The Organ is Too Loud! And So Is the Piano. Part I

Organ 2I’m an organist. That means I’m entirely sympathetic to the position that the organ should always be louder. And every instrument should always be enlarged – more reeds, more mixtures, bigger principal chorus.

We organists are like that – our egos rather like the sense of power that comes from being able to blast everyone out of the room.

But as much as I like loud organ music, there’s something else I like – and believe in – even more: the sound of a congregation united in song, and the sound of a cantor proclaiming a psalm text.

As I experience Catholic liturgies in various places, I notice a distressing tendency for keyboard players to work against congregations and cantors by their use of excessive volume.

Let’s start with the accompaniment of cantors on responsorial psalms and other refrain forms. It seems to me that the proclamation of the text by the cantor has absolute priority here. The cantor’s role isn’t that different from the role of a lector in proclaiming a Scripture reading. The accompaniment has the humble purpose of supporting the proclamation and give the pitch to the singer, without in any way overshadowing the proclaimed text. To put it somewhat negatively, the accompaniment should be as quiet as possible while still giving the singer the necessary support.

But I hear organists using the same registration for the verses as for the refrain. I hear pianists playing at the same volume all the way through. What I don’t hear in these scenarios is the verse text – it’s completely drowned out.

Appropriately scaled back verse accompaniment would not only enhance the verses, it would also enhance the congregation’s singing on the refrain. The contrast of louder volume level for the refrain would signal more clearly to the congregation that the refrain belongs to all of them. The clear distinction in volume between verses and refrain would make clearer the congregation’s entry point.

Organists, this means setting pistons and using them. If the gymnastics of hitting a piston during the brief transitions are too daunting, one might set up two manuals in contrasting volume and shift between them.

Pianists, the soft pedal is the one on the left.

Tomorrow: organ volume for traditional hymns

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26 comments

  1. I guess I have been lucky, and somewhat sheltered… Most of my vacationing is during the week, so it’s a rare occation that I get to hear music in other parishes. (Note to self: ask pastor for a time off for the purpose of observing other churches…) Most of what I’ve heard is what I do, and what Fr. Ruff describes: Change of registration during the responsorial psalm. This can also apply to more contemporary hymn/song verses, especially those based on psalms. (I hope I’m not issuing spoilers here, Father…) Will you be going into more detail for volume on ‘contemporary hymns?”

  2. Amen brother. Preach it.
    Don’t double the cantor’s melody of the chant for the verses because you can never stay together on the terminations anyway. Play only the melody of the response on the loud manual, and keep all the accompanying parts including the alto on the accompaniment manual. Remember to think of yourself as a bass instrument, part of an ensemble. Train the cantors to be self-sufficient in singing their parts and not depend on you for leading them. Male cantors sing in a different range than women. Adjust your accompaniment accordingly. You are an accompanist, a continuo player, you hardly need to play at all. How’s that for starters?

  3. No problem for me: when I am on duty, the Psalms are done a capella. Admittedly, this is more out of laziness and schedule issues (I can learn it on my own without rehearsing with a keyboardist) but it works well, and the congregation seems to respond a little better to it than they do with accompaniment.

  4. Thank You! I have long been a believer in what you have described and suggested when I have served as a director of music in a parish. In the past year I have been serving as a substitute pastoral musician in my diocese. It has definitely been a blessing and a learning experience as I am now on the sub list for 8 different parishes. A frequent comment to me has been a variation of “we like the way you play because when you play, we know when to sing and can hear ourselves singing”. As a substitute, I make a point to “honor the house” in which I am serving. I have to be prepared to adapt to many different instruments in different type of worship spaces and sound systems. I always try to take the path of service to the assembly. As the people get to know me and I to know the people, then I will add extra registration on the organ or make changes to an accompaniment on a piano or guitar. If I can hear the people singing then I know I am doing my job well and will be more likely to be called to sub in the future. Blessings.

