It’s hard to be in love in an instrument that the world keeps telling you is irrelevant, out of touch, a ‘dying art’ and the preserve of the elite. I have cumulatively spent weeks, months, probably pushing years of my life at an organ bench, burning my neurons to shreds over pieces that demand my two hands and feet to play three independent melodies across up to 6 keyboards (including one made of pedals). I have experienced ridiculous ecstasy that beats hands down any other feeling I’ve ever known, and I’ve sobbed my heart out at the console as well.
Last week I was doing a lot of the latter – yes, partly because I was tired and run down, but mostly because in that state I couldn’t sustain the confidence that people actually cared about the music I think is so special, or that anybody could possibly want to hear something so ‘niche’, so ‘stuffy’ and ‘out of date’ as an Organ Recital. And yes, these are all ways that real people have, with all kind intentions, described the organ and its music to me.
My anxiety came as I was scheduled to open a local arts festival with an organ recital, as has been tradition since the first of these festivals however many years ago. A few weeks before one of the organisers had appended half an hour of a local Rock Choir onto this – and some small circumstances been different, I suspect it would have replaced my stint entirely. The inclusion of the Rock Choir in the opening ceremony is a great thing – a group of local people, having fun making music together as part of the local community. Brilliant! However, I’d been practicing for months, and this sudden change of genre made me feel both dated and somewhat dispensable. I suppressed this initially, but a few days before the recital I suddenly became convinced that nobody wanted to hear an organ recital any more, and I was a living relic.
My carefully selected programme caused me particular concern. I had chosen to play a technical and structurally complex piece of Bach (Trio Sonata no. 3), a couple of studies by Schumann and a loud, bombastic, but ultimately atonal and harmonically ‘weird’ modern piece by a French Composer (Fête by Langlais). To put into perspective the dedication the organ demands, I have been gradually learning this last piece over two years. It’s not easy at all. My confidence in its impressiveness however was shook when, on hearing fragments of practice, a non-musician friend betrayed that they didn’t understand why I was so enthused about it – and that was my most exciting piece of the lot! Finally and most keenly, I felt that the Bach work I had chosen and slaved over was too academic and too intellectual to be wanted by anybody other than musicians in general and organists in particular. I firmly believed that the audience would spend the half-hour of organ music itching for me to get off the dais and for the Bon Jovi arrangements to begin. I felt totally unwanted, and completely irrelevant. It became almost impossible to convince me otherwise.
There is so much going on between the lines of this anecdote. It is sobering and also inspiring, in a way, that my musician friends and colleagues didn’t pretend to know any better than me whether most people wanted to hear a Bach Trio Sonata when I sobbed about how non-musicians would find it boring. One teaching colleague did however point out to me that, when presented in the right way, the children I teach in school can become completely invigorated by such stuff. My inner pessimist resisted this observation, and felt that both those children and the attendees at the upcoming festival would be a ‘captive’ audience.
The turning point came when one of my best friends, and fellow organist-relevance-explorer reminded me that when we perform we should, above all, enjoy ourselves. Amidst the panic and anxiety about whether Bach, Langlais, the Organ and I were wanted or not I forgot this basic truth. This music and this beast of an instrument make me happy and fill my life with beauty and philosophy that penetrates beyond itself, into everything I do. It is important to be concerned with outreach and teaching and other service-based work, but in the two-year gap since I last played a recital I forgot that I’m supposed to be the main beneficiary of my musical life. When I was a child I played for hours every day, just for me. When did that change and why?
The morning of the festival came, and as I practiced my friend and page-turner couldn’t
contain her awe at the beauty of Bach’s work. As I opened my heart and my unashamedly academic music-brain to the music again I realised I was playing it too fast – in a misguided attempt to race through the ‘boring’ movement and make it more exciting for a lay audience. I had forgotten to use my painfully begotten technical skills to draw out the beauty that was already in the music, the way it was written and meant to be. I chose to refuse to apologise for the mind-boggling genius that is Bach in all his works, and especially in his Trio Sonatas. It is true that my audience couldn’t understand the theoretical reasons why those six pages of semiquavers were such a marvel – but I communicated it to them anyway, and I made sure that they felt it with me on a much more important, abstract level. I had fun with Schumann’s jokes, and I used every single one of the 2000+ pipes on the organ for the screaming Langlais at the end. The result? An audience in raptures, and I wondered what I had ever been worried about.
Music is a gift for musicians themselves as well as for them to give to others, and the organ more than deserves its title “The King of Instruments”. A full organ has a range greater than that of a Symphonic Orchestra, and a skilled musician of any ilk can communicate the most wonderful things to any listener, regardless of that person’s musical background or interests.
So, this uncharacteristically wandering and introspective post is something of an advertisement: I’m back on the bench again, as far as recitals are concerned. If you have a gap in your concert series, I’d be happy to fill it for you. I love the organ and its fantastic repertoire, and I’ll not be apologising for it ever again. Finally I’m extremely grateful that, through a little tiredness and insecurity, I remembered why I spend so much of my life in front of a keyboard – primarily, it’s for me.