April-May Organnotes

This Month’s Funnies: Baptisms and Organists....

In a large Baptist church, the organ console is installed right beside the baptistry which is free-standing.  Indeed, the organist is only a foot or so from the edge of the low wall around the pool when seated on the bench.  Of course, there came that fateful day when a particularly corpulent individual was being baptized - and slipped and fell.  The resulting wave crashed over the edge of the baptistry and soaked the organist.  Oh well, at least the organ console was spared upon this occasion.

Then again, lest you think that clergy persons are exempt, there was a day in a small Episcopal church when the Rector was baptizing a child about 18 months old.  At the appropriate time, he took the child in his arms, picked up his sea shell, poured water over the child’s head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father....”  At this point, the child looked at the water in the font and decided that if the man could play in it so could he.  So he raised a hand and gave the water a mighty swat which sent water flying everywhere and drenched the priest in the process.  Where, you ask, does the organist come into this story?  Well, after the service, the organist was admiring the Rector’s still damp vestments as he subtly remarked, “That’ll learn you to get the big ‘uns too close.......”

The moral, if any, to these stories is: “If you’re close to the baptism: Wear your raincoat!

This Month’s Organ-Playing Hint: Avoiding Boring Hymns!

We realize that we may well be rehearsing things you already know - and we may be preaching to the choir at the same time.  Nevertheless, it is worth saying again that your hymn accompaniments must be varied.  If they’re not, the choir may come and preach at you in person!  (Persons???)  Variations in registration and accompaniments definitely are required.

Let’s look at the notes first.  You should consider it to be an absolute no-no to play every verse alike.  This boredom can be overcome by omitting the pedals on a verse or two.  If the tune is not absolutely familiar, reduce the accompaniment to chords (probably with pedal) and play the melody on a solo stop or combination during the introduction, which should be a full verse in this case, and perhaps the first verse or two until everybody “gets” the tune in their minds.  One of the nicest things that can be done is to use an altered harmony for the last verse - or even two verses on rare occasions.  There are many published altered hymn accompaniments.  Just be sure to pick one that does not obliterate the melody so much that the congregation can’t figure out when, where, and what to sing....  And, of course, be sure to tell the choir which verses they need to sing melody only (“unison singing”) on.  We like to have the choir sing unison on all first verses too in order to help the congregation get started.  The altered final verse can be festive and loud or meditative and soft or anything in between.  Even on a quiet hymn like “Silent Night,” having a rich harmonic structure on the final verse will create a dramatic effect even if the volume of the singing and accompaniment remains fairly moderate or even soft.  By the way, one of the most dramatic accompaniments to a verse of a well-known hymn is an a capella verse - a verse with no accompaniment at all.

As for what sounds to use, pick those that fit, and never, never play two verses in a row on exactly the same combination of stops!  Also, don’t fall into the trap of getting into a rut and doing the same things over and over again.  Don’t use full organ and the same sort of altered final verse harmony on every festive hymn that gets sung.  Read the hymn text until you understand what you think the author was trying to say and how he said it.  Find registrations that convey the mood of the text.  Don’t be shy about using combinations that may seem even frivolous if the text and tune fit that mood.  The introduction to “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for instance, might be played on an 8' Flute and 2' Principal.  By the way, if you have studied the hymn text carefully, you will know how to phrase the music as you play the hymn.  “Try it.  You’ll like it!”

More About Hymns.....

We always seem to be talking about hymns, but what is a hymn, anyhow?  How did we come to write and sing these pieces of music?  The dictionary says that a “hymn” is a song of praise to God.  The first singing done in church was service music, particularly the Ordinary of the Mass.  (The “Ordinary” is the part of the liturgy that says the same from week to week.  The “Proper” is the part of the liturgy which changes every week as the liturgical year progresses.)  Next came singing the psalms.  All of this was done at first to various sorts of chants which were then simplified into “plain-song,” or what we now sometimes call “plainchant.”

