by Ruth McHaney Danner

I’ve often dreamed of being a superhero. In the dream I go about my daily activities, like mild-mannered Clark Kent. Suddenly, I get the call: a panic-stricken person begs me to drop everything and come to the rescue. Someone needs me – and right away!

I rush to the scene and assess the situation. Nasty. Very nasty. The organist for the wedding has fallen and sprained her ankle. She can’t possibly play, and the ceremony is about to begin. Who will save the day?

Yes! I can do it! I slip off my street shoes and slide onto the organ bench in one smooth motion, setting stops and volume levels along the way. I begin a beautifully improvised prelude, just as the mother of the bride prepares to walk down the aisle. A moment later I transition into processional music, and the ceremony goes without a hitch. Afterward, a beautiful fantasia on Mendelssohn’s “Bridal Chorus,” I slip out the back door while people inside whisper, “Who was that musician?”

Well, that’s my dream, anyway.

In real life, when I’ve been called to emergency musical situations, they’ve not been so idyllic. My first occurrence was in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I was not an experienced organist.

I worked part time in a church child-care program, changing diapers, wiping noses, serving lunch and snacks, and generally having a good time. The days seemed to blend into one another. Only minor emergencies – like stuck zippers or lost mittens – broke the routine.

All that changed one sunny afternoon. I was cleaning up after lunchtime in my uniform of T-shirt and jeans when the door burst open and the church secretary rushed in.

“Is there an organist here? We need an organist!”

I looked up and saw the desperation in her eyes. “Well, I play a little, “ I answered.

“Good,” she said. “You’ll do just fine.” She threw down my broom and before I could ask just what it was I’d be doing, she was whisking me into the church office, right in front of a distraught pastor.

He paced and gestured frantically while explaining his predicament. “I got a call from my second cousin last week. He said he’d be coming in today with his fiancée and asked me to perform the wedding. I was supposed to find an organist, but I forgot.” He stopped pacing and stole a quick look at me. “Just play anything you know,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”

With that, the secretary again whisked me out the door. She handed me a choir robe – a definite improvement over my casual attire, and she gently pushed me into the sanctuary. A handful of people had already gathered. The wedding was about to begin.

In my superhero life, this would be my moment. I would play a dreamy piece by Debussy, then seamlessly flow into the Wagner processional. But that didn’t happen. I started “Clair de Lune” by memory and faltered after a few measures – a reasonable occurrence, since I’d never memorized it.

Glancing at the audience with an apologetic smile, I tried another solo from memory – the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I was sure of that one, but after several measures, I stumbled on it, too. What made me think these piano solos would work well on an organ, anyway? By now the bridesmaid was ready to walk the aisle.  I had to do something. I grabbed a hymnal and opened it at random. There before me was God of Our Fathers, a stately hymn with a trumpet-like introduction.

I played the song, minus the trumpets, as the wedding party processed, throwing in a couple of lines of Wagner’s Wedding March along the way. The result was odd, but the bride, in a beautiful white gown, didn’t seem to notice. For the recessional, I played the hymn again, this time adding trumpet stops and any other bombastic stops I could find.

When the ceremony concluded, I slipped through the back door and took off my choir robe. If anyone asked, “Who was that organist,” I don’t know. I didn’t stick around to find out.


Ruth McHaney Danner is a church pianist, Bible teacher, and writer from Spokane, Washington.


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