KOTA KINABALU: A group of Sabahan musicians from three churches under the Catholic Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu hope to be pioneers in incorporating organ music in their liturgical worship.
Under the guidance of liturgical expert Fr Cosmas Lee, choir directors and musicians from Sacred Heart Cathedral, Church of Mary Immaculate and St Simon Church were briefed on the digital organ, a cheaper and space-saving alternative to a pipe organ.
A Singaporean organ expert and choir director shared his knowledge on the music instrument with local musicians.
Alphonsus Chern, 38, believes in the group’s vision and said it was “possible” through perseverance and commitment, even though it may seem to be a monumental task.
“I strongly believe it is possible,” Alphonsus, who helps co-ordinate the organ installations in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, said.
“Sabah is very young in terms of Catholic liturgical worship culture. The people are likely willing to accept something that is grounded in sound liturgical principles and shared with them in a way that is respectful and empathetic.
“What your group needs is perseverance and commitment to see it through, and to always rely on your faith in difficult times. St Simon (Church Likas) has a very strong advocate in your parish priest, it is the ideal place to start this.”
Alphonsus, who is also an organist at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore, said it is never too early or too late to introduce the organ in churches because it “is such a wonderful instrument”.
“I can’t describe what you’re missing out on because you don’t have an organ I can demonstrate. Once you’ve heard a good installation, you will wonder why you didn’t have an organ earlier,” he said.
He advised aspiring organists to not only practice a lot but also to take their role seriously and with humility.
“Practice, practice, practice. As an organist, you are the loudest thing in church, playing possibly the most expensive piece of equipment there. Your responsibility is tremendous.
“Take your role seriously and with humility. Don’t play to satisfy your own ego. You are servant to the liturgy and to the congregation. You make or break the Mass.
“Therefore, be diligent in your practice, and be sensitive to the proceedings – and always pray, pray, pray for grace and humility.”
On whether the pricing plays a role in the lack of interest towards pipe organ or digital organ in the State, he said it may not be an accurate way to describe the cost of an organ.
“Organs are expensive, yes. The cutting-edge processing and sampling technology that is used to reproduce the extremely complex speech of thousands of individual pipes and their reverb characteristics, the high quality components and cabinetry are all made in Allen’s own factory in the USA.
“All this makes an Allen organ cost more than other brands, but in the long run it is actually more value for money because they are built so well, and last longer than any other organ I know of, and that makes it cheaper to own in the long run.
“An electone reproduces orchestral instruments and is used mainly for secular arrangements and designed for home entertainment use. We have appropriated it for church use but the sound does not give us the ‘feeling’ that an organ does because the audio signal is attenuated to be compatible for home Hifi systems.
“A church organ, on the other hand, is specifically designed to reproduce the very high and low frequencies of a real organ which, in the physical sense, is responsible for the sense of awe that an organ gives us when we hear it.
“Liturgical worship is a way of bringing us closer to the heavenly and the organ is the instrument that does this best because of its physical characteristics.”
The uniqueness of an organ is the “thrilling” sound that it produces.
“This thrilling sound is formed by the very rich body of tone that the organ produces that is warm and very supportive of singing,” said Alphonsus.
“The extreme bass underpins the singing and the brilliance of the top end gives it a glorious effect. When used to accompany plainchant, it is so subtle that one wonders how such a powerful instrument can also be so gentle and supportive. It literally brings tears to the eyes.”
The local musicians, who seemed both excited and scared at the same time at the prospect of introducing the instrument in their respective parishes, were told to set targets that are achievable within their comfort zone and a bit beyond.
“Targets must be reasonably attainable. Give them a time frame. Let them play at Mass to give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Guide, correct, nurture them.
“Above all, reinforce the concept of multiplying their talents for God’s glory and not your own,” he said, adding that the ability to read music helps a lot as well and, above all, the perseverance to get through the beginning phase.
Alphonsus assured that the organ is as flexible as the organist is.
“I have used the pipe organ to accompany solo singers, cantors, instruments such as the trumpet, violin, playing gospel hymns, jazz, praise and worship, secular songs, contemporary and traditional hymns and background music.”
He said Chiu Lu Piao, who was a piano and Allen organ distributor since the 1970s, was instrumental in his ministry to help introduce the instrument in churches.
“He (Chiu) was one of the biggest music instrument suppliers in his time, and Allen was the premier organ of choice for all the Christian churches, even today.
“A few years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking for a successor to the Allen organ agency. He could not find anyone who had the knowledge and willingness to carry on the work. In his time, he installed nearly 100 organs in all sorts of churches, schools and homes.
“Last year, I agreed to become his business partner as I saw the benefit in being able to help churches get organs of the best quality, with the understanding that only an organist has that is invaluable to helping a church meet its needs.
“Lu Piao was a family man first of all, and a very steady and fortnight dealer. In his last days, he accepted Christ and was baptised as a Methodist.
“I promised him that I would take care of all the organs he installed, and help anyone else who needed an organ. I find this is very much in line with my work as a church musician so I have no regrets taking on the additional responsibility.”
Alphonsus, whose day job is as a photojournalist with New Straits Times, said he barely has any time for himself.
“I have a wife and three children. My wife teaches organ music, and co-directs the choirs with me. I work eight hours a day and then service organs and give consultations in the other hours.
“It’s work seven days a week for me for the last two years but I always remind myself that if God has given me the ability to make something happen, to do useful things, to lay the path for the future musicians, then I cannot rest until it is done.
“Things don’t change because people are afraid to give more of themselves. Trust God!”
His vision is to give those who cannot afford music education a chance to become organists and conductors and choristers. “Liturgical music is for everyone, not just the privileged and wealthy.”
“Good liturgical music is very attainable. Exposure and training will help us get there. I also want to establish a music department at the Cathedral in line with the professional way it is done in the West.
“This is good for developing musicians here, and putting the Singapore church on the map, to evangelise – and the same for any diocese that is keen to do so.”
On how he juggles his busy life, he said he makes it a point that at every choir session, it starts and ends with a prayer that unites the hearts and focuses the minds of all choristers and musicians for the day.
“In all things that I do, I try and remember that God is at the centre of everything. It is He who gave me the talents that I have. Therefore, it must be to serve Him that I use these gifts. Not to use them would be a sin.
“To use them for my own sake would be selfish. With this in mind, it helps to keep my work focused and I trust that He will make things happen in His own time and way.”