27 July 2012

An Organist's Lot

Visiting a concert hall earlier this week I was shown into the auditorium.  The organist was practising for a concert that evening, but my guide continued to talk and walk about the hall as if it was unoccupied.  “Let me show you on to the stage”, she told me, but, in a whisper, I declined, indicating that I felt we should keep a little quiet out of respect for the musician at work there.  Far from taking the hint, my guide called up to the organist; “I’m just showing someone around – could you just give us five minutes?”  In his favour, the organist did stop and graciously remove himself from the hall, but that was enough for me.  I have no time for a hall where such gross discourtesy is shown to those whose job it is to attract paying audiences through their performances.  I walked out without a word leaving my guide both bemused and, I suspect, greatly offended.  I do not care.  Anyone with such attitudes deserves all the opprobrium she receives.

Would she have behaved the same way if a pianist, a violinist, a string quartet or even a full orchestra was rehearsing?  Of course not.  It is the sad lot of organists that nobody takes them seriously and, if people assume anything, it is that organists either do not practice seriously or, because they sit with their backs to the hall, they are in some way unable to hear what is going on behind them. 

The old console at Bangor Cathedral was behind the choir stalls and partitioned off by means of a curtain.  Visitors used to come in and inspect the carvings on the choir stalls and, if I was practising, they would often simply pull the curtains aside and stare.  One hideous American even started to climb through so that his wife could photograph him at the organ.  I soon put a stop to that with language which should never be heard in a place of worship, even if Americans are brought up with it on movie screens.  But, invariably, the errant visitors were offended.  Surely the organist was part of the furniture, just like the choir stalls; after all they had pretended to drop a coin in the gift box at the back of the cathedral and felt they were entitled to part-ownership of the place and all its fixtures and fittings.

I well recall the years at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur when, as Resident Organist, I was not only contractually obliged to play the organ for several hours each week, but had sufficient concerts in a month to necessitate considerable amount of practice.  As the only working pipe organ available to me, I had no choice but to use the hall, and always arranged rehearsal times with the hall bookings department (they used to have such a thing before the imbeciles came in and took over with their confirmed belief that all music making was as easy as pressing the play icon on their i-Pods).  That didn’t stop the idiots in the office marching in to hold impromptu meetings away from the prying ears of their juniors, or the daft ignoramuses from the Business Development department marching in with prospective clients in tow.  More than once I was asked to stop while a guided tour was given, and it was almost standard practice to come in, call up to me and ask me to “play something” to show off the organ to the visiting groups. (What did they think I was doing?) 

And it didn’t stop with stupid office staff.  Musicians were equally insensitive to the situation.  Often my rehearsing was interrupted by an errant horn player or trumpeter marching on to stage and trying out various finger combinations for a single passage to be played at an audition elsewhere sometime in the distant future.  I even had a recital interrupted by a chamber ensemble walking on to the stage unaware of an organist high in the gallery and an audience low in the stalls.  Did they apologise?  Not a bit of it.  They waited off stage and when I finally came backstage after the recital all they had to say was an impatient “Are you finished yet?”

Indeed, it was the utter disregard for an organist’s work which finally drove me away from the instrument.  Invited to perform the Saint-Saëns Third with the Singapore Symphony, the conductor asked during rehearsal for a different registration in one of the movements.  The organ of the Esplanade, being computerised and therefore pretty inflexible, needed to be completely re-set and I used the 15 minute break to do this.  Yet a moronic trombonist decided that was the time he wanted to rehearse a passage from a piece not even in that week’s concert.  “Will you shut up?”, was his comment when I tried to test a re-registration.  I explained that I had no option but to do this at that point, at which he came over, threatened physical abuse, swore profligately and then stormed off to the Orchestral Manager to demand I be removed.  The complete refusal of the Orchestral Manager to get involved and the pointed hostility directed towards me throughout the subsequent rehearsal from the trombone, eventually decided me that I was too old for such things and have withdrawn from serious organ playing ever since.  Thin skinned?  No, just tired of the contempt heaped on organists by all and sundry.

Dame Gillian Weir used to have a reputation for intolerance of interruptions while practising, and I used this to ensure that, when she was rehearsing in DFP, the security staff kept everyone out of the hall.  I also recall Jane Parker-Smith becoming quite angry when musicians walked into the auditorium during her practice session.  Perhaps because they are women people listen to them, but they certainly don’t listen to us men, and  both musicians and general public alike seem to think that, because the organ is static it is not a credible musical instrument.  Organists are treated much as workmen painting the wall, and it is assumed they are able to get on with their work regardless.

Any musical practice is hard intellectual and physical work which is seriously disturbed by any interruption no matter how well meant; and that applies every bit as much to an organist as to a full symphony orchestra.


  1. Dear Dr Marc,
    Many years ago, when living in Ayrshire, Scotland, I used to play with a string quartet. We did "gigs" at small castles, manor houses and Burns' Clubs, and found ourselves on the receiving end of treatment which varied between polite and downright objectionable. On one occasion, the host and a small group of friends approached us, wine glasses in hand, and after staring for a while at close range, one person picked the music from my stand and inspected it. "Ach, do they play this ?" he asked his companions, according us as much recognition, as a rather uncharismatic zoo animal. They confirmed that maybe we did. After hearing my wails of protest, he replaced the music, sideways, on the stand, and retreated with the injured expression of one who has been caught off-guard by a faeces-throwing primate. We were not invited back.

    Contrast that with one gushing hostess in Singapore, who thanked me and my friends loudly for our "beautiful tones, and elegant songs".... before we had actually played anything.

    Dr Peter

  2. Not all non-organists among us, Marc, are the sundry boors of your complaint. For some years, during my tenure in Switzerland, I paid rent to a church near my apartment in exchange for the use of its facilities as a practice space. Whenever an organist, be s/he only a visitor, desired to use the sanctuary organ, it was incumbent upon me to move to a different locale. Happily the instrument in question ( http://www.cantateetparole.org/index.htm ) was a quite nice one, and some of the visitors were luminaries. But regardless whether the organist was Ton Koopman or a first-year Conservatory student, I packed up my horn without protest. And I never regretted the hours I passed, my horn secured in its case for the remainder of the day, listening discretely from a pew below.

    PS: I enjoy your blog, as I always did your program notes!

    Sabina Pade
    (formerly, MPO Principal horn)

    1. Hi Sabina ;
      A - whenever our paths crossed you were always a model of kindness and consideration and if all horn players were as fine musically and humanly as you, the world would be a much finer place
      B - I have no doubt that most organists deserve every bit of the contempt they receive. Cast ashore on a desert island, I'd choose a head-shrinking cannibal over an organist any time!

  3. There should be a new box to tick off at the bottom of each of your articles (in additional to funny, interesting and cool) - one that says "sad"!