I can be an inpatient man. I'm not a fan of slow walkers, slow talkers, red lights, waiting for packages, escalator riders who don't keep to the side, people who walk side-by-side on busy sidewalks, shoppers with more than 10 items in the express lane, drivers who think that "yield" means "stop and wait", waiting for the elevator, slow wi-fi, people who wait until they get to the counter before looking at the menu, and slow hymn players.
Slow hymn players? Yes, just like slow driving in the fast lane leads to road rage, slow hymn playing may cause "hymn rage." Hymn rage is manifested by excessive finger tapping (at the appropriate tempo), "speed it up" hand gestures, and "here we go again" eye rolling. Even worse, some afflicted Saints go ahead and loudly sing at the correct tempo.
During a recent Sunday worship service, the congregation very slowly sang the opening hymn while the music director robotically waved his arms about as if he were chopping meat with a dull cleaver. I carefully watched the organist to see if she was keeping up. She never even glanced at the music director--her eyes never strayed from the notes on the page. The music director could have set himself on fire and she would not have noticed. She was setting the pace and she knew it.
Theoretically, the ward music director controls the pacing of the music and leads those who are trying to sing. In reality, the music director does neither of these things. It seems the main function of the music director is to encourage the congregation to sing by aiming disappointed glances at those who aren’t singing. Remember how your mother used to look at you when you disappointed her? Kind of sad and hurt at the same time. That's the look.
A long time ago in a congregation far, far away, I once saw the music director become so frustrated that the organist was ignoring his direction that he sat down in a huff, in the middle of the hymn. Few noticed. We just kept singing.
On one occasion, our organist played an entirely different hymn than the one that had been announced. I don't know if she didn't like the announced hymn or just had one in mind that she liked better. Regardless, everyone opened their hymnal to the announced page and began singing. One-by-one, we recognized that the words we were singing did not match the music and searched for the correct hymn. The discordant singing reminded me of a service I once attended where a third of the congregation sang in English, a third in Spanish and a third in Dutch. We sounded like that. Everyone singing their own tune. By the last measure, we all found the correct hymn. Not very melodious.
Each hymn lists mood and metronomic markings. Mood markings such as "energetically", "brightly", “vigorously”, or “solemnly” suggest the general feeling or spirit of the hymn. Metronomic markings indicate a tempo range (Google says this is “beats per minute”). Mellower hymns are played at 40-50 beats per minute, “bright” or “joyful” hymns are played at around 100 beats per minute. The mood for the vast majority of hymns is “brightly”, “energetically” or “joyfully.”
Since there are 10 times more “energetic” or “joyful” hymns than there are “solemn” hymns, why are so many hymns played “solemnly” or even “mournfully”? The hymn "We Are All Enlisted" notes that we are “joyfully marching to our home”. The hymn should be sung as if we're actually excited about it, not as if we're trudging off to the office. After all, the word "gospel" means good news, not "your pet just died." Just sayin.
Have you ever been cruising along in the fast lane at above the posted speed limit and run up against someone who is driving below the speed limit? Drives me crazy. Drives everyone crazy. Singing songs slowly is like that. When you finally swerve out of the lane and zoom past the offending driver, who do you see? Your ward organist—maintaining their own pace. As you careen past, instead of giving them a speed it up "gesture", you give them the "I'm disappointed in you look."
Now to be fair, many organists were born before the invention of the Hula Hoop and Mr. Potato Head and may not realize that the phrase “Today while the Sun Shines” is to be taken literally. According to a study published in the journal "Age and Ageing", the average reaction time for an 80-year-old is approximately twice as slow as a 20-year-old. What does that mean for our organists? No idea, but it’s possible that an octogenarian playing a hymn at less than the recommended metronomic range feels that they are actually playing so fast that they might spin right off the bench.
What to do? I've come up with a few ideas. First, maybe we can have an electronic device rigged up to the organist’s bench. When the playing falls below the recommended tempo, a small electric shock would notify the organist that they need to “put their shoulder to the wheel.” We'll call it the "PACEkeeper 2.0." Sadly, the Church's Risk Management team has forbidden this option.
Second, we could spike the organist's sacramental water with "pep pills." The downside of this is that "pep pills" could cause the partakers to experience agitation, anxiety, delusions, depression, nervousness, and rapidly changing moods. Not ideal for organists, or anyone else. Plus it's illegal, and in this case we do really believe "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
Third, we train the "I can text 200 words-per-minute with just my thumbs" generation to play the organ. Speed will no longer be a problem. With Gen Z at the keyboard, we’ll again be “Marching On to Glory!” In the 1890s we called missionaries to travel to Paris to study art. Today we could call young members as organ missionaries who would learn to play the organ at the appropriate tempo.
My final suggestion is to endure it well. After all, if we can tolerate slow internet speeds, spam callers, forgotten passwords, dying phone batteries and running out of closet space, we can patiently endure melancholy hymns.