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My first Christmas as a professional organist

I am an organist and fledgling music director, having only started on New Year's Day 2022. It won't be long before my first anniversary in this position. The busyness of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a mere organist still trying to form a choir is something that I'm not entirely sure I have to be used to, just yet. To summarise, I played six Masses over the span of two days -- four of them were in a single night. One of them was a last-minute request from a different parish that was in need of an organist for Christmas Eve -- a parish I'd never played at before.

A series of pipe organ drawbar stops. The stops read: Oboe 8', Cornopean 8', Gemshorn 4', Salicional 8', Stop Diapason 8', Voix Celeste 8', Open Diapason 8', Swell to Great, Swell Octave, Great to Pedal, and Swell to Pedal.
The drawbar stops of my third organ for the evening.

I asked on Cohost if it would be worth writing on my experience -- it's an uncommon one, after all -- and there were people who expressed interest. For the purposes of this post, I'd like to talk about the long night, the four Masses I played back to back. I would like to stress that this is just my experience. But it's a significant one, because it's my first. While yes, I am paid in this position, I find it impossible to fill the position of musician of any kind without making a good go of injecting my passion and style into it.

All in all, I had three separate "workstations" for the night -- it's my term for the pipe organs I played that evening. Two of them are my regular ones that I use every week. The third one was something entirely new for me.

Background context

There are not many churchgoers compared to the general population, certainly not in England and Wales. Whether a direct result of this, or simply correlated to this, organists and pipe organs are in short supply. I mentioned this in greater detail in a previous post.

With organists being in short supply, this may very well mean that some of us will need to travel from parish to parish -- making us, to some extent, itinerant musicians. Most, if not all of us, have residencies in parishes that we regularly attend, but as needed, our services may be required for major feast days like Christmas, or funerals or weddings, or anything really. I had my first taste of the "major feast days" bit recently.

Workstation #1, 17:30

The post I linked above shows a picture of my first workstation, but in case you're not in the mood to look at that post again, here it is.

A view of the organ keys and stop switches of my main pipe organ. The console looks like it was made out of a light-coloured hardwood, but it's also quite textured. The switches are divided into three sections, marked "Pedal Organ," "Great Organ," and "Swell Organ" respectively. At the end there is a single switch marked "Tremulant."

It's my "first workstation" because it's the one I can most readily access, being geographically the closest to me, and it's also the one that I have routinely practised on. An organ voluntary version of a piece that I arranged for Pixel Mixers' upcoming indie game cover album, The Great Tale of the Little Ones, Vol. 3, was done on this exact organ.

I mentioned in that previous post that the organ console was failing, with some stops having been nonfunctional or lacking in power. Mere days before the first Mass of the evening, the pipe organ was serviced and I was able to play it at its full power -- and, as I would come to understand, the job of fixing it wasn't nearly as long and complicated as I thought it'd be. The whole thing was given a polish, too -- the keys and console ended up feeling slippery when I first touched them on Christmas Eve. (I still hope it wasn't done at great expense; that is something I am not currently aware of, and I hope that greater attention is given towards the poor and deprived of our area. If not, that's something to rectify.)

I had already decided, weeks in advance, what hymns I would play for this Mass and the next one. For months, I've made it regular practice to come up with monthly lists of my repertoire so that people could follow along. This Mass, along with the next one and the one after that, would be in English -- I make a point of this because I also play at Polish language Masses, and I work with the music ministries of the Polish community, despite barely speaking any Polish myself.

Really, my only regret with this one is that I wish I had a choir singing with me. That being said, however, I'm only in my first year. The last piece of advice I was given by my choirmaster friend before I started on my own journey as an organist and music director was -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that change comes slowly in this field. It took them many years for their choir to coalesce; I can only assume that if a choir does coalesce around me, it would take the same length of time if not longer.

Also, if you're a music director and you introduce new things, it takes a long time for people to take anything close to a shine to it. When the congregation were gathering for Holy Communion, I played a medieval carol, Gaudete -- renditions of which notably only feature drums and voice. Following this convention, I played my medieval snare drum and sang. Drum songs hold a special place in my heart -- but no one is expected to know this, since I have not had the opportunity to tell anyone this, or why this is. No one has reacted to this at the time of writing.

Before this Mass began, a number of parishioners and myself and the parish priest had a Polish-style Christmas Eve feast, breaking opłatek together and exchanging our prayers and best wishes for the season, before sitting down to multiple homemade courses. It was a kind gesture, and a delightful one. So really, my long night began a lot earlier than 17:30.

Workstation #2, 19:00

My second workstation -- also one I access weekly, but not as regularly as my first workstation -- isn't exactly a pipe organ. It's a purely electric Johannus console that has the stops and sounds of a pipe organ. Like the first workstation above, the stops are just button switches that can be pressed on and off.

An image of me posing by an electric organ console. I am wearing a red woolen tunic with a black belt, a red woolen scarf, snowflake earrings, and a Santa hat.
I don't think I can give the best view of this workstation, I'm afraid.

As soon as the 17:30 Mass was done, I got a lift to my other parish thanks to my parish priest, and we both arrived with 15 minutes to spare -- which, as many would argue, isn't ideal. But I guess that's a thing that's bound to happen when we're tied to multiple parishes... I don't know.

My thoughts surrounding Workstation #2 are very much the same as the ones surrounding Workstation #1. With the reduced time I spend in this parish, I can only imagine it being more difficult to form a choir or a group of regular singers.

