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CNP Feedback - Organ Overload?

Q. Dear CNP:

I was invited to my granddaughter's baptism at a nearby Catholic church. I tried to attend the Mass preceding the baptism. I was sitting at the back of the church, and when the organ began to play, it was impossible to hear the words that were being sung because the organ was playing too loud. I ended up going outside because I was having a hard time dealing with the headache and the ringing in my ears.

I was told by several people as I stood outside, "Yes, other people have complained that the organist plays too loud, but nothing is ever done about it."

If the organist is deaf, the parishioners should not be subjected to music too loud for safety regulations at a rock concert.

Certainly, the priests are employees and should not be routinely subjected to industrial noise in their workplace that exceeds 100 decibels.

I went to the OSHA web site, but as I am neither an employee nor former employee of the church, I apparently have no formal standing to file a complaint. Before I attend that church again, I will be certain to pick up some industrial quality ear plugs at a local gun shop.

I feel the organ in 75% of churches I have attended is too loud. I have a headache after leaving a Mass.

Dessa Belle

A. Dear Ms. Belle:

That's quite a diatribe! This issue of "too-loud" organ music is not uncommon, in many denominations. Personally, and in talking with fellow organists, I've heard a lot of these complaints. There is likely some truth on both sides of the argument — there is also irrational thinking involved. I don't know you, Ms. Belle, and I don't personally know the parish you attended [which was mentioned by name in your original email question]. Let me make a few general comments.

First I'll speak to organists. Registrations used for congregational singing must always be loud enough to support the singing, without overpowering the voices. Remember that there are different types of hymns, even ones that might be used as Entrance Hymns. A sturdy registration that is useful for "Praise to the Lord" may not be what is needed for "The King of Love My Shepherd Is." Even on strong, majestic hymns like "Crown Him with Many Crowns," every verse should not be the same volume level. Save the mixtures and/or reeds for the last verse perhaps. Playing incessantly with these "spicy" stops would be like adding hot pepper sauce to everything you cook.

Have you ever had someone play the organ, using a typical hymn registration, while you sit in various pews to listen? You may be amazed at how different the organ can sound when you move away from the bench.

The more people there are at Mass, the more sound is absorbed and covered. If you use the same registrations at the 7:30 am Mass that you would at the 11:00 "Family Mass" (with babies and children), the organ will sound much too loud at the early, less crowded Mass.

If you hear a complaint about the organ being too loud, assume that the critic is trying to be constructive (although some are not). Seek details. Find out when the organ was too loud. Only in the most extreme cases could I imagine that it was overbearing for the entire Mass — and that would indicate to me that the person on the bench doesn't know what he's doing. Was the Entrance Hymn too loud? Or better, was it the last verse of the Entrance Hymn? Was the cantor's accompaniment on the psalm verses too loud?

Another important detail: Where was the critic sitting? You as the organist know the sound sources, be they pipes or speakers. You even know where the loudest stops are located. Was the critic smack dab in front of the Trumpet stop, or sitting right next to the speakers. Sometimes the paths that sound travels create odd "hot spots" that are unusually louder than others.

Now let's speak to the critic. Are you aware that there are louder and softer places in the church. The last row could easily be the loudest place, if the organ pipes or speakers are in the back of the church. When you said, "it was impossible to hear the words being sung" because the organ was too loud ... were you singing? Was anyone else singing? Was the organ too loud ... or were the people not doing their part? Remember, you were sitting in the back of the church.

What's your own tolerance for noise? Do you wear any hearing devices? Do you only listen to radio? Do you ever hear live concerts? If the extent of your musical playlist is "easy listening," then it's not surprising that organ music, even if presented well, would be somewhat shocking to your ears.

How many symphony orchestras would survive if they only played "soft" music? The beauty of music engages the full aural spectrum — and this is even more applicable to organ music, which has a greater frequncy range than an orchestra.

If you're going to complain about the music, and take on the role of critic (which you have a right to do), please be specific about your critique. It won't do a restaurant any good if a diner simply says, "I hated my meal." What did you hate? Was the soup salty? Was the steak overdone? Was the pasta mushy? Was the baked potato raw? These are constructive criticisms.

What doesn't help is simply saying, "The organ is too loud!" There are times when the organ needs to be loud, so the organist needs to know when you felt it was overpowering. As mentioned above, tell the organist where you were sitting. He may be able to recommend a better location. If this alternate seating suggestion puts you off, then your entire criticism is suspect. Do you really want to improve the overall situation, or do you want "quiet music exactly where I want to sit"?

Normally we at CNP don't print many questions that come in like this one. But we think it's important for folks to realize that it may not be the organist's stubbornness or intransigency that leads to conflicts. Very often tensions arise from irrational thinking and behavior outside the organ loft. Comments like, "If the organist is deaf..." and "...industiral noise that exceeds 100 decibels..." and "I will be certain to pick up some industrial quality ear plugs at a local gun shop..." are not conducive to civil discourse.

By the way, I did some research on the parish in question. It seems like a very caring place: they support Catholic Charities, Project Rachel, and even list in the bulletin which upcoming Masses will have incense and which will not, for the benifit of those who may be allergic. They have active RCIA and RCIC programs, Youth Groups, various choirs, a solid devtional program including Adoration, Novenas and Rosary. They have good education programs and promote vocations. The music director doesn't appear to be hard-of-hearing, and looks rather young (30s?). I doubt that this parish would intentionally inflict overbearingly loud organ music on their congregation. A kind, frank comment to the organist (not just the pastor) may have a profound effect. If the organ music is really "irrationally" loud, which is possible, it may be (as I mentioned above) because the organist doesn't know any better. So critic ... do you really want to make a difference? Find out what training the organist has. If it's lacking, offer to pay for a lesson with one of the local organists you admire!

[Also see Too Loud!].

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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