How to Play Well With Organists

Many “contemporary” worship leaders would immediately recognize the caricature of organists who refuse to play along with contemporary songs, either out of disdain for “pop” music or an inability to work off of chord charts or simple lead sheets. Because of this disconnect between organists and contemporary musicians, a dividing wall is built up (with varying levels of hostility depending on the egos involved) that results in the worship team standing on the side lines while the organist does his/her thing, and vice versa.

And because of this, when organists think of their own stereotypes about guitarists, the results aren’t much different than the ones above! We each equate the other person to being (worse than) a stereotype and go our own way, not working with them out of a matter of egotistical security.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Contemporary musicians and organists can (and should) play well together. There is no reason to take an “either/or” approach to organs and guitars, or organs and drums. Organs don’t have to be seen as a relic, and amplifiers don’t have to be seen as the enemy. We can laugh at our reputations with good humor, reaching out to each other in mutual submission. The results might be a bit messy, and we might break some musical rules, but the church will be edified, and the musical traditions that have been passed down won’t be abandoned.

As a life-long Anglican, almost every church I’ve ever attended has had an organ as a central instrument in its worship life. And in every one of those churches where organs have been central, I have come along with my guitar (and usually my drums-playing brother too) and tried my hand at the “playing well together” approach.

I made some huge mistakes early on.

  • I assumed the organist couldn’t/didn’t want to play along, so I didn’t even give them music or communicate with them.
  • If I did give them music, they were simple chord charts (lyrics and chords), which, for many organists, are complete nonsense.
  • I didn’t try to build a relationship with the organist.
  • I secretly wanted to see the organ disappear.
  • I looked at my (at that point) one to two years of experience leading worship for a youth group as being superior to their decades of playing, lessons, studying and degrees.
  • I saw things in terms of superior/inferior.

Needless to say, in those early years, the organists and I saw each other more like enemies and less like partners.

There came a shift for me when I came (as a high schooler) to Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia. It was the first time I had seen drums/organ/guitars/strings/descants/synthesizers all “blended” together without killing each other in the process. It was messy. But it was wonderful.

I drank it up for a few years before God called to me to another church, The Falls Church Anglican, where for a decade I would continue along as the contemporary guy attempting to bridge the divide with the classical guys. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But most of the time it worked, and I learned some lessons about how to play well with organists.

Here are 10 of them.

  1. Be humble. Organists have been taught (seriously) that you are the enemy. Disarm them (if they believe this) by being humble.
  2. Be winsome. Kill the elephant in the room by making fun of it. You’re a guitarist. You don’t read music. They’re an organist. They can play Bach for hours without messing up once. You’re trying to work together. It’s hilarious. Laugh about it.
  3. Ask them specifically for their help. You have a guitar. Or you have 88 piano keys. They have an entire orchestra at their fingertips for crying out loud. They have something to add, and the fact that you’re humbly and winsomely asking them for help is even more wonderfully disarming.
  4. Give them specific instructions. Don’t tell them how to play organ (since you have no idea), but at least try to walk them through the whole song and say “on the intro do something like this, on verse one don’t play, on the first chorus how about something like this …” and so on. Some organists like improvising. Most do not. But all organists are quite used to having very specific music with every single note, every dynamic change and every volume swell specifically laid out. If all you give them is a chord chart strewn with mistakes, then they’re going to politely slide off the organ bench and be frustrated. They will appreciate (and do better) if you’re very specific about what you want.

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Jamie was born and raised in Florida as a preacher’s kid. Since age 14, he has been leading worship pretty much every Sunday of his life, experiencing all of the joys and trials of church ministry. For over 10 years, Jamie has been writing at his blog, Worthily Magnify, in the hopes of helping worship leaders lead better. In 2006, Jamie married Catherine, and they now have four wonderful kids: Megan, Emma, Callie, and Jacob, who keep them busy, laughing, praying, and very grateful to God.