My Organ Project: to ARCO and beyond

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It's never too late to be what you might have been (George Eliot) - a display at the Careers Centre, University of Huddersfield

Yesterday I took the practical part of my ARCO exam in St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, having taken the written papers in Edinburgh a week earlier.

I played three pieces:

  • JS Bach: Der Tag, der ist der freudenreich BWV 605
  • Matthew Locke: Voluntary in A minor (from Melothesia)
  • Max Reger: Melodia in Bb

and did four keyboard tests:

  • Transposition
  • Score-reading
  • Hymn harmonisation
  • Sight reading

(I get the results in mid-February.)

About ARCO

Associateship of the Royal College of Organists is the second of three RCO diplomas and “indicates a standard of professional competency in organ playing technique, essential keyboard skills and interpretative understanding. It also indicates accuracy in aural perception and fluency in those written disciplines (standard stylistic techniques and analysis of performance and historical issues in relation to organ repertoire) which support practical musicianship.”

That’s quite a challenge!

My journey to ARCO

I first took the ARCO exam in 1992, whilst Organist of Worth Abbey, nearly passing it at the first attempt (however, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the keyboard tests) and I failed to complete the whole exam within the four years allowed.

Over the years, despondency set in, for a number of reasons, and I gave up any attempt at playing seriously. My technique was good enough to get by playing for services and I became lazy. Before long, I was playing fairly badly.

After moving to Dunblane, I had some lessons with Matthew Beetschen, then Organist of the Cathedral, and although this helped, I didn’t do any systematic practice so, naturally, I didn’t really improve that much.

I subsequently failed to maintain momentum and, due to lack of direction and practice, my playing and confidence took another hit.

A new hope

In 2013, I was appointed Director of Music at Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church in Stirling, probably on the basis of my liturgical and pastoral music awareness and soon realised that I needed to up my game. I met up with soprano Kathleen Ferguson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for a chat about whom I might approach for lessons. She strongly recommended Philip Sawyer, retired head of music at Edinburgh Napier University.

Meanwhile, I had downloaded the ARCO syllabus to remind myself of what it entailed, not that I thought I would ever reach that standard again.

I began lessons with Philip in February 2014 and thus resumed my journey: my Organ Project.

(I’ll write more about this journey in due course.)

To cut to the chase, Philip’s wise counsel, combined with RCO events and courses and encouragement from many people, especially Elaine, Ulrike and Christoph, my Rector at Holy Trinity, led me to decide to go for the Colleague (CRCO) diploma as a stepping-stone to ARCO. (I couldn’t bear the thought of taking ARCO again and failing it yet again!)

As I wrote in November 2018, “Adults can get very worried about taking exams. Children usually take them in their stride. Perhaps that’s because children are so used to them. Or maybe, as adults, we feel we have too much to lose.”

The Organ Strikes Back

In June 2018, I performed my first solo recital in about 30 years. A month later, I achieved the CRCO and, to my shock, won two prizes.

September 2019 saw my second solo recital in this new journey, which included a number of ARCO set pieces from over the years. I’ve also played in many other concerts, accompanying choirs and audiences and playing solo pieces.

I won’t know the result of this latest assault on ARCO for five weeks but, regardless of the result, I’m celebrating, having reached this stage. (If I’ve not yet reached the required standard I’ll go for it again.)

I was going to say “having reached this stage again” but that would be incorrect as I’ve developed so much since 1992, despite the fallow years. (Or perhaps, as Christoph said, because of the fallow years when, even though there’s no flowering, growth still continues at the roots.)

Here’s to the continued journey

Mendelssohn 2 and several movements from Vierne 1 are my next challenges, along with other pieces from various ARCO syllabuses, which are all worth learning and playing.

I’m loving the journey!

Thanks

I’m very, very grateful to everyone who has encouraged and assisted me on this journey so far.

You are too numerous to mention individually but you know who you are.

Thanks also to those who’ve supported me without realising it!

A story (or a parable) – whatever

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One upon a time there was a young musician – let’s call him Alex. As a teenager he became aware of another young musician – let’s call him Michael. Like Michael, Alex was a pianist and conductor, albeit a bit younger – unlike him, he was totally unknown and at an early stage of his career.

Michael became a role-model for Alex, who started going to as many of his concerts as possible and started his LP collection with many of Michael’s recordings.