At about the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and others began to compose religious poetry to be sung.  In a few years, it became common for some of these “hymns” to be attached to various service leaflets.  At first these “hymns” were decried as not authorized and superfluous since they were secular, rather than Biblical, texts.  Then, as hymns began to be popular, a few standard tunes were written for them.  A few standard meters (numbers of syllables in each phrase) were also agreed on for both the poetry and the small number of standard tunes.  This technique allowed hymn texts to be written in one of the specific meters so they could be sung to one of the few standard tunes that everyone had learned.  The idea was that these tunes would be easy to learn and easy to sing.  Today, we have a large variety in both texts and meters in the hymns we use.

As time passed, hymn-writing became its own art form of religious poetry.  John Wesley and his brother Charles were both famous for their many hymns and for encouraging their use.  There are well over ten thousand hymn texts and a smaller, but still very significant number of tunes that have been composed over the years by thousands of people.  Today, hymnal editors select hymns to match the scripture lessons that are read in the regular three-year cycle of Sunday readings set out in the standard lectionary as well as other hymns that are liked, familiar, useful, etc.

Printing both the words and the music together in a “hymnal” is a very modern idea.  In the Episcopal Church, for instance, the present The Hymnal 1982 is only the third edition of the authorized Episcopal Church’s hymnal to have music.  The first edition with music was the 1916 Hymnal and the second was the 1940 Hymnal.  Various hymnals before that had only the words.  The 1916 Hymnal was created because the church had authorized a standard book with music and words for the hymns as “the” authorized hymnal of the church.  The revision that became The Hymnal 1940 was mostly done for musical reasons.  This hymnal was considered to be the finest church hymnal ever to be produced for many years after it was published.  The 1982 Hymnal revision followed the 1979 revision of The Book of Common Prayer.  It incorporated many new hymns and pieces of service music to go along with the revised liturgy in the new prayer book.  Now, Wonder, Love, and Praise, which is a supplement to The Hymnal 1982 has been published.  After the next revision of The Book of Common Prayer is published, a newly-revised hymnal will be published to go with it.  Other churches have similar traditions of publishing hymnals.

This article is a very short encapsulation of how hymns came to be.  However, this is the very basic history of how singing in church came to be a common practice.  What began as a way to sing the liturgy and Psalms has become a treasure trove of religious poetry that is in standard meters so it can be sung.

And, Speaking of Singing.......

There is an elderly lady we know who grew up in England.  She married a US service man during the Korean War and they have lived in the US ever since.  However, she still has carefully kept her British accent.  Then, the other day when she was talking to her husband’s sister on the telephone, she said she had been to the chiropractor on Tuesday.  The sister remarked that she was glad that she had become involved with the church and had been to choir practice............  (Sigh!)

A Joyful Eastertide to All!

We wish you all the joys of these fifty days that we celebrate as Easter that go from Easter Day to the Day of Pentecost.  “May the Easter Bunny be good to you!”


March Organnotes

This Month’s Funny....

At a multi-denominational retreat, someone came running into the assembly hall yelling, “Fire! Fire! The building’s on fire!”  The Baptist delegation took a vote and tallied the results which allowed as how fire was a good thing since it was symbolic of God’s judgment.  The Methodists appointed a committee to study fire to see if it had relevance to the issues at hand.  The Presbyterians referred the matter on to a standing sub-committee to see what action, if any, should be taken.  The Unitarians surveyed their members who were present and then declared that they did not believe in fire.  The Christian Scientists promptly said that there was no such thing as fire since such things were not really real - they were only imaginations in the mind.  The Lutherans entered into a stirring debate about how fire could be good because it could represent a scriptural reference to the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Meanwhile, the Episcopalians organized a formal procession and filed out in an orderly manner thus leaving everyone else to experience the various realities of fire....  They did, of course, leave the telephone number of the bar across the street so that they could be reached in case of further discussions about the matter....  (Written by a stalwart Episcopalian: “You Bet!”)

Funny #2.

The story is told about a time many years ago when the final adjustments to the voicing (which we organ builders call “finishing”) were being done in a large church in New York that had an Echo Organ way back hundreds of feet at the back of the church.  This Echo Organ had a whisper-soft Dulciana 8' stop.  The guy at the console hollered out to the voicer working in the organ chamber back there, “Is the middle G-sharp on that Dulciana playing?”

