Scott Joplin Goes To Church
Look at this gorgeous church. Notice the pipe organ underneath the beautiful stained glass window? This was the site of my debut organ performance in high school. Boy, was it a performance to remember.
My childhood piano teacher (the same one that got me to start composing) thought it would be a great idea for me to get some experience on the organ. So, she asked me to register for a one day seminar held at North Meridian Methodist Church (pictured) in Indianapolis.
At the start of the day, the other teenagers enrolled at said event were holding scores of the greatest organ composers: Buxtehude, Bach, Handel, etc. I was empty handed. As we were waiting in the large vestibule exchanging niceties with one another, the leader of the conference came in and said”Ok, circle up! We have a getting to know you game.”
To tell you the truth, it wasn’t much of a game: “Please say your name, how long you have been a Christian, where you go to church, and how long you have played the organ.”
Uh-oh………….I had to go last.
“Hi. I’m Tyler. I’m not a Christian. I don’t go to church and I have never played the organ.”
My response to the “game” did not sit well with basically every one in attendance.
Needless to say, for the rest of the day I was drowning in organ ignorance (I still am) and busy figuring out what I was going to perform on the afternoon recital (which I was informed of that morning). THAT’S WHY THEY HAD SCORES IN THEIR HANDS!!! So, in true Tyler form, rather than say “I’d prefer not to participate” I decided the best course of action was to play something I had played a million times before: Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”
I had about twenty minutes slotted to practice on the organ (remember the beautiful church?). While the others used their time to select the specific stops and adjust to the nuances of this particular organ, I spent the entire time improvising a pedal part. My particular setting was “pull out all the stops.”
If you are not familiar with this piece, it’s a pretty upbeat work. My performance (loosely based on Joplin’s work with all the wrong notes found in my newly created pedal part) would not have registered as Maple Leaf Rag on the app “Shazam.” (This was before smart phones and thankfully freely distributed fail videos) It might, on the other hand, have registered in your mind as some psychedelic horror movie soundtrack. Might I suggest Pennywise the Clown chasing you in an indoor carnival through a carousel, dimly lit by a flickering strobe light?
If one played “Maple Leaf Rag” on the piano at the correct tempo, it takes a little less than three minutes. I could imagine the five minutes it took me to slog through the first two sections (not the whole song) was five minutes in hell for those organ scholars that day. While they sat in torment, I was having a blast. Wrong notes and all.
I finished my performance, bowed and walked straight out the front door. My 1991 Bonneville roared to life and I drove away before I had a chance to speak with anyone. After all, I was sixteen and I had the freedom to do so. I have played the organ publicly two times since and believe me, it was because there was no other option. One was for the Phi Mu Alpha ritual at MTSU and another was for a church service accompanying my wife in a historic building in the country which had no piano.
Since my debut debacle on the organ, I accepted Christ and was baptized. I then pursued a short career in Church Music. (Thankfully I always had an organist to collaborate with and was never in a situation where I had to play.) My first real church job included directing a youth choir. It was this group that helped me fall in love with teaching and ultimately change careers.
I love this time of year. With my continually deepening faith, I find more meaning in the fabulous catalog of songs that serve as the soundtrack of the season. One song I have always loved is “O Holy Night”. In 2012, I created an arrangement for the combined choirs of the Nashville Children’s Choir. It was performed at their Christmas Concert in the beautiful McAfee Concert Hall at Belmont University under the direction of Robert King. Hearing the arrangement performed by this many young people in a gorgeous space was truly a mountaintop experience for me.
Since everyone and their cousin has arranged “O Holy Night” for their Christmas Cantata, I tried my best to create a fresh experience for the listener. The piece begins with the SATB choir singing an A Cappella pedal tone to establish the tonality. Then as the youngest children’s choir enters, the SATB expands into four part harmony on neutral syllables. The piano accompaniment slyly sneaks in without any thought to the formulaic writing that usually pervades this work. With each subsequent phrase, the two older choir enter creating a crescendo that leads to the chorus of “fall on your knees.” The Nashville Youth Choir gets a turn in the spotlight for the “sweet hymns of joy” verse in some non-traditional voice leading and allusions to simple meter.
Wherever you find yourself in your faith journey this Christmas, enjoy this recording and please, do not contact me to play organ at your relative’s wedding.