A few years ago on my old blog, I shared some anecdotes relating to my many years as a church organist in Johannesburg. Sometimes I really miss the adrenaline pumping experiences which punctuated my life during that period.
It all started when one of my best friends decided to confer on me the honour of playing the organ for her son’s wedding. I was more of a pianist than an organist, and the finger technique is quite different for the two instruments. It’s also far more tricky, as with an organ you’re supposed to have your feet pressing the pedals at the same time, and of course you can’t be watching your feet to see if they play the right ones, so it can be a bit hit and miss. I diligently practised playing all the pieces over and over, and had sleepless nights before this my wedding debut. Fortunately I got through the bridal march and hymns without any mistakes, but after playing the quite challenging Mendelssohn Recessional, I felt like a wrung out dishrag. To my surprise and horror, I soon started receiving regular requests to play for local weddings, and most Saturdays found me on the organ bench witnessing the ‘joining together in holy matrimony’ of dozens of starry eyed young couples embarking on life’s greatest adventure. It never ceased to amaze me that they entrusted me, a complete stranger, with the music for this most important of life’s ceremonies, and more often than not left the choice to me, as long as I could sing it down the phone to them. After a while, I discovered that it wasn’t all smooth sailing and there’s so much that can go wrong; like when the bride was just about to make her entrance to the strains of Wagner’s ‘Here Comes the Bride’, there was a crash of thunder and the power cable got struck by lightning. I had to rush across the church and continue playing the stately march on the ancient out-of-tune piano which was only there because nobody had thought to get rid of it. As you can imagine, it was quite embarrassing for me as well as a bit of a let-down for the wedding party, who luckily didn’t ask for a discount.
The very worst experience, and looking back on it, the funniest I ever had, was when I was playing quiet and relaxing music whilst the bridegroom and wedding guests were waiting for the bride to arrive. The organ was down a couple of steps in a sort of well at the front of the church. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed that someone was approaching me down the side aisle, when suddenly a rather large lady in a big hat, fell down the steps which she hadn’t realised were there, right onto the organ, hitting all the stops and buttons with her outstretched hands and then landing heavily on the pedals. Well that certainly woke everyone up! What a cacophony of sound, as it brought in the trumpets, percussion and most everything else you can think of. People stopped chatting and glared at me in stunned amazement and indignation, and I nearly fell off my perch in fright. After I had helped her up, I found out that the rather shaken lady was the bride’s mother who had just come to bring me a small thank you gift and card. I don’t know which one of us was the more embarrassed, but it took us both some time to regain our equilibrium.
Then there was the time when I spied a HUGE ‘Parktown Prawn’, which is a South African King Cricket, scuttling around underneath the organ pedals. These insects are on my list of most horrific critters which are to be avoided at all costs.
My first reaction was to jump up and run screaming down the aisle, but I had a duty to perform and as the saying goes, “the show must go on.” What an absolute nightmare and not one which I could share with my audience. The adrenaline was certainly pumping, but I had to refrain from screaming, as it’s not something wedding organists are expected to do. I never saw the creature again, but I was always on the look out for it and the rest of its family, when seated on that particular organ bench.
I usually played for about fifteen minutes before the bride arrived, but on one occasion it stretched to almost an hour and a half, as the bride’s uncle had taken the wrong road and was on his merry way to ‘Timbuktu’ instead of the church. A search party was dispatched, and eventually one of the groomsmen found the lost sheep and brought him back to the fold, but not before my poor fingers were almost falling off, and my sizable repertoire just about exhausted. I then still had to play all the wedding music and didn’t get paid for my extra time either. On another occasion, the bride forgot her bouquet at home, and someone had to rush off to get it whilst I of course was left to entertain the fidgety congregation.
