Because of the church’s profound influence on the organist’s approach to playing the instrument; and, since the organ is still primarily situated in the church one can safely assume that the musical thinking of most organists will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, governed by the vagaries of the church. However, the church’s perfidy extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary and into the music schools. It is Academia that does the most damage to the ostensible concert organist. More frequently than not, even before the budding organist gets to engage that first post-graduation church or recital his performance skills, and, dare I say passion, for playing the instrument, have been seriously compromised as Stephen Best so articulately describes in his essay on the subject. It is during this critically formative period in life that the pall of death hangs over creative drive of the potentially interesting concert organist. Notwithstanding what happens during the student’s tenure at school, often (dare I say usually?) by the time he or she arrives at school the young organ student is already damaged goods by virtue of the church environment upon which I previously elaborated. In this case, the training received at college merely contributes to what is already a pretty bland approach to playing the organ. Organists, not unlike their colleagues in other classical music disciplines, are products of the training they receive at the college or university level. In fact, experience has shown me that the higher the degree the more boring the performer: and in the case of organists it’s even worse. They are not like their pianist, string or wind playing colleagues who are taught by concert performers. Some of them may be members of an orchestra, but are also chamber music and solo performers; i.e., people who perform regularly and are used to being before audiences, on stage, in concert halls (as opposed to being hidden from congregations). They are trained in the skills of being a concert performer by bona fide concert performers.
Organists, on the other hand, are taught concert repertoire at the conservatory level by people who are primarily church musicians or just teachers who merely dabble in the concert field. These people aren’t serious concert musicians they’re dilettantes. And all that they are doing is merely regurgitating what they’ve been taught by other dilettantes. Very rare is it that the conservatory/college experience produces a dynamic, exciting concert organist. The rare ones that do graduate, manage to mainly as survivors; i.e., in spite of what they’ve learned instead of because of it.
So what is this schooling that seems to drain the very life out of the burgeoning concert organist? Now contrary to what the reader may deduce from what I am about to write, I’m not trying to be mean spirited. I know that most organ students love their teachers; and the teachers are sincerely devoted to their students, but something is really wrong here, and a lot of it has to do with what is being taught in music schools across the nation. It’s a strange irony that students at the college level spend so much of their time learning concert repertoire and then end up playing most of it as service music. And, of course, the flip side of this ironic coin is that they learn what is essentially service music by Baroque French, German and Italian composers and end up playing it in recital.
There seems to be a general trend in music schools where young concert musicians are being taught technique and repertoire and not much else. In many cases with technically advanced students it’s simply repertoire. Not unlike ‘No Child Left Behind,’ it’s basically just “practising for the competition.” Students are drilled with repertoire learning just the “right amount” of expressiveness and the technical skill necessary to impress the judges. Yes, organists too have their competitions, though nobody but organists pay any attention to them. Rarely, virtually never, are they taught how to get beyond the mechanics of the instrument, viz. the console. It’s pathetically evident that organists are not taught anything more than the most rudimentary use of the electro/mechanical tools at their disposal, or of the organ’s colouristic possibilities — the art of registration. Students who follow the dictates of their teachers without investigating the possible alternatives do so at their artistic peril. And their teachers over the past two or more generations have slavishly conformed to the precepts as dictated by their teachers, and, more recently (and worse I might add) musicologists. To do otherwise is to ostracise oneself from one’s peers, and if you think peer pressure is tough on students try it as a faculty member.
Unfortunately, organists don’t comprehend the dismal state of their playing largely because of the cloistered, even narcissistic behaviour they manifest as a group. Over the past two or more generations as the listening public for the organ has disproportionately shrunk (relative to the shrinkage for classical music in general), organists have withdrawn further and further into their own world (POE’s* notwithstanding), manifesting an almost passive aggressive behaviour, if not outright disdain for other musical disciplines and the public in general. This self-indulgent thinking has had very destructive consequences for organ music, serious organists and for the existence of the organ itself. The pressure to conform to what is considered acceptable performance practise (as taught in the music schools) within the confines of this closed society has developed some pretty strange behaviours. We’ll be looking at those next.