Pick the best candidate and have them come in to play a Sunday Mass and then ask more questions.

    Repeat if necessary.
    Thanked by 1Adam Wood
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,005
    Matthewj,

    I would add a low-key screening audition before the daily Mass, both because obvious gaps in skills might show up then, and to give them a chance to see the organ before the Mass.
  • Thank you everybody! What awesome feedback. I love this forum :)

    @Liam, your list of specific, "feet on the ground" questions are fantastic. I'm definitely going to incorporate some variant of those.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Someone with technical chops should be evaluating the interviewee's technical skills, by the way.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,304
    Just for fun, pick a single hymn and ask them to play each verse differently.
    1. Like a Catholic
    2. Like a Lutheran
    3. Like a Presbyterian
    4. Like a Baptist
    5. Like an Episcopalian
    6. Like a member of the Church of Christ.


    (purple bold, if it makes you feel better)

  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Adam

    You forgot

    7. Like an Orthodox.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,414
    So, Adam, that'd be:

    1: At about eighteenth-note = 60, 8' flutes with Tremulant, only tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant on pedal, played by left-foot only.
    2: Proper tempo, 8, 4, 2 Principals (with Mixture) on Great, 16, 8 Pedal.
    3: Solo melody on 8' Krummhorn, pedal drone, 4' reed, on Tonic & Dominant.
    4: On piano, with a gospel-shuffle rhythm.
    5: Full Organ, Double Pedal, Free harmonization, soloing the Tune on the Tuba on the last phrase.
    6: Moderately slow tempo (because the keys stick), 8' Principal, 4' flute (because they're the only stops available on the single manual), no pedal (because you have to pump it with your feet, since the building, built in 1780, hasn't really been electrified, and the organ, installed in 1826, hasn't seen a tuner or technician since 1907).
    7: Was it Organ in 19th Century Russia? It was not! Is Outrage!
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    Salieri;

    Could you direct me to the drawing of an eighteenth note? It sounds interesting.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Must be sexagesimal music notation.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,414
    Francis: It's only used by Volunteer, Ancient-of-Days, Church-lady organists.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    ah, yes... i found a picture of the font.
    839 x 615 - 112K
  • @Liam: of course.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    sergeantedward... take note of Liam's organist pic... that is not the one you want.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    Obviously, the Babylonians did not have the benefit of a Catholic nun's penmanship instruction. Hammurabi was merciful.
  • G
    Posts: 1,387
    1. What traits set apart a good organist and a bad one?

    If they use the pedals, you got a good one.
    If both feet, a great one?
    You forgot

    7. Like an Orthodox.
    O heck, even I can do that

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    G

    Yer right! No left foot lucy's in this profession! However, when it comes to jazz, the 'barefoot lady' is tops.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQUCtvt7_9A
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,752
    You forgot
    7. Like an Orthodox.

    O heck, even I can do that




    It's all in the attitude.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,003
    Francis, you have a beard so you could do it like an Orthodox. A beard is God's glory - carved in stone somewhere in the Orthodox canon of masculinity and divine and holy order.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,759
    Some of the questions proposed would likely require some reflection to give an answer, so they should be given in advance or given at the interview for later response.

    Well, unless facility at articulating the experiences of one's work history is what you're paying an organist for.
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,895
    Well in ancient Greco-Roman times, a beard was a symbol of masculinity, and a boy was not a man until he could grow one. Hence I tell my 5th graders who want to be baritones like me that they can't sing like me until they can grow a beard like mine.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,304
    6 and 7 are very similar.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    hmm... it took me 55 years to become a man?
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,304
    hmm... it took me 55 years to become a man?

    I assume it will take me... all my life.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,003
    Me too! I am 66 but think I am still 12. I run around and act like it too, at times.
    Thanked by 1kenstb
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,895
    The key is "Greco-Roman times"
  • If I were on such a commtittee I should want to know, and would ask:

    1. We have been singing (such and such): what is your critique of that, and what recommendations, if any, would you have for improving our music?

    2. How do you relate, thematically or mood-wise, what you play for preludes, postludes, and at other moments of the liturgy, to the other music of a given mass?, that is to say, what criteria do you use for choosing the literature or improvisations you play for each Sunday?

    3. How do you conceive of the musical relationship between organist and congregation when making music together? And, the relationship between organist and choir?

    4. Are you at ease with all our heritage of hymnody? Can you improvise well on hymn-tunes? Do your accompaniments & registrations reflect a sensitivity to the meaning or mood of each stanza?

    5. Are you skilled in the art of choral accompaniment? Could you give us a brief outline of your knowledge and experience of the varieties of anthems, Catholic, Anglican, and any other?