Back came the answer down the Nave of the huge church, “Yes.”

“Then make it softer,” was the reply from the man at the console.....

This Month’s Registration Hint: Expression!

Question: “Do you think the Swell (or Choir or Solo or whatever) Pedal is a volume control?”  If you answered yes, then, pardon us, but you are quite incorrect!  What, you say, after all, when you open or close those pedals, the sound does get louder and softer, doesn’t it?  Of course it does, but it is much more important to consider what closing the shutters in between the pipes and the listener does to the sound’s colour.  (British spelling intended!)

In fact, if you are in the habit of only using the swell pedal to control the volume, you have missed the main point.  Rather, if you are in the habit of using the swell pedal(s) to control the color of the sound, then you’re getting the hang of things.  We know some organists who typically leave the shutters closed as their “norms.”  When these well-meaning, but ill-informed, organists play, all of the sounds are muffled and devoid of many of their upper partials which make up the sounds’ individual characters.  A better plan is to consider the normal position of the expression pedals to be always fully-open.  Then, if a sound is a bit too loud or a bit too bright, then, and only then, close the shutters around it a bit.  By the way: you do remember, don’t you, that leaving the shutters closed for a long time can throw the organ out of tune because the temperature in the enclosed division may get too hot or cold to match the rest of the pipes if the shutters are left closed for a long period of time?

The first corollary to proper use of the shutters as a “less than” device rather than a volume control is to always select registrations that contain as few stops as possible to accomplish the desired result.  Selecting Diapason 8, Flute 4 instead of turning on Diapason 8,  Flute 8, String 8, Flute 4 will be a much cleaner sound that will not need to be throttled back by swell shutters as much as combining all three of the 8' stops will.  Of course, there are times when mushier is better.  In those instances, use all four stops.  If you select Diapason 8, Flute 4, and then you need more sound that what you get with the shutters fully open, change the Flute 4 to Principal 4 or add a soft Flute 2.  You might even begin with Diapason 8, Principal 4, Flute 2 fully open, for instance.  Close the shutters a bit to go softer.  To go softer yet, drop off the 2' and open the shutters a bit.  Close down a bit more to go softer.  Then change the 4' to the Flute instead of the Principal and open the shutters a bit.  Close down some more to go softer yet.  Then change the Principal 8 to a String or Flute 8 and open up a bit.  Then close down some more.  Then do the same thing by dropping off the 4' Flute.  Then, finally, close the shutters around the single 8' stop.  By doing your expression this way you will have many times the amount of both loud/soft and bright/less bright than you will generate by just flapping the shutters around and not adjusting the stops.  “Try it.  You’ll like it!”

A Note on Schedules.....

For Spring Tuning, that is.  Although it will be a couple of months before Spring is sprung enough for warm-weather tuning to be of any benefit, now is the time for everybody to look over all of the various calendars of forthcoming events musical.  If you have any special services or needs that are important enough to override the usual and proper time for spring tuning, please let us know as soon as possible (ASAP).  Remember, though, that if you have your warm weather tuning done before the weather finishes adjusting, you may need to have us back sometime in May or June or you may have to put up with some less-than-good tuning throughout the Summer.  “It’s your choice.”

It’s Illegal!

Yet most churches do it anyway!  It is completely against the law to store anything in a room where electric motors are in operation.  This, of course, includes the organ blower room.  Yet this wonderfully convenient place is so attractive to Church Sextons and other various persons with junk to store that it usually ends up being full of various and sundry stuff.  The reason that you aren’t supposed to store things in the blower room, of course, is that there is a tiny, but nevertheless real, risk of the blower motor overheating.  If the electrical installation is correct, this risk is truly infinitesimal.  However, we have seen many places where the electrical service and controls for the organ blower are not installed exactly according to Hoyle.  (More about this in the next article.)  If the blower room is also used for storage and the motor does overheat, the stored items can catch on fire.  Thus, the reason for it not being permissible to store items in the blower room is twofold: First, the items can be ignited and result in a fire where there would be no fire if nothing were stored there.  Second, the items can make it difficult or impossible for anyone to get at a fire to extinguish it if one does start.  So, don’t store things in the blower room.  If the fire marshal finds them, you could be in for a hefty fine.  “Are you legal?”

