I'm excited to announce the opening of the registration for my new Hymn Playing Workshop. Anyone who is struggling to play hymns with pedals, sign up here (students in Total Organist Premium and Premium Plus programs receive this course at no additional cost). It's especially suited for Easter time because I've chosen some of the most beautiful Easter hymns to work with.
Organ playing is similar to driving a car. Imagine that you have to stop your car at the traffic light. Most of the time, if you are a good driver, you would start slowing down at some distance before the traffic light. You would notice it early and start slowing down little by little without any surprise to your passengers and to yourself.
It turns out this situation has many things in common with organ playing. You have to slow down very gradually at the end of the organ piece. I'm not talking about tempo changes at important structural points in the middle of the piece. Instead, I'm specifically referring to the end of your organ composition. This video will teach you how to do it in the most convincing manner.
Although I have written quite a bit about sight-reading in the past, created my most popular coaching program to master this vital skill where more than 50 students have benefited from it so far, but because lots of people have asked me to give them some additional advice on sight-reading lately, I decided to talk about it today.
Another reason for sharing this video with you today is that one of the greatest weaknesses in the vast majority of my students of any kind (ear training, organ, piano) is their inability to read music well. Because of this they get discouraged to pursue music studies or ear training classes start to become too difficult, writing dictations becomes too hard etc. They could attempt so much more in music and they could have so much bigger dreams if they only practiced-sight-reading regularly.
There is an amazing correlation between the value of regular reading of books to the development of the person and the value of sight-reading music pieces to the development of the complete musician. Maybe one or two books won't do the miracle for you yet, but read 100 books and you will become completely different person. The same is with music sight-reading.
I discovered in my students, that whenever they learn sight-reading systematically, their progress is much faster. And I can testify this myself - whenever I regularly sight-read unfamiliar organ pieces, my ability to read new music is much greater and I can prepare for organ recitals much faster that normal.
That's why having excellent sight-reading skills is so important to have because you can simply read your music during the recital. No, you don't have to really open the unfamiliar organ score at the time of your recital or performance in public, such as church service (unless you are up to this challenge), but the time required to prepare this music can be reduced to weeks and days, instead of months and years. So here is how it works.
The speed in organ playing is one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts. We think that it's very difficult to play very fast, and organists have a hard time playing fast pieces. They think fast is difficult and slow is easy. That's the common thought.
But I think speed is an illusion because it can be very relative. A composer can write Allegro but the metronome marking is much slower. Likewise