I received a gesture of great kindness from two recently bereaved parishioners at this Mass -- they left me a basket of little growing plants, thanking me for having played at a recent funeral in that parish. I was touched -- I'd never had anything like that happen to me before, and I promised to cherish it.

After this one, I got back to my first parish and rested a bit before then being picked up by the priest of the parish that put in that last-minute call for an organist, which I'll talk about in the section below.

Workstation #3, 21:45

I only got the call asking if I could fill in on the Tuesday before Christmas. In fairness to the organisers, the hymn lists had already been prepared, the programs had already been printed, and I knew the tunes of all the hymns offhand. (That's another thing with me -- I remember tunes much better than I remember lyrics.)

I was going to be paid the rate of a supply organist that I'd set at the start of my tenure, and so I said yes. Closer to the time, I rang up to find out more details, and I was promptly provided them. The wheels were greased well, and I am grateful for it. So, on Christmas Eve, after my rest, I was picked up, and I had something like 15 minutes to prepare for what looked like a fairly straightforward carol service and Mass. I would be dropped off at my primary parish after this was done.

Being at the loft was a different experience altogether, however, and it wasn't the organisers' fault. This was an 19th century church -- the present church was built in 1856, and only consecrated in 1957. It's probably a listed building now. The builders and architects thought a lot differently then!

I went up a flight of narrow, spiral stone stairs, which ended in a quaint-looking organ loft with a few benches and pews -- a space-saving measure, to allow for more people to attend Mass when the ground floor was packed out back in the day. I then took a look at the organ at the centre, opening the console shutter to reveal a nice drawbar organ. "You beauty," I said to it, "let me take a picture of you from a bit of a distance--" only to realise that when I stepped back far enough, there was a balcony, which only reached a little below my knees. One misstep and I would be sent plummeting down. Feeling frightened by this, I took this one picture of the organ from the front view before quickly clinging onto the bench for dear life.

A small drawbar pipe organ, front view. There are some books and sheet music placed upon it. The organ has two frets, and there are stops to the left and right of it. The console looks like it is made of some polished, light hardwood; it is very reflective, and it is reflecting the lights above it.
"You beauty," indeed!

This would be my second ever experience playing a drawbar organ -- my first one was when I gave the huge one at my previous town centre parish a spin, to help my choirmaster who was absent. I don't know how old this organ is, but it sounded beautiful, especially given its age. The simplicity of this organ lay in the fact that there were only a few stops, but it sounded instantly magnificent with the "Swell to Pedal" and "Great to Pedal" and "Swell to Great" stops -- those stops would apply the settings of each fret to a subsequent fret or to the pedal board.

(To clarify, for the uninitiated, in most organ consoles there are two frets and a pedal board. The top fret is called the swell organ, and it is usually used for more melodic parts. The bottom fret is called the great organ, and it tends to have warmer, fuller sounds, fitting for general use like accompanying singing. Some organ consoles can have more than this, anywhere between three and five frets, but they're generally also quite large, having more pipes and different sounds that link up to these frets.)

But, I thought, it's not my Workstation #1. And however complex my feelings about the pipe organ may be, I like my Workstation #1 the most of the three that I've handled tonight.

I received quite a bit of heartfelt thanks from the parishioners there, which made me all warm and fuzzy inside. And I was tipped a bit over my rate, which I was also grateful for. On my return, I had a short rest before then needing to prepare for the midnight Mass in Polish.

Return to Workstation 1, 0:00

This technically counts as Christmas Day already, but it still took place at night-time, so I include it in this article. Throughout this year, I have regularly played at Polish language Masses, and I have been slowly developing a small repertoire.

This Mass was different, not just because it was in Polish -- it was also a Mass where I played with a music ministry, which consisted primarily of singers, but also a couple guitarists. Between us, we alternated on hymns and Mass parts to play; the leader of them, with whom I have been in regular contact, speaks decent English, and between us, we got things well-oiled and coordinated.

The edge of a wooden loft balcony that is decorated with pine leaves, berries, and lights (presumed imitation). There is a mic resting on the railing of the balcony.
View from the balcony, which was decked out with these pine leaf strings and lights.

With it being so late in the night, the atmosphere leading up to the Mass was also particularly magical: the main lights were turned off, leaving only the string lights on the crib, trees, and decorations on. It was something that I wished was done for all Masses, not just the midnight one, as I knew that this simple gesture instilled a sense of wonder and awe of Christmas. But also, by that point, I was very groggy, and desperately in need of sleep.

I still pulled it off with the same level of musicianship as the Masses before this one, and the rest of the music ministry played and sang beautifully.

When this was over, we all did receive a fair few kind words from members of the congregation, and then I made my journey home. By the time I went to bed, it was 02:30, and I needed to be up in four and a half hours to start playing for the next Mass, at 09:00. When I did finally get my rest, after two daytime Masses and a Christmas meal for four, it was 17:00.

Some concluding thoughts

I don't know what subsequent years will be like. I don't know what it would be like to train up a choir in preparation for Christmas; I can only imagine it being A LOT busier -- so massive kudos to those of you who do.

I'm also not sure if I can get used to this yet, simply because not every organist is called up for supply work like I was on Christmas Eve. Should I expect it to be a more regular thing with organists being in short supply? The only thing I can really do is wait, and go with the flow, and never forget the things that define and shape my musicianship.

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