Category Archives: Articles

Olympia Chapter Holy Week Recital

The Olympia AGO Chapter sends along this invitation to a virtual recital that includes Tacoma AGO member Dennis Northway.

The Olympia, WA Chapter of the AGO (American Guild of Organists)  usually offers daily lunchtime organ recitals during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter).  This year, due to the pandemic, we decided to condense our efforts into one virtual concert video.  We hope to resume in-person recitals next year, but this year we’d like to present the following video, with a rare chance to see a number of local Olympia Organs, and a number of talented local organists. 

Please enjoy!, and do pass on the following link to anyone who may be interested:  https://youtu.be/WiuKG6suACw

Musings on the AGO Service Playing Exam: My Experience as an assistant Proctor

I recently assisted the proctor during an exam for the Service Playing Certificate offered by the American Guild of Organists. This was the first time I’d ever been present at an AGO certification exam, and have never embarked on this journey myself. This led me to reflect on medieval guilds and about how, during the Middle Ages, knowledge, skill, and artistry was handed down from master to apprentice. Apprentices would become journeymen, and then would eventually become masters themselves. For a quick but interesting history refresher, click here. First established in 1896, the AGO has its roots in this system.

The exam was held on a dreary Saturday morning at the Church of the Visitation in South Tacoma. As I entered the nave, a faint aroma of incense greeted me. The sweetness of the little Wicks in the gallery, its sonorous principal chorus, and the acoustics of the building itself are a conversation for another time. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I learned that the requirements of this certification are as follows:

  • Play three organ pieces chosen from a list of works from different historical periods. For example, your pieces might be a fugue from one of Bach’s Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, a movement by Mendelssohn, and a short contemporary work.
  • Choose two hymns from the 2013 Revised AGO Examination Hymn Booklet, and play two stanzas of each as though accompanying a congregation.
  • Transpose a hymn, again from the AGO Hymn Booklet, no more than a whole step up or down (you can choose the hymn and work it out in advance).
  • Play the accompaniment to a psalm chant, taken from the AGO Hymn Booklet.
  • Play two anthems chosen from those listed in the certification requirements.
  • Sight-read a short passage of music.

Holy-moly, I thought, this is a bit challenging! Although I was a church musician for at least 25 years, I’m not sure I ever transposed a hymn without first writing it out unless it was from E flat major to E major. Nor, did I ever accompany Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol on the organ, which is one of the anthems on the AGO list of options for anthem accompaniment (if it counts, I did accompany it on piano, while conducting the choir with my eyebrows).

The process was interesting and a bit unnerving. Since the examination is sent to the AGO and is evaluated by two national examiners, it needed to be recorded. The proctor followed a script and announced which part of the exam was happening next. The tone was serious and professional.

The whole experience made me think about completing the Service Playing Certification as a fun project if the Coronavirus hijacks another year of our lives. It also made me wonder how many church organists apply for this certification each year, and whether AGO certifications are as prestigious today as they were 40 years ago. These ponderings brought a wave of sadness as I remembered all the esteemed organists I’ve known, some of whom are no longer with us, who have had the initials F.A.G.O. after their names. Should we expect more from our church organists, and how should this be monitored and evaluated? How can we expect consistent professional standards for church musicians if they aren’t being compensated equitably for their education and time?

This one-hour experience opened up a whole file of memories and questions. The questions aren’t easily answered, but I’m grateful that there are still organizations with formal certifications for organists, and I have a  new admiration for the organists who undertake this journey.

For a link to the AGO’s site on Service Playing Certification and other certifications, click here.

Interesting Facts about Guilds, Masters, Apprentices, and Journeymen

Adapted from Wikipedia

The guild was made up by experienced and confirmed experts in their field of handicraft. They were called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he had to go through a schooling period during which he was first called an apprentice. After this period he could rise to the level of journeyman. Apprentices would typically not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild’s or company’s secrets.

