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Today's Organist as Worship Leader

Organist Rodney L. Barbour offers a bit of organ and worship history along with helpful suggestions to today's church organists. Rodney is a nationally recognized organist and music clinician and a member of the Praise Team at Evangelical Community Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has also served as a product specialist for Rodgers Instruments, and can be emailed at [email protected]. This article originally appeared in Christian Sound & Song magazine, issue 23. It appears here with permission of the publisher.

Jesus stated: "The most important commandment is this: ... love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30) Worship (personal and corporate) is a time when we share this love of God. As a worship leader, an organist uses the organ as a tool to communicate through instrumental music and related texts. The use of pipes, digital voices, orchestral voices, the myriad controls, and the worship space itself all consume the organist's preparation time. A good instrument is important as it becomes an extension of the organist's heart, soul, mind, and strength. However, it's easy for an organist to become so focused on the instrument itself that important elements of worship leadership (including scriptural guidance, relationships, listening) may be overlooked. In the paragraphs below, consider several aspects of what encompasses the organist's role of leading worship.

A Word About the Organ in History
Remember the words of King Solomon "... history merely repeats itself ... nothing is truly new; it has all been done or said before ... we don't remember what happened in those former times, and in the future generations no one will remember what we have done back here." (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11 selected)

When the great organist J.S. Bach's work was ending in 1750, his offspring and others were busy packing his preludes and fugues in the attic for storage. Church musicians were leading congregations from the articulate polyphonic organ of the Grand Baroque to the preferred instruments of the day — fine harpsichords, solo instruments such as flute or violin, and orchestral ensembles. There was no significant development in the organ during these years until a hundred years later when Mendelssohn rediscovered the organ music of J.S. Bach — recreating "Bach" organ concerts, while the French organ builders such as Caville-Coll built great symphonic organs of "orchestral" colors for the majestic cathedrals.

In colonial America, the small cabinet organs brought from Europe were not of a size to accompany revivalistic meetings with large numbers of attendees. The piano became the instrument of choice to accompany singing. A song leader could face the congregation for visual leadership while the percussive nature of the piano helped provide rhythmic impetus. Much later a different type of organ — the orchestral organ of Hope-Jones embraced by the Wurlitzer Company — was no longer needed by theaters to accompany the "talking" films. These instruments were accepted by the evangelical churches in a supportive role of the piano. The orchestral organ tones were not designed to play European polyphonic preludes and fugues, but were perfect to add an orchestral effect and background to this style of revivalistic or gospel song.

Different movements in pipe organ building were soon visible in liturgical and mainline American churches in the mid-twentieth century. One movement sought to create an "American Classic Organ" with French Reeds, German Flutes, and English Principals capable of playing "everything." In contrast, a second group sought a return to pure European tracker designs for performance of baroque and neo-baroque literature. Parallel in time was the development of the electronic organ which created the opportunity for a congregation with limited resources of space or finances to have, as some would say, "an organ-like sound." The development of the Hammond organ actually created a whole new genre of gospel music performance, while builders like Allen, Baldwin, and Rodgers built instruments more to the standard of the pipe organ.

In the sixties, a significant movement of instrumental/vocal performance in a popular style began with arrangers such as Ralph Carmichael and Ron Huff. This style exemplified in a new musical, "Tell It Like It Is," did NOT embrace the organ. The high energy vocals with rhythmic accompaniment was quickly delivered to and was embraced by audiences of many denominations through television. Programs such as Oral Roberts and the "World Action Singers" took this music style into the homes of America, while touring groups like The Continentals and The Gaithers touched the hearts and musical appetites of many with a music which was easy for the lay person to understand and even perform themselves on instruments which were affordable in homes.

