July 5, 2018     Kaitlynn Eaton

When Your Organist Isn’t Who You Expected


What do you expect when you have a meeting with the Assistant Director of Music for a church? What gender are they? What should they look like? How should they dress?

There are a lot of preconceived notions about who is a church musician, we most often think of the character I like to call Grandma Ethel. Grandma Ethel is your typical 80-something-year-old church organist who plays everything too slowly, too loud, never lets you have time to take a breath after a comma, and can’t hear worth a darn. She’s a sweet lady but she’s been the organist for way too long and it’s time for her to retire. She looks a lot like the lady below:

[In meme format] | Title: 'ORGANIST' | 'What strangers think I do': Vampire wearing a tuxedo, surrounding by smoke and candles in darkness, standing menacingly over an organ | 'What elderly relatives think I do': 1950's era painting, set in a home, of a father in a suit playing an organ on which his young son is leaning on, with his wife watching happily from the background | 'What I think I do': Johann Sebastian Bach in Baroque clothing playing an organ | 'What I actually do': Helen Feesh, a character from the TV show 'The Simpsons', playing the organ in the First Church of Springfield

Let me tell you a bit about myself to frame my point. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Church Music and a Master’s Degree in Church Music/Organ Performance. I’m almost 25 years old, I dye my hair a silvery ash blonde, I have many tattoos, I have my nosed pierced and several ear piercings, and I exclusively wear black.

Selfie of author, who is wearing winged liquid black eyeliner and has two nose piercings (septum and nostril) and a small script tattoo underneath her right collarbone

You can imagine the surprise on people’s faces when I stick out my hand and introduce myself. I am not what people expect. I am not the person they expect to teach their children, execute lesson plans, play the organ in their church, or be knowledgeable about obscure Renaissance polychoral music.

There are a lot of unknowns when people sit down and talk with me. They don’t know about my 14 years of experience, they don’t know about my degrees, they don’t know that if I’m not sure of an answer I will spend hours and hours researching something, they don’t know that I practice 4 hours a day to make things beautiful and fulfilling for their special services and for our regularly scheduled Masses.

Author playing an organ in a church with stained glass

I get talked over; I get “corrected”; I get ignored. Once, when I was the Director of Music for a small parish before I finished my Master’s, someone honestly asked me for a copy of my diploma and for proof of enrollment in my Master’s program. That actually happened to me.

So, what do you do when you’re trying to share your expertise and experience with someone who is clearly going to have a difficult time accepting it? You draw up all the grace and patience you can muster. You’re not Grandma Ethel, you’re not who they’re expecting. You’re too young to enjoy this vocation, you’re too young to have so much experience, you’re too “too.”

What I don’t tell these people is that most of my colleagues are under fifty. I don’t tell these people that my colleagues dye their hair, have tattoos, and are simply regular people with a very visible vocation.

Author and a colleague taking a selfie together wearing graduation robes and hats

What you can do in this situation is patiently and graciously impart your knowledge, experience, and understanding. What you cannot do is get frustrated. Whenever people say to me “but you’re so young!” I reply, “thank you, I work very hard.” Or when I get “so what’s your real job?” I reply, “this is my real job and I enjoy it immensely.”

Recently, I gave a tour of the organ at my parish and opened up the instrument to show people the guts. I discussed the nitty gritty details of how the blowers work, different kinds of pipes, and I took the group through the tonal palette of the organ. A woman came up to me after and said “I had no idea you were so knowledgeable about the instrument. I’m awestruck by your knowledge and experience.”

My reply? “You are very kind. I know my instrument inside and out because I have to, because it’s my job to know, because she’s my baby and if there’s something wrong with her I have to be able to describe the problem so she can get fixed.”

Author in a formal black dress playing an organ in a church setting

When you’re faced with a difficult parent, fellow teacher or colleague, or family member, or someone who has a preconceived notion of who you should be, share your knowledge with them gracefully. Share your passion and joy for your work gracefully and patiently.

For me, my work is a calling; it’s a vocation. This is the thing I have chosen to dedicate my life to and I love it. I live in my office about 50-60 hours a week and I love it. I am emotionally drained every day from the giving nature of this work and I love it. I am exhausted at the end of every day and I love it.

No matter how you look, be you short or tall, clean cut or shaggy, tattooed or not, silver-haired or not, thin or curvy, if you exude enthusiasm and love for your chosen career, it won’t matter how people expect you to be. Know your stuff and love your work and abolish the expectation of Grandma Ethel.

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