Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

Organ Sonnet 1

Until sent stepping down the pedals—scalar,
My feet were not sure of their footing here
But then, at once, my most pressing fear
Became naught but a small organ failure!

And once my frigid fingers found their note
I settled into newfound harmony
In a choir which turned much-loved company
And rendered far-off home not so remote.

But now, removed, another organ aches
To think of all I confess lies undone;
Not of my choosing, my heart once more breaks

—It beats the time of old chorales and makes
Pretend that there are present more than one—

Alone, though, none can hear its sad mistakes.

A small explanation:
I once wrote on my personal philosophy of “Theme and Variations,” the idea that I must identify the small things which make me feel at home, no matter where I may be. When I moved to California, it was finding a little church where I could play music. In Scotland, it was finding a church organist position.

Now, back home in Arizona, I am ironically feeling more displaced than ever. Yet again, though, an organist position came along to make me feel at least partly settled, partly useful and hopeful. Even as I auditioned for this new post, though, I could not help but think back on the one left unfinished, left behind sadly and suddenly in the impending wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Nation’s Organists Rally to Fight Stereotypes as Halloween Draws Near

9 October 2019 Los Angeles, California

Nearing the middle of October, spooky season is in full swing and Halloween celebrants across the nation are gathering their pumpkins, brooms, and ominous soundtracks in preparation for their night of revelry. Halloween has long been a time of community, of neighbors sharing chili on the front porch, children meeting for trick-or-treating, schools pausing their lessons for costume parades and apple bobbing. In fact, it seems that perhaps even more than Thanksgiving, Halloween has become a means of bringing people together despite their prejudices.

One demographic, however, continues to feel misunderstood and intends to use this Halloween season to make new strides toward social awareness: organists. As Halloween hosts cue up their perfect party playlist, organ music annually finds renewed appreciation. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the Haunted Mansion theme are among the most popular organ pieces sure to make comebacks this Halloween. While some organists are amused by the use of their music for creepy ambiance, others are speaking out against the stereotypes that it represents.

“Organists across the nation have suffered in silence long enough,” says Frank Steinbeck, chapter president of the National Association of Organists. Steinbeck has long been a contender for organist appreciation and intends to utilize the pipe organ’s Halloween spotlight as a platform to speak out.

“Organ stereotypes have hurt too many,” he said in an interview with The Daily Weak, “Just last week, my buddy Paul Stopford was turned down on a date because he was an organist.”

“It’s true,” added Stopford in a follow-up interview. “She said she couldn’t date me because I play the organ— said I was too creepy for her taste.”

When asked if his rejection might have also had to anything to do with the mask and cloak he was wearing (completely veiling his face and person in foreboding mystery) he declined to comment and instead vanished into thin air.

“Too many have suffered,” claims Steinbeck. “And this ends now.” At this, the opening lines of Bach’s Toccata played apparently from nowhere, though Steinbeck did not seem to notice.

Along with his local chapter, Steinbeck is calling organists to speak out against stereotypes and has even gone so far as to organize an awareness march outside of a local costume shop. Footage from the march shows a small mass of organists holding signs bearing slogans such as “Organists are not only swell, they’re great!”

While the march was, unfortunately, shut down by the police due to rowdiness, it did — accidentally — succeed in increasing the number of registered organ donors in the town.  Not discouraged, the participants expressed a desire for the press and public to know that they represent a diverse range of backgrounds and are united by their desire to eradicate prejudice against organists.

“Just because lightning flashes with every chord I play doesn’t mean I’m evil,” said long-time church organist and amateur murder mystery writer Rodger Turnpage. “It’s probably just an electrical issue.”

Other organists have added to the conversation, claiming October as “Organist Awareness Month” and sharing their stereotype stories online and on church bulletin boards via the hashtag #organfailure. Tweets such as “We are more than Toccata and Fugue in D minor” are circulating the Twitter world or, at least, they would be if any organists knew about Twitter.

“We just hope that as people listen to our music shuffled in with ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ they will realize that we organists are not monsters; we just want our music to be heard,” concluded Steinbeck.

