7 things learned during my first time playing the organ for a church service

On January 1, 2017 one of my dreams came true. I played the organ for a church service for the first time ever! I was the substitute organist at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Adrian, MI.

7 things learned during my first time playing the organ for a church service

My playing was not perfect, but I managed to get through it. All pieces played during the service can be viewed from this YouTube playlist.

Here are seven things a learned throughout this experience:

1. I am able to play for a service

5 weeks ago, when I was first asked about playing for today’s service. I didn’t feel capable or ready for an audience. I tried to get out of it, but my friend was not taking “no” for an answer.

My plan was to use Michael (my teacher) as my scapegoat. I said “let me ask me teacher”. But Michael said, I will only know if I try! He didn’t say anything to discourage me. So, I reluctantly agreed to do it.

Many people had confidence in me. I was told “You will do fine” many times by people who had never heard me play a note!

2. Learning comes faster under pressure

On December 7th, I received the hymn list:

  • Joy to the World
  • Glory be to God the Father
  • Hark! the Herald Angels sing
  • Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow
  • Guide my Feet

I would also need to play a prelude, postlude, offering, and something quick to end the Passing the Peace of Christ. These could all be pieces that I already knew how to play. For the prelude, I played Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist which I had been relearning for my lessons. I choose 1 verse of Crown Him with Many Crowns for the Passing the Peace of Christ as I have this hymn memorized. The offering was Prelude and Fugue in E Minor which I have been working on for over a year.

At this point, I had 25 days to learn 5 hymns. At my regular practice pace, it takes me 2 or 3 months to learn a hymn, and sometimes more than a year to get them right! I felt very nervous.

I did not feel 100% confident, but I did learn them all. At times, during my practicing I was able to play them fairly well.

3. Organists need to be flexible 

Over the years, Michael has told me many times that organists need to be flexible and adaptable. I learned this first hand through playing at the church.

My organ at home is a 2 manual organ (meaning it has 2 keyboards). The church’s organ was also a two manual organ. At first, this seemed absolutely wonderful! Then I realized that the only reed stop on the church’s organ on the great manual (bottom keyboard) didn’t work! Apparently, it’s on the list to be hooked up.

Manuals (keyboards) on the First Presbyterian Organ
Manuals (keyboards) on the First Presbyterian Organ

Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist requires a reed stop and left and right hands are played on different keyboards. At home (and also at Michael’s church for my lessons) I had practiced with a reed stop on the great manual. The church’s organ did have reed stops on the swell (upper) keyboard. I would need to reverse my hand positions. I had to change my muscle memory!

The Pedals

Also, the touch of the pedals at the church was not as light as at my home. In my head, I heard Michael saying “Pretend like your feet have very heavy weights on them”). The force needed to play the pedals was much greater than at home. My legs were sore after a couple of days of practicing at the church!

At home, there are two lights that are built into the organ that shine onto the pedals. The organ at the church didn’t have this feature. This made it more difficult to look down and see which pedals my feet were on.

Michael has emphasized that each organ is going to be a little different and the organist will need to adapt very quickly. I am very thankful that the church was able to give me advance access to the organ.

4. Audiences are okay after all

For the past seven years, my primary audience has been my cats as I practice on my Saville organ in my living room. I am generally very nervous at the start of my organ lessons and was a bit terrified to play in front of a large group.

For my first practice run, my brother’s family stopped by my house to see our new kitten on December 26th. They also agreed to listen to me play the organ. My performance was not great. Instead of feeling more confident from the experience, I felt worse.

The last week of December, I had access to the church in the mornings for practicing. On Friday, my dad, sister, and brother-in-law were able to stop by while I was practicing. When they were seated, I did not really seem them very well from the organ. When I was focusing on the sheet music, I did not notice them that much. I felt much more confident and decided that I could handle an audience!

5. Perfection is not required 

I arrived at the church early this morning to run through each piece. This was the best I played most of the pieces. I felt good then.

