As you all know, I’m currently working on a book about my 21 years of experience as an organist. As I was writing today, I was struck by the application of two stories revolving around criticism of the volume of my playing. Read below for a sneak peek into one of my chapters and think about how you can flip the script on complaints in your life:
I was 24 years old and working at a Lutheran church fresh out of college. I thought I was too hot to handle and that my playing was a gift to the ears of those on the receiving end. Already, you can see that my attitude was setting me up to make a complete ass out of myself. It may have been during the first month of my employment at this church that an elderly lady sheepishly approached me following a service. I was packing up my music and taking off my shoes with haste when she leaned over the rail separating the organ pit from the rest of the church. The scene was reminiscent of an attorney having a sidebar with a judge.
I can still see this sweet lady trying her best to put her words in order before she presented her case by saying, “I want to thank you for the great job you are doing here. I only have one request – would you possibly be able to play a little more quietly because the volume hurts my ears on some of those songs. I don’t want to offend you, but I want to enjoy the organ more because I love it so much.”
I wish I could take my words back, but I’ll give you my embarrassing response as an example of what not to say. “Well you are offending me,” I said sharply. “If you want to control the volume, you are more than welcome to come sit on the bench every Sunday and play. Your ears will adjust because you’ve never heard an organist play like this before, trust me.” I wish I could go back in time and slap the taste out of my mouth for saying those words to that dear old lady. She didn’t approach me in a spirit of anger or arrogance, but rather with a desire to ease the nagging pain from ear surgery which she had endured only a month prior to my arrival at the church. Of course, because I never took an interest in her, I didn’t find this fact out until long after this interaction had occurred. With failure comes learning and in the next story, you’ll see redemption coming full circle.
It was only a few years ago when after the service, I was approached by an older man in a black suit with a scowl on his face that could curdle milk. I had no sooner lifted my fingers and toes from playing the prelude when he jumped up next to me and said, “Finally! It’s over and we need to talk.” Unlike our kind-hearted matriarch from the previous story, this man approached me in a fit of rage.
“Why do you have to play so loudly? I can’t hear myself think. You organists are all the same, you just do whatever you want and we’re supposed to follow you!” My initial thought was to eloquently insult him, as I am gifted in that manner. This time, however, I thought about the type of person before me and I asked myself the question internally, I wonder what this man’s everyday life is like? I wonder what his interests are? Just then, I knew what my response would be.
“What is your favorite hymn?” I asked.
“Pardon me?” he said with a look of confusion.
I repeated my question with an augmented but gentle tone, “What is your favorite hymn?”
His posture completely shifted and a half smile came over his face as he said, “Well, I love In the Garden because it reminds me of my mother. She always used to sing that song to me.”
I grabbed the hymnal, opened it up and found the hymn. “Let’s see if we can’t get to the bottom of this,” I said as I selected all the stops and adjusted the swell pedal for volume.
“You have to do all of that every time you play something,” he said inquisitively.
“Yes I sure do, but it’s second nature to me now,” I said.
Then I began to play the hymn, not necessarily with the goal of being intentionally soft, but with the idea of letting the music sing. To my complete surprise and in a choked sotto voce, the man begin to sing the hymn as tears welled in his eyes. He went on to apologize for his outburst and informed me that his mother died of cancer the previous month and his siblings were arguing with him over her estate. I told him I would be more mindful of the volume of my playing and that I hoped he could find some relief from all the infighting. It’s not an accident that this man still compliments me on my playing and will from time to time chat with me after the service. Stripping away our pride always allows us to see the person on the other end of a personal attack, and even if it doesn’t in the moment, I’ve learned that a sense of curiosity and a the gift of a song are the most disarming tools in an organist’s belt.