Can’t we have some new hymns?..  ones that we all know?

(All situations are based on real-life events, but character names are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living, dead or in-between is entirely coincidental.)

Hymn Books

“Can’t we have some new hymns? … ones that we all know?”

“What do you mean, Mrs Forthright?”

“Well…I know we had a new one last week – but nobody knew it”

“NEW? But it was written in 1545”

“Well, I didn’t know it…”

“It is rather difficult finding new ones that people already know… but I suppose I could try tunes that are really well-known and fit old, traditional words to it, perhaps?”

“How do you mean?….”

“Well – we could do… I don’t know… maybe, off the top of my head…  ‘Hark the Herald’ to the tune of ‘The Birdie Song’ ? It certainly fits, listen..

(stmarysorganist then sings to Mrs Forthright, tongue-firmly-embedded-in-cheek):

“Hark the Herald angels sing, Hark the Herald angels sing – to the new-born king NA-NA-NA-NA”

(Mrs Forthright’s glare could strip paint).

I can’t possibly go into the hymns versus choruses arguments here – it is neither a new debate, nor one which will ever have a satifactory conclusion. Each style becomes a valid form of worship in the hearts of the worshipper, however simplistic the language and the music or complex and skilfully-written the offering may be.

But, how many times have you as an organist tried “THE ALTERNATIVE TUNE?” (- and lived to tell the tale!)

I remember clearly in my younger days, one service where for “When I survey the wondrous cross”, I changed the traditional tune of “Rockingham” for “O Waly, Waly”- both very beautiful and appropriate tunes for this hymn – or so I thought! It seemed to have gone down swimmingly and passed without comment, until I finished the final voluntary, and turned round to see a deputation of two gentlemen wishing to speak to me.

I quickly realised that Mr Allin-Tweed, the first gentlemen, was not there to enquire after my well-being or to share any Sunday-morning pleasantries.

“YOUNG MAN…” he exclaimed as he drew himself to his imposing full height, (I soon realised this was not going to be a pleasant moment). “HOW DARE YOU change the tune to ‘When I survey’. Whose prepostrous idea was that?….Yours, I guess?..That hymn MUST always have the old tune…”

Then, amidst much finger-pointing and angry gesticulations he gave me several reasons why I had goofed big-time, not understanding traditions, selling-out to ‘new-fangled ideas’…etc

I gave up attempting any verbal response other than the occasional “but..”, and all eye contact with my assailant ceased – I resorted to humbly looking at my dirty scuffed organ shoes and listened to proclamations of how I would probably never work again in a church, and after that, would suffer in eternity for such a sin.

When I bravely did catch his eye again, he had a look in it that would have not looked out of place on “Crimewatch”, and so I was mentally preparing my acceptance speech for my inevitable P45. Without formalities, he marched off leaving me to contemplate a possible career change.

UNTIL…. Gentleman no 2 came over, (who had been clearly out of ear-shot of the last barrage). I steeled myself for a losing battle, but NO – he clasped both of my hands in his, and passionately exclaimed with tear-stained-eyes:

“Adrian – thank you SO MUCH for that inspired tune to ‘When I survey’…. OH! It made me consider the meaning of the words like I never have before, and opened up the true essence of the message – HOW REFRESHING! Beautiful – truly beautiful!”

A very valuable lesson to learn – how to exasperate and exhilerate at the same time!


So – how many tunes can you fit to the ‘old words’? Just take “While shepherd’s watched”, for example. There may be outrage if you strayed from the traditional ‘Winchester Old’ (written 1592), in your church, but next door they may prefer ‘Christmas’ (from ‘Siroe’ by G F Handel 1728). Or ‘Cranbrook (1805) – the legendary ‘On Ilkley moor baht ‘at’ (one of my all-time naughty favourites!).

So it comes back to YOUR decision, based on your experience, years of training, musical tastes and most importantly, your wifes list of favourites!

So – next time you are tempted to change the tune or introduce something new – tread carefully, prepare – and have the car revving up in the churchyard ready for your escape….

And remember, Mr Allin-Tweed may be watching you…!


The ebook of stmarysorganist

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An Organist is for Life, not just for Christmas!

“Which descants are we doing this year – Ledger, Willcocks or Cleobury?”

So here we all are, one year on and wondering how best to portray the coming of our Lord and Saviour, humbling Himself to being born in a mucky stable – using our gift of music, in a carol service which should leave our congregations leaving with a newly-fired zeal and ‘on-fire’ for the Lord.

Or do we just give everybody what they expect to hear and experience, for their ‘once-a-year’ trip to the church. Another “Christmas-must-do”, to be ticked off the list along with turkey, presents, cards, a carol service, Queen’s speech…. Eastenders Christmas Omnibus Special?

IMG_0025 Adrian with bear

After all, who is all this for? As organists we are in a position to  try to satisfy all of those who enter into the church for … “The Carol Service”. But consider this – every person who comes into your church, chapel or cathedral has an idea of of what THEY expect to happen, often based on past wonderful Carol Services they have experienced!

Do we, as organists, also have a desire to recreate fantastic musical experiences that occurred years ago?

For me – my formative years were fashioned in St Peters’ Choir, Wolverhampton, and also some other life-changing experiences with the RSCM Midland Cathedral Singers and RSCM Cathedral Courses.

Here, I experienced music in worship on a spiritual and emotional level which moulded me anew and would be difficult to ever replicate. This was later honed by experiencing the Choral services of Durham Cathedral Choir, which left me in a state of permanent exhilaration for my three undergraduate years, forever ” lost in wonder, love and praise!”

I’ve also been spiritually uplifted and profoundly moved by worship bands, inspired by people just doing their very best in what they do, and been reduced to a tear-stained, quivering, blubbering wreck by one man and his guitar – yes, my friends, his name was Graham Kendrick!

So now – what is MY responsibility to those entering our church this Christmas? Do I impose on the congregation what I think they OUGHT to need to heighten their experience of Christmas? It could be to let them ‘feel-at-home’ with a selection of pop-tunes, or to raise their experience to the lofty heights of “Dieu Parmi Nous” (Messiaen).

Does it really boil down to ‘Shakin Stevens’, ‘Slade’ or ‘Bach’?

For our Carol Services, we base our music around the central readings of the Christmas story, so anyone ‘coming-in-from-the-cold’ will get the clear Gospel message of Christmas. Our choirs are rehearsing the carols which we hope will enlighten and affect our congregations, and will have also heightened our own experience of preparing for Christmas.

I shall have the privilege and pleasure of playing for several different carol services throughout the next two weeks – some, where the church will be full of parishioners no doubt visiting the church for their annual visit, and others for whom their life may be changed and will never be the same again.

So – what choice to play on Christmas Day itself? At St Mary’s, we shall all celebrate together the birth of Jesus Christ, in a service where the style of music should not, and will not matter. What does matter is that we consider what we are playing, and then to do what we do to the very best of our ability, to lead our singers and congregations closer to worshipping God.

Whether it is “Come and join the celebration”, or “Dieu Parmi Nous”, tambourine or ukulele, it simply does not matter – “Jesus Christ is born today” – now, THAT MATTERS!

To all organists who are celebrating Christmas this year, let me say “pull out the exta Great Reed” – and enjoy celebrating the birth of our Saviour!….


IMG_0028 Bear on organ 2


The ebook of stmarysorganist

Click on the link below

Book Cover New Small