And with that final, powerful plea, Frank Steinbeck, chapter president and social justice warrior, limped off among the tombstones and into the foggy night, never to be seen again.

*Watch this promotional video by an anonymous local organist and share to help end organist stereotyping! #organfailurenolonger

 

Jill of all Trades or Renaissance Woman?

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The pipe organ was created to do the job of an entire orchestra of different instruments, but nobody ever accuses it of not being worthwhile because of its varied abilities. In fact, it’s considered the King of Instruments for this very reason! Just a little brain snack for you to think about. (Also, that is me in the picture. I was not creeping on a random organist.) 😉

I am what one might call a “Jill of All Trades,” the female counterpart of a “Jack of All Trades.” I quite liked this phrase until I saw a quote on Pinterest (seriously, Pinterest? You’re supposed to be my social media happy place!) that reads:

“Jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

Well stink. As a perfectionist, this immediately crushed my spirits. But then I started to think…after all, Abraham Lincoln once said not to believe everything you read on the internet, so it seemed wise not to jump to immediate despair.

And so I thought, not just about the quote, but about myself. Who am I? What do I do? Why do I do these things? What are my goals? Am I a Jill of All Trades? Is this good or bad? All of these terrifying questions of identity and purpose began to dance a frantic tango in my mind. But, fortunately, I like to dance and I love to think.

The answer to the first question partnered off with the second question as the music of thought began: I am Ryanne McLaren, and I spend my time doing the following:

A lot of piano, a little organ, violin, and singing; baking; running; swing dancing; blogging, writing, reading, composing; crafting; exploring. I suppose if I had to condense, I could say truthfully that I do two things: music and English, but within those two categories are piano, violin, singing, organ, ukulele, composing, dancing, poetry, blogging, stories, analyzing, essays, reading, etc. The subcategories go on and on.

And that’s how I like it.

This partially answers the next question of “Why?” I have never been able to just focus on one thing, be it piano or reading. As a child, I was the piano student who would read novels while practicing scales and the English student who would run while studying. Multi-tasking is a pleasure for me and, while sometimes it does not work out (I admit I should have put more focus into my scales…), being actively involved in multiple things at once makes life exciting. It gives me joy to be able to run from actually running to rehearsing to writing to baking. And it gives me even greater joy to refine my skills in all of these areas. Would I say that I am a master in any of them? No. Absolutely not, to be honest. But that does not mean I cannot be or am not excellent.

This brings me to the next daunting question, the answering of which appeared as difficult as dancing with someone who lacks an inherent sense of rhythm: What are my goals and is this the best way to achieve them?

To answer the first part of this question in detail would take too long, for my goals are as diverse and numerous as my areas of interest. Luckily, this realization allows me to answer the second part easily: YES.

For someone who had a single goal, becoming a concert violinist, for instance, it would not be wise for that person to pursue excellence in “all trades.” It would be much more likely for this individual to achieve his or her goal by focusing all efforts on it and becoming the proverbial “master of one.” But for people like me, who have less specific goals that still lie within the realm of certain topics (for instance, I only aspire to do something with music and writing, but know I can enjoy numerous careers), pursuing perfection in a lone subject would be not only impractical but limiting. 

Having reached this conclusion, I felt a peace and my thoughts stepped in time again. (Although I was at the time I was dashing between a piano lesson and a Socratic discussion.) In scrolling through the internet again later, my conclusion was supported when I discovered that the quote that had pushed me into this mental flurry of self-examination had a second part that everyone apparently ignores:

“Jack of all trades, master of none, though oft times better than master of one.” -Unknown