Throughout history the organ has moved in and out of favor as a primary instrument to accompany worship. Today, many would suggest, is a time when the organ is again being pushed aside in favor of other styles of instrumental accompaniment. Issues include many factors: worship and music styles, salaries, time, training, disagreements in organ building practices, resistance to change, and other factors which could contribute to many articles. As this article continues, it offers ideas, hopes, and insights to those who feel called to lead worship using an organ-based accompaniment and to those churches in search of a musical direction.

Grow in Understanding of Worship
While there is no definitive definition of worship or specific scripture reference, there are many passages and clues to what must happen in worship. In the Bible's Old Testament, the sixth chapter of Isaiah is such a passage. Reading the first verses of this chapter indicates: God reveals himself to us and we respond. Individual or corporate worship must contain actions, words, prayers, and songs which help the worshiper recognize the presence of God in his/her life. Doing so through praise, thanksgiving and adoration moves us to realize who we really are and to confess the same. We receive grace, forgiveness, pardon, restoration and can respond through teaching, exhortation and offering ourselves and resources to go into the world in God's service. Each of these elements has God as the audience and the entire congregation as the "actors." How would you consider your role as organist during each of these elements? How do you support these elements through different playing styles? Through different emotional linkages between worshiper and God? During worship, each of the elements described above must happen in some combination or worship is incomplete. Following a worship event, these questions should be asked and answered: what did God say to me, what did I say to God, and what will I do about it? Too many of today's Sunday morning events are not complete worship events (though worship is the number one commandment!). Disappointingly, too many services have little to do with the worshiper singing or telling God, "I love you." It's easy to replace true worship with a choral or organ concert, a great drama, or motivational message.

Understand the Organist's Relationship to Others in Worship Leadership
While the organist can be the ultimate stand-alone musician playing an instrument which "does everything," a worship-oriented organist should participate in a worship-planning group or fellowship. A goal for every organist is to participate with other pastoral and professional staff along with others "called" to study scripture related to worship which will impact the congregation. Organists must begin (and continue) to let scriptural teaching through the power of the Holy Spirit direct worship and musical choices. All leaders need to "set our minds on things above" (Colossians 3). In 2 Kings 3:11-15, "as musicians played the power of the Lord came upon Elisha and he prophesied." Organists work in the world of wind coming through pipes, or sound waves created digitally and amplified through vibrating speakers. This story of Elisha suggests a higher calling than just "playing for service." The organist's body, mind, spirit, and learned skills become a vehicle which carries the congregation to a worship experience.

Understand the Organist's Practical Role in Contemporary Worship Leadership
Great wisdom is found in Matthew 23:11 — "the more lowly your service to others, the greater you are ... to be the greatest, be a servant." "Conquering" the myriad controls on a console and moving beyond to lead in worship is certainly an accomplishment worth recognition and merit. Mozart deemed the organ "the King of Instruments" and many observers "wonder" at a skilled performance. The organ is certainly capable of replacing any and all instruments and gives a "great show" to even the most novice listener. Today, we must return to the thought of the organ being an ensemble instrument (the first portative organs existed to provide intonations for choral singing). The organ accompanies a wide variety of congregational song, solo song, and choirs. The organ can be an effective member of the classical orchestra, the wind ensemble, the handbell choir (using a MIDI Handbell set), and especially with orchestral sound control through MIDI, a vital member of the praise band. Too many organists are "shutting their lids" when the contemporary service starts, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of attitude. Organists with a serving attitude and "spirit willing to learn" can contribute much to the Praise Band while personally learning much about other non-organ based worship and performance styles and preferences from "pros and amateurs."