Alex even played truant from school one day; brazenly walking through the Royal Albert Hall’s Artist’s Entrance, he made his way behind the stage, where Michael was rehearsing a world-famous orchestra in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. He sat behind the timpanist to watch the rehearsal (Alex was also an orchestral percussionist), and observed Michael at work.

Some months later, Michael was giving a series of televised concerto concerts, and Alex attended one of the rehearsals.

After the rehearsal, when everybody else had gone, leaving Michael practising on his own, Alex went up to him, waited for him to finish and then politely but nervously asked Michael if he could help him with a section of a concerto he was learning. Michael responded angrily, “Go away! Can’t you see I’m practising?”
Alex left the building, devastated, and in deep shock that the one he had admired and emulated had treated him this way.

Many years later, Alex decided on how he would get his revenge. Being a law-abiding citizen, working in church music, and realising there was nothing realistic he could do to get at the now highly-regarded and successful musician, he got his own back in the privacy of his home, where his hi-fi and record collection had pride of place.

One quiet evening, Alex put on a record of piano and violin music, played by Michael and a friend and colleague, and listened intently to the sonata’s first movement.

Then, mid-way through the second movement, as the two master musicians were weaving magic with Brahms’ music, it happened, mid-phrase, mid-note: he deliberately lifted the stylus arm from the rotating turntable and disc. In a moment the music was gone… for ever. “Revenge is mine – at last”.

What a shallow victory. No-one knew of it, certainly not Michael. (Besides, this kind of thing happens millions of times every day when people turn off their radios and MP3 players mid-phrase.) But the difference is that Alex had caused a deliberate rupture; the music was cut off with savage intent (even if he had too much respect for his Linn LP12 turntable to wreak damage to that!). The music died in front of him, destroyed by his own hands.

Perhaps Michael had just been stressed that day. Perhaps he was fed up with seeing Alex in the background at his concerts. Perhaps, and more likely, even though he was everything to Alex, Alex was nothing to him, and he knew nothing and cared nothing about him. Why should he?

Perhaps Alex was just an impetuous youth: immature, if enthusiastic. Perhaps, like all young people it was important that he had a role model, one he could emulate – but not idolise. Perhaps he had been “a bit of a pain”.

These days, Michael is as highly-regarded as ever. His work for peace and reconciliation between opposing nations sharing common geo-political space is an example to us all.

Alex is still unknown! But he’s discovered that whilst revenge (apparently best served cold) is satisfying in that moment, ultimately, it’s pointless, fruitless, and a waste of energy that is better used in working for positive change. And that realisation, presumably, he shares with Michael.

Postscript

Brother Roger of Taizé spoke of the need for young people to be “violent for peace”: to use one’s anger at society’s injustices neither against another individual, nor against oneself, but instead to work tirelessly for justice, for change, for peace.

As I write this, and you read it, more lives are being savagely destroyed: in war, in gangland violence, in the drugs trade, in sex exploitation. The wish for vengeance is understandable; it’s natural – but utterly pointless.

“In the midst of conflict and division
it is you who who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.

“Your Spirit changes our hearts:
Enemies begin to speak to one another,
those who were estranged join hands in friendship,
and nations seek the way of peace together.

“Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
For this we should never cease to thank and praise you.”

Roman Missal, Preface, 2nd Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation

(Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Comments welcome, as always!

Playing for pantomimes: bad jokes, lead sheets… and beer

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This morning I heard Andrew Gold’s ‘Thank you for being a friend’. Now – as Obi-Wan Kenobi might have said – I haven’t heard that for a long, long time. It instantly brought up memories of playing in a 5-piece band for pantomimes when I was about 20; in one of these, the last song was the aforementioned ‘Thank you…’ (I can see them now “stand up and take a bow”).

With 19 performances in 15 days (three on Saturdays, at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm) at Erith Playhouse, Kent, each lasting well over 2 hours, it was a non-stop, wonderful feast of a range of music, combined with terrible jokes (I remember one of the principal protagonists was Patty O’Dors).

In between numbers the band would nip under the stage for a beer served from those 7-pint cans with the gas pump widget to keep it from going flat (little CAMRA influence in those days!). It was both good fun, and another important influence on my musical life.

As well as the beer and some welcome pocket money, these gigs brought a number of other benefits, including tight ensemble and the discipline (and thus inherent freedom) of playing from lead sheets with just guitar chords, e.g.

D | G | e A7 | b | f# e | Asus–A7 | Eb ||

only kidding 🙂

Good grounding for playing from guitar chords for “modern Catholic” music and from figured bass in continuo work later on.

