122 - A day at the organ

We were enduring or enjoying an interregnum within the parish, and had settled down to some regular habits that most of us were comfortable with. We had avoided the huge discomfort of one of the churchwardens taking a service (far more the warden’s discomfort than that of the participants) by encouraging the senior dean in Wadebridge to give us a list of likely available priests. Thus the senior churchwarden got on the phone and rang around to fill the calendar, rather than become the temporary priest. Factor into this that the family had realised early after arrival in the village that we either joined the church as active members or watched the only public building in the village disappear – no shop, no pub, just the church. So I was the organist (a truly awful organist), the lady wife was the PCC Sec and the kids, when available, were congregation. Every month at least one of us would read a lesson.

The twenty-minute period before and after services tended to be chatter-time during which the business of the committee would be fulfilled. Since it was not uncommon for there to be six at a service, that would typically mean there were two churchwardens ushering and waving around collection plates, two readers, an organist, sometimes a prayer-leader – and, if there were enough people present, then we were in the habit of pointing out whose turn it was to be The Congregation.


The organ had a single keyboard, four stops and a load of pedals (which I almost never used). One of the stops used so much air it couldn’t last a whole hymn verse. The pump was sufficiently loud it needed to be turned off between supposedly musical bits, which meant one had to plan the switching on and off, as it had a five to ten second warm-up time. The congregation knew between 12 & 20 tunes and had a sufficiently limited vocal range that tunes had to be transposed to fit within the range. To put it another way, new tunes attempted would be rejected for being too adventurous. There were occasions where the visiting priest would have decided what would be sung and announce a hymn, only to be told from the organ seat “We can’t sing that one”; such people either learned to include us all in the selection, or to leave it to us (meaning me) to sort out.

The church books set a scheme in a two-year cycle, suggesting topics for the week in the church calendar (e.g. last weekend would have been Epiphany, so there is a list of appropriate hymns for the day in Year One and in Year Two). Many hymns will appear many times, so next weekend might have twenty available choices; I’d go through the list looking for things we hadn’t sung too recently, keys we can manage and best of all, cases where we could sing a recommended set of words to one of the tunes we ‘knew’, as in ‘had previously managed to get through’. That would include encouraging the priest to keep the number of verses low when the congregational numbers were low.

Okay so far? It’s really complicated the first few times you do this. Not least, because there would be four different hymn books on the organ seat, one of which would have the same numbering as the congregational book, so there was always a lot of cross-referencing going on. Hymns are classified by scansion type, counting syllables (almost the same as notes) per line, so 8.7.8.7 might indicate a chosen set of words. Skip to the back of one of the hymnals and look up what tunes are in the list for 8.7.8.7 to find six named tunes (not the same as a first line; not the author’s name; the hymn’s name, such as Aberystwyth, or Hereford). Then look these up in turn (probably recognising some of the names) to see if the key would work—sometimes to discover if I could possibly play them—and, if the key was not well within the pitch range of the singers, to then see if one of the other books had a ‘nicer’ version. Some hymns would have a different last or penultimate verse—different music—making life more interesting all round. On a big organ this is where the organist shows off; on ours, it was where the organist became a comedy turn, coaxing more from the instrument than both it and the player could manage.

I often gave up on trying to play all four lines of music [SATB] managing sort of three and a half. Since it was rare to have any of the congregation singing a third part (we had two regular altos) I sometimes sang one and played the others, especially when we were missing out a verse.

Sometimes I couldn’t hear anything at all from the congregation, so it was perfectly possible to play an un-singable tune and be quite oblivious of the suffering going on.  I was quite capable of playing song Two to words Three, leaving them to try to fit four lines of words to six of music. There were a small number of tunes they could sing that had eight lines so we could sing two four-line verses to one cycle, which was great if I could tell where on earth they were up to....  This is well beyond patting your stomach and making circles on your pate; you’re trying to sight-read complicated music, wishing you could (i.e. had the skill to) use your feet, trying to switch stops to make the whole thing less boring, and all the while listening in a feedback-loop sort of way so that you stop, pause or play to help them along. Examples would include where a line of words does not have a comma at the end; then there is no pause in the music for a breath, it will be where the next comma is; gaps between verses need to give the congregation time enough to take a whole breath cycle with no song. It is different with choirs, but this is the special limited edition that runs in village churches.  My younger brother is rather good at this. His older brother is notably bad at it. Our middle brother has more sense.


