Our Chair writes November 2015

Agonies of the Accompanist

Being asked to learn or sight read something at short notice is hard enough for many, even when it is a straightforward hymn, psalm, anthem, voluntary. Being asked to transpose or read a four part score necessitates having learned how to do it in one’s younger years. Being asked to improvise when the norm is to read something from the page can also cause a few fluttery moments.  Being asked to accompany means being able to do all of the above and to maintain good ensemble with the conductor, or group without a conductor, so that the whole can sound well balanced, perfect, flawless, good enough to record and present to a third party for their judgment.

Many reading this will hopefully have taken the trouble to record and listen to yourselves playing from time to time. Hint- it can save you pounds in lesson fees when you realise that when you are advised that you are speeding up, slowing down, not playing the ornaments quite right, then feeling slightly shirty towards well meaning teacher, you hear yourself and realise that the ears outside one’s own were right all the time.

Most musicians or singers requiring an accompanist can resort to a backing track if necessary, perfect every time. Or to a reliable and possibly expensive, pianist who at least will be able to follow the soloist or choir and not be at any disadvantage from distance, light failure, sound problems, space problems, all things organists have to face when they visit new and unfamiliar venues and have little time to prepare registrations for even a straightforward setting of the Magnificat.

A recent visit to a nationally treasured cathedral highlighted some of these issues. 30 minutes, prior to choir practice in the stalls, was all the organ practice time allowed. Once up in the loft, a precious few of those 30 minutes was spent locating switches to organ and tv, shifting the heavy seat, making sure the console cover was properly rolled back, trying to ascertain if there was a working sound system, which there was, but only for nave services on Sundays. So, the rehearsal proceeded with conductor indicating when to start and stop, and me being unable to hear what was said to the choir, being a long way up and round a corner. Somehow we managed to get to the end and discussed a few balance problems with the organ. By the late afternoon, daylight had faded and we were assured that lights would go on when the service started, but they didn’t. To the congregation, it must have looked magical, a disciplined choir lit with imitation electric candles. By the time the service started, the temperature had also dropped, and everyone felt quite cold. Realising that no lights were coming on was during the incoming procession when I could dimly pick out on the console tv the faces of a few singers near candles, but not the conductor. The main view was a black hole! So, the seamless incoming improvisation stopped too early, and there were two pointing errors by me in the psalm, and two further slight but noticeable mishaps during the Magnificat. Feeling revived by not having to accompany an anthem, the final voluntary proceeded well until a big slip in the penultimate bar was enough to demolish one’s confidence further. All the while on this occasion I was shivering, having caught my grand daughter’s cold and spent the next 36 hours in bed. Hearing the recording produced further despondency, but I was thankful that it wasn’t any worse. Resident organists are used to their situations, organ scholars are appointed to learn such jobs, to ensure that the skills of managing a big instrument in a very big space are experienced, and remain in good shape for the future. The visitor can end up wondering if it is all worth it, but at least permission has been given to play in this particular place for a second time. It is hoped that one will be in better health and that lighting is better during summer months. One will arrive with everything well learned and with a dash of optimism. Having someone as part of the group, but not in the choir, to manage the recording, ie, working out where the microphone(s) should be discreetly placed, setting the appropriate levels, switching it on and off, is a luxury we did not have this time. It all goes to show that with recorded music being broadcast all the time, it is all too easy to assume that perfection is easily attainable. This occasion showed manifestly that it is not. The hope is that when this recording is heard by another nationally treasured cathedral, the person listening actually understands the problems for visiting groups and realises that despite a few boo-boos, the effort being made was good, and made in good faith.

Advent approaches, the clocks have gone back, so we can be a bit gloomy if we want to…….

 Marilyn Harper