    1. @Therese D Butler – comment #7:
      I’m with you, Therese. I do the same in our diocese, often accompanying at different churches and I get the same response. I used to think that this was just common sense but time has proved me wrong. You’re right on the money!

  5. A hearty agreement. Though with many cantors, it is hard to back off in accompanying the verses since they lean heavily on the organ/piano to give them their melody. I make the analogy of the cantor being like a trailer hitched to the tractor vs. being the tractor itself. Is the music coming out of you, or are you along for the ride musically?

    Out of my roughly 12 volunteer adult cantors, perhaps 2 can hold their own part without strong melodic leadership in the accompaniment. I try to nudge them all in that direction, but some people lack the musical skills, confidence, or discipline of learning their music thoroughly.

  6. Yes. Roman Catholic organists might take a page from their Anglican brethren and listen to how the finest players accompany Anglican chant psalmody. There can be contrasts of texture as well as registration. Assuming that the psalmist is confident, and it’s not necessary to double melody, there are myriad possibilities. Even if one is playing on a 1-manual organ with no pistons, there can still be a contrast. The time it takes to breathe between verse and refrain, and vice versa, is plenty of time to remove or add a stop.

  7. On Father Anthony’s usual instrument, Holtkamp 1742-A—which serves my favorite church in the whole world—the third manual controls the “positive organ.” When that division is called the “choir organ,” as it is on Romantic instruments, its purpose is crystal clear: to allow an immediate shift, made as fast as the organist’s hands can move, between a very restrained accompaniment for the choir or cantor and a full-bodied organ lead (on the great or swell or both) for the congregation. It seems to me that organists who have a choir organ at their disposal don’t need to rely on pistons.

  8. I absolutely agree! But surely, any organist / pianist who cannot subsume their ego and love of noise to the actual character and demands of the piece they’re playing or accompanying is just a poor musician? And no serious pianist should ever need to have recourse to the soft pedal in order to play quietly. That’s not what it’s for – just PLAY QUIETLY! On second thoughts, maybe the ‘caps lock’ is not what I mean here…

  9. As an organist I am in complete agreement with what’s been said thus far. I have an old two manual instrument, no pistons, so it means using both manuals for the psalm. Soft stop(s) on the swell for the psalm verses, mf, on the great (8 & 4) for the antiphon. Seems to work well.

  10. Thank you, Fr. Anthony! I heartily agree with this post, and have been eagerly awaiting it since the “subtle” hints given in a previous post. I also agree very much with the comments made here. It seems to me that the overriding principle for any music director/accompanist at liturgy is *listening*. A competent accompanist, whether at the piano or organ, must have his/her ear on the assembly, and be able to make adjustments in order to encourage the singing. This could mean changes to registration (organ), voicing (piano), playing more quietly, or, yes, sometimes more loudly, or inserting a beat of silence as if to say “let’s breathe now”. In other words, one must develop a trained ear for hearing the assembly, and simultaneously develop some “arrows in the quiver” to address adequately what one hears. The greatest challenge, I think, can be tempo, especially in spaces that have a great deal of acoustic delay between organ and assembly. A tempo that is either too fast or too slow can kill assembly singing. Listen, adjust if needed, but don’t follow.

    As for instrumental particulars, I agree with the usefulness of a choir manual on the organ (I wish our organ had one!). I also agree that the soft pedal on the piano should not be necessary for playing softly, but can be useful for timbral “softening” when called for. A useful tool for liturgical accompaniment on the piano, I think, is doubling the bass in the left hand (not too loudly, of course!), and using varied voicing to highlight certain overtones, etc. One thing that can get in the way of listening is the occasional absence of a cantor/choir, wherein one has to play *and* lead the singing (“cocktail organist”). Not easy to sing, play, and adequately listen to the assembly at the same time!

    Because I often have to make up for dead notes on our organ by using multiple stops (anyone have extra rebuild money lying around?), I almost always use piano to accompany the Psalm so as to stay “under” the cantor.

