By Kari Miller
Organists often have to explain to the curious that where we sit and play our saintly hymns and wild toccatas is not the “organ” but the “organ console”. We tell them, perhaps, that the instrument is spread throughout the space which houses it, from blower room to organ chambers, and we might liken the console to the cockpit of an airplane or the command center of a complex operation. Whatever we say, we know that we are not really telling the whole console story.
Some consoles are like magnificent thrones, set in spacious choir lofts, or bathed in soft light streaming through beautiful stained-glass windows. Others are cramped, dark and uncomfortable; just getting into position behind the keys can leave one with bruised and battered knees or elbows and a chip on one’s shoulder. Once the playing begins, again, some consoles feel smooth, comfortable and predictable, with everything just where it needs to be, and others feel awkward, full of surprises, making it all really hard work. Strangely – and this might be the only possible consolation (no pun intended) – the actual music coming out does not necessarily reflect our discomfort. In the end we have no choice but to try to become accustomed to whatever console we must play, friendly or not, and give it our best.
Being human, we usually put our personal stamp on things, consciously or unconsciously, for better or for worse. We have probably all seen organ consoles so cluttered with piles of crumbling music, old bulletins, worn-out choir folders, spare socks and assorted other junk that a whole family of squirrels could live there undetected. At the other end of the spectrum are those console areas so tidy, so bare that the visiting organist in need of something as basic as even a pencil or a scrap of paper to leave a note will find no satisfaction. Obviously, there is a happy middle ground; useful items to have on hand might include pencils, post-it notes, tape, tissues, headache remedy of your choice, metronome and clock. Depending on the season, a pair of fingerless gloves or an extra cardigan may also prove quite welcome. And every console should have a small notebook, an “organ journal” where one jots down those things that need to come to the attention of the organ technicians on their next visit.
If the space is shared with members of a choir, it is a good idea to have strict rules about what may or may not be placed on the back of the organ console. Otherwise you may come one day to find partially completed knitting projects or sections from last week’s Sunday Times living innocently alongside the hymnals and prayer books. Not to worry – any perceived severity in this regard can be tempered by always making sure that a plentiful store of throat lozenges is available. If your choir is “aging”, as so many are nowadays, you can further endear yourself to them by keeping several pairs of cheap reading glasses handy.
Yes, the organ console is an unusual place, serving in turn as inner sanctum, study center, utility closet and social hub. But it is our place, our special territory –- and we must make our peace with it, whether it eases our way to happy music-making or sets challenges before us.