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Interviewing organists


justinf
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My (PCUSA) church here in North Carolina will soon be searching for an organist to replace a long-serving musician. Since the church is relatively small and hasn't any recent experience interviewing musicians, I am a little concerned that the session might get wowed by flashy playing and choose someone with weak fundamentals or poor accompanimental skills. For example, I have heard several people toss around the name of a young man who filled in a few times last year. They thought him very impressive, but I noticed he played many wrong pedal notes, did not articulate well in hymn playing, and seemed generally ill at ease at the organ. At the piano he seemed more comfortable, but he was unable to play scales during choir warm-ups and after a few mistakes resorted to playing major triads up the scale. A genuinely nice fellow, but not someone I would consider.

 

I will be forwarding some information on hiring and auditioning from the American Guild of Organists to the committee, but I thought I could do far worse than to ask this board for advice. Really, I suppose I'm asking how best to train them to understand what constitutes good organ playing and good choral accompaniment. I will suggest the committee enlist help from other congregations in our area (e.g. the organist or DOM from one of the larger churches nearby), and I was also thinking they might want to study one piece which (amongst other works) each candidate would play. A relatively simple piece, say 'Rhosymedre', could be a useful razor if the committee members each had a copy of the music, had been trained to know it backwards and forwards (articulation, phrasing, registration, rests, etc.), and were familiar with several good recordings. Certainly better than "My, what a great din that last guy made!"

 

As I understand it the session of church is pretty well free to make any decision they wish. I don't know whether it will be a good one, but do want it to be an informed decision. Even small churches deserve good music, otherwise they can end up as yet smaller churches and even disappear. Thank you all for your advice!

 

--Justin

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I am not sure how "in depth" you need to be for your new organist interview, but for what it's worth the following is taken from my own experiences. Obviously keeping the congregation 'on side' is of utmost importance, for the future support of music, so someone who leads hymns well - rhythmically, accurately, musically - is a top priority. It is sometimes a good idea to have a sensible member of the congregation at an interview - just to ensure that the new person is aware of the congregations support and desire for good music to continue, and at a high standard. If you have an assistant organist, include him/her on an interview committee - an organist who has never had an assistant may need to learn how to use one without causing friction between personalties. Does the organist have control of the choir? If so, the treasurer may like to know about his skills at controlling music purchases, dealing with budgets for organ maintenance, concert promotion, etc. If he/she runs the choir then a chorister is also useful on a committee - not necessarily the best singer, but someone who is good at personalities, is co-operative and sensitive to the potential new organists' temperament. I think some sight reading is a fair request, and certainly - as suggested above - playing of some contrasting hymns. Some churches do all this quite casually with just the rector and one other to chat with an applicant and then make a decison based on very little information. Other places have extensive interviews with a small committee of different church personnel and clear indications of what is expected. Done well it can show the applicant that a high standard is expected and that the church takes its music seriously, and rightly expects the organist to give of his best. Of course, if possible, playing for a Sunday service and/or taking a choir rehearsal is a good opportunity to see what people can do.

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Thank you, this is very helpful. To the extent that I can influence the interview process, I do want to make sure it is well organized and appropriately rigorous. I don't want the church to be a "cheap date" and settle too quickly or with too superficial an examination.

 

Thanks!

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A friend of mine applied, along with just two others, for the organist and choirmaster position at a small parish church near here. All three were invited as part of the interview to play for part of a choir practice involving just a couple of hymns and a psalm together with sight-reading an obscure Victorian anthem which the choir had already learned. Although this needs the co-operation of the choir it seemed to be a good way of assessing basic accompaniment skills.

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We recently did something very similar, inviting the 3 candidates to take a choir practice containing the music normally sung in service. This is what the post holder will do more often, leaving those of us who play the organ to do so, accepting that we may do this to a higher level, but that's what we're here for. What most matters for the post holder is to do what's necessary, well. Don't appoint a fantastic recital organist who can't accompany a basic morning mass with hymns. Likewise if most of their work will be spent with a choir training them, then veer in that direction, so long as they can manage service accompaniment adequately. Basically the first step is to decide exactly what you need, then test and appoint accordingly.

 

AJS

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I agree with the comments above. If there is a choir, I think the best solution is to get the short-listed candidates to take a choir practice each. Ask them to rehearse at least a hymn, a psalm and an anthem (or the Communion setting). Give them guidance, e.g. "I want you to play the hymn as if there is a congregation of 100 present", or "Assume the choir is going to sing the hymn while the congregation listen." Hear them play a solo piece, too, and perhaps give them such keyboard tests as may be required. That way you will get a feel for their people skills and how good they are at both leading worship and making music.

 

I would make a list for the committee members of the what you ideally want to hear, e.g. hymn playing strictly rhythmical and precise; registration unfussy, but at all times sensitive to the words, tempi lively or noble - whatever your norms are. And, afterwards, ask the choir how they felt about it.

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Having recently followed the implosion of a highly talented friend of mine with, unfortunately, a very prickly character, a lack of ability to get on with people and the belief that the world must run according to his perception, I'd make sure that I found out as much as I was able about applicant's interpersonal skills. It amazes me how many positions are filled without a quick phone call or two to check with referees and to talk with people at previous places of employment. I have also seen high prices paid for that lack of basic background checking!

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