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The Ward Music Guild 3: The Functions of an Organist

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 04, 2014

Third Guild Meeting: December 1943

By Dr. Frank W. Asper
Tabernacle Organist and Member,
Church Music Committee

The organist has three functions to perform in the church service: first, the solos on the organ, consisting of prelude, postlude, and sacramental music; second, the accompaniments to the choir; and third, the accompaniments to congregational singing.

Let us consider this organ solo music. It should be planned and selected so that it may help every individual to an attitude of reverence, humility, and worship. The organist must try, so far as is in his power, to make his prelude worthy of being listened to. It is possible for the organist to disturb the serenity of worship by selections that may be ill-chosen. No number should be used that has secular connotations, such as operatic melodies or love songs. Sacramental music must surely be sacred. When hymns are used as organ music, it is best to play slowly, softly, and with an occasional change in registration. The postlude may be played fairly loud, though not necessarily with full organ. it may well be short.

The importance of an organist as accompanist to the choir is seldom realized except by the director and the organist himself. Of all the qualifications that go to the making of an indispensable organist, the ability to read and play fluently at first sight is the most important. Those who wish to improve their sight-reading abilities should devote a few minutes each day to the playing of unfamiliar material. such material should be well within his technical grasp. No matter how slowly it may need to be played, the tempo should be kept even. It is only a matter of practice until one can read music as easily as a book or a newspaper.

In general, accompaniments should be softer than the voices. For this reason it is sometimes erroneously thought that the organ should never be heard above the choir. When the organ part is written independent of the voice parts, the organ is equal in importance with the choir part, being a sort of organ and choir duet. On the other hand, when the instrument plays the same notes as are sung by the voices, then the accompaniment should be used only to support the voices.

To accompany hymn-singing well is a fine art. The sounds of the organ should reflect the general sentiment of the hymn. The organ tone must be kept light enough so the people can hear themselves, and at the same time strong enough so that they feel some support for their voices. Too many changes in registration should not be indulged in. Hymns should be announced by the organ in the tempo in which they are expected to be sung. The organist should strive, together with the director, to maintain that tempo. But neither organist nor director should ask for an increase in tempo, once it is set. to do so is distracting to those who sing to worship.

Questions for Consideration

1. Is the organist receiving due courtesy and attention from the choir members and director at the time of the prelude?

2. In small wards and branches where pianos are now being used, are plans now under way toward the purchase of a reed organ?

3. Have we purged ourselves from the use of music which is foreign to the spirit of worship? Are we guilty of playing love music or operatic melodies?

4. Are our organists as regular, prompt, and dependable in their duties as is the bishop of the ward?

5. Does each organist know that church music is like drink to a thirsty soul, and that he will “in nowise lose his reward”? See Matthew 10:42.

6. How can choristers and organists co-operate with respect to tempos, dynamics, and mutual understandings?

7. Let four organists be assigned to prepare and present at an organ examples of effective prelude, postlude, and sacramental music.

8. Announcement. The subject for treatment at the fourth meeting will be “What is the Matter with Choral Singing?” Both organists and choristers should be prepared to discuss their opinions together.

9. Bibliography to be consulted: The Organist’s Manual, by Tracy Y. Cannon; Organ Voluntaries, by Alexander Schreiner; Devotional Organ Album, by Frank W. Asper.



  1. “Sacramental music”?

    “The postlude may be played fairly loud”

    That was the theory of organ playing that I learned somewhere along the line: play calm, quiet music beforehand and something energetic afterwards to get people moving out of the chapel. In practice, I’ve found it depends on the congregation and meeting.

    If the congregation is being loud before the meeting, sometimes if the organist does something out of the ordinary — a long pause may work, or a change in tone or volume — it can help draw attention away from noisy conversations and toward the upcoming meeting. It’s usually appropriate to play prelude as if you were in a temple chapel, but not always. Every now and then, and especially for Stake Conferences, a spirit of rejoicing could be just the thing.

    And the postlude will be based on how the meeting’s gone. If it was a peaceful, spirit-filled meeting, you might want a quiet, meditative closing; if it was a normal meeting, you’d want something energetic, and for Easter you’d always want something grand.

    Comment by Amy T — February 4, 2014 @ 6:52 am

  2. “No number should be used that has secular connotations, such as operatic melodies or love songs.”

    I suspect that he might just have been ex-Asper-ated at some of the tunes that made it into the 1948 hymnal.

    Such as numbers 27, 37, 57, 102, for starters.

    (But he must have been pleased that the English hymnal avoided “My Jesus, As Thou Wilt” which is set to a tune from Weber’s opera “Der Frei­schütz.” That was, though, a favorite of the Japanese saints.)

    Comment by Mark B. — February 4, 2014 @ 7:33 am

  3. I think maybe he had heard too many songs like “I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill,” which we saw listed in one set of minutes as a musical number in a sacrament meeting …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 4, 2014 @ 7:39 am

  4. My mother remembers an October sacrament meeting during the 1970’s where the featured musical selection was a piano piece entitled, “Witches Ride on their Broomsticks” (or something like that).

