Gestalt and the Organist

… Wherein Cal discovers that the Perfect Storm can sometimes find you at the console of the king of instruments.

Playing the organ for a church service isn’t new to me… I would say “this ain’t my first rodeo,” but I can’t find a nimble way to fit it into the previous sentence. So I won’t. And didn’t. I think.

Writing, on the other hand, gives me saddle sores not worth mentioning in civilized company. Or around anybody else for that matter. *ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch*

First rodeo indeed…

So it was with proper respect, decent (but not excessive) preparation, and acknowledgement of a certain amount of experience that I headed in to church on a not-too distant Sunday past. I’m always a little nervous playing – when I’m not a little nervous, I know I’m probably doomed from the get-go. A little edge to keep me on my game is a good thing, so that’s how I roll.

Fo’ schizzle. Word to yo’ diapason.**

** Diapason: a type of organ pipe or “voice.” Or a funny little knob thingie on some organs that you can watch pop in and out as you press other little button thingies. Whee!

But, as is so often the case, I was looking at one thing, and didn’t take into account the things that were piled up next to it…

playing bass for the first service, then heading down to the sanctuary and the organ therein for the second service.

doing special music for the offering, while playing the organ for the rest of the service, including getting up from the piano (where I had just sung and accompanied myself), moving right over to the organ, and immediately launching into the Doxology, concluding the offering portion of the festivities.

– being a tad unfamiliar with one or two things about the traditional service, including which of the, I don’t know, two thousand versions of the Doxology was “the one” to be using.

Not noticing that “Crown Him With Many Crowns” had more verses than I expected.

Each of these things are small. If encountered, they’d make a minor speed bump but wouldn’t derail the service.

But put them all together?…

The perfect storm. Or, to use one of my favorite words of all time that explains so much about why a simple little activity in one simple little day can gollywhomp me into a whimpering mass…


“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

One thing alone, no biggie. Add another? Still not a big deal. Three? Bring it.

Four? Um… a little heavy lifting, but I can deal with it.

Five? Oh… this is a little tough.

Six? Ouchie. Meesa notsa havin’ such an okey dokey kinda day.

And so on. The more that is piled on, the heavier the load… much more than each thing weighed separately. They interact, they work off of each other, and the combination of everything together creates a load that takes much more out of you than you would ever have expected.

Thus wenteth my morning. As in, down. Way down.

Prelude? No sweat – although one of the “big” parts in one of my arrangements had a major fumble that I usually never miss. So a little nervous twinge that I should have shaken right off. One little slip does not kerfluffle a whole morning.

I really wanted to use one of my favorite little funny bits from Facebook here, but couldn’t find a way to bring things around to where it would fit… So I’m just going to flop it in here, ’cause nothing else about that morning made rational sense.

Thus, a segue is born…

“Don’t be afraid of that spider – it’s smaller than you.”

“So is a grenade.”

Ha ha hee hee ho ho *snort*  Woo.

First hymn – not one of my strongest, so I usually have a little trouble with it. But I made it a point to practice it, especially the tricky part, so even though it might be a little rough, I’ll certainly get through it in decent shape…

Said Cal, not knowing that the great musical ping pong paddle of the universe was preparing to serve.

Three verses, three swings, three misses, three outs. It was as if I not only hadn’t practiced it, but as if I had never seen that hymn, the sheet music was upside down, and the organ keys were epoxied together in amusing clusters.

All three manuals.** And the pedals.

Honk honk, splat splat, thud.

** Manuals: the fancy-schmancy word for the keyboard thingies on the organ. There can be as few as two or as many as… um… A lot?

(Only redeeming factor: after the turbulence of the first verse, I hit the magic #4 button, producing sounds that, while still audible, were quiet enough to get buried by the piano. Run silent, run deep, run away… Of course, that only works if you can also turn off your instinct to kick in some extra horses at the big parts. *kick in extra stops*  *realize you’re still playing like snail snot*  *Run MORE silent, run MORE deep, run FAR FAR away*)

Now I’m beginning to see the shadow on the horizon, hoping that the gales of November weren’t about to come early…

Second hymn – easy sauce with extra sprinkles! Only one verse, sung twice. Even has chord symbols, for the notationally challenged, which at that point I was, a bit, sort of.

