Make your own free website on

The Art of being a Substitute Organist v5.08

Merle D. Zimmermann

Being a substitute organist is not easy. The job is like lion taming—one failure and you are history. There are many challenges that the aspiring musician must meet, and none of them can be learned by practicing at home. I am a substitute organist for the Knollwood Memorial Chapel in DC, and have discovered the existence of a good number of these the hard way.

The Organ is a peculiar and unique instrument. It could easily be compared with some of the early home computers, with their arcane user-interfaces and command and control structures bordering on the ridiculous. Almost all of the smaller models of organ have multiple keyboards (technical name: Manuals), and most instruments also include an additional series of pedals that produce notes when you step on them. You can also change the quality of the sound produced by each manual with little trouble if you spend some time adjusting the many and various controls on the instrument. Unfortunately for the creative amongst us, a disproportionately large number of these configurations succeed only in producing notes that would be better suited to killing small insects. It is imperative that the organist be familiar with the feel of their control system before playing for a live audience.

The Organ at the Chapel that I work for is a Hammond model, equipped with many special "features" that allow you to do some quite surprising things (often accidentally). For instance, there is a hidden switch on the volume control pedal that converts the upper manual on the instrument to a poor imitation of an electric piano. Although pressing one of many (unlabeled) pushbuttons on the right side of the console can change the effect that the switch activates, it can never be deactivated entirely short of turning the organ off. Above the upper manual, there are a number of slide switches that turn on and off various and sundry triggers that can cause, for instance, the organ to suddenly start playing the drum/chord-backup line for the Rumba. This actually happened once while I was playing the postlude for one of my services. The entire congregation was staring at me throughout that whole afternoon and for a few weeks afterwards, wondering, starry-eyed, if something similar would happen again.

Besides the dangers residing on the instrument itself that confront the substitute organist, there are also many different non-technical problems that can occur. At this point I will give a few brief descriptions of events which actually happened to me at various points in my career. To start, I will consider the many hazards of playing for the same service too much.

Playing for the same service many times in a row is often easier than taking on a completely different setup than you are used to, but sometimes it actually turns out to be much more challenging. When you are unfamiliar with the routine that is used during a service, it is often the case that you stay alert the entire hour that it usually lasts. This is not always the case when encountering a situation that you have been in many times. Often, I have found, one’s thoughts tend to wander off into daydreams (especially during long (and dull) sermons). This can easily end up spelling disaster for the organist involved. In every service plan that I have played for so far, I have found that there are usually either musical interludes or hymns immediately after the sermon. For both of these the organist’s full attention is required. If the substitute organist falls asleep during a service, it is usually the end of their career (at least as a respected musician). For the organist, even the most familiar territory hides dangers that would normally be overlooked.

However difficult it is to perform at a familiar service, it is much more so when the substitute organist tries to play for a service that they have not had the opportunity to work at before. I have found it to be the case that the person or persons in charge of running the service smoothly often inadvertently omit a few essential details when they describe what the normal layout is. When these details arrive during the service the substitute organist is forced to use lightning reasoning and "play it by ear" until the unstable situation resolves (and hopefully the existence of the problem itself is not detected by anyone present if the organist plans to ever play in public again!).

One of the trickiest services to play for, in my experience, is the Memorial Service. The bereaved are often confused about what they really want as background music, which causes them to change their minds multiple times over the week or two preceding the actual date of the service itself. I actually played for one Memorial Service where I was called up at an ungodly hour of the night (less than 15 hours before I was going to perform!) and was given a completely new selection of hymns for the service the next day. Needless to say, I was forced to sightread all of the music in front of the weeping masses, which was a terrible physical and emotional strain. So far I have never been to a Memorial Service that didn’t have it in for me.

These things which I outlined here are by far not the only things that can go wrong during a service. There are an almost infinite number of mishaps that can happen which will terrorize or unnerve the helpless substitute organist— If you meet one, please try to help them as much as you can.

Return to index.html.