A Variety of Music
The apostle Paul defines three categories of song: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. Psalms are obvious. Hymns embrace a wide genre including chant (O Come, Emmanuel), reformation chorale (A Mighty Fortress), Issac Watts' Psalm Hymn (O God Our Help in Ages Past), Gospel Song (Blessed Assurance), and many other types. Spiritual Songs are simple direct quotations from Scripture ("Seek Ye First") or direct expressions of praise ("I Love You Lord"). Each of these styles requires a different type of accompaniment. While traditional organ stops support many of these songs, there is a lot of music performed for worship which is not written for the organ at all. Why force the congregation to listen to music performed on the "wrong sounds"? The new MIDI technology present on Digital Organs can be added to Pipe Organs and is extremely helpful in assisting the organist to prepare tasteful musical accompaniment of hymns and service music including music written for strings, piano, or guitar. The organist should prepare instrumental music with a specific focus or goal for the congregation. A written comment in the bulletin or reference to a hymn or text is most beneficial in helping the congregation participate through reading or listening as an instrumental/organ selection is performed.

Understand the Importance of Organ and Orchestral Sound Color
By choosing appropriate sounds (organ stops and orchestral voices), today's organ gives the organist the appropriate resources to accompany worship songs from the complete heritage of organ, choral, and congregational music available for worship. Controlling sound from an organ console provides these distinct benefits over other instruments such as piano or keyboard:

  • Pedal: provides fundamental pitch support for warm confident sound
  • High Pitch Stops: provide pitch reference and clarity
  • Pipes/Speaker Systems: provide multiple moving columns of air, articulation, dimension, and depth to sound
  • Pipe Celestes and MIDI padding sounds: provide warmth and fullness to the ensemble sound

Controlling MIDI from an organ console with fully developed MIDI system offers:

  • multiple keyboards under a single control system
  • combination pistons for storing sound (patch) and parameter changes
  • two MIDI pistons per keyboard provides layering of sounds
  • full orchestrations may be changed as quickly as touching a combination piston
  • well-installed organ speakers add richness, dimension, depth, fullness to the sound of the MIDI keyboard
  • organ stops support many MIDI sounds and add fullness and articulation

Think of sound colors in terms of crayons. A child's first box of eight offers the three primary colors (red, blue, yellow) plus five more. Many wonderful pictures can be colored. When the child graduates to the box of sixty-four, there are several blues, several greens, to choose the exact color of sky or forest. The organ is the same. There are four primary colors principals (basic hymn chorus), flutes (accompanying, solo stops), strings (accompanying, the prayerful sound of the organ) and reeds (the brilliant sound of the organ as well as solo stops). Obviously, the more colors or ranks of pipes or digital voices, the more opportunity for the organist to use her/his musicianship to create the exact music effect desired. Choosing the desired sound colors from pipe voices/digital voices/orchestral voices requires an open mind and servant attitude towards the total needs of the congregational music program. MIDI is not just for contemporary music and Organ Pipes are not just for old hymns. Strings and harpsichords from MIDI contribute to Handel's Messiah, while organ strings and pedal provide a depth and dimension as "padding" under the praise band. A small eight rank pipe organ may be "pure," safe, and save a lot of practice time. A digital console controlling the eight ranks will offer the additional colors of quiet celestes and fiery reeds as well as orchestral voices from MIDI which will add considerable sound variety to a service. It's important to realize today's digital organs are vastly superior in both sound and operation compared to analog (electronic) instruments of past decades. The ability to combine existing real wind-blown pipes and new digital voices maintains the integrity of a church's heritage and offers substantial addition to the sound color palette in many cases.

The Past Contributes to the Future
Today's organist experiences the blessing of living in this time. The collective traditions of previous generations of worship music, and the heritage of organ building and performance each contribute to an exciting opportunity to use the (whatever style of) organ to the Glory of God. The study of scripture and prayer opens our minds to God's presence in our lives and the lives of those in our congregations. The study of history and worship gives us insight into what has been done and what may be done in planning and leading worship. Servant attitudes, informed decisions, and practical applications of music performed on the organ for worship will each combine for a bright future for a magnificent worship leadership tool.

Copyright © 2005 Christian Sound & Song. Used by permission. This article may be printed, copied, distributed, and otherwise used for nonprofit local church education with the inclusion of this copyright and the above authorship citation.

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