During the service, my nerves got the better of me during some of my playing. I could feel my heart racing and my teeth were clenched. Was I breathing? I am not sure. I made mistakes in all of the pieces.  No one was upset with me after the service (or if they were, they didn’t mention it). And some people told me that they did not notice any mistakes! They were a forgiving audience.

I’ve uploaded all of the pieces to YouTube to share with those that are interested. Due to my overwhelming fear, I didn’t invite many friends or family to come to the church service. I am very grateful that my sister and 2 friends were there to support me.

The mistakes are very obvious when listening to the them now. Perhaps, while singing people do not notice mistakes as much.

Hearing people sing while I was playing as not like anything else I have ever experienced. I was not sure if I should listen to the singing and found myself over thinking, wondering if I was playing too slow compared to what they were used to.

I had envisioned playing a perfect, playing my best, helping people to lift their voices to the Lord. During my practice sessions at the church, I had changed the stops (how the organ sounds, for the non-organists reading this) for the last verse.

After playing Joy to the World, I realized that changing the stops between verses was going to be too much coordination for me. And I changed the the stops before the third verse and then realized it was not the last verse when I heard people singing.

Organ Pipes at the First Presbyterian Organ - I don't know if they were functional or facade only
Organ Pipes at the First Presbyterian Organ in Adrian, MI – I don’t know if they were functional or facade only

6. The organist community is very supportive!

Once I found out I was going to play the organ for the service, I asked a couple of questions in a Facebook group for organist. The responses were very positive. I ended up getting too many responses (hundreds) which was very overwhelming. One person was kind and reached out to me in a private message and supported me in that way.

When I shared that I made it through my first service (with mistakes), the response was again very positive and encouraging. Apparently, I am not the first organist to make mistakes.

7. Dreams can come true! 

The primary reason I signed up for organ lessons was to be able to play for a church service. I wanted to be able to help people worship God with their voices.

At my childhood church, Mrs. King played “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow” every Sunday after the offering. This is the hymn I remember the most from that church (we moved to a different state when I was almost 13). And here it is about 30 years later, I had the opportunity to play this same hymn after the offering.

It took years of practicing to get to this point and not giving up. I have struggled but thanks to my friend, I finally played for a service. I am not proud of my playing since my nerves got the best of me during much of the service. But I am happy that I went through with it. Next time will be easier!

If you have a dream, I encourage you to keep working at it! With hard work, practice, patient, and perhaps, I little push from others, your dream can come true too!

What’s Next?

I am not ready to sign up to be on a substitute organ list yet. The week leading up to the service was exhausting with 2 hours of practice in the mornings at the church and then other hour at home. I had the week off from my day job. If not for the time off, I would not have had sufficient time to be able to prepare and more time would have been ideal to increase my confidence.

I am hoping that this service is a turning point. I proved to myself that I can learn new pieces in weeks (instead of months) when I put in the effort.

The next time I play for a service, I feel it will go better now that I’ve got one service under my belt! I love being an organist!

All pieces played during the service can be viewed from this YouTube playlist.

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Website | + posts

Heidi Bender writes about her experiences of learning to play the organ. She started on the adventure in 2009.

She also writes on her website Tons of Thanks, which helps people write thank-you notes. Heidi is also a cat lady who writes at The Joy of Cats.

26 thoughts on “7 things learned during my first time playing the organ for a church service”

  1. you really gave me encouragement I taught myself how to play the piano 8 years ago and I do read music pretty good I am vested in a Hammond organ 8 months ago and I play every day for 2 to 3 hours on both the piano Hammond organ trying to play legado and slide two fingers is pretty challenging but it’s coming along I have a few people who’s been asked me to play with them a couple for church and I always say I need free practice and keep practicing but now I have a 84 organist who comes over and he plays for church and he’s been working with me and it’s been very helpful I think you did an awesome job remember you can do all things through Christ keep up the good work and hopefully one day I will be posting that I stepped out on faith in I play for service to

  2. You are very brave! I have been taking organ lessons for about 5 years now and still get very nervous when I play for a church service. I have thought about giving up the organ several times mostly because of the time required for practice. But I miss it do much when I don’t play. God bless you on your journey and I appreciate your blog.

