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July 5, 2001

"Organist's Mind, Beginner's Mind"
Since he's forty now, I took my friend Danny to his first organ recital.

Danny has a single musical skill. He can always tune the radio with pinpoint accuracy to the Country Music station.

But the recital was free and nearby.

We stayed for twenty minutes in the back of the church. Twenty minutes was enough for me. It was enough for him to ask four completely guileless questions.

"Hey, did he WANT to play that piece?"
"Did he HAVE to play it?"
"What was that scratchy thing?"
"I knew it didn't sound right."

We heard "Schmucke Dich O Liebe Seele" by J.S. Bach. A friend once said it's the longest organ piece ever written. I scoffed to myself when she said it. Now I know what she means. I told Danny it was about gladness.

"Wow. I'm glad we didn't stay for the sad part."

Well, who cares what an untutored listener thinks? I do.

These queries are what I want to ask. I leave such questions unanswered at my peril. I even have to answer them honestly.

Do I WANT to play the music before me? And more humbling, does anybody want to hear it?

In churches we have a choiceless life and so do listeners. It's time for church. I have to play and they have to listen. Ready or not, like it or not. It's a given.

I want to play "Schmucke Dich" although I could play "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland" forever. But I don't want to play the Wedge, or the Neumeister Chorales. I'd rather romp through a few of the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues. Sue me.

I'm going back to church and throw out anything I don't truly want to play. I'm not in school anymore. No more assignments. Come to think of it, I don't think I'm going to play the D Minor Canzona anymore either.

Danny thought that perhaps the church required certain pieces to be played at a recital. We have very few non-negotiable demands about repertoire. The terrible truth is I can play anything I want. What reasons do I have to play something that's "required?" Do I HAVE to play what's before me? If I don't feel like playing it, will they feel like listening? Sometimes I want to improvise. And when I do, because I want to, the congregation seems to like it. I may not make Great Music but I get a kick out of it. I play the organ because I get a Big Kick out of it. Do my listeners? In hymn playing, I can tell when my Big Kick is their Big Kick. They sing their hearts out.

Well we know what the "scratchy thing" was. It was the flawless tierce of a major organ builder. It was a perfectly correct registration for a solo voice. Only it's on an instrument too large and loud for a padded American church. The solo voice sounded not only hostile, it sounded combative, as the German nation from which the organ comes is reputed to be. The hostile tierce was slugging it out against the Great flute, and, now necessary for balance, too much pedal.

"I knew it didn't sound right." Well, what do I do when my playing doesn't sound right? I listen. If I'm short on time I either choose a registration that goes out on a limb, or I choose something safe. But it still doesn't sound right. From now on, I'm only playing what sounds right, even if I have to repeat some repertoire.

So much for off-the-cuff remarks after twenty minutes by a Country Music fan. But Danny isn't stupid, and neither are my listeners who after all seldom hear a full twenty minutes of organ repertoire.

"They don't know the difference." How many times have I heard that? Well, folks, I think I have to be honest. They DO know the difference. Maybe not well enough to articulate it, or argue, or even criticize. God help me if they were listening to criticize.

When gladness sounds sad, they feel it. When rigidity rules and the Big Kick never happens, they feel that too. When we stayed for the beginning of the Vivaldi Concerto in G, we felt the heavy trample of a moribund tempo and a screeching mixture. That is, we felt these things until I whispered, "We're outta here," and the experience was over.

"We had to go, man. Ya gotta scope out the competition."

Right again. But with any luck, not very often.

Peter Stapleton

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