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The Reluctant Organist

Resting in Our Music
The Reluctant Organist 4 (January 2009)
By Father Ed Erb

As a young musician, I had a compatriot on the other end of town.  We were “Anglo-c
Catholic;” “They” were “Evangelical.”  I was a former Lutheran, he was a dyed in the wool - heck, he wasn’t even dyed, he was the wool -- Episcopalian.  I was the Prince of Fast and he was the King of Stateliness.  And I’ve matured.  I think.
 
In Cesar Franck’s Piece Heroique there is at the very end a full measure of rest. The youngster in me just couldn’t fathom a whole written measure of silence. What is Cesar, my hero, thinking? So I would rush through the silence to get to the important stuff -- the next chords with the pounding bass. Then years later, I played the piece on an historic instrument in a reverberant room where the previous chord rolled and blossomed around the sacred space -- for seconds on end! All of a sudden the importance of those rests made sense. God’s beauty needs time to develop and grow, even in the progression of our harmonies.
 
We are coming into a period of rest -- after driving pages of musical activity. And while we take those moments -- days, weeks - of rest, we know that it is a fertile period when God’s grace will blossom within the silence. Good composers know the importance of rests. They write them into their music, whether like Vaughan Williams who thinks as an orchestral composer and carries the chord into the next beat, or Bach whose measurements end in vocal precision, those rests in the score are important. Don’t rush through them. Allow the music to blossom even if your room seems to be dead acoustically. That may be all the more reason to let the silence be just that. Silence. For growth, for meditation, for the music to work.
 
[One clear practical attachment for the organist is to allow space between the stanzas of hymns. We see four beats at the last measure. But it really takes a choir and congregation extra time between stanzas to let the music and poetry breathe. The standard suggestion is to allow a full extra measure, holding the last chord a bit, then giving a clear silence for breath -- all in the regular rhythm of the metre.]

The Rev. Edward K. Erb, edwardkerb@aol.com, the Rev. Hillary Raining, hillary.raining@gmail.com, and Canon Mark Laubach mlaubach118@gmail.com are members of the committee working on the Leadership Program for Musicians for the Diocese of Bethlehem.


'Tis a Gift to be Simple
The Reluctant Organist 3 (December 2009)
By Father Ed Erb

Christmas season is always a test –– a test of our endurance as musicians. The annual Messiah sing-a-long, Lessons & Carols, a cantata or choral prelude for Christmas Eve, the trebles singing their best offering for visiting grandparents, and organ music, and more organ music.

We want to offer our best –– our gold, frankincense and myrrh –– the best decorations, the best table setting, the best recipes, the best inside the box. And one of the greatest temptations as musicians is to give our all –– until we have no more to give. I have learned that the day after Christmas, my internal defenses down, I usually succumb to that cold or flu that has been warded off by my busy flurrying the past few weeks.

One of the best offerings of this season is Menotti’s classic, Amahl. Remember the simple gift given from the heart of this young cripple-boy. Or the Little Drummer Boy who gives what he has in simple trust that it will be accepted with love.

As you prepare for the High Holy Day ask yourself, do I really need to play that Bach Prelude and Fugue?  Would a simpler –– and lovely –– take on a carol by a good composer be received with joy? God, your rector and the parishioners will relish in the simple gift, offered with all your heart. The anxiety level diminishes and you’ll find you will enjoy the holiday even more. And it will show in your playing and directing. ’Tis a gift to be simple, and ’tis simple to be a gift. Merry Christmas.

The Rev. Edward K. Erb, edwardkerb@aol.com, the Rev. Hillary Raining, hillary.raining@gmail.com, and Canon Mark Laubach mlaubach118@gmail.com are members of the committee working on the Leadership Program for Musicians for the Diocese of Bethlehem.

The Reluctant Organist 2 (November 2009)
By Father Ed Erb

“Teacher, what is the greatest good, and the what is the key to the kingdom?”

“Behold, I tell you, the service music and hymns are the keys.”

As a church musician, even now as a priest with limited organist responsibilities, I still fall into the habit of practicing the prelude and postlude first and foremost -- and for weeks on end. While I put off the hymns and service music until the last minutes.

Music schools and conservatories don’t help. They lead with performance of recital music. If you can play a Bach Prelude and Fugue, surely you can play a hymn, you’ve played them all before, haven’t you? And no one in the congregation sings, anyway.

That’s the point. Our job is to excite the praises of the people.
 It is the hymns, at the base level, and the service music, particularly, which most affect the congregation and their musical expression in God’s praise and prayers. The worship accompanist moves, motivates and inspires the singing of the Church’s praise.

Strong voicing on the organ, piano, or guitar, and the leadership of the choir are crucial to meaningful singing of God’s people in the pew. Creative variation bringing out unfamiliar melodies, interesting inner lines, even varied accompaniments of well-worn hymns, can inspire the heart-felt expression of praise and prayer.

Start your week off with reading -- praying -- the words of the hymns.  Each stanza has it’s own poetry. Reflect on how those words move you towards an awareness of God, and experiment with how that spirit can be expressed in your playing.

Share your inspiration with the choir and direct them in leading God’s people to the praise and honor of our God.

The Rev. Edward K. Erb, edwardkerb@aol.com, the Rev. Hillary Raining, hillary.raining@gmail.com, and Canon Mark Laubach mlaubach118@gmail.com are members of the committee working on the Leadership Program for Musicians for the Diocese of Bethlehem.

The Reluctant Organist 1 (October 2009)
By Father Ed Erb

“No way! Yes, I can play the piano - some. But what do I know about Church Music?”

“The organ – with pipes?!? Two, three, four keyboards – and those pedals! Anglican chant? I’ve heard about Gregorian chant in a music history class...”

“So,” the rector says, “here’s the key to the organ, and the file cabinets of decaying music Do what you can. I trust you.”

You mutter a little too loudly for comfort, “God, help me!”

“I will. I send you help right here.”

The Diocesan Commission on Liturgy and Music has both simple and more involved offerings in mind to help the Reluctant Musician.

First of all, in each upcoming issue of Diocesan Life will be a Musicians’ Nugget” a short educational or practical item of explanation or advice.

Secondly, a database of Parish Musicians is being compiled. You will soon receive an invitation to spend a few minutes filling out a survey of parish needs and resources musical. This will help us provide what you need and want.

Finally, we look to reviving the Leadership Program for Musicians - a national educational experience particularly designed to help musicians with limited resources.

We can even provide a network where you can ask a question and get a quick response to a church musician’s “persisting questions.” Like, where can I find music for chanting the Psalms? Are we supposed to sing the Psalms. Psalms, what are Psalms?

Tell us what questions you have, what resources would be most helpful, and how we can best get the information - and training - for you to experience the joy and not the burden of singing God’s praises.

The Rev. Edward K. Erb, edwardkerb@aol.com, the Rev. Hillary Raining, hillary.raining@gmail.com, and Canon Mark Laubach mlaubach118@gmail.com are members of the committee working on the Leadership Program for Musicians for the Diocese of Bethlehem.


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