A ‘musical ministry’: Church organist talks about how music can transform a sermon

  • Elise Feingold Jackendoff looks through her collection of music she plays on her piano at her home in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Elise Feingold Jackendoff looks through her collection of music she plays on her piano at her home in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Elise Feingold Jackendoff plays her piano at her home in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Elise Feingold Jackendoff plays her piano at her home in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Elise Feingold Jackendoff looks through her collection of music she plays on her piano at her home in Belchertown. Photo by Carol Lollis. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2020 9:29:08 AM

As a substitute organist and pianist at various churches in the Pioneer Valley, Elise Feingold Jackendoff may only have a few days notice to prepare for a sermon. Whether it’s at a Lutheran or Baptist service she is called to provide musical accompaniment for, Jackendoff said she finds the music to match the message of the moment.

“You can play some music that is relevant to the day, or relevant to the sermon, or relevant to the Bible reading, or the season,” said Jackendoff, 74, of Belchertown. “I love the space, I love the people. I love when I go in, there is a sense of sharing and caring. It’s a safe and sweet space.”

Most of the churches where she regularly serves as a substitute are Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Lutheran and non-denominational churches, many of which share similar hymnals and formats for services, according to Jackendoff. As a substitute organist and pianist, Jackendoff is covering for a church’s minister of music, which is the director of a church’s choir and typically an organist themselves.

For as long as Jackendoff can remember, music has been a part of her life. Growing up in New York City, she recalls a household full of musicians coming and going. Her parents themselves were musicians — her mother, a classically trained pianist; her father, a dance band banjo player and a contract lawyer for New York City musicians and other performers. Jackendoff went to Julliard’s Preparatory Division (now called pre-college) in New York City, studying piano, followed by higher education at Brandeis University and the University of Michigan.

Jackendoff said that at most churches she is given some freedom to choose the musical selections, and sometimes she brings music that may not otherwise be played at a church.

Pastor Vanessa Cardinale of the South Church Amherst said a successful substitute organist or pianist has to know the church’s corpus of music, quickly learn the liturgy, as well as fit into the day’s service with fluidity.

Jackendoff is quick to learn the form of how the church conducts its religious worship, and she selects pieces that fit with the day’s worship during the three to five minutes of offering when a musician chooses their own pieces to play, according to Cardinale.

“We need someone who can musically step in and help with that flow,” Cardinale said. “(Jackendoff) plays with joy … That sense is felt when she is there.”

On the Sunday before New Years, for example, Jackendoff played “Auld Lang Syne” at the First Congregational Church of Chicopee. A retired minister came up to her afterward and told her she had never heard that kind of music in a church before and that she really enjoyed her performance.

“Auld Lang Syne” is a Scots-language poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year. The phrase translated to English literally means “old long since,” and idiomatically, “long, long ago.”

“It’s a very beautiful and lyrical arrangement,” Jackendoff said.

Pastor Gary Grimes of the First Congregational Church of Chicopee recalled that Jackendoff only had about three days to prepare for the service before New Years and said her musical accompaniment meant a lot to the retired pastor, who felt moved by Jackendoff’s playing.

“Her playing is awesome, very professional,” Grimes said. “Hymns are only a minor part to play. There is other music during communion or offertory and she brings her own pieces of music. Those are always rich and she is just a professional in the way the music is played.”

When Grimes became the permanent pastor this past March, Jackendoff played a piece in honor of his installation during worship, and he described it as a “musical gift,” one that he found very meaningful.

“She is part of the church family,” he said. “We love her, and wish we had her more often.”

Jackendoff began playing in churches when she lived in Tucson, Arizona, nearly five years ago when she began covering for a Unitarian church pianist for three months. Then, from 2015 to 2017, she ran the choir rehearsals along with the regular church services, funerals, and memorial services in a non-denominational church in Oracle, Arizona.

Shortly after moving back to the Valley in October 2017, Jackendoff worked as a choir accompanist and spent three months playing services at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Belchertown. Since then, she has performed in Wilbraham, Southampton, Chicopee, Amherst, Florence, Easthampton, Hadley, Belchertown and other towns in the area.

She estimates she has performed nearly 30 services in the past two years at various churches, typically substituting every few weeks.

Jackendoff, who grew up Jewish, said playing at churches is “my musical ministry.”

“This music is actually the musical prayers I bring with me for the church and the congregants,” Jackendoff said. “It is my gift to a loving, peaceful place … It gives me joy to choose and learn and perform the musical delights from my library.”

Jackendoff noted that organists typically play pedals with their feet, sometimes simultaneously with the tips of their toes and the heels of their feet, which allows them to switch pitches by an octave or more.

A large modern organ typically has a two-and-a-half octave pedal board with 32 pedals.

Jackendoff does not play with her feet, however, and her collection of hymnal sheet music are versions of organ music that do not require the use of all an organ’s pedals.

“Preparing for the organ you have to be really meticulous with your fingerings,” Jackendoff said. “Besides, the organ is a louder instrument than a piano, so they are going to hear you boogling around.”

Famous composers like Joseph Haydn of Austria and Johann Sebastian Bach of Germany were prominent in her musical education, Jackendoff said, and yet there are many pieces by them that were never part of the repertoire that she grew up playing.

“There is a vast amount of piano literature that we did not study as kids or as young adults,” Jackendoff said. “And that’s what I play in churches. I don’t go play a Beethoven sonata, or a Brahm’s interpretation.”

The vast collection includes church music Haydn composed for a noble family in Hungary and over 200 cantatas that Bach wrote for the Protestant church. Jackendoff said she will typically play a nearly three-minute prelude for a service and a postlude for three minutes at the end of the service.

Jackendoff credits her stint at the non-denominational church in Oracle, Arizona, as the period where “I cut my teeth as a church musician.” It’s also where she provided musical accompaniment for a minister that received his doctorate in divinity at Boston College on the New Testament, a minister who made lessons in the Bible relevant and “making it belong to today.”

Playing at the church in Oracle, “became a kind of expression of my spirituality,” she said.

After a service one day at Oracle, a woman in her early 50s came up to Jackendoff with tears in her eyes. Jackendoff had played music from Aaron Copeland’s “Our Town,” and it reminded the woman of her brother who had died at 22 in a motorcycle accident.

“It’s very spare music, very simple,” Jackendoff said. “She said, ‘I hadn’t heard that since my brother was in the play in high school … thank you so much.’”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.

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