Just two days ago, I was contacted about playing the organ at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Kailua this Sunday because their organist/choirmaster had resigned unexpectedly. But not only will I play their tracker organ — I was asked if I would conduct their choir too. Yes, I told Mother Giovan King, forty years ago I was the organist and choir director of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Aina Haina.
Back then, however, the choir was on one side of the chancel, and the organ console, with a plexiglass music rack, was on the other. (You might go back and re-read my hilarious adventure one Christmas Eve when my music fell off the rack when I turned the page too fast! The choir said I disappeared from their view as I bent down to pick up the music off the pedalboard! Click here for the post.)
But how does one conduct the choir from a tracker organ where the organist is facing the keyboard? How does one communicate with the choir when they are either on the side or worse yet, behind the organist facing into the nave? This very question was asked in a forum for church musicians called Musica Sacra. The questioner said that the choir “probably wouldn’t turn around and look at me even for cut-offs and stuff…but only tracker action organs existed for thousands of years! what did people do?
Ideally, you would have a separate person conducting the choir, and the organist could be equipped with mirrors or a closed-circuit TV screen. But many church economic realities dictate that there may be room in the budget for only one person, not two.
As I told a student of mine who is faced with the same problem, the most important part of this solution lies in the rehearsal. I will have to communicate what I want to the choral singers beforehand so that they know how to sing the piece without a conductor. The choir will have to conduct itself. Then when I occasionally have a hand free, I will able to show a cut-off or an entrance. In my organ introduction, I will convey the tempo and the registration (choice of organ stops) will convey the sound I want. Of course this is not ideal; in fact last summer there was an AGO workshop on conducting from the console and it was called “Mission Impossible: Console Conducting Techniques for the Ultimate Multi-Tasker.”
Wish me luck.