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The Journal of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians April - May, 1997


Recommendations from an Acoustician
Dennis Fleisher, Ph.D.

CERTAIN MR. CARUSO WAS INTRODUCED duties fall, generally, into three major

A to the church music community by

Dr. Thomas Day in 1990,1 and since
that time his image has haunted pastoral
 Performance of extra-liturgical music
musicians. Using the remarkably (preludes, postludes, and the like) in
recognizable name of the great Italian tenor which music, the art form, is used as an
to evoke everyone’s caricature of a self- artistic expression that “adds a wonderful
important opera star, Thomas Day gave us a splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and
rich and disquieting impression of the powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and
overbearing, egocentric cantor who to higher things.” 2
intimidates and overpowers, rather than  Accompaniment of the music ministry,
inspires and uplifts, the assembly. While including the cantor, choir, vocal and
some may find Day’s description an amusing instrumental soloist and ensembles, and
exaggeration, most of us have encountered other ministers.
someone or the other very much like him in
music ministries, sometimes even in our own  Accompaniment of the assembly in
music ministry. hymns and sung responses.

The now-infamous Mr. Caruso serves as a While all three of these are important in
powerful and compelling reminder of things modern Catholic liturgy, this article will
pastoral musicians should avoid. But, as apt focus on what is, arguably, the most impor-
and intimidating a reminder as Mr. Caruso tant of the three: the organist’s interaction
may be, he is not really new as an image on with and support of the assembly. The or-
the pastoral music scene, for he does have a ganist must, as should all those in the music
precursor: the loud, overbearing, overly vir- ministry, actively acknowledge and foster
tuosic organist. Church organists have, for the full participation of the assembly of
years, lived with the stereotype of the name- believers in the musical elements of liturgy.
less heavy-handed, heavy-footed organist,
and while the image of the overplaying Supporting the Assembly
organist is no more real than Mr. Caruso, the
over-singing cantor, both images offer The organist’s role in “supporting” the
lessons and cautions that might benefit assembly is often mentioned in musical and
church organists and other pastoral liturgical circles but rarely defined. For this
musicians. discussion, we will presume that it involves
the use of music and the way it is rendered
The Catholic church organist has several to lead and encourage the assembly in the
important duties to fulfill involving musical, musical parts of the worship celebration. In
liturgical, and pastoral concerns. These supporting the assembly, the organist has
three primary musical devices to draw upon:
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 2

dynamics, tempo, and timbre. Let’s look at conventional musical instrument, and a dis-
each of these musical resources as used in cussion of the use of the organ’s rich tonal
supporting the assembly and see if they lead resources is too extensive and technical to
to some underlying principles to guide the present here. Still, the use of the organ’s
church organist. tonal range can be a factor in working with
the collective voice of the assembly, and
The effective use of dynamics (from pianis- some care must be taken with the use of cer-
simos to fortissimos) in supporting the tain tonal resources. For example, a stri-
assembly calls for the organist to play loudly dently brilliant tone can be more oppressive
enough to encourage the assembly to sing to the assembly than a merely loud sound,
but not so loudly that the assembly feels while very mellow sounds may lack the nec-
overpowered and intimidated. This basic essary definition and clarity to communicate
precept may seem self-evident, but there are tempos to the assembly. Tonal colors can
some fine points worth exploring. One is evolve and be developed throughout the
that the assembly is made up primarily of verses of a hymn, first, to get the assembly
amateur singers. If individual members of started and, later, to take it to greater musi-
the assembly (these amateur and, often, cal and spiritual heights by gracefully intro-
reluctant singers) sense that their voices are ducing more exciting and uplifting tonal
exposed, they are likely to hold back. So, the variations. Again, there are many more
organ must be loud enough to prevent refinements, but these few simple examples
members of the assembly from feeling alone convey the fundamental principles.
and exposed. This is perhaps the most
commonly understood meaning of It must certainly be clear to the organist, as
“supporting the assembly.”3 it must also be to any musician, that for
effective use of dynamics, tempo, and
Another musical device at the organist’s timbre, as described above, the organist
control is tempo. Tempo is critical not only must be able to hear, clearly and accurately,
in supporting but especially in leading the the sound of the organ. To most musicians,
assembly, for a large body of singers can this may seem an obvious requirement, but it
easily drag a hymn to a dirge-like pace. is important to note that, for the organist,
Tempos must, of course, be appropriate for hearing the sound of the instrument is not
the musical style and text, and the organist nearly as simple as it is for those playing
must show good musical judgment and con- most other instruments. To examine this, we
sistency in tempos. Correct tempos are es- will again summon the image of Mr. Caruso,
pecially important for short sung responses, for the organist and Mr. Caruso face many
since there is so little time to correct or of the same basic conditions and problems
adjust an unsuitable tempo in a four-bar in hearing the sound they produce.
alleluia. In longer forms, such as a hymn, it
is important for the organist to provide
deliberate but benevolent leadership, setting
and maintaining tempos to prevent the
strong tendency to drag.
A third and more subtle musical device is
timbre or tone quality. The organ has a
greater range of tonal colors than any other
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 3