One minor fumble, in the midst of the easy sauce with extra sprinkles. So, restored confidence found I not. Underlying remnant of anxiety feed did I. Strong in the force am I in my dreams and delusions.

Somewhere along the line, my name got changed to Edmund Fitzgerald. *sigh*

Then, “At 11am, the main hatchway caved in. I said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ “

Special Music / Offertory – The Lord had been whispering a song in my ear all week, which usually is a good indication that I really should sing or play that song, since that’s how He rolls wid me.

Word to yo’ metronome.

And as I would expect, the song perfectly aligned with the sermon that was right before it, as God tied it all up with a beautiful bow and put it together in ways that still surprise me even after all these years of seeing it happen again and again. It went beautifully, as if He was protecting it so that the word He wanted to put out there wouldn’t be marred by my flailing around.

The only problem was something unique to me – it went so well from a musical and spiritual standpoint, that it nailed me from an emotional standpoint. It drew me into mania when I was neither anticipating it nor prepared with a defense against it. I went so “all in” to the song that I simply had nothing left to pull myself back to balance.

That’s called a trigger – It’s something that you can be almost certain will push an emotional button and kick the poopy out of your balance. Not good… That’s why folks with mental issues keep a eye out for triggers, trying to anticipate them and have a strategy already planned out to either avoid them or to deal with them if unavoidable.

Remember what I said about having to move immediately from the piano to the organ, launching right into the aforementioned Doxology? Yup. The storm hath arrived.

I had no time to breathe, no time to step back from the edge, not even time to realize what had happened and try to apply some of the control I need at a moment like that. So I played away, trying hard to work through the shaking of my hands and the sluggish way my mind was processing what my hands and feet were doing. If all had went well, I might have actually found a moment to recover. After all, I’ve played the Doxology a few (thousand) times in my life. But…

I realized that I was hearing speed bump after speed bump as the congregation sang… because I wasn’t playing the right version of the Doxology, the one they were “used to.”

So the emotional snowball gained traction, leaving me less and less able to apply some sort of brakes. And gestalt ain’t done with me yet…

The last hymn usually doesn’t give me an issue. I know it, I can play it, and so that familiar ground should have let me end strong, right?

Not so much.

The physical and emotional upheaval that started with the special music, and was stirred up with the mangled Doxology pretty much killed the last hymn. I couldn’t play the thing well for nuttin’, and couldn’t get my mind in gear enough to hit the magic #4 button to run silent, run deep, run away.

Then, to cap it off, I totally forgot the last verse of the last hymn. Totally. Didn’t even realize it.

I brought the (what I thought was) last verse to a proper conclusion, flipped the page to the benediction song, which I knew was next and would start pretty quickly…

And heard pastor start to sing… the LAST verse.

And the ship started to sink. No lifeboats, no floatation devices, and certainly no time for a string quartet to start playing “Nearer My God To Thee…”

And Celine Dion is right out.

The only redeeming factor of the morning is the fact that our pianist has a black belt in Tai Kwon Piano, is one of the most creative and excellent hymn players I’ve ever heard, and keeps her head in any sort of storm. She jumped in, and got that last verse going, while I limply tried to help, having finally hit the #4 button so I could flail along and at least get some of the pedal notes right for a little bass support.

Did I mention I had already flipped to the next song? So the hymn I was already struggling with wasn’t even in FRONT of me now?

Yeah. Lovely. My hands are shaking, my head is buzzing, my emotions are spinning, and things are not happy-making.

I got through the benediction song, thankfully without a major cul-du-sac, and the postlude was a piece I’ve played so many times that I could actually get through it. Not well, not the best I’ve ever done it, but got through it.

Thus ended a piece of live performance art I’ve since titled, “Well – that was awkward.”

Hope you folks enjoyed it, as it was a one-time only, never (by the grace of God) to be repeated performance.