So thanks to Terry Wogan for playing that disc. Hasn’t music got great power for memory?

By the way, Keith and Stella Jarman, are you out there?

Comments, as always, welcome. 🙂

Mozart ‘Requiem’ at Dunblane Cathedral

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Well, my first term with Stirling University Choir has now come to its conclusion with a lively performance in Dunblane Cathedral of Mozart’s final work, together with two other works by the Master, rounding off with Justorum animae by Lassus.

The concert, on the 218th anniversary of Mozart’s death (5 December 1791), brought together two works from that fateful year, together with a work honouring fellow Freemasons. The Requiem is an interesting work to approach, as it was unfinished at the composer’s death, and had to be completed by Süssmayr; for all the faults of this version, we owe a debt of gratitude to Süssmayr for completing it. (It would be interesting one day to prepare and perform the work in one of the other completions – perhaps the one by Maunder.)

Although it’s probably inappropriate for me to comment on how the concert went musically (that privilege has to be left to others), I’m really proud of the Choir for all their hard work and focus, that enabled what I think was an excellent performance. Well done!

The four soloists (Clare Tucker, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Warren Gillespie and Michel de Souza) blended well, and were a delight to work with, as were the orchestra, guided by its leader, Bernardus Buurman.

The programme began with Ave verum corpus, accompanied by strings and organ, chosen as a link to the last concert by the Choir’s previous conductor, David King. I’ve often thought of this as “perfection in 30-odd bars”. Gorgeous.

The City of Glasgow Symphony Orchestra performed Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, a delightful piece that’s worth getting to know. Although financial constraints meant there was a rather small string section (43221), with four of the wind parts having to be taken by the organ, played by the Cathedral’s organ scholar, Steven McIntyre, it was definitely worth doing, if only for the gorgeous sounds from the wind and strings.

Basset horns were employed again in the main piece of the concert, the unfinished Requiem, and these provided the dark colour required for the opening movement.

This work is definitely one of contrasts, and not only in its composition. String bows almost caught fire in the ‘Dies irae’, with what must be one of the fastest performances of all time! The ‘Recordare’, described by Mozart’s widow, Constanze as one of his favourite compositions, was beautifully sung by the soloists – and it’s still going through my head!

At the end of the Requiem, soloists and choir joined together to sing Justorum animae by Orlando di Lassus (“The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God… they are at peace”).

So how do I think the choir’s performance went?

  • They responded really well, with conviction and passion, and sensitivity to the texts.
  • I think there were good fugal entries and generally well-supported singing.
  • The weakest moment was probably the beginning of the Lassus, with momentary insecurity, but it quickly recovered. And having only seven tenors meant that the “ne absorbeat” entry was a bit weak (although they were giving all they had!).
  • The best bits, I think, were the exciting ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Dies irae’, and the Offertorium movements, ‘Domine, Jesu Christe’ and ‘Hostias’, which portrayed a range of styles and emotions from dance to terror to confident hope.

Performers

Clare Tucker soprano
Rebecca Afonwy-Jones mezzo-soprano
Warren Gillespie tenor
Michel de Souza baritone
Stirling University Choir
City of Glasgow Symphony Orchestra (Bernardus Buurman leader)
Alistair Warwick  conductor

Was anyone reading this (if anyone is reading this!) at the concert? Please comment below.

Psalm refrains for use with a common chant

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Refrain for Psalm 24

This is the second of a group of psalm responses I’ve been writing for use with a common chant for use over the summer period while the choir are away. Based on the RCL (Revised Common Lectionary), although they could easily be used with the Roman Lectionary or the Common Worship Lectionary.

The refrain above is for the responsorial psalm for this coming Sunday (5 after Pentecost (B)).

The psalm chant can either be plainsong (usually Mode VIII) or a traditional simple chant whose melody is identical to the first half of that by Dom Gregory Murray OSB. The notes of the simple chant ( G | E G | A : A | G E | G || ) are suitably vague as to work in a number of different modes, so as to reflect the nature of the psalm text: joyful, neutral, or sad.

The first refrain for Ps 48 was “We have waited for your loving kindness, O God, in the midst of your temple”.

Texts from Common Worship: Services and Prayer for the Church of England are copyright (c) 2000 The Archbishops’ Council.
Music is copyright (c) 2009 The Art of Music. However, you are welcome to use it if you find it useful.

The music is typeset with SCORE, naturally!

Your comments are very welcome!