Tuesday, August 15, 2006


A question for you parish organists:
Ever get a call for a funeral or a wedding at the parish where you are the principal organist and/or music director, and later get those dreaded words: The family is bringing in their own musicians??? Why any parish organist in his/her right mind let something like that slide is beyond me. Consider these things:

1) That's work being taken away from the parish organist. Unless the organist gets a bench fee, which should equal his/her full fee for the Mass in question, (s)he just has been burned!
2) A funeral or wedding Mass is just as much a parish Mass as is Sunday Mass. Therefore, parish staff should be on hand. This would include celebrant, servers, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (well, only if absolutely necessary, which, in most cases, it isn't), and musicians (organist, singer(s)).
3) The parish musician would know best the music that is used regularly at his/her parish church. What (s)he normally do for funerals or weddings might not be what the outside musician does - thus that's time the musicians would need to communicate. And what if the family brings in musicians that, never mind don't know what's done at the church, don't even know a thing about Catholic music or even Catholic liturgy? Or the outside organist that, at best, is a fifth rate ripoff of a piano player?

Let's look at the Code of Ethics of the American Guild of Organists, rule number 4:
Before accepting an engagement for a wedding, funeral, or other service, members shall obtain the approval of the incumbent musician. In cases where this engagement has been requested by a third party, it is appropriate for the third party to offer the incumbent his/her customary fee. It is the responsibility of members to inform the third party of this rule.

This "customary fee" is known by some as the "bench fee". But why this fee?
1) Again, work being taken away from the parish organist that is rightfully his/hers.
2) The parish organist has the responsibility of making sure the organ is unlocked, the proper accompaniment books are available, microphones set up, etc.
3) The parish organist, in many cases, including my own, has the responsibility of approving the visiting musicians - making sure that the musician in question has experience as an organist, has experience and hands-on knowledge in Catholic liturgy and music, and is aware that certain things are not appropriate at any Mass (e.g., secular music).
4) The parish organist, in many cases, has the responsibility of approving any and all musical selections used by the outside musicians. If the outside musician turns out to be someone who could give a rat's behind, then you might be in for a battle.

I still recall getting into a big tiff with a "prominent" composer on a message board over the "bench fee", and was later told by this composer (hint: I myself am the bread of life, you and I are the bread of life - explains the intelligence) that I should surrender the organ bench to a "real pastoral musician". Well, when in doubt of what a "real pastoral musician" is, read Jason's article, which later made it to the CanticaNOVA site.

Basic rule of thumb: if having to pay two organists costs too much, use the parish organist.



DominiSumus said...

Although I get a bench fee for funeral I still hate it when other musicians come in. They almost always leave the choir loft in complete dissaray. When I am the visiting musician, I always try to leave the loft as close to the way I found it as possible. It really isn't that hard.

My parish also has a policy which states that only liturgical musicians currently employed in parish or diocesan ministry may perform. That policy has caused many dissagreements, but it saves us from the inevitible disasters of people who don't have the slightest clue about what they are doing.

I remember a wedding where the "musicians" who sang to the recorded accompianment asked if I would sit with them to tell them when to sing. They were getting paid $500 for the Mass. I told them not unless they were planning on paying me $500. The liturgical musician policy was instituted the very next day.

Brian Michael Page said...

Your first paragraph, DS, is another sticking point for me - when I was working in Woonsocket, a guest choir and organist played a wedding one Saturday afternoon. When I got upstairs to play the 5:00 Mass, cups, snot rags, all over the seats upstairs, gum stuck to the organ console. I complained to the choir director, who did apologize. They never came back. What ticked me off is that I never knew that this wedding was coming, nor the choir in question.

I would have never allowed the recorded accompaniment, and when it came down to the boss, he would have sided with me (at least here at Holy Ghost, or my favorite former parish, Holy Name). I like your last paragraph ("not unless they were planning on paying me $500") - perfect!


Anonymous said...

There are worse things that can happen. Like the Parish replacing you at one of your Sunday Masses by volunteers for 8 weeks, no bench fee, 6 days notice, and then the staff avoids you for two months.

Brian Michael Page said...

Matthew, I remember that one. That was at MPB, wasn't it?

Jason Pennington said...

When I take a bench fee, I still am required to vest and stand at attention should the firecrackers turn out to be duds. This also safeguards against the guitar strummers recking the sand box, or a guest pianist from setting his styrofoam java cup on the Schimmel.

DominiSumus said...

We had no idea that the "musicians" were going to perform liturgical karaoke and I don't think the bride knew either.

IMO $500 for someone with a half rate voice to sing with a tape is a major rip-off.

I noticed a tremendous decline in the number of visiting musicians ever since the bench fee was introduced. Every once in a while I get a family who has their own cantor. Not many of them pass muster, since I will only play for real cantors. I do not play for cousin Anne who likes to sing.

Since I am also the wedding coordinator, I attend all weddings, so I always keep a close eye on the musicians, but for funerals they are on their own unless I have doubts about the musician which doesn't happpen often since I choose who plays and who doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Brian, Mr. "I Myself Am the Bread of Life" and I have divergent views on "pastoral." I suspect you diverge with me on this one. The real pastoral musician cares about his parishioners.

Brian Michael Page said...

Br. Andrew, if you're talking about caring about parishioners' well being and not their mere wishes, then yes, I fully agree.

Anonymous said...

I concur. Mr. "Let's sing heresy" might not understand the needs before the wants, but I do.

Anonymous said...

What about the situation where you are asked to do 90% of the wedding but "oh,I love that version of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria that "Celtic Women do; I want you to play that as Meditation music.I have the CD".
This one lit irked me royaly.

Brian Michael Page said...

Whether I do 100% of the wedding, 90%, or even 20%, I still get 100% of the fee.