© by Susan Burkhalter
October 8, 2009
Sometimes an organist gets asked to play and direct a choir from the organ console. I played and directed at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC on August 16th. Here’s how I prepare: I decided to study conducting with a private teacher in 1990. I studied with James Kreger, 1990-1994 until he became busy with his job as a choral music teacher at a private school, and then I studied with his friend, David Erwin, 1994-2002. Both men were organist/directors and graduates of Westminster Choir College. Mr. Kreger had me doing exercises from a book by Paul Hindemith, “Elementary Training for Musicians” © 1949, published Schott & Co. Ltd., London. For example, from this book one had to conduct complex rhythmic patterns in various time signatures, sing intervals, and more.
While studying conducting I became adept with the conducting patterns in both hands simultaneously, learned hand signals for dynamic shadings, learned how to give hand cues to singers and worked through many anthems, Mendelssohn oratorios, and some selections from Handel’s “Messiah.” Since I had to sing all 4 parts while I watched myself conducting in the mirror, I became good at singing many intervals. I could ask my teachers any questions about singing that came up. I have sung in several choirs through the years. On Sunday, August 16th, I was substitute organist-director at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, (visit their website at http://www.churchofthepilgrims.org), a church where I’ve played several times in the past. It is a historic Presbyterian church with a Skinner pipe organ III/19? rebuilt in the 1970’s, a medium-sized lively church with active members, young and old. Rob Passow is the Music Director and organist there. He works very well with the choir, has good taste in music, both traditional and contemporary; and is also a composer.
Their choir is a lot of fun to sing with and direct. The anthem we sang that Sunday was “Let the Praise Go ‘Round” by William Boyce, arr. Hal Hopson. As the music at Pilgrims is described on their website, “On any given Sunday morning you are likely to be led in worship with organ, piano, guitar, flutes, or even unaccompanied voices. It will only take a short while for a visitor to realize that there are few musical limits for us at Pilgrims. Our music is chosen to reflect the inclusive and diverse nature of God’s creation. We sing music of many lands and times and peoples in our worship - music that faithfully reflects the lessons and the themes of our Sunday Liturgy: Praise songs, Taizé chants, Lutheran chorales, Gregorian chant, Gospel hymns, Genevan Psalter tunes, English hymns, spirituals, songs from Latin America and Asia. In other words: we sing everything from Gregorian Chant to Amy Grant.”
Going on with my learning process, here were the steps I took to learn this anthem on the organ, directing from the console: I don’t learn choir music very quickly, although I am a fairly good sight-reader of keyboard music. I like to have about 14 days minimum in which to learn an anthem. I only had 7 days to learn this one! I start off by learning an anthem on the piano, then I go to the organ. Usually when I learn most organ music, I mark lots of fingering on it, but for choral music, you simply don’t have time, so I just mark key fingering spots with finger numbers. If it’s a difficult piece, such as by Handel, I practice it with the metronome at a slower speed than the final tempo will be. When it’s secure at that speed, I set the metronome at the “final tempo”.
I sing all the parts. I write in certain vowel sounds I want, or final consonants. Usually you will need to mark some notes to leave out, such as double octaves, or to make it more easily playable. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not good at playing a 4-part choral piece from an open score (unless I can leave out the tenor part), because it’s still challenging for me to transpose the tenor part down an octave from what it’s written while playing the other 3 parts with it. I’ve practiced this at length in the past, but usually can’t get it quite up to tempo.
Another thing you need to plan for and practice is all of the page turns. The last step for learning it is to mark all the spots where I will have to cue the choir, either with a hand motion (say a “cut-off” or hand cue: the conducting pattern of the previous upbeat to the downbeat of their entrance), or a nod of my head. When I’ve learned it up to this point, I find I have to practice playing and conducting the music many times until the piece is nearly memorized. You need to know it very well so you can watch them when needed.
I had about a half hour rehearsal with this choir before the Sunday service. It was slightly comical what transpired: The choir, which consisted that day of about 7 men and 3 women, came into the room one by one. I like to start right on time, so I did, with 2 people. Then 2 more came in and they said, “Can we start over?” “Sure.” By the time a few more trickled in one by one, I knew I couldn’t keep starting over!
The anthem, sung as an offertory, turned out good. I had been worried that I would stop and start, leave out cues, or play a wrong note. I discovered that a choir takes pride in its group effort and the members try to do their best. The director can’t control everything about them. I had marked diction on my music and reminded them of breaths and breaks in the music as we rehearsed. My final realization that Sunday about directing this particular choir: It seems obvious, but I don’t have to do it all. The choir will take care of most of the music-making themselves—we cooperate.
In September I also led a Thursday evening choir rehearsal with the choir at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal in Bethesda, Maryland as well as directing them at the Sunday service. They have a 1980? Wicks II/18 pipe organ. The anthems they sang that Sunday were “Teach Me, O Lord” by Thomas Attwood from “Anthems for Choirs I” published by Oxford University Press, and “All The Earth Doth Worship Thee” by G.F. Handel, arranged by Walter Ehret, published by Belwin Mills. Thursday evening we rehearsed several anthems besides these two and practiced chanting their Psalm.
The choir numbers about 15 people, 3 of them men. They are dedicated and well-trained by Sharon Ollison, their excellent music director, who is a fine organist. Sharon has extensive experience in choral directing and knowledge of liturgical music for worship. The previous organist/director for 11 years was Julie V. Evans, also an excellent organist and director with a vast knowledge of church music who did a lot to build the choir and their repertoire during her term.
I had been apprehensive about leading the Thursday night rehearsal. I wasn’t sure how many people would show up, since I wasn’t the “regular” director; the only male tenor couldn’t come. I never know if a choir will be fun or uncooperative until I’ve met them. But everything turned out fine. A funny thing happened: While we were having the final rehearsal of the Handel anthem for the evening, one of the men somewhat grumpily complained, “When are we ever going to get this anthem up to quarter note equals 94?” I replied, “Never. I can’t play it that fast.”