HERE ARE LOTS OF REASONS you might like to try playing the organ. It is a brilliant instrument, indeed it is called the King of Instruments. It is handy for accompanying singing. It is the best instrument for playing the beginning of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
On a more serious note, Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium) says:
120. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.
So, you want to play the organ. If you are lucky, you may find a mentor and teacher to help guide you. You may have an instrument to practise on at home. Your guide may have much experience in teaching as well as playing really great organ music.
Or maybe you’re in a bit of a rut, with less than ideal conditions, but you really want to hear better music at Mass. If you’re not going to give it a go, who else will?
How to get better at playing the organ.
I bet you didn’t want that answer.
But there is good news. If you can read music, there are some great books out there.
For accompanying Gregorian Chant you can’t go past Nova Organi Harmonia. Seriously, this is a fantastic collection. Even for a beginner. If you know pieces like Ave Verum and Veni Creator, go download Volume 8 – the Vesperale. The left hand part moves slowly and you can start with just the melody with the right hand.
When I was first digging into the Nova Organi Harmonia, I made some transcriptions here. Yes, I like everything in the key of C.
For accompanying hymns there is a new work A Catholic Organist’s Book of Hymns by Noel Jones – for learning to accompany hymns on the organ. This book provides simple 3 part arrangements of hundreds of popular hymn tunes. Sample pages available on the website include the first 17 pages of the book. There you can find the introductory sage advice and five hymns, each in two arrangements, one for accompanying singing and a Choral Prelude with more esoteric harmonies for playing in a more meditative vein.
One recommendation from A Catholic Organist’s Book of Hymns is to play through a whole verse before the singing begins. He recommends using the Choral Prelude version for this purpose. This gives people time to pick up the hymnbooks and open them – one of the great drawbacks of starting off a hymn by voice alone. Taking the time to play through a hymn seems to go against some instinct – maybe some sort of embarrassment, or need to hide under cover of other voices. The organist is meant to lead the singing. There is nowhere to hide – this could be a springboard for an argument for placing an organ up the back – an organist who can hide in the visible sense may have more confidence to lead in the audial sense.
There is a built in tendency for nervous musicians to rush things – I think as your heart beats faster, your perception of time is dilated. As you build more confidence your sense of timing improves too.
I should add some sort of caveat here – I am not an organist, only someone who occasionally gets the nerve to play at Mass, in a very small church, with very accommodating parishioners. I offer these ideas from the perspective of someone very experienced in being inexperienced – if there is such a thing. I hope someone finds them useful.