When watching science programmes on TV, I am frequently in a state of awe. Scientists pushing at the frontiers of knowledge in order to understand more and more, to learn what is there to be found, seem to me to be modern explorers. They don’t always know what they will find, but they are tantalised by the quest. They are in awe of what or who is out there and what remains to be discovered.
As a church organist, my mind is engaged on the job of playing and managing the choir, if there is one, on what comes next, and making sure the books, including the voluntary, are in the right order in order to achieve continuity. As observed in previous writings, yoga has taught me to control the body, then the mind follows. When singing and directing the choir, the best moments occur when the hymn, psalm or anthem is known off by heart, leaving one free to lead with confidence. Even better, I have found that with a piece known by heart, with no heavy hymn book in one’s hands, that by sitting properly and meditating during a spoken item, prayer, sermon, or announcement before that musical item, that the musical item is subsequently much more uplifting. It takes one to that similar state of awe, when watching science programmes, or, put another way, to the state of praising God, which is what our faith says we are made for.
A favourite pastime is doing far too many electronic Sudoku puzzles. As someone who was very poor at maths at school, the joy of learning that these puzzles were not beyond my grasp was a happy realisation. As well as solving the puzzle, I like seeing the score mounting up (currently I am up to 6 million something). As the score creeps up further, the smaller numbers become much less significant. My mathematician brother understands this process far better than me, but I am still in awe of why the little numbers become less significant when at first they weren’t. I wonder about the building blocks of amino acids, chemicals, gases, that create us and the universe. The smaller the particles, the less we see of them, the less we are aware of them, we are aware only of what has combined to become visible, audible, tangible on our physical plane. We become ever more conscious of who we are. We have been given the right amount of physicality to help us learn how to survive and how, if we have learned our early lessons well, we should be praising God very often, perhaps more often than once a week. It is odd that in music, the smaller note values eg, semiquavers, demisemiquavers etc, whilst adding up to larger value notes, cause much anxiety and have to be managed. Once tamed, they take their place, become less noticeable as single entities, like my small numbers, and become part of the music.
All this brings me round to thoughts on why such an instrument as the organ has come about. It covers the entire range of lovely musical sounds, audible by the human ear, it can create wonderful harmonies, be very dramatic, and blissful, and be controlled by one person. That person will have been wowed at some point in his/ her life in order to want to play it. Despite other ecstatic and noisy sounds coming from other instruments and technologies, the organ remains the one that is best suited to accompanying a large body of people singing their heads off. Visually and aurally, there is nothing to beat it and sales of organ calendars are profitable. The cost of purchasing and maintaining beautiful instruments is high, the amount of training required in order to play it is also high in financial terms and in terms of time spent learning and practising. In exalted venues this seems to be where more folks go to get their spiritual meat for the week. Somehow, increased educational attainment for all means that folks like me have left our localities in search of ‘better’ or more enlightened ones, having been educated more solidly than our parents in order to have better jobs than they had. So there are fewer people left with enough dedication to the places we grew up in to keep the show on the road, unless others have arrived from elsewhere to take our places. Today’s lifestyles have us all timetabled to the hilt, from education to retirement. Even then, we like to remain busy, playing the organ, of course.
All organisations dedicated towards promoting the organ must come together more to reach out to anyone who has not yet met the King of Instruments. We have to open the doors a bit wider and be available to help in a friendly way anyone who wants to start or rekindle an interest awakened at school or at church. We have all gone upwards, to heaven knows where, and might turn our sights back to ground level to find the one who might take up our offer. It means starting again at zero. It also means coming down from the cloud of awe every now and again to see what is truly going on in the world. Perhaps, when studying history, and historical music, which can mean anything you did last week or last year, we look only at the best and most interesting bits, and maintain our awe by focussing on them all the time, hence organ recitals, concerts and church services are full of aural masterpieces. I have stopped apologising for maintaining sung Matins and Evensong without posh choral settings, and when one individual appears and says how nice that was to join in, I am quietly pleased. It is also why it is important to improvise and not to be ashamed when getting stuck, or don’t know what to do next to make sense. I wonder if God knew what would come next in the sequence of events that began the process of creation as we understand it. Perhaps something went wrong? Perhaps something went right? Perhaps we are all muddling along together, at every level, top, middle, lowest and tiniest and are all just going round in circles together without realising it? No- one knows the answer to that conundrum. So, as the little sayings that appear on coffee mugs sometimes say, keep calm and carry on. Making music and playing the organ, of course.
An afterthought: good teachers often say at some point in their careers how much their students have taught them rather than the other way round. One aspect of the teaching process is enabling a student to find his/her poise to see the way through to playing effortlessly and without errors. It means finding a state of equilibrium that leaves personal cares behind. Balance leading to flow comes after the hard work of learning and practice is complete. The result is the most awesome part of the process and leaves a musician’s hearers enraptured, hopefully looking towards heaven with awe.