Problems Facing production, one can begin to appreciate the

The Church Organist organist’s unique hearing conditions (and
attendant problems). This is primarily be-
In reviewing Thomas Day’s description of cause of the great size and, often,
the Caruso phenomenon, we will find many necessarily broad distribution (or
similarities to the situation of contemporary remoteness) of the sound producing
organists. The personality and inappropriate components—the pipes or loudspeakers.
priorities of Mr. Caruso are, perhaps, his Think of any other conventional musical
most memorable and notorious attributes. instrument (violin, guitar, trumpet, piano,
However, a key factor in the negative impact the human voice), and compare how close
of the Caruso syndrome is attributed to the the musician’s ears are to the sound source
sound reinforcement system and the specific in virtually all cases.
problems that this relatively new technology
brings to sound in the church. We have revealed a fairly difficult, but, in
retrospect, a fairly obvious situation: the
In looking at sound systems and organs, we difficulty that organists may have in hearing
will find several obvious parallels. Both the the organ. However, this is only one aspect
sound system and the organ (pipe or elec- of the organist’s hearing needs. The church
tronic) are subject to the following inherent organist must also be able to hear the other
problematic characteristics: music ministers and, more importantly in
light of modern liturgical priorities, to hear
 The potential for monumental and over-
the assembly. Moreover, in addition to sim-
powering loudness.
ply hearing these three important sounds
 The potential for a great distance between (organ, other music ministers, and assem-
the sound producer (the organist or bly), the organist must be able to hear the
sound-reinforced cantor) and the sound relative balance of these sounds. More cru-
source (the organ “pipes/speakers,” or cially, however, the organist must be able to
sound system speakers).4 hear this balance in a way that accurately
represents the balance heard by the assem-
 The potential to place the sound producer
(the organist or cantor) in a location bly. Confronted with this difficult (some
where it is difficult or impossible to hear, might say impossible) situation, the organist
clearly and accurately, the sounds being must seek all means to achieve the necessary
produced (emitted by the organ pipes/ hearing conditions that will foster the sup-
speakers, or sound system speakers). port of the assembly.
 The potential to place the sound producer
(again, the organist or cantor) in a loca-
tion where it is difficult or virtually im-
possible to hear the assembly.

These similarities are striking and illuminat-

ing, but for the organist they involve distinct
problems. Considering the physical nature of
an organ (both pipe and electronic), com-
pared to any other form of human musical
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What Should the Organist Hear?