Oi to da Vey.

I mentioned the whole “gestalt” thing, right? All the layers, innocent and non-threatening individually, coming together into a load that I simply couldn’t bear. Totally blindsided, had no idea it would go down like that, stunned in the aftermath.

Perhaps a bit wiser. Quite a bit embarrassed.

Now, this is the point in this little tale where folks tell me, “Nobody even noticed – they had no idea you were having a tough morning.”

Even with the wrong Doxology and Final Verse – the Phantom Menace??

Not so much.

It simply wasn’t “me.” It wasn’t my usual playing, my usual self, my usual “somewhat flawed but totally from the heart, bring it and take no prisoners, it’s been waaay too long since anybody blew the dust outta these pipes” self.

Normally, I finish a morning as an organist accepting that there were some splat chords along the way, but after all is said, done, and apologized for, I still love playing the organ. And I love participating in worship, being able to encourage others to sing to Him… loud…. ’cause if you don’t, I’m gonna bury you under a wall of pipes & pedals.

In Christian love and humility, that is.

But this particular morning, all that was left in me was emptiness and the notion that I might as well not finally replace my missing organ shoes so I can actually play with heels AND toes, instead of stumpy, sticky shoes with no heels. (Which to an organist is like taking a couple of fingers off of each hand…)

(My friend Chuck would throw in here, “Hey – I’ve seen you play in Duck Shoes.** What’s the problem?”


1) That was a long time ago;

2) On a Baldwin Fun Machine;

3) And they may have been duck shoes, but they DID have heels.

So there ya go.)

** Duck shoes: rubber-bottomed footwear, ala L.L. Bean and other imitators. Not to be confused with DUCT shoes, which are silver and might have saved my bacon, since everyone knows that duct shoes can fix anything.

Word to yo’ shoehorn.

So after that morning, I left with the thought that playing the organ for a service is getting taken off of my “do” list and moved to the “don’t do anymore” list. Which would be a shame, because I do love it. Or at least, I did – this particular morning was more like…

“Go, Cal, Go!
Go, Cal, Go!
Around the bowl, and down the hole –
Go, Cal, GO!”

(Yes, my beloved Proofreader. Yes, I did go there.)

So – anybody with me on this whole “I just got hit by a speeding bus right smack dab in the center aisle” kind of morning? And I’m not just talking to my musician peeps, some of whom have their hands in the air, shouting “Preach, Preacher – PREACH!”

Yup, we all have “those” mornings once in a while. Or afternoons. Or evenings for that matter. Gestalt isn’t just for breakfast anymore, or just for musicians. Everybody can get gollywhomped by finding themselves on the bottom of a pig-pile that weighs way, way more than you thought it would.

Maybe a little lesson can be learned from this… We all have triggers. We all have corners and tight spots and places that if we aren’t careful, we can get trapped or stuck. But God is faithful, and He loves His kids. So even when we feel like we’re on the Titanic, He always has a lifeboat ready – always.

As for me, we came home after the service and I got quiet, allowing the aftermath to pass over and things to calm down. My beloved reminded me to not make any decisions or judgements for at least 24 hours, lest it be depression talking and not me.  And now, looking back after time has passed, I can see what happened, and the adjustments I need to make next time to avoid triggers.

Yes, there will be a next time.

And yes, the shoes will be replaced, complete with toes AND heels.

I know that gestalt can kerfluffle the best-laid plans, so all I can do is be aware of my triggers, look carefully at what everything adds up to, and avoid the traps and tight places where I might get stuck. We all get stuck, we all get sad in the aftermath, and God always meets us in the corners and the traps to lead us home. Even through the valley of the shadow of gestalt…

So, the bottom line remains: I love playing the organ, I love encouraging others to sing praise to the Lord… loudly, and I love feeling like the  conductor and the orchestra all wrapped up in one two-handed, ten-fingered (Even though there’s much debate about if I actually use my right thumb…) two-footed, two-toed AND two-heeled creature.

Besides – them pipes ain’t gonna dust themselves off, are they?

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