Acting Organist

On a recent vacation, I was able to attend the regular Sunday meetings of the Red Wing, Minnesota ward. I do not remember ever being so warmly, and enthusiastically welcomed to anything in my life. A few of the local members tried to convince me to relocate to Red Wing. It was a very nice visit. There was something about their sacrament meeting that slightly disturbed me – the singing of the hymns.

The hymns were sung at an uncomfortably fast pace, with no break at all between verses. There was also a prominent fermata in one of the songs that seemed to be completely ignored. I looked up from my hymnbook to try and figure out what was going on. The conductor seemed to be trying to follow the organist, instead of the other way around. And when I looked at the organist I was surprised to see her looking around rather nonchalantly. I admired her skill at being able to play the hymn, possibly from memory, without focusing on the music or the conductor. But if she was really that good, why was the tempo so wrong? Why no break between verses? Why no fermata observance?

The next hymn that was sung clearly had a missing note. And this note was missed in every verse. How could this be? I looked up at the organist again. Our eyes met. She smiled at me. She seemed to be trying to communicate something with her smile, but I could not tell what it was. What was going on?! Look at your book! There is a hymn going on here!! I got uncomfortable and stuck my nose back in the hymnal. The song was over in record time.

After the meetings I voiced my concerns to the friends we were visiting. They had a good laugh and explained to me that they didn’t have any good organ players in their ward. The hymns had been programmed into the organ, and all this ‘organist’ did was come up front and punch in the hymn number and press play. When the song was over she pressed stop. I realized that I had come across a church calling that I was not previously aware of. The calling of ‘Acting Organist’.

This calling of Acting Organist is not acting in the sense that Boyd K. Packer is the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve. Oh, no. It is acting as in pretending. Pretending to be an organist. I have been in wards were hymns were often sung a cappella. I have also been in wards where a CD with the hymns on it was used to provide music. But this is my first experience with an Acting Organist.

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8 Responses to “Acting Organist”


  1. 1 Bradley Ross August 12, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    That’s great. It sounds like they ought to get the new Kawai organs available from the Church. They have about a 100 hymns programed in. The cool thing is that the “acting organist” can control the speed. Every time you press a key, any key, on the keyboard, the next note of the song is played. It allows you to exactly follow a conductor and still “play” all the notes using only a single finger.

  2. 2 Travis August 13, 2007 at 2:54 am

    Thanks I had a good laugh. I will have to share this with some people in my ward. They will get a kick out of it.

  3. 3 Belladonna August 13, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    When I first moved to the ward I am in now I had about seven people mug me right away to ask “do you play the piano?” Alas, I do not. They always looked so disheartened when I said no. I felt like such a dissapointment to them, as if I had nothing of value to offer.

    I can relate to the challenge of being in a unit with little or no musical ability to share….but THIS seems like a pretty strange adaptation.

    What struck me most about this post was how very welcome you felt in the ward you visited. Do you think others feel the same way when they come to visit your home ward? Why or why not?

  4. 4 Eric Nielson August 14, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Bradley:

    In talking with the family we visited, this is the type of organ it is. I guess the Acting Organist is still learning how to use it.

    Travis:

    Glad you liked it!

    Belladonna:

    In answer to your question, I think some people do and some do not. I have often wondered about this. What is the difference between a friendly ward and an unfriendly ward? I would submit that this difference is very small. Three smiles, two handhakes, and one conversation, can make the difference between friendly and unfriendly.

    I remember a time when a lovely and unfamiliar family sat right in front of us at sacrament meeting. After the meeting my wife and I really rolled out the red carpet for these people. We asked them all kinds of questions, complimented them on their beautiful and well behaved kids, begged them to move to Sturgis, showed them where classes were, everything.

    Other times a new family sits on the other side of the chapel, and by the time we get our kids where they are supposed to be opportunities are gone. Sometimes it is the luck of the draw, and who you hapen to sit near.

  5. 5 David August 18, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Great story! It reminds me of my first area as a missionary in Venezuela. In October, 1985, I was assigned to work in a small branch in Guarenas, a town not too far from Caracas. The branch had a piano but nobody knew how to play. Sadly, it wasn’t a player piano into which the hymns could be programmed. Nor did we have the hymns on CD or cassette tape. We had to sing every hymn a cappella. Because few of the members of the branch, aside from the missionaries and a few returned missionaries, had ever heard the hymns properly played, the music had mutated over time. I recall that the hymns were all recognizable, but many of the notes had changed. In addition, I don’t remember how many hymns the branch knew, but without a pianist, it’s likely that we couldn’t sing many in the hymn book.

    We still enjoyed the Spirit as we sang, but clearly we were handicapped without a pianist. This taught me a great lesson: I should have paid attention when I took piano lessons as a kid. Instead of complaining and not practicing, I should have further developed this talent. It could have been a great blessing to those in the Guarenas Branch.

  6. 6 Barb August 27, 2007 at 5:45 am

    That tempo sounds a little too fast. I often find the tempo way to slow for my liking in my ward. Maybe I don’t like to hold the notes as long as some. Or maybe it makes everything sound so sad. I think of the joyful music on shows such as the Waltons or Little House on the Prairie. You can hear voices upraised at a decent tempo. They do not sound professional by any means. You get the community effect. I do not read music and that may be part of my problem. Sometimes you cannot really even hear many people behind you in my ward and people are much more muffled myself included. Oh, now I am longing for the guitar to accompany the music like in my Catholic days that had beautiful melodies such as a favorite song about Eagle’s wings. I do like some LDS hymms just usually not the one’s that they sing in my ward. I try to avoid being hyper-critical and do avoid critiquing talks as that is so personal. I think it would be easy to improve the singing situation though. Maybe things have improved vastly since I last made it to Church.

  7. 7 Barb August 27, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    I should add that I do not know how to play the piano or organ nor do I know how to conduct music. For all I know, what I consider too slow may be just right. At any rate, I have a lot of respect for those who play the organ or conduct. And there have been times when I felt very much in harmony through the years as I sang with the LDS saints in my ward.

  8. 8 Kristine August 31, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    Barb, your perception is probably correct. Most LDS wards I’ve been in perform the hymns between 30 and 50% slower than what is indicated (at the top of each hymn, there is a note=xx marking, so that you know that the suggested tempo is 50 quarter notes per minute, or 108 8th notes or whatever). When I’m conducting, I try to check ahead of time with a metronome, so I’ll know if what I perceive as the appropriate tempo is in line with what is suggested. In a pinch, I use my pulse to find a tempo around 60 beats per minute and adjust from there. People do occasionally ask why I hold my fingers to my carotid artery just before standing up 🙂

    Also, most congregations pay little or no attention to the chorister–the organist is firmly in control 🙂


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