Given these factors, priorities, and limita-
In seeking to provide suitable hearing condi-
tions, we may have to accept that perfect or
tions for a church organist, we have a
ideal hearing conditions for the organist are
seemingly simple but deceptively complex
probably unattainable. We must, nonethe-
problem. These hearing conditions should
less, endeavor to provide the best hearing
allow the organist to hear all the musical ele-
conditions possible. To do this, it will be
ments of the worship service (organ, music
helpful to understand some basic acoustical
ministers and assembly) and to hear them in
factors and use these to our advantage.
a balanced, well-blended mixture. But, there
are several factors to suggest that this is a
First, the organ has immense acoustical
substantial challenge. First, there is the or-
power: it can easily produce 1,000 times
gan itself, which usually places the organist
more power than the average singing voice
in a location where accurate hearing is not
or a typical 30-voice choir.7 But, it is well
possible. Second, there is the great variety
known that the apparent loudness of a sound
and distribution of the other sounds that the
decreases as one moves farther from the
organist needs to hear: the music ministry
sound source; conversely, it increases as one
and the assembly. In this regard, we are im-
moves closer. We can use these facts to pro-
posing unique restrictions on the organist
vide the organist with a more balanced
that are unlike anything found in any other
mixture of sounds by locating the organ con-
music setting.
sole closer to the musicians and assembly
Not only the planners and ministers . . . are
and farther from the organ pipes/speakers.
active in the Liturgy. The entire congregation is This is one reason for locating organ
an active component. There is no audience, no pipes/speakers at a fairly high elevation.
passive element in the liturgical celebration.
This fact alone distinguishes it from most other Second, sightlines are often indicative of
public assemblies. 5
hearing conditions. (Because of this, acous-
ticians often use the term “sound lines” and
Another complicating factor is that from
“sightlines” interchangeably.) If the organist
church to church, even from Mass to Mass,
can clearly see the choir and assembly, it is
there is typically a tremendous variation in
more likely that he or she will also hear
the size and loudness of the music ministry
them. This may seem obvious, but there is
and assembly. So, there is no fixed loudness
an interesting variation of this concept that
level for two of the major elements that the
often occurs in the worship setting. In many
organist needs to hear and with which the
churches, the organ console is placed so that
organist is trying to blend.
the organist has his back to the musicians or
assembly. In such cases it is common for the
Finally, we have the priorities of the worship
organist to use a rear-view mirror to see the
experience and liturgy itself. Music is an
choir, assembly, presider, and other minis-
important and treasured element of Catholic
ters. But, even in this configuration, the
worship,6 but it is only one among many
organist’s ears are in direct line-of-sight of
other needs to be served in the liturgical
these sources, and, therefore, hearing is not
space, and there are only so many conces-
really a problem.8
sions that can be made to these musical
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 5

