Play with your ears

PONTING_1911_Dog_Listening_to_Gramophone_Antartica-620x481The 2018 summer organ concerts at St Modwen’s finished last Wednesday. We went out with a bang.

The player was Ben Bloor, a kind-of-local lad, who’d been chorister and organ scholar at Derby Cathedral, then went on to organ scholarships in Oxford where he read music, Westminster Cathedral, St George’s Windsor, and Rochester Cathedral. He is now successor to Ralph Downes and Patrick Russill at Brompton Oratory—at the tender age of 27. He wears his virtuosic gifts with quiet affability, earthed humanity, and wry humour. He is someone who would have provoked in me, when I was his age, naked envy.

The concerts began in 2017 when the new organist, Tony Westerman, arrived. He has many contacts in the local organ scene and I said to him that it would be wonderful to have “a bit of culture”. I pretended that this was for the sake of the church and the town, but in truth my motivation was entirely selfish. It was I who wanted a bit of culture. Thanks to Tony’s organisational skills, I sure got it.

The concerts have been a remarkable and unexpected success. Burton is within 11 miles of two cathedrals with great musical traditions: Derby with its wonderful acoustic to the north-east, and Lichfield to the south-west. Coventry and Birmingham are not that far away either. So if Burtonians want organ music, they haven’t far to go.

I wasn’t expecting great numbers, and told people that I’d be happy if we made double figures. At the first 2017 concert there were, IIRC, over 30, and the most we had in that season was over 60. I’m told we sometimes had more than Lichfield Cathedral.

St Modwen’s has a number of things in its favour. It’s in the Market Square, in the middle of town. The organ is in the west gallery and speaks directly into the church—going full pelt it’s almost painfully loud. The console is at ground level and the organist can be seen, and can hear everything in proportion. But perhaps most significant was our insistence that the pieces played should be foot-tappingly tuneful. No forearm smashes. No tuneless crap. And the players have obliged with good heart. And hearts have been good. We’ve been blessed with organists, including professionals, willing to give their talents free, therefore indirectly for local charities. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Some players have been stunning, and most excellent. It doesn’t follow that professionals necessarily play better than amateurs. I would rather listen to a performance that’s passionate and in tune with the spirit of the music despite a few mistakes, than one that’s cold, clinical and flawless—and I’ve heard professionals give performances that have been exactly that, and certainly not worth the vast fees they charge.

Only two players were disappointing. It sounded as if they, quite simply, did not listen to the sound they produced. A good player always plays with his or her ears. S/he will listen to what s/he’s doing. In my half-century as a church musician and cleric I’ve heard organists who are transported in ecstasy to an Enid Blyton la-la land where the sun always shines and wrong notes are unknown. Rather than listen to what they’re actually doing, they “listen” to what they think they’re doing. I’ve “fond” memories of a Derbyshire village organist whose hands worked entirely independently of each other, and without any apparent neural connexion to the retinal impulses resulting from the black dots and squiggles of the printed music. I coped with this by singing very loudly so as to drown her out. It was truly w-o-e-f-u-l. She couldn’t be sacked since she was related to half the village and the pastoral consequences would have been seismic.

Back in the 1960s my piano teacher, Miss Julia Thompson, a very proper Penrith lady, constantly exhorted me “Stanley, you must always play with your ears”. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. I carried on with lessons until I went to Cambridge in 1969. A lumbering late teenage boy sat next to a bird-like epitome of propriety, alternately praising and chastising him, must have made a pretty picture. One of my most cherished memories was when Miss Thompson set me a Beethoven sonata (can’t remember which) and after listening to me for a few minutes, stopped me and, knowing that I was a good sight-reader, said “Stanley, have you done any practice this week?”

2 thoughts on “Play with your ears

  1. Nice to see St Modwen’s is putting some culture on the map. I love the story about the Derbyshire village organist. Did she ever appreciate your musical background ?

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