Shaftesbury’s piano and keyboard players are being offered the chance to learn a larger and louder instrument. The St James’ church team is hoping to recruit organists who can turn their hand to playing the often highly personal music choices to mark significant life events.
ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones went to find out more.
I could hear Chris Mahon’s confident and note-perfect playing as I walked from Foyle Hill and across the churchyard. When I opened the heavy wooden door of St James’ church, I was hit by the wall of sound from Chris, an accomplished player. “I’ve been the organist at St James’ church for about 20 years,” he told me.
Chris can probably play the organ blindfolded. “I did my first service when I was ten. I am now 73,” he said. He had a strong desire to learn to play the instrument. “I was just taken by the sound of it. I was learning the piano anyway and continued to learn to play the piano. And I still play the piano a lot.”
With Chris was another of the St James’ church organists, David Grierson. “I’m a floating organist in the Shaftesbury area and slightly further afield. I play regularly all over the place,” said David.
I asked David what he meant when he described himself as ‘a floater’. “The sort that isn’t attached to a church and gets a phone call the night before, saying ‘Are you free tomorrow morning because we need an organist?’ and I’m able to say ‘yes or no’ as the case may be,” he explained.
The men aren’t looking for musical novices. They want to find locals who have mastered musicianship and who fancy a new challenge. “I would like to attract people who are about grade five-ish or even better. Maybe they have played the piano in the past,” said David. “They need to have the time and enthusiasm. It’s for people who want to fill in and become proficient. We’re not after people who want to become high-flying organists, although that would be lovely.” He advised me that the Diocese offers a scheme for people who would really like to take the organ seriously.
David and Chris need regulars who can join the playing rota. “We’re more concerned about our own sanity really, and having a pool of organists that we can call upon when we want to lie in,” David smiled, adding that an organ player should be able play the instrument in most churches.
“There’s a degree in which they’re the same, assuming the organ is in working condition. There’s a sort of commonality about them, although if you want to play well, then you’ve got to ‘have a go’ on that particular organ beforehand. I’m doing a wedding this coming weekend and I spent an hour or so yesterday getting used to the idiosyncrasies of the organ,” said David.
The music would be picked for you to play, at least initially. “I actually choose the hymns. The Royal School of Church Music publishes a pamphlet, which is helpful in that regard. It follows the actual theme of the day. In some churches, it’s done jointly with the vicar and the organist, or just sometimes the vicar,” said Chris.
I asked David whether there was added pressure on the organist to play well as some of the performances can mark significant occasions, whether happy or sad occasion. “There is, but you also have a tremendous sense of power because you can make more noise than everybody else in the church together. And I must confess, I like that,” he laughed.
Chris says the organist acts as a director in some ways, by playing music to encourage people to take their pews or move on. “It’s absolutely critical that you have to be able to lead. There might be a nod for a certain part of the service,” Chris said. “You get the nod when the bride is ready in the porch and that sort of thing, but you have to stay on the ball.”
Both men have had to play some unusual requested pieces. “’You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was quite interesting for a marriage,” laughed Chris. David recalled a popular request from the past. “It’s not so much of a craze now but at the end of ‘The Life of Brian’ there was ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. You often used to get asked to play that at funerals, at the end.”
Chris said his heart has occasionally sunk when he’s been asked to play a difficult piece. “It tends to be really modern stuff or pop stuff. There’s a style of playing that you can’t actually write down on paper accurately and it gets very difficult to produce it effectively. And sometimes it doesn’t go well on the organ. Some pieces are not suited to that particular instrument so that can cause problems sometimes,” he said.
People can have a particular piece of music fixed in their head and want it to be part of the occasion. But Ariane Grande’s number one hit may not translate to an organ terribly well. “Sometimes the organ isn’t capable of playing the piece of music they’ve suggested. Some of the small churches have a single keyboard organ and they’re asking for something that’s really quite flamboyant. It is not that the organist can’t play it necessarily, but the actual organ can’t play it,” said David.
The St James’ church organ is well over 100 years old and it’s considered a good one. “It’s a 1906 Norman and Beard and it is kept in good order. It’s one of many that were produced at that time, particularly in the Norfolk and East Anglia region.” And Chris says that the name of the manufacturer would impress. “It is quality instrument,” he added.
“I don’t know whether we will get a big uptake but if we could get about a dozen people, of whom maybe four or five actually persevere beyond the initial couple of sessions, then I think it would be a job well done,” said David.
If you would like to volunteer, email Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.