This sightline concept can be extended to Nonetheless, we can formulate some work-
reveal some interesting considerations. As able criteria that will enhance hearing condi-
explained above, an organist can clearly tions for the organist:
hear the assembly (even if it is behind him)
1. The organist should be located to have
as long as the organist is in the assembly’s
direct view of the major sound sources in
view. However, an organist who is behind
the worship environment, including the
the assembly (i.e., not in the assembly’s
assembly and others members of the
view), will probably not hear the assembly
music ministry.
as well. This is because the human voice is
very directional—from the mouth, most 2. The organist should be located to give the
sound is projected forward.9 So, from a best possible balance of these sounds.
location behind the assembly, the organist is Because of the power of the organ, this
at a clear aural disadvantage. This suggests balance can be approached by using
that, in some regards, the traditional physical distance, i.e., by placing the
organ/choir loft may not provide good organist closer to the assembly and other
hearing conditions for the organist (or the musicians than to the pipes/speakers. This
choir). Of special interest here are two may also suggest that the organist needs
liturgical concerns. The first is the instruc- to be located in the general area in front
tion to place the music ministry on the main of the assembly.
seating level of the church—not in a loft or
gallery—so that the musicians are a part of Providing Appropriate
the assembly: Hearing Conditions
Benches and chairs for the seating of those Providing the organist with the appropriate
engaged in the ministry of music . . . should be so
constructed and arranged . . . that they are clearly
and necessary hearing conditions described
part of the assembly. 10 above presents a substantial challenge.
Taking action to address these conditions
The second is the instruction to locate the will depend on the specific logistical cir-
music ministry in a position where the cumstances that exist in a church. A funda-
ministers of music can face the assembly: mental consideration is the location of the
. . . the ministers of music should be able to sing console with respect to the sounding ele-
and play facing the rest of the assembly in order to ments of the organ, and this will depend on
elicit the participation of the community without the type of organ: tracker, electro-pneu-
distracting from the central action of the liturgy. 10 matic, electronic, etc. Other considerations
In many parishes the visibility of musicians include the location of the organ (console
is a difficult and contentious issue. But, in and pipes/speakers) with respect to the rest
exploring the documents even further, we of the music ministers and the location of
find the recommendation that the organist the organ with respect to the rest of the
and the organ should be located with the assembly.
music ministry.11 This suggests that the
organ be placed in front of the assembly— With most other conventional instruments,
in most cases, at the front of the church.12 setting up an appropriate physical configu-
ration for suitable hearing conditions is
These concerns raise some difficult and usually as simple as moving both the in-
unresolved issues about music and liturgy. strument and musician. Here again, the ex-
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 6

traordinary size of the organ, especially the provide better hearing conditions for the
pipe organ, may seem to present insur- organist, other musicians, and the assembly.
mountable obstacles. But organs can be, and A very common problem with organ speak-
have been, moved—even large and complex ers is that they are not placed high enough.
pipe organs. This is not to suggest that the With a relatively low placement, organ
logistically challenged organist move the speakers will provide very strong sound at
organ. But this is an option, and, in many locations near the speakers but much weaker
cases, a more viable option than it would at sound at more distant locations. I was re-
first appear. cently involved with a church where it was
reported that the organist played too loudly.
If relocating the organ were to be consid- As it turned out, the organist wasn’t really
ered, much would depend on the type of or- too loud: the speakers were very poorly lo-
gan. It would also depend on the existing cated. The lowest speaker was only six feet
situation, circumstances, and the recent his- above floor level and about eight feet from
tory of the church itself. For example, in a the nearest pew. At the seats nearest the
new or recently renovated church building, speakers, the organ sound was overpower-
such a major undertaking may have to wait ing; at the most distant locations it was weak
until the newness wears off and budgets are and unsupportive. The organ console was
replenished. Correct organ placement would located to the side of the speakers, and, at
have been more appropriately addressed as this location, the sound level was moderate.
part of the building project. With this in With this tremendous disparity in loudness
mind, the church organist must be ever more throughout the space, there was no “good”
mindful of the need to be deeply involved in location for the console. Relocating the
space-planning decisions if a building or loudspeakers was the only effective solution
renovation project is at hand. The organist in this case.
should take an active role in guiding and ed-
ucating building committees and architects Unfortunately there are no universally appli-
in what is often among the most difficult cable solutions that will provide appropriate
challenges in a building project: where to hearing conditions for all church organists,
put the organ and music ministry. only general principles. Because of the vari-
ation in types of organs and organ installa-
In an existing church, there are at least two tions, solutions will vary greatly from
situations in which some reconfiguration of church to church and from organ to organ.
organ elements is more feasible. First, if the However, there is one guiding concept that
console is movable, it is often possible to will help any organist in any situation: the
place the console in a location where the or- need to hear the organ with the whole
ganist will have better audibility of the other assembly’s ears! But, because of the
music ministers and the whole assembly. In acoustical properties of the organ, it is often
general, this usually calls for moving the impossible for the organist, from the organ
console farther from the pipes/speakers and console or from any location in the music
closer to the music ministry and ministry area, to get an accurate impression
congregation. of how the organ sounds to the rest of the
Second, if the organ is electronic, it is often
possible to relocate the organ speakers to
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 7

