Once upon a time I was in the district 4th grade Spelling Bee. It was one of my first words in the qualifying round. The judge said, “Cornstalk.” I got all excited inside because I knew this was a tricky word with a silent “L.” I knew the trick. So, unafraid, I began, “Cornstalk, c-o-n-s-t-a-l-k, cornstalk.” The judge apologized and informed me that I had spelled it incorrectly. I was so confused. I asked my mom, who was there with me, what I had done wrong. I was so disappointed to find out that because my focus was so much on the tricky part, I hadn’t given enough attention to the easy part.

This is the story if my life.

I know things. I think things – and then when it comes time to translate my thoughts into verbal communication I end up omitting a few vital points and the brilliance inside is lost and embarrassed.

I feel like I know a lot of things about a lot of things. There are very few topics, however, that I have studied extensively. “Jack of all, master of none,” comes to mind. For example, I play the piano. I can play the hymns in church, but that’s about it. I pretty much always deflect invitations to accompany any choir presentations. I can do hymns well enough not to embarrass myself. That’s where it ends.

When it comes to playing hymns, I actually care less about whether or not I embarrass myself and more about not distracting those who are listening. When playing prelude music in church and accompanying hymns I prefer to metaphorically disappear and simply provide an atmosphere of praise.

Some are able to play each hymn or music piece so beautifully that it seems as though they are like an iPod- where you push play and the music flows in perfect time with precisely played notes. I, however, feel frantic with each anticipated accidental, natural, and approaching sixteenth note. I can frequently play a hymn perfectly in practice, but wind up missing a lot of notes when it comes to performing.

Years ago I read a little book, Small and Simple Things, by Sister Marjorie Hinckley. In it I found a story that helped me hope that my offering, imperfect as it is, might be less offensive and more endearing than I thought.

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From Sister Hinckley’s book:

Some years ago I had a friend who decided at the age of 50 that she was going to learn to play the piano. She courageously started out with Thompson’s Book I. Each morning she went to the church at 7 o’clock, where she would practice on the piano and, later, on the organ. After about a year they asked her to play a special number for one of the Relief Society lessons. She said she didn’t feel ready, to give her another three months. The three months passed, and she consented to play a special number that she had memorized. This was her first public appearance on the piano. She started out beautifully. It went well for about three measures; then she lost it. Everything went blank. Her music teacher, who was present, said, “Don’t be ruffled. Just start over.” She started over and made it all the way through without a single mistake.

We have never loved my friend more than we did that morning. Perhaps it was because she faltered a little in the beginning and we were all pulling for her, saying to ourselves, “Come on, we know you can do it.” If her performance had been flawless from the start, we might all have been defensive and said, “Oh well, she can learn to play the piano because her husband is the kind who will get his own breakfast while she practices and her children don’t make demands on her” and so on and so on and so on. As it was, she faltered a little, and we loved her the more. That experience has given me great comfort. I figure that if I fall a little short of what is expected of me, perhaps my sisters in the gospel will be compassionate and love me for trying.

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This story gave me the green light, or permission, to share even though my offering is imperfect.

In one congregation I attended there was no organist and I was the only attendee who would admit to playing the piano. The Bishop, the leader of the congregation, asked me if I’d be willing to play the organ for our Sunday meetings. I replied, “I don’t know how to play the organ but I’ll try.” So I did. I turned on that big old organ and started pushing the buttons, or pulling the stops, to see how they changed the sounds. Mercifully, I was tipped off to the fact that there were some pre-set buttons I could use which provide the full familiar tones of church services.

In the beginning, one Sunday, I played the introduction to the wrong hymn. When I realized what I had done, because the chorister was looking at me funny, I said aloud, “Oh, shoot,” and laughed as I turned my hymnal to the right page. The congregation chuckled with me and then we sang the right song.

I hear some legitimate critiques of the pace and volume of hymns played in congregational meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the critiques are valid, I thought I’d tell you a little about my experience sitting on that hard bench in front of double decker keyboards.

I play the organ like a piano, except the piano boasts a lovely “sustain” pedal of which the organ is without. I’ve only toyed with the foot keyboard on the organ. An organist must learn to move their fingers from one note on the keyboard to the next by adjusting their fingering all the time to prepare for a quick switch to the next note, releasing each key only when the tone is no longer needed. Fingers crawl across the keys like a tarantula.

After I play the introduction to the hymn I watch for the chorister’s cue to begin. His/her arm falls in the downbeat and I press the first notes. It takes a split second before the sound vibrates through the organ and blasts into my front-and-center eardrums. The voices of the congregation follow the cues of the chorister and often fall both before and after the beat, the sound of their voices hitting my ears long after I’ve pressed those notes. The chorister moves on and I struggle with the discord of sounds. It sounds disjointed and my inner metronome is lost. I imagine this phenomena as being one prominent reason for the belabored cadence of some otherwise peppy hymns.

One fellow-organist I spoke with instructed me, “You are the biggest kid on the block, just play and let them follow you.” I have tried that approach and it works well. I also respect the tradition of following the chorister, so I incorporate their cues as much as I can.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a song at church played too fast. When in doubt, pianists/organists, speed up. I also have never experienced the organ being too loud, from the vantage point of a congregant. When in doubt, crank it up.

My experience as an untrained organist leaves a lot of guesswork. I would never have guessed that turning the volume up so that my ears bleed, and the organ bench rattles, would be a pleasant experience for the congregants who want to sing out those hymns of praise but are stifled by a mousy organ presence. Yet, that’s the feedback I receive.

Making a mistake quietly feels a lot more comfortable than the mistakes that are broadcast loud and proud through the organ. But, if my best efforts provide a service that would otherwise be absent, I play. I play with the hopes that the congregation will appreciate it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t.

Like in my childhood spelling bee, I may leave out an important piece of the music when it comes to performance time. Instead of excusing me from the “spelling bee”, please offer support and gratitude for my attempts. Timely and positive suggestions are welcome along with your prayers for me when you hear me struggling.

I may seem like a lost cause, but I’m just the nervous organist.

Next time you go to church, thank your local organist; no matter how perfect or mistake riddled their performance, It ain’t an easy task.

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3 thoughts on “The Organist

  1. I really enjoy reading this. I never really realize how much task and focus it takes to play an organ. I practice piano (played in college three semesters) with my niece who is now my teacher and I know it’s not easy when you want to do it quickly. Thank you for sharing and I will tell our sister in the ward that I appreciate her calling to play the organ.

  2. I had the same spelling bee experience in 5th grade! I prepared and had worked so hard and was excited that I knew the first word and missed a letter in my excitement. I can’t remember the word, but I sure felt defeated! This is a beautiful post. I was asked to fill in to lead the music in Relief Society and it caused me a lot of anxiety. I need to learn to just give it my best instead of always beating myself up for mistakes.

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