There he sits in his place of pride: the organ. The King of Instruments.
He’s an imposing figure, but the organ doesn’t discriminate—not even when approached by a beginner such as myself. In fact, I played weekday Masses at my parish for five straight days in June because I have the key to the console and our best players were out of town.
The organ also doesn’t empathize. Weary from months of lockdown-induced limbo, I showed up to those five Masses in five different moods. But the organ cares only about the mathematics of consonance and dissonance, the binary of on and off. Because contact between the organ and the body is minimal and matter-of-fact, there’s no human content in any note. You’ve either pressed the key or not, pulled the stop or not. Spare us your backstory, your thwarted plans, your naive hopes; there is only Now.
It is for precisely these reasons that the somewhat nerve-wracking experience of playing the organ at Mass can be a great comfort at a time like this.
What to Do When You Don’t Feel Like Singing
It seems almost heretical to admit it, but some of us choir types don’t feel like singing sometimes. Have you had that feeling lately?
It could be that your diocese has had you on lockdown for months and you’re struggling to find the motivation to stay in good vocal shape. It could be that you came off of lockdown only to go right back on due to more bad news about COVID-19. Or it could just be that you’re in a slump—and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Dr. Seuss to my five children, “Unslumping yourself is not easily done.”
Singing well takes tremendous energy and focus. As my voice teacher was fond of reminding me, “The voice is the only instrument that keeps moving while you’re trying to play it.” We must exert ourselves just to get this fickle instrument to function correctly.
Then there’s the challenge of sustaining vowels through a phrase without forcing the sound on one extreme or cutting out on the other. When we notice abnormalities of timbre or color, we make constant little adjustments to correct them.
The upside is that with singing, you get what you give. I find that if I can force myself to do some singing on a day when I don’t feel like it, I always come away in a vastly enhanced mood—even if the singing didn’t go particularly well. By contrast, playing the organ may not necessarily leave me feeling rejuvenated head to toe, but it does allow me to live in the moment, and to concern myself only with the relative merits of each musical idea that pops into my head.
Salvation Is Closer Than You Think
None of this is to suggest that playing the organ doesn’t take energy. But whether I’m ebullient or lethargic, my middle C will sound exactly the same. There’s no manipulation of soft tissue to change the color of a note; it is what it is. If you can start a note, the organ will sustain it. From there, you can become a dispassionate listener if you wish, pondering the way a harmony enlivens a melody, waiting for the melody to return the favor.
Nor am I suggesting that playing the organ doesn’t require focus (I’m nowhere near accomplished enough to go on autopilot while playing). But it’s a different kind of focus. As my organ teacher once said: “The organ isn’t a musical instrument so much as a machine that you learn how to operate.” This was hyperbole from a sincere, first-rate musician. But his point stands: learn to work the machine, and you’ll be able to rely on that machine every day, as long as you’re willing to sit at the console and do the math.
This article is heavy on personal reflection and light on practical tips. So, allow me to offer this takeaway: if you’re ever having a slumpy day and don’t want to sing, consider sitting down at the organ with your propers for the upcoming Sunday. Embrace the delicious danger of improvisation. Find the revelations that are wrapped in layers of potential disaster. Keep crunching the numbers—and remember, with Gerre Hancock: “Salvation is never more than half a step away.”