  11. I have a question to all of you musicians.

    I have had parishioners complain that the organ is ALWAYS too loud. They claim that they cannot pray above the clamor.

    Now, these are the same people that usually sit in the back row right below the pipes or speakers. My response is to invite them to sit forward, to distance themselves from the pipes. Naturally, they refuse; they aren’t giving up such prime seats. SOME of these people would prefer to have the organ play soft pious piffle music in the background during Mass to put them in a “spiritual” mood.

    So my question is (and I’m looking to supplement my answers, not to ridcule all of you) how do you musicians properly respond to people complaining that the organ is too loud, without just shrugging them off (I’ve seen that done also)? I’m looking for a united front approach to engage people to sing and pray.

    1. @Pat Barkey – comment #16:
      People perceive organ volume relative to their own expectations. For the first year in my previous parish, many people complained (to me, to the pastor, to the council, to each other…) that my playing was too loud. To hear them tell it, I was blowing them out the door. Then I learned that the previous music director rarely played the organ on Sundays, mostly just for quiet funerals. So compared to their point of reference, I was playing loudly. My point of reference, my previous assignment’s three-manual pipe organ with an enthusiastic congregation and large choir, was entirely different.

      I don’t suppose you could encourage them to experience live music in other settings? A big program for organ and brass could be helpful, or a church service with a loud amplified band (electric guitars, drums).

      My bar for loudness of church music reached a new height this summer at a Lutheran church hymn festival, with a huge and aggressively-voiced Cassavant, a brass quintet, a big choir, and an enthusiastic congregation. It was a powerful experience, but wow was it loud. I have a sound pressure meter app on my phone, and several pieces were at a sustained level of 90-100 dB, the equivalent of operating a chainsaw or lawn mower. You could have yelled at the top of your lungs to someone standing next to you and they wouldn’t have heard you.

  12. “Let’s start with the accompaniment of cantors on responsorial psalms and other refrain forms. It seems to me that the proclamation of the text by the cantor has absolute priority here. ”

    I agree. At the same time, I don’t think the right approach is always to minimize the accompaniment to the lowest possible sonic level. For example, adding a C instrument counterpoint to the melody that is being carried by the psalmist can make the music more beautiful, without risking that the lyrics will be drowned out. Finding and unlocking the music in the song should always be one of our goals – but the text is primary.

  13. I find that some cantors have difficulty projecting their voices at the lower end of their vocal range. The text gets “swallowed”, regardless of what the accompanist is doing. Perhaps not completely on topic, but could be an element of what we’re discussing.

  14. Wonderful post! I get the “the organ’s too loud” thing too, from time to time. I use the full pipes on the opening and closing hymn. Throughout the mass, however, I use just the antiphonal pipes (speakers). I hate doing it, but I have bills to pay! :o)

  15. I’ve never been anywhere where I thought the organ was too quiet. The organ sound travels easily even at low levels. Hearing damage is no laughing matter, and your singers won’t be very effective if they are prematurely deaf.

    I’ll also second the notion that people give up trying to sing if they cannot even hear themselves.

  16. When an organ is playing so loudly that church windows are rattling, ceiling lights are shaking and children have a look of fear on their faces, then the stupid organ is WAY TOO LOUD. I know that a lot of passionate musicians are eccentrics and the way they let their egos go into overdrive by trying to overcomponsenate for missing pieces of the puzzle in their lives.

    I tried to speak to one of the organists at our church regarding the volume of her organ playing. She was very defensive about her playing, trying to “impress” me about her credentials in being a classically trained organist, blah, blah, blah.

    I couldn’t reason with this silly woman in the least. I spoke to my pastor about her and he said that “he would look into the matter.” I bet.

    I refuse to expose and endangered my hearing and my children’s because of some egotistical crazy lady thinking she’s the voice of God behind an organ console.

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