This thought was still fresh in my mind when this morning when someone referred to me as a “Renaissance Woman.” This to me is so much better than a Jill of All Trades, who may or may not excel in any of the areas in which she dabbles. A Renaissance Woman (or man, but it’s National Women’s Month, so…), however, by definition possesses excellence in her areas of knowledge and- dare I say- expertise. She might even achieve mastery while simultaneously being a Jill of All Trades. I mean, consider Leonard da Vinci! I doubt anyone would ever argue that he was not a master of art, but his genius extended beyond painting only; he was an inventor, philosopher, scientist, architect…for all we know, he was writing internet quotes and trolling Pinterest from the past! He is remembered not only for his primary area of mastery, but for being the prime example of a well-rounded man. This is what I aspire to attain: excellence in all things. Not perfection, but excellence. And oftentimes, as the quote says (forget it, Abraham Lincoln, I believe this one!), this is the better path. After all, the world needs Swiss Army Knives just as much as it does paring knives. 🙂

 

Organ Removal: A Statement and a Story

I often find that the most effective way of communicating a potentially controversial opinion is through storytelling. That said, I will let the following short story speak for me rather than explaining at length my views. Please let me know what you take away from this as I would like to know if my statement-through-story approach was successful.

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Organ Failure

A deep groaning resonated throughout the sanctuary of the church, seeming to shake its stone foundations, established nearly a century earlier. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the groaning stopped, cut short and replaced by a metallic creaking.

This noise was answered by a short sequence of musical notes, played by a grand piano, apparently of its own accord for no pianist sat at its bench. In instrumental dialect, this simple melody translated to, “Are you okay?”

The piano, named Boston according to its make and model, was resting at the front of the sanctuary beside a metal pulpit. This pulpit, machine-made and modern in design, was at odds with the traditional rows of wooden pews assembled before it and the towering pipes of the organ, both of which had been installed along with the stone foundations of nearly a century ago. It was from this instrument that the groaning and creaking emanated and it was to this instrument that the piano addressed his question.

“Are you okay?” Boston repeated. He was answered only by a weak clunk, as if a pipe had come loose. 

“I’m sorry,” he played in minor tones. “You just have not been yourself since they disconnected your console. I understand.”

A toneless whistle came from somewhere among the organ’s principle pipes.

“It sure will be lonely without you,” Boston continued, his chords growing softer and more forlorn. “If it’s any consolation, I probably haven’t much time left either.”

A sigh escaped from a reed pipe but was interrupted as a scuffling arose at the entrance of the sanctuary. The doors swung open and two men, directed by a woman, shuffled down the aisle, each holding an end of a black rectangular object. As they drew nearer, the piano  noticed a cord dragging behind it like a tail and realized with horror what it was: an electronic keyboard.

The woman pointed to a skeleton stand and the men set their burden down on top of it. The grand piano gave a slight shudder as the woman plugged it in and a blue screen glowed on its face.

“Well, give it a try,” said one of the men.

Obligingly, the woman struck a a few chords that made Boston grit his keys in annoyance, having been made to play the same basic progression over and over under the pretense of slightly altered lyrics making it different songs. With some satisfaction, the piano heard that the voice of the keyboard, who he supposed would be named after its maker, Casio, was tinny and lifeless. It was not to be compared to his own rich tones.

The woman’s cell phone rang. She stopped plunking out chords to answer it.

“Hello? Now? Okay, coming.”

The woman beckoned to the men and they hastened to keep up with her quick stride as she left, forgetting in their rush to unplug the keyboard. The piano considered it for a moment. The organ emitted another feeble whistle as if inquiring what had happened.

“They’ve brought in a keyboard,” explained Boston in few notes.

The organ made a croak, the meaning of which Boston was able to understand, having known the other instrument for so long.

“Yes it has weighted keys,” the piano admitted grudgingly.

Another choked noise.

“Talk to it?”- Boston let out a chord like a bitter laugh – “I could, but I doubt it would understand our music.”

“I understand. Understand,” said the robotic voice of the keyboard.

“Oh,” the piano hit a dissonant interval in surprise. “Hello there.”

The organ attempted speech but once more could not produce more than a ghostly gasp without connection to its console.

“What was that? That? That?” asked the newcomer, exercising its reverb setting.

“That, that, that,” mimicked Boston in disdain, “is the church’s pipe organ.”

“Pipe organ? I believe I have a pipe organ setting.” The keyboard’s voice adopted a tone vaguely like that of a theater organ. “Found it. Listen.”