What’s an Organist to Do? NOTES:

Considering this, what is a church organist 1. Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The
Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad
to do? Perhaps we can find guidance from
Taste (New York: The Crossroad Publishing
other musicians in other musical settings, Company, 1990).
particularly those who perform in concert
halls and opera houses. (This might even 2. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 120.
include the advice of performing artists.) If 3. This notion of providing a sufficiently strong
you’ve ever attended a rehearsal in a concert and supportive sound to encourage participation
hall, you may have seen a conductor or is not wholly under the control of the organist.
The acoustics of the church may also be a
soloist leave the stage and roam around the significant factor in providing envelopment and
audience area, while the musicians on stage an aural sense of community so that members of
played or sang on, to hear the balance of the the assembly don’t feel their voices are isolated
ensemble as it will be heard in the audience. or conspicuous.
As good as the hearing conditions may on 4. In trying to keep this discussion general, i.e., to
stage, they are not representative of the apply to both pipe and electronic organs, there
sound heard in the audience area. So, if a is a terminology problem. So, the construct
highly trained performing artist sees the “pipe/speaker” is used to refer to the sound or
speaking component of an organ whether it is a
need to listen in the “listening” area, we pipe or electronic organ.
might suspect that we, too, could benefit
from this same wisdom: We pastoral musi- 5. Environment & Art in Catholic Worship, no. 30.
cians and church organists might roam our 6. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 112.
churches during rehearsal (even during ser-
vices while others sit in for us) to hear what 7. This amount of power is based on typical sound
level measurements using the decibel scale. But
our assemblies hear.
power in sound does not correspond to the
subjective experience of hearing. Using a
The job of the church organist is, in many standard acoustical rule-of-thumb, a sound with
ways, much more difficult than that of the 1,000 times more power would be judged
performing artist, for beyond our own subjectively as about eight times louder.
sounds, we must consider the sounds pro- 8. There are some notably disastrous organ
duced by our “listeners” who are also placements that do not provide line-of-sight
participants in the sound—our fellow wor- and, therefore, present serious hearing
problems. During the past year I have visited
shipers. The church organist must make two churches where the organist needed a
beautiful and spiritually inspiring music and, closed-circuit television to see the music
at the same time, support, lead, and encour- director and choir—having a clear view (and
age the rest of the assembly. While pastoral audibility) of the assembly was not even an
musicians are often admonished to eschew option in these cases.
the practices of the performance environ- 9. This directional phenomenon is less true or less
ment, we can learn some positive things apparent in a highly reverberant church where
from the experiences of performing artists. the reverberation and preponderance of hard,
In the service of our assemblies, we pastoral sound reflective surfaces distribute sound very
musicians can use any source of experience effectively and impart a less directional quality
to sound.
to make better music and to support the
assembly in its sung praise.
Recommendations from an Acoustician Page 8

10. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, no. AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY

Dr. Dennis Fleisher is a native of Rochester, NY. He
11. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, no. did his primary undergraduate study in trumpet
83. performance at the Juilliard School and performed
professionally in New York City and Rochester as an
12. This statement is in strong opposition to often- orchestral and liturgical musician. He earned a BA in
voiced sensitivities regarding the distraction and Music Education from Nazareth College of
visual intrusion caused by organ pipes, Rochester, a Masters Degree in Music Theory from
organists, music directors, and other musicians the Eastman School of Music, and an interdis-
in front of the assembly. Placing musicians in ciplinary Ph.D. in Physics, Acoustics and Music from
front of the assembly suggests the undesirable the University of Rochester and Eastman School. He
appearance of musical performance. But, for has worked as an acoustics consultant and liturgical
appropriate hearing conditions, placing music planner since 1981 and has his own acoustics
musicians toward the front of the assembly consulting firm, MuSonics, in Grand Rapids, MI.
offers distinct advantages.