Like journey, the distance that could be traveled in a day, the title ‘journeyman’ derives from the French words for ‘day’ (jourand journée) from which came the middle English word journei. Journeymen were able to work for other masters, unlike apprentices, and generally paid by the day and were thus day laborers. After being employed by a master for several years, and after producing a qualifying piece of work, the apprentice was granted the rank of journeyman and was given documents (letters or certificates from his master and/or the guild itself) which certified him as a journeyman and entitled him to travel to other towns and countries to learn the art from other masters. These journeys could span large parts of Europe and were an unofficial way of communicating new methods and techniques, though by no means all journeymen made such travels — they were most common in Germany and Italy, and in other countries journeymen from small cities would often visit the capital.

The Painter’s Guild, 1675, Jan de Bray.

After this journey and several years of experience, a journeyman could be received as master craftsman, though in some guilds this step could be made straight from apprentice. This would typically require the approval of all masters of a guild, a donation of money and other goods (often omitted for sons of existing members), and the production of a so-called “masterpiece,’ which would illustrate the abilities of the aspiring master craftsman; this was often retained by the guild.

Preview of April Meeting

Kyle Haugen: The Cantor’s Work in Pandemic Times

What has it been like to start a position in March 2019 and have COVID hit in March 2020? By this April, Kyle Haugen, full-time cantor at Queen Anne Lutheran Church, Seattle, will have spent his first year there in person, nurturing a vibrant community, and the second year under the restrictions of remote worship. Kyle shares observations and insights on a journey where half of his tenure has been without in person community. He will also demonstrate the splendid Robert Wech organ, installed in 2010 (with its tenth anniversary occurring during the pandemic). We invite you to join us for a hopeful perspective as we look towards a return to in person music ministry with our congregations.

Managing COVID-19 Risk as an Organist

As the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved, so have scientific opinions concerning infection risk. Because the virus was initially thought to be primarily transmitted by surface contact, masks were not recommended. The global supply of alcohol-based sanitizers was quickly depleted. Distilleries retooled to produce hand sanitizer instead of whiskey. Ironically, whiskey may have been more useful. Now it is clear that the virus is transmitted primarily, if not almost exclusively, by the inhalation of infected droplets and aerosolized particles in indoor spaces.

The infection rate has begun to drop, probably because of both the effects of effective public health messages and the increasing effects of vaccinations. Churches and universities are beginning to reopen, and organists, who have been largely relegated to Zoom, are beginning to return to an environment that may involve being in an enclosed space with other individuals.

Don’t be fooled, though. Even though buildings are reopening, the risk of COVID-19 is still very real. It is still a very dangerous disease with risks of long-term complications and death. It is still infectious–in fact, increasingly infectious with the rise of variant strains. Let’s take a look at how an organist can return to work safely.

Strategies to avoid infection

There are only three effective strategies to avoid contracting COVID-19: isolation, vaccination, and the proper use of effective masks. Organists, along with everybody else, should be vaccinated as soon as they can be. There is virtually no reason not to. It’s protective against infection and serious illness, and each vaccination will contribute toward defeating the pandemic. However, until sufficient numbers are immune, we will be wearing masks. Which masks we purchase and how we wear them could well determine the difference between life and death.

Masks are not created equal

It is probably true that any mask is better than no mask. Thin cloth masks that do not fit well probably still contribute to the safety of others in a room; however, they probably offer virtually no protection to the wearer. Cloth masks with multiple layers are better, but if they do not have an embedded wire to seal the mask around the nose, they are still not a good choice. An effective mask has to have enough layers to filter small droplets, and it has to fit well enough to prevent the exchange of gas around the edges of the mask. If you’re wearing a mask, you also need to breathe through the mask. If you can feel air escaping around your nose or around the edges of the mask, it is not protecting you, though again, it is probably still reducing the risk to those around you. Do not be fooled into thinking that you are safe if you go into a room with other people while wearing a thin cloth mask without a nose bridge.

The best masks are N95 masks. They filter at least 95% of airborne particles. However, they are also in short supply and still recommended only in healthcare settings. The best alternative is a KN95 mask. It meets the same standard as N95, but primarily in China. They were also initially depleted, but now are readily available on Amazon for $1 each. It is not necessary to use a new one for every occasion. They can be used unless damaged or until they no longer fit properly. You have to be a careful shopper, of course. There are counterfeit KN95 masks, but there are counterfeit N95 masks as well. The CDC has published an article providing guidance on the purchase of foreign masks. In addition, there are numerous reviews of masks on Amazon. If you’re going to be in a room with others, buy a real mask and wear it, and ask others to do the same.