“Indeed?” replied the piano. “Was that it? You’re not much of a pipe organ then. If you could just hear this organ play, feel its power and sound down to your strings- er- circuits, then you would know what an organ really sounds like. Then you would understand.”

“I told you that I understand,” beeped the keyboard.

“I doubt you do or ever will,” plinked Boston, more to himself than to Casio the keyboard.

“Then maybe the organ should play so that I can,” suggested Casio.

“Well you won’t because he can’t!” snapped Boston with an accent that would have shocked any acoustic instrument but did not even register with this digital imposter.

“He can’t play?”

“No,” replied the piano, struggling to maintain a calmer dynamic. “He can barely make a sound any more, now that the dismantling process has begun.”

“Sorry. That is too bad.”

“Don’t pretend to sympathize!” Boston snapped again. “Don’t you get it? You’re his replacement. You’re my replacement too, I daresay. Probably not for a while since the contemporary musicians still find me somewhat useful, but I don’t expect to be kept here more than another year or two. Once the old pulpit was replaced I knew the end was coming for us. First it was the shiny new pulpit; who cares that the pastor can’t pound his fists as nicely on this metal one as he could on the sturdy wood one? It’s more ‘fashionable.’ Now its the organ that has to go and next it will be the pews. You just watch; before the year is over, the young crowd will tear out these pews and put in movie theater seats in the name of comfort. Then it will only be a matter of time before they decide I’m out of date too and they donate me to some school or nursing home or, more likely than not, sell me to fund the purchase of a fog machine or some other monstrosity.”

“Oh,” said the keyboard. “That is-”

But Boston was not to be interrupted as the tidal wave of his thoughts, locked inside him all these months, burst forth in an agonized rhapsody.

“But let’s not even think about the future,” he wailed. “Just think of the present, of the organ, being torn from the foundations of this church under the pretense of being too expensive to maintain and the church having no organist. The reality is that they, the contemporary crowd, find him stuffy and antiquated, a grandfather instrument who is not cool enough, who won’t attract visitors or inspire members to return. I wonder, will they regret it? Will they find out how wrong they are?

“To remove this mighty instrument is to rip a vital piece of the body of this church out of its socket. His music has been a pillar to this church since its foundation; he presided over weddings and funerals, baptisms and communions, Christmases and Easters and all holidays in between. His music represents the universal call to fear and tremble, to surrender and be saved, to have courage and strength. Hymns, marches, preludes, offertories… when he is removed, these are stolen from the congregation. In removing him and me, the church members are at last completely robbing themselves of this music, the songs that represented beautiful and glorious redemption stories, and replacing them with repetitive choruses of little substance set to the same four chords. But I suppose it was inevitable, seeing as the hymnals were disposed of long ago.”

The piano paused for a moment before the crescendo of his ranting fell again to a sorrowful melody like that of a requiem.

“The pipe organ was once hailed as the king of instruments, his music said to represent the very voice of God…but no longer. His voice has been silenced. The king of instruments, a living, breathing, evolving cornerstone of worship and art, has been dethroned and replaced by you, an electronic box with only as much resonance as amps will allow you.”

No sound came from the dismembered organ as the impassioned speech of the piano faded. A haunting silence ensued.

“This is not the end,” said the keyboard, his voice crackling through the still air. “I have an organ setting, remember?” Casio, after a few clicks, switched on its demo setting and a two-dimensional rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor leaked through its speakers. It had reached the end of the piece and was beginning all over again when the door opened once more and the woman hurried down the aisle.

“Yes, I’ll be there in a minute,” she said into her cell phone. “The keyboard? Yeah it came to day. Mm-hm, it’s nice, thanks.”

She mounted the steps to the loft where a choir had once sung every Sunday but now only gathered on holidays to please the elderly crowd. Then, in one jerk, she yanked the keyboard’s plug from its socket, killing its blue face and imitation organ performance. Not even an echo remained.

The woman marched back down the aisle and out the door. As she let it slam behind her like the lid on a coffin, a thin stream of air wheezed its way through the organ’s pipes, the final breath of a dying era.