Safe Blowers.

Organ blowers rely on electric motors to operate.  Most of us at least sort-of know that the circuit breaker or fuse in a building’s wiring is there to prevent overloaded wiring.  The circuit breaker limits the amount of load that a circuit can transmit to prevent the wires from becoming hot enough to burn in two or start a fire.  (Bigger wires are installed for circuits that have heavier loads.)  One of the two critical aspects to the safety of any electrical circuit is that the circuit breaker be appropriately sized to match the wire that connects that circuit to whatever is being run, be it lights, organ blower, or whatever.

Beyond the circuit breaker, there is one other device which must be present to make an electric motor safe.  There must be some sort of device which protects the motor itself against overheating and thus becoming a potential source of ignition for a fire.  All electric motors draw more current when they are winding up to speed than they can safely consume for a long period of time.  If something prevents the motor from turning, this larger current will cause the motor windings to overheat and burn out (or start a fire) if it continues.  To prevent this, a device is installed that limits the load that the motor can consume.  This motor starter allows a higher amperage to pass for a short time so the motor can start.  However, if this high load continues, it “trips out” to protect the motor from damage.  Therein “lies the rub.”  Many electricians do not install exactly the correct components (which are called “heaters”) in the motor starter.  If the heaters are too small in capacity, they will trip out - either always or just every now and again - when conditions are actually normal and correct.  But, if the heaters are too large in capacity, the motor is not protected.  Some electricians seem to think that the starter heaters should be sized according to the current-carrying capacity of the wire in the circuit.  This thinking always results in the heaters being grossly too large and the motor operating totally unprotected from starting problems.  Some small blower motors have built-in protection.  However, all larger blower motors require this sort of starter with overload protection.

If you are not certain that your organ blower is installed correctly and is completely safe, our technicians can inspect everything for a modest fee.  Call us at 1-800-805-3429 and we will be glad to discuss this important issue with you.  “It could happen to you!”

Opus #1!

Bells, not whistles, that is! The new chime of 19 bronze bells at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ooltewah, Tennessee, is now complete. We have developed the design for this chime with Meeks, Watson, & Company.

This type of chime is an affordable alternative to some sort of electronically-produced “bongatron” sounds that are broadcast at the neighbors through loudspeakers.

This chime of bells is played from a traditional carillon-style baton keyboard. This allows the player to create loud and soft notes as desired. This method of playing the bells makes it easily possible to play relatively complicated arrangements that include chords and other musical elements that would be confused if all of the bells were always struck at the same volume. With the baton-style keyboard, it is easy to play melody or other important notes louder so that the music makes “musical sense.” This chime also has enough notes that music written for a small carillon can be reduced to its range and played on it.

In addition to the manual keyboard, the tenor bell - the largest bell which is mounted at the top of the tower - also is mounted so that it can be swung by pulling the rope and, thus, rung as a traditional “church bell.” When the bell swings, it not only produces a fully-loud sound, but it also creates a slight change in pitch due to the Doppler effect as the bell swings back and forth. For playing from the keyboard, this bell is also equipped with an external hammer instead of the internal clappers that the other bells which are hung dead in the tower have.

The sound of these bells is a gentle, pretty and very “English” style of sound. They are tuned to avoid dissonant overtones, and harmonies sound very good when played on them.

A chime of real bells like this can be installed at a cost which is not much more than some sort of electronic imitation. Although our chime at St. Francis of Assisi is only hand-played, it is, of course, possible to play the bells electrically either as the only way they are played or in addition to the manual strikers. Please give us a call if you are interested in knowing more about these bells. We will be glad to send you a CD of the bells so you can hear them for yourself. If you have a tower, the bells can be installed in it. If your church - like ours - does not have a tower, a free-standing tower like the one in the picture can be erected to house the bells. The final piece of good news is that every single piece of this chime - the bells, the action, the tower, everything! - is built right here in the good old USA. “Let us build one for you!”


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