An Organist’s Woes

Psychiatrists might have a bit of fun explaining why, with a whole host of opportunities open to me in the world of music, I ended up following three very different paths, all of which are among the most vilified and despised in the whole of music.  Had, at any stage, I stopped to think about it, I might have realised what I was letting myself in for but, there again, I probably would have done the same again and, to be fair to myself, I rarely complain about the paths I chose to take all those years ago. 

My first, and most beloved, path was as a music critic.  I wrote my first bit of criticism in 1976 and haven’t stopped since.  True, since moving to Asia, I have rarely had the opportunity to do the thing I love doing more than anything else, reviewing live concerts for daily newspapers or live radio – there’s something about the immediacy and irrevocability of one’s published instant reactions which gets the blood circulating as rapidly as running a marathon (I imagine) – but my almost daily CD reviews for the professional press and the periodic CD round-ups for radio stations in all continents (except, surprisingly, Asia) certainly keeps me on my toes.  What a career choice for a nice, harmless fellow like myself!  Music critics are universally reviled by performers and music-lovers alike. The former claim never to read or take notice of what we say while the latter usually accuse us of not knowing what we are talking about. 

My second musical path, and one to which I find I have become wholly addicted, is music examining.  On a Sunday night as I arrive in some remote town and check into yet another solitary hotel room, I never fail to feel the wave of fear and loathing wafting up from the assembled populace.  Students, teachers and parents wish I wasn’t there, hope I fall ill or call down all manner of tribulations on me (in India, someone even tried to assassinate me – but that’s another story) simply because I’m going to sit down and hear them, their students or their children play their graded exams.  We are hated before we do anything, reviled when we do it (“the examiner never smiled”…”the examiner was too friendly”…”the examiner had bad breath”…”the examiner was so fat I felt sick”) and dismissed as “incompetent” or “ignorant” when we do it and don’t hand out the result the student, teacher or parent wanted.  If every person who claims to have sat outside the door and heard something much more remarkable coming out of it than the examiner heard inside it were laid end to end, they would form a chain which would pass twice round the equator at least.  I’m the first to admit that the graded music exam system is deeply flawed, but it’s the best way anyone has yet devised of assessing instrumental skill when taught by private and unregulated teachers, so rather than knock it, I feel it best to work on the inside and try in my small way to make it better and, at the very least, a worthwhile if not actually enjoyable experience for all concerned.  For that the world hates me!

As for my third path, I knew from a very early age I wanted to be an organist and nothing has deterred me.  From my first humble organist’s job in a church in Hampshire in 1968 to my current elevated position as Resident Organist at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, I have rarely wavered from my determination to play.  And yet, as musicians go, an organist is is utterly at the bottom of the heap.  “Organists aren’t musicians”, they all say, “An organists’ world revolves around wind pressures and 32 foot opheclides; they’re not interested in art”.  I have always tried to break free of that stereotype (a stereotype which, I’m the first to accept, is very true to life indeed) but what has it done for me?  I am still treated like dirt and forgotten about unless and until I make a hash of things. 

The trouble is, of all musical instruments, the organ is the most like a machine, and the organist, for all his high-blown artistic endeavours, is simply a mechanic who is totally at the mercy of what his machine can or can’t do.  After years of writing about organists, reviewing their concerts and their CDs, I still cannot tell the difference between a good organist and an indifferent one.  I can tell you which organs I like to hear, and I can tell you what organ music I like to hear, but, to be honest, while some organists usually manage to play nice music on nice instruments and some always seem to play crap on crappy ones, I really can’t make the distinction divorced from instrument or repertoire.  Of course, some organists play more right notes than wrong ones, but so do pianists. I recall Rubinstein and Horowitz, both of whom made you wonder if there had been any right notes in their performances at all, but nevertheless left you breathless with excitement and overawed with admiration; that doesn’t happen with organists, only with organ music and organs.  I gave up playing in church years ago and took to working as an orchestral organist.  I thought it might make me some friends, make me feel less solitary, less of an outsider.  Not a bit of it, if conductors and orchestral musicians deign to notice me, it’s because I’ve made a mistake, missed a vital cue or come in fortissimo when it should have been pianissimo.  And the sad thing is, in most cases, it’s nothing to do with me but the fault of that infernal machine.    

Typical of the orchestral organist’s miserable lot was the engagement I had the other week with the Singapore Lyric Opera, celebrating their 20th anniversary at The Esplanade with a programme of two dozen or so operatic extracts including two from Cavalleria Rusticana which involved the organ.  Two pieces out of 24 – barely 40 bars of music, and less than five minutes in a two-and-a-bit hour programme.  The orchestra are against me straight away because I’m being paid what they’re being paid, yet doing none of the work. (Still, it beats Miraculous Mandarin or Fountains of Rome, where you have just four or five pedal notes, so not only do you have virtually nothing to do, but nobody sees you move when you do!)

