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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Too Loud!

by Gary D. Penkala

"The organ is too loud!" This is an umbrella complaint heard by many organists which often hides other complaints or masks real reason for displeasure. The pastoral-minded organist should discuss the problem with the complainer to get to the root of the matter. Exactly when was the organ too loud? Was this at 7:00am Mass or the formal 11:30 liturgy?

Often, absolute volume level is not the actual problem. Piercing mixtures may sound "louder" than dull flutes even though the decibel levels are the same. In registering organ music for preludes, offertories and postludes, organists must always be faithful to the composer's intent. Full pieces must be played full and loud; quiet pieces, soft. It is the duty of the pastoral organist to vary the style of pieces played so that the music is not always soft or loud; so a balanced repertoire is presented for worship. In service playing (hymn and responses), however, the organist has more freedom to choose appropriate registrations.

The following comments are offered by Roger Petrich in Journal of Church Music in an attempt to translate the criticism "too loud" into terms the pastoral organist can deal with.

  1. "The organ is too loud." Ask where the person was sitting and check out that spot while someone else plays. Perhaps there is a loud spot. Organists may be quite surprised at how different the organ sounds away from the bench. Adjust registrations accordingly or find the "soft" spot and suggest the person sit there.
  2. "The organ is too big." Perhaps this person thought the previous organ was good enough or this one is too costly. Remember that even the largest organ can be played one stop at a time. We are certainly wasting our instruments if we never use full organ, but we must also explore the full range of the instrument (which includes that quiet flute).
  3. "I don't like the music" Often people who say the organ is too loud really mean they don't like the selection of music. These same people may be quite comfortable with their radios or CDs at equal or greater volume levels. This is all really a matter of taste. Tastes can develop, but certainly not overnight. Exposure and familiarity shape musical tastes and patience is the ultimate key to success here.
  4. "The music all sounds the same." Do we as organists vary our hymn registrations or do they all sound "loud" to the congregation? An organist who uses only one registration for hymns is doing the people a disservice. Hymns can be as different as the organ literature we play as preludes. These demand more than some kind of "median" registration.
  5. "The organist is not listening to the singing." Too many of us play with our ears closed instead of listening carefully to the singing. Much experimentation is needed to find just the right combination of stops that will support and not overpower the singing. Loud hymn registrations are great on festive, well-known hymns. The same registration on a new hymn will be disastrous, as people, unsure of their part, will not compete with the organ. A better technique might be to solo the new melody on one manual with the bass line (alone) on the other. By all means keep experimenting ... at least until you hear, "I think the organ is too soft."

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