I’ve seen several brides faint, a few rings misplaced, and also witnessed some very strange wedding attire, like the bride who got married in black whilst her groom was all in white. There was a six foot bridesmaid looking very Goth, in a black witch-like outfit complete with hat, black lipstick, and sporting ‘Doc Martins’ on her rather large feet. I’ve been playing my heart out with both bride and groom already present, as the absent minister was frantically phoned, only to find that he was at home mowing his lawn, having completely forgotten about the ceremony. He arrived very late, looking somewhat disheveled and decidedly hot under his clerical collar. Mind you, I have to confess my own guilt too, as I once went to the wrong church, and had to drive all the way home again in order to check my diary, as there was no-one at home to answer my distress call. After driving like a ‘bat out of hell’ and jumping a few red traffic lights on the way back, I arrived at the correct church just as the bridal car was about to turn in, and I’m ashamed to say, I rather rudely shot across in front of them at the stop street, in order to rush down the aisle and onto the organ seat just in the nick of time. The agitated minister and church warden were at the door looking out for me and their relief when I arrived was almost tangible.
A certain Doctor of Divinity was very popular as a wedding minister, as he had a slot on one of our South African radio stations, and people thought that because of this he must be a celebrity. He charged accordingly, and was so busy going from one wedding to the next every weekend, that he never bothered to learn the names of the couples he was marrying. He just used to say, “Repeat after me, I full name take you full name to be my lawful wedded wife (or husband).” Of course, it had to happen that one day, the nervous groom said exactly those words, instead of substituting his and his bride-to-be’s names. This very flamboyant wedding preacher always ended the service with the same solemn and rather ambiguous command to the newlyweds, “Go forth and multiply in many different ways!”
Oh yes those were the days and I do miss them, well sort of. Now I can just sit and play to myself at home, but it’s not nearly as exciting……. or scary.
Here’s a story I was inspired to write about an organist a bit like me, but of course it’s only fiction.
Miss Amelia Jenkins adjusted her neat little bottom on the hard organ bench. Almost thirty years of dedication, with never an absence from duty, not even for a holiday by the sea. She even insisted on cleaning the organ loft area herself; no-one else had been up there for many years. “What selfless devotion!” the parishioners often remarked to one another.
As she selected the music to practise for Sunday’s service, the middle-aged spinster thought back to a time when this organ loft had been her precious love nest, unbeknown to anyone but Jamie and herself. His good looks and charm had beguiled her, and he’d told her that looking up from the congregation, he’d thought her the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen, with her hair like a golden halo lit up by sunlight streaming through the stained glass window. She’d had high hopes for their future together.
Then came the dreadful day when he’d confessed to her that their secret meetings must come to an end. He’d become engaged to Gloria, a local businessman’s daughter. She was a good catch for any man, he’d explained. Pretending not to care, Amelia had generously offered to play the organ for their wedding. They were to meet one last time in their special place in order to discuss the music for the auspicious day.
As she’d unlocked the gate for him, he’d seemed somewhat surprised to see the two wine glasses and a bottle of fine red Cabernet. “A toast to your marriage my darling!” she’d announced as he lifted the glass to his lips and drained it dry. “Ha…..Belladonna is now your bride. No marriage to pretty Gloria for you my sweet,” she’d declared, after heaving his lifeless body through the trap door beneath the organ bench.
Poor Gloria had been devastated to find that she’d been jilted. No-one could imagine where Jamie had disappeared to. “Cold feet,” they’d surmised. “ Definitely cold,” she’d silently agreed with a wry smile. She’d done her research well, and the quicklime worked a treat. The flesh had soon been eaten away, and Jamie now just a pile of bones, was no more than a disappointing and distant memory to Amelia.
Tapping the trap door impatiently with the sole of her shoe, she racked her brain for another place to hide his remains. “Thirty years without a holiday is a very long time. I’ll have to think of something,” she said out loud to herself as her fingers touched the organ keys and the church was filled with the plaintive strains of that well loved melody, “Abide with me.”
The music filtered through into the vestry where the monthly meeting of the church elders was taking place. “And now to the matter in hand,” announced Gordon Hislop the chairman. “I propose that we show our appreciation to dear Amelia for her long years of unstinting musical service to our church. She hasn’t taken a holiday in almost thirty years, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s high time she did so. We’ll send her on a fortnight’s package holiday to Greece, and whilst she’s away we’ll replace that old organ with one of those big, fancy electronic ones. Of course the floor boards will need to be replaced to take on the extra weight. Won’t she be delighted when we surprise her with the good news?” “Amen to that,” the committee concurred.