Misery No.1.  We are booked for three rehearsals on consecutive evenings.  I should be there in case the conductor decides to rehearse one of my pieces, but with 24 to get through, there’s every chance he will only do them at one of the rehearsals and I will have to sit idly by for three hours just on the off-chance my few bars will come up.  Then I learn that the first two rehearsals will not be at the Esplanade but elsewhere.  There is no organ at the rehearsal venue but they will bring in a “Claviona”.  Now I have no idea how to play a claviona (why is it thought that because you play the pipe organ you can handle any of these hideous domestic electronic gadgets?) and have never got over a miserable rehearsal with a German orchestra where I spent the whole time trying to work out how to switch the damn thing on.  So I suggested to the SLO management that, as I had so little to play and that as the rehearsal would need to address balance issues rather than anything else, I could save them money by not attending the two outside rehearsals.  The management kindly agreed.

Misery No.2.  A violinist or trombonist can turn up at rehearsal, take out their instrument, tune up and play, having practised beforehand.  An organist is at the mercy of the organ and, unless the orchestral management has booked specific times for the organist to practice, there’s no choice but to go in cold.  Luckily I know the Esplanade organ well and didn’t ask for special rehearsal time, trusting that I could get in a little early and set the thing up.  I arrived at 6 for the 7.30 rehearsal.  No organ on stage, no key, no arrangements for me to get to the loft.  A super stage manager ran around and got me up there by 7.  Luckily the harpist was on stage tuning, but nobody else was around (how come harpists can tune oblivious to all going on around them while trombonists seem to need total silence to blare out a few notes warming up for a rehearsal?) so I had a few moments to set the thing up. (None of this pulling out stops or changing things once the rehearsal is underway, nowadays you have to plan everything out on the sequencer and if changes are to be made, the whole thing has to be re-programmed after the hall has emptied.)

Misery No.3.  Conductor unaware that I am at the console high above his line of vision (a lighting board was in the way) decides to miss one of my pieces and go straight into other works.  I can’t hear him calling for me and frantic backstage calls (I learn about later) don’t get answered; they assume I’m AWOL.  More abuse heaped on the organist (“He’s only got two pieces to play and can’t even turn up for those”.)

Misery No.4.  Two plus hours into the rehearsal, it’s my big moment.  I play, nobody comments, and we pass on to the next piece.  I can’t hear the orchestra, I can’t hear the singers, I rely totally on what I see of the conductor on the monitor, but as the camera is on the floor and if he wants to attract my attention he looks up, I am never sure whether or not he is actually pointing to or addressing me.  One has to assume all is well.

Misery No.5.  Come the concert.  I have no idea whether the Singapore Lyric Opera and its guest singers are any good – I can’t hear a thing upstairs – but the monitor shows the audience gleefully applauding, so I assume they’re going down a treat; I certainly hope so, they deserve it.  Then my pieces come.  The first one (Intermezzo) seems OK, but I’m just doubling the orchestra and expect I could stop playing and nobody would notice.  Second one (Easter Hymn) has a short solo in it, at which crucial point the air con, working against a full house, suddenly puts on an extra spurt, spills air over the lighting board and blows the music off the stand.  One hand has to chase after it before it flies over the edge into the orchestra below.  So a missed cue and, I assume, a few curses at the organist.  It’s no good saying it’s not my fault.  I chose to play the damn instrument, and such things are part and parcel of the job.  But tell me again, why did I ever choose this particular musical path?

4 Responses to “An Organist’s Woes”

  1. 1 z.m
    December 4, 2010 at 2:27 am

    i haven’t heard alot of live organ music, but when i listened to handel’s the cuckoo and the nightingale 15 years ago on cassette, i must say, that is some glorious powerful instrument, that organ. i can’t imagine it is that bad?

  2. 2 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    December 7, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Dear Marc

    Well, you did enough to be noticed by this “music critic”! The chap sitting to my left had asked, “What’s that fella doing up there?” (assuming he was actually seeing the Phantom of the Opera), and I said, “He’s the organist.” He shut up and that was it. Anyway, congrats on your Singapore Lyric Opera debut!

  3. 3 Peter Almond
    December 8, 2010 at 6:32 am

    Hi Marc! You and I have played the organ for so many years that between us we’ve got stories enough to fill a couple weighty tomes – yet still we continue, despite the frustrations of the job. Why? Well, for my part, I still get the same thrill of anticipation (of what, I’m not totally sure) when I press the ‘start’ button as I did when I was a fourteen or fifteen year old boy, creeping into St Luke’s after school for an illegal 5 or 10 minutes on the Compton-rebuilt Noterman. It’s in our blood, my dear friend, and there’s nothing to be done about it – other than to ‘Carry On Regardless, Mr Organist’! Long may we flourish! Pete

  4. 4 Ed
    December 12, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Hi Marc!

    I was there in the concert. I was actually singing in the chorus and your playing was amazing. A friEnD of mine can’t stop talking about the organ and the organist. It was his first time to hear the organ at the EsplanaDe.

    I hope to hear more of your playing.

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December 2010


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