    6. What are some of your positive experiences working with pastors? With choirmasters? With the congregation at large?

    7. Can you improvise on a sacred cantus firmus, i.e., a hymn-tune or Gregorian chant?

    One could go on, but the tenor of these questions should be reflective of an earnest seriousness about sacred music and liturgical concerns; they should signal to the candidate that one expects a highly intelligent application of musical skills as they relate to liturgy, to choir, congregation, and priest-liturgist.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    MJO:

    Unfortunately, I think 98% of parishes would never consider any of those questions, although they are well thought out and do show a seriousness about the liturgy that few ever approach. However, be assured, you are one of the very few musicians of liturgical music whose liturgy I would be eager to attend if you ever had a position in a Catholic church.
  • Francis -

    It occured (sp?) to me that these questions might not reflect the matters on the minds of the typical committee, which often is more concerned with how a candidate can stand on his head to make everyone 'happy'. They are food for thought for those who are open to taking the 'higher road'.

    Too, I expect that any real church organist who happened upon such an interview would (to quote C S Lewis) be 'surprised by joy', and indeed would stand on his head to be chosen by such people.
    Thanked by 1francis
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    Yes, absolutely. It is a shame that this side of heaven, the highest art on earth is so little appreciated, admired and supported. I am sure that God Almighty will make up for it on the other side, and the clergy and congregation will be in shock and awe for the opening celebration, the Feast of the Lamb.

    I might even dare say God will be employing his musicians with the same honor and title that the world employs sports celebrities down here.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,709
    a question that asks about how familiar the organist is with the Liturgy (and the relevant liturgical documents, including the GIRM and Roman Missal).


    My parish recently hired an organist/director of music who appears to be TOTALLY unfamiliar with ANY liturgical documents. Using "Variations on The Star Spangled
    Banner" as the recessional (!) on the first Sunday of Lent is only one rather egregious example.

    Supposedly had been an organist overseas for 15 years and in the Windbag City for 5, all R.C. assignments.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    dad29:

    We are not surprised, but we certainly are baffled. This is where the clergy fails on all accounts and disgraces Our Lord and His Holy Mother Church.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,224
    Blaise

    ...said it well back in 2012.

    With all due respect to Rev. Monsignor, I think I can address this "tastes and preferences" and "King's Highway" thing by simply turning the argument on it's head, without reference to ecclesiastical documents and without any sort of theological content whatsoever. The answer? Because in most American Roman Catholic parishes there is only one "lane"--and not even one with the best "scenery", if we continue the logic (how many want a Sunday low Mass with some sing alongs? Passengers, raise your hands. Nobody? Anybody? Everybody?). Many "vehicles", that is parishes, will take the same lane, following each other (that is, copy what another parish is doing "just because"). Occasionally, a vehicle will pay to take a toll way (that is, take a route with one or more of the following: chanted prefaces, choral music, propers, organ, maybe incense or ad orientem). But for most, it is the same rubbish scenery. And even worse yet, some of the "drivers" (priests, musicians, etc.) and "traffic engineers" (following the same logic, that is, liturgical composers) appear to forget where we are going (to paradise, heaven, not Disney World).
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,709
    Another question: "Are you familiar with Gregorian Chant? On a scale of 1-10 (10 high), what's your score?"

    Depending on the answer, the followup: "Are you willing to learn about Chant, if we pay for your Colloquium fees and expenses?"
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,709
    appear to forget where we are going (to paradise, heaven, not Disney World).


    That about sums it up.
    Thanked by 1francis
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,836
    1. What is your experience accompanying a choir?
    1. Describe a situation where you successfully did things a very different way than you preferred doing.
    4. Are you at ease with all our heritage of hymnody? Can you improvise well on hymn-tunes? Do your accompaniments reflect a sensitivity to the meaning or mood of each stanza?

    One could try finding these out by a spoken interview instead of cutting to "What would you like to play for us?", I suppose, but the subtext might well be percieved to be "how do you feel about spending face time chatting with people (who are not the music director)?" If you want to be taken seriously by candidates it might be better to express an interest in listening to playing/accompanying/reading.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • It is assumed that an interview includes an audition in which the candidate will display his or her skill and knowledge vis a vis the above questions asked. It is good, though, that he should be able to speak convincingly and authoritatively of these matters, as well as demonstrate them in audition.
  • The music director at a parish I know apparently planned “All things bright and beautiful” on Pentecost last year. Then this year did Brahms “Geistliches Lied” (“Let nothing ever grieve thee …”) on Palm Sunday.

    It boggles the mind that liturgical churches employ people who do such things, but there it is. It would be funny if it weren’t so awful.
  • And I know who it was/is! One could list other ineptitudes but one will restrain oneself. And to think so many people think that he hung the moon!
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,895
    A lot of it boils down to clergy. Since they are the chief admins of a parish and therefore every staff member's boss, we have to do what they ask and meet their expectations. Those expectations can be very restrictive, especially when it comes to music, although I can't be exactly sure why. Planning gaffes such as those mentioned above could be, but not necessarily are, the result of a pastor whose sole concern regarding music is that the PIPs are singing. The priority for picking music was likely termed as such: 1. Can they sing it/do they know it?, 2. Does it fit the liturgy? The emphasis being on congregational singing and not liturgical use.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,709
    Yes, the clergy are typically the source of the problems, CK. And when you consider that offering the Mass is their principal responsibility, you'd think that they would have learned about the purpose of "liturgy" somewhere along the line.

    So it's really the Bishops who were responsible for seminary training, too.
    Thanked by 1francis