Where are the risks?

Organs are mostly indoors. Therefore organists are mostly indoors. However, if attending an outdoor meeting or talking on the street, you have little to worry about as long as you maintain distance. There is almost no documented transmission of the virus in outdoor settings. Even the large recent outdoor demonstrations did not lead to a spike in transmission. If you get into a heated argument with a parishioner, yelling with your faces inches apart, you would be advised to wear a mask. However, keep in mind that you shouldn’t be getting into such situations in the first place.

Can you catch the virus from a toilet seat? Probably not except for unusual circumstances that are beyond the scope of this publication. How about from the door handle on your way in? From an organ keyboard? Again, time has demonstrated that the risk is very low. There is almost no documented transmission of the virus from surfaces, if any. In an article in The Lancet in July 2020, Emanuel Goldman pointed out that the risk of surface transmission was exaggerated. Subsequent articles, in particular, a paper by Australian researchers, became tabloid fodder as they appeared to demonstrate a prolonged risk of catching the virus from any number of surfaces. The predicted glut of infections from surfaces did not happen, however. In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Hygiene Theater is Still a Huge Waste of Time,” Goldman is quoted describing the Australian paper as a “greatest-hits compilation of research errors.” An editorial this month in Nature reiterates the idea that we are foolishly directing resources on “deep cleaning” when those resources would be better applied to vaccinations, ventilation, and masks.

The risk for organists (and almost everybody else) is being in an indoor space with others. The social distancing recommendation of six feet may be effective for large droplets, but it is known to be irrelevant for aerosolized particles. Aerosolized particles spread quickly throughout a room and can remain there for hours. Cigarette smoke is also composed of small particles carried through the air. Though the comparison is not exact, it is helpful to think about cigarette smoke when evaluating the risk of aerosolized particles. If you’re sitting in a church, properly socially distanced at six feet, and the closest person to you lit a cigarette, do you think you would smell it? You could also inhale aerosolized droplets expelled by that person as a result of coughing due to a viral infection (and smoking!). An N95 or KN95 mask, worn effectively, substantially reduces, but does not eliminate the risk. A cloth mask that leaves gaps around the nose does not.

What’s an organist to do?

Practicing alone in a closed church carries very low risk. If you’re practicing after other people have recently been in the room, you might consider waiting an hour or wearing your newly purchased KN95 mask to further reduce the risk of inhaling a residual aerosolized droplet. If the previous organist coughed on middle C 100 times (an analogy inspired by the previously referenced Atlantic article), you come in a few minutes later and begin to play Passacaglia in C Minor, but take a break to pick your nose, you might just inoculate yourself. However, again, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. Use a Kleenex. Wash your hands after you practice.

Meetings and church services up the risk considerably because they involve being with others in an indoor space. Still, you can take precautions to protect yourself and others. Wear your KN95 mask. You might also consider mask education for attendees. There appears to be no general public understanding that masks offer varying degrees of protection depending on their composition and how they’re worn. Even in the CDC’s recent requirement to wear masks on public transportation there is no real description of an effective mask except to say that it has to cover the nose and mouth. You might consider including a mask requirement in meeting notices stating that effective masks be purchased and worn at all times, without exception, in accordance with the guidelines published by the CDC.

Finally, what about choirs and congregational singing? The short answer is don’t do it. The idea that singers are safe without masks as long as they are separated by six feet is absurd. There is no way to make singing safe at this time; it should not resume until the pandemic is over. Asking people if they have symptoms is not effective; many infected persons spread the virus before they have symptoms. Taking temperatures has also been shown to be an ineffective screening tool. If you haven’t figured it out already, deep cleaning the choir loft is a waste of time. If, however, your job requires you to go into an indoor space where people are singing, remember that your new KN95 mask is your friend. If worn correctly and consistently, it should provide adequate protection from that coughing tenor.

The author is an organist, a retired physician, and Secretary of the Tacoma Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.