    Comment by Lisa — February 4, 2014 @ 8:25 am

  5. In youth choir we sang “The Weed” which is Handel-like description of smoking tobacco. In sacrament meeting. The choir director was 16 years old, and I guess no one asked what we were preparing or they didn’t want to discourage her. That one can miss Ardis’s history books.

    I later sang that one with a quartet in college as a comedy in a talent show.

    Comment by Carol — February 4, 2014 @ 8:27 am

  6. Mark B.,

    27 and 37 were retained in the 1985 hymnal. Also still in the 1985 are Softly now the light of day (Weber’s Oberon) and Jesus, Once of Humble Birth (Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto).

    But we are missing 236 from the old book (Captain of Israel’s Host – Rossini) although it made it into the new Italian hymnbook.

    Frank Asper didn’t live to see the new hymnbook, so he would not have known that one of his best hymns, Take Courage, Saints (167 in the old book) was removed. Seven of his hymns are still there, although, unfortunately, most of them are not sung very often.

    Comment by Bill — February 4, 2014 @ 9:41 am

  7. My great-grandmother told me a story that she remembered from her childhood. The organ in her chapel required not only the organist to play it, but also another brother whose calling was to work the manual air pump that drove air through the pipes (might also have been a reed organ, I don’t know). One Sunday, the conducting bishopric member thanked the organist and the chorister, but neglected to thank the pump operator. When the time came for the Sacrament hymn, the organist and chorister arose, but the pump operator remained firmly seated and staring at the brethren on the stand. Only after the bishopric member rose again, and recognized this brother’s contribution to the music, did the meeting continue.

    Comment by Matt — February 4, 2014 @ 10:24 am

  8. “The Weed” is a hilarious baroque parody by K.L. Hicken, and was printed in Sing a New Song, a collection published in 1971 by the Western Music Press. My mom picked up her copy from a ward library giveaway box. I saw three used copies are available on Amazon.

    Comment by Bill — February 4, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

  9. I like Amy T’s comments about selecting prelude and postlude music.

    Now, time to go Google that weed song . . .

    Comment by David Y. — February 4, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

  10. I googled it and got a lot of stuff about marijuana. Looking up K.L. Hicken gets you to her stuff, but it’s out of print.

    BUT, I found my copy. It’s just as inane and funny now. I can’t imagine that we did it with straight faces in church, but I’m sure no one else had a straight face, unless it was sternly disapproving. I can scan it if anyone wants a copy.

    Comment by Carol — February 4, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

  11. Uh, YEAH …

    I mean, Please. Thank you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 4, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

  12. I’m going to agree with Amy T and prelude music. When I play the prelude and the congregation gets too noisy, I start playing the music louder and louder, then abruptly pull back to very very soft. That usually shuts down the din.
    I have another trick that I was taught more than 60 years ago when I was being taught to play (Ardis will love this one). Always stay about 1/2 beat ahead of the chorister.There is always a slight delay between when the chorister gives a beat and when the congregation hears the note and when they sing and when it gets back to the chorister. By always playing just barely ahead of the beat I can keep the chorister up to his/her starting tempo, and if she/he consistently start out slow, I can usually gradually increase the tempo.

    Comment by Maurine — February 4, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

  13. Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s when I was ward and stake music chairman and/or organist, the handbook said that hymns were NOT to be used as prelude music. Several years ago (probably a newer music committee) we were told that prelude music should consist mainly from the hymns.

    I remember one time when a ward music chairman wanted to have a special choir number that several of the choir members felt was inappropriate. I wasn’t sure what to tell them. The number was not a religious song, but I didn’t think it was unappropriate. I contacted Michael Moody, the church music chairman. He said that I had to realize that we were in an area where people were not as culturally taught as in other areas in the church and that sometimes the wards had to be instructed slowly to know what was ok and what wasn’t. (not his exact words) Then he said, “You can’t have only meat with every meal. Sometimes you need to have dessert.”

    Comment by Maurine — February 4, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

  14. It is interesting that frequent practice at sight-reading is supposed to develop fluency. What if it doesn’t? What if the pianist or organist really needs time to learn the music before the choir first tries to sing it. Sometimes the music director must think ahead–or find a better organist–or play it himself or herself. Sorry organist’s wife’s rant ended.

    Comment by LauraN — February 5, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

  15. Hear ya, sister (LauraN)! Unless the choir director can’t read music, doesn’t care that s/he can’t read, picks music nearly at random a few minutes before choir practice with no comprehension of how all those little black notes on the page relate to the accompanist or what all those extra squiggles and symbols are, and is not interested in learning! – and then just can’t figure out why people who actually know what they’re doing won’t participate in choir. The organist used to email occasional gentle suggestions weeks and months ahead of time, to no avail. Oh, wait, I forgot: callings are for the purpose of developing hidden talents. Must mean acompanists’ patience. Or maybe the ward’s.

    Comment by Chris — February 6, 2014 @ 8:03 am