God’s mighty organ

Organist Charles Gribben says we need to respect the organ and its place in the church.

My route to becoming an organist was unconventional.

My father was raised as a Catholic but had stopped practising before I was born. My mother was raised Russian Orthodox, and her family were very involved in the church when she was young. I was born in Scotland and baptised as an infant in the Anglican Communion.

The choice of school and church were made. For school, I went to the local Catholic school. However, it was decided by my parents that we attend the local church of Scotland. Thus, my Faith growing up was influenced by input from Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian sources.

Throughout my school years, I had some sense of faith in God, and I believed some- what in Christianity. However, due to the mix of influences, it took a long time to get to the point that I had real confidence in what I believed.

By the time I had reached the point of leaving high school, I had a firm belief in Catholicism and was able to be received in full communion with the Catholic Church.

I had started taking piano lessons when I was seven years old. After passing my grade one examination, my piano teacher, who was also an organist, asked if I would like to play a hymn at a service in her church, to which I agreed.

I remember quite clearly playing ‘one more step along the world I go’, without the pedals and with the registration chosen completely by my teacher. It wasn’t until I was around 16 that I touched an organ again.

By this point, my family had completely stopped going to church. I had moved to a different teacher, also an organist, who asked if I had any interest in playing the organ, even if just to make a bit of money.

I agreed to playing a few hymns at a service in the Church of Scotland while he played the rest. After this I was hooked. Having recently passed my grade eight piano and no longer attending piano lessons, we arranged a time once a week to practice on the organ.

It wasn’t long before the assistant priest at my parish heard me play and I was then asked to join the rota of organists. Since then, I have been playing almost every week.

Covid has had a significant impact in the Church, and music is no exception. During the first lockdown, my parish, like most, went online. Our priest was very competent with technology and with the support of some parishioners, was able to broadcast Mass with various musical offerings provided by some of our musicians within the parish.

I spent the first lockdown looking into the history of Church music. I had studied the renaissance period in high school but had never looked in-depth at the sacred music of that period. I discovered Gregorian chant and antiphons and I was strongly taken with the monks at Pluscarden Abbey who livestream every hour of the Monastic Benedictine Divine Office, which is chanted completely in Latin.

The reverence I saw there is not always in evidence in parishes around the country. Though the spirit is willing, it goes without saying that it can be particularly challenging to get the congregation to participate with singing or even to find any musicians in the parish.

There’s not one solution that will fix everything, but here’s a few things that may help. First, there is nothing wrong with keeping things simple. A lot of musicians I know try make sure all the hymns match the readings or fit in to a ‘theme’.

I tend to choose well known hymns that fit into the liturgical season, and I find this encourages stronger singing from the congregation.

The issue of a lack of musicians is often a confidence issue. Most piano students will be capable of playing hymns after a few years of playing.

I am sure in most parishes, there are many capable of playing for Mass. What they lack is not ability but confidence to do so.

We have relied on volunteers (myself included) with the ability and confidence to play. I’m not saying that every organist should make a living from playing Sunday Mass but where possible some renumeration could be considered.

Even if just to encourage some older school children, who have the ability, to come and play at Mass.

For organists, I must recommend joining the local organ society. I have found the ability to meet other organists and share ideas to be vital, especially emerging from the pandemic.

Additionally, the Royal College of Organists SCOTS training scheme is worth investigating for those who would like to improve their organ playing ability. I was also delighted to see a musician’s day at the Gillis Centre, Edinburgh is being organised.

This will be wonderful for anyone with an interest in church music and may inspire others to help where they can. I can’t promise it’ll make your parish sound like Pluscarden, but it should help.

Charles Gribben is an organist and a student optometrist based in Glasgow.

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