So to the Bishop.

In the course of the interregnum, one of the lady churchwardens wondered if we could persuade the Bish to come. Cornwall has two bishops, the Bishop of Truro and the Suffragen Bishop (of Cornwall, I suppose). Cecily, the ch/w, let slip that she knew one of them ‘from school’ and she’d drop him a line. So it was that we were treated to a visit from the purple himself. This event raised the numbers from the usual six to ten up to sixty, a full church. We pulled the stops out in efforts to do well, including me pulling out more stops on the organ. We tried so hard, it was only when people were on their knees between Hymn One and Hymn Two that I realised that the numbers I’d put up on the board were from my book, not their book. Thinking and moving quickly but quietly, I slid off the organ bench and took the three strides necessary to reach the board, a simple thing with interchangeable cardboard letters each a little smaller than a postcard. I dragged off the numbers for the first hymn and used those three to change the remainder to be correct. I was left with a six and two nines. Since ‘we’, the team, all knew by then that the last hymn number was 629, I used what was left to make 666 as the now redundant top line and crept back to my seat. Total time around twenty seconds. No-one noticed, all being dreadfully pious ‘cos it was the Bish himself doing the prayering, so everyone was eyes down in a full house, so to speak.

In what was left before the next hymn I went back and looked to see what they’d actually sung for the first hymn and was surprised to find that whatever it was would have fit. Well, almost.


No more mistakes occurred, though since it was somebody’s birthday I played that tune as the bass line to whatever was the last hymn and built around it in the extroit. It was during that, the aftermath of the service, where the priest is at the exit door shaking hands and the church officers are tidying up, that one of the old dears of the village came up to stand just in my eye-line.

“You know, dear, there was a miracle during that service”

“Really? What was that then?”

“Well, you know how you (I mean one, it is Sunday) always turn to the next hymn in yer book before you pick up the prayer book?”

“Yes, I do something very similar too”

“Well, I looked at the next hymn and thought ‘Us can’t sing thaat’, so when the Bishop, isn’t he a dear, said we should pray for something we wanted, I prayed that thare next hymn ‘ud be different. And it was!  And we had a really good hymn to sing instead! That’s why I’m saying it’s a miracle!”

“Oh good, I’m glad for you”

“Aren’t you going to play Mavis a happy birthday?”

“I’m still playing it right now, hadn’t you noticed? Listen what happens if I take the right hand off....”

‘Nuff said? Not quite, because the priest robes and disrobes in the space behind the organ, sort of front right corner of the building, beside the altar. As the bishop strides smoothly up past me on the way to don his regular street clothes, he pauses and says, just quietly enough for no-one but the two of us to hear, “Nice one, I’ll dine out on that”.





Which, you would think, would be the end of the story. Not quite, because the gap between priests—the interregnum—is typically two years, so we tried again to ask the Bishop to come and again he said yes. Several of us were a little confused when the guy turned up but seemed a little vague. This is because the two bishops of Truro were, at the time, identical twins. (They’re still twins but no longer the bishops.) Their sense of humour ran and may still run to swapping lists—or claiming that their lists had been swapped—and this was the other one. However, he was sufficiently well-informed that, on his way in to the vestry, he paused beside me (playing introits of course, introits for in, and extroits for out) and said, as gently as before, “I’ve told the story of last time to such a lot of people. What do you have planned for today?”


Planning? As if.

DJS 20140109
The events told probably occurred around 1995


Top picture from google images.

“It’s the Bishop” is a line from later episodes Monty Python, often paired with “not the comfy chair”. Perhaps I should be using a Monty Python image of the organ, Terry Jones with no clothes on, though the bit with the Bach toccata and fugue in D minor is what I always remember being played...


Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018