    • Hi Joan,

      Playing the service that day was very scary! I haven’t played for a service since then. I would miss it too if I stopped practicing. thanks for reading my blog! I usually make new posts after I have a lesson. My progress is slow (I want to up my practice time) but I’m not stopping!

  3. I know nothing about playing the organ, just piano. I do know you have had this dream many years and have now reached your dream. All the hours of practicing have paid off. Sorry I couldn’t make it to the service. I have heard you play a song or two over the phone during at home practice sessions. Keep up the good work.

  4. I completely agree with the comments made by Christopher Lowe and your observations that followed.
    I was quite proud of the job that you did in providing a service that is such a necessary part of every worship service! Keep up the good work, and don’t focus on mistakes or what you think you may have done wrong, but celebrate and build on what you did right! The congregation complimented your effort, and I applaud you!

  5. Congratulations on your first time playing for a church service. Sometimes it’s hard to know what your capable of before you try doing something for the first time.

  6. Trust me, you are not the first organist to make a mistake. I was one of two organists at my Catholic Parish in St. Louis, Missouri. There are a lot of sung responses and other sung parts of the Catholic Mass, so i always had to look for my quench’s from the priest, and every time there was a different priest, I would get nervous. But after awhile I got my nerve and hardly ever made any mistakes. you sounded wonderful.

  7. Keep practicing and keep up the good work! I started as the #4 organist for one Mass a week, so I played mainly hymns and some easy Bach. Later on I played in college and grad school and then at a few parishes where I lived, but as the main organist. It is often possible to come up with a nice solo registration on the spot by using a diapason 8′ (or flute 8′) with as mutation like a nazard 2 2/3′. There are many things a creative organist can come up with when needed. I know you will do quite well!

  8. Congrats to you for getting past this big hurdle! I have advanced degrees in voice and opera and came to.become an organist later in life! I’m.so glad you’re posting your journey here. You’re off to a great start what I woulf suggest to you is that take voice lessons, sing in a choir, and/or sing along with your.congregation whenever possible. This will give you the best idea about which tempo each hymn should go as well as help you “breathe” organically with the assembly. Best wishes for continued success!!

  9. Good for you! You’ve made it through and embarked on one of the most rewarding (except for financially!) journeys you’ll have in this life. Congratulations!

  10. Hi, Heidi!

    Congrats on your first service! It can be very nerve wracking, frustrating and exciting and rewarding – all mixed together. I was a church organist from age 16-19, when I lived in Chicago many years ago. I was asked to be an emergency fill-in about 4 years ago and had the opportunity to play a 3-manual Allen. What a treat! While I had only 3 days to practice (only the three hymns – the rest was my choice due to short notice) I was a little nervous as it had been about 40 years since I played in church. I now occasionally fill in (maybe 2-3 times a year). I teach general adult organ students. My tastes are more eclectic now – jazz, blues, big band, Latin, etc. I have Roland and a Baldwin organ. Best of luck to you! I’ll keep checking your blogs.

    Sharon (Florida)

  11. I would have thought the first lesson would have been carry on regardless, no matter what the mistake being made (Unless the organ falls through the floor!!). This was my first major realisation well over fifty years ago and still holds good today. Looking at the above, it sounds like you are made of the right stuff. Like myself, you will reflect on this with a smile in fifty years time. One day we both might get it 100% right. Those who say they never make a mistake are telling fibs big style – and that includes cathedral organists. My very best wishes for your musical career, in the certainty that you will do very well.

    • Good point! I did have to learn to keep on going after a mistake. That was one of the hardest things for me to do. During the past few years, when I make a mistake, I stop or slow down or go back and fix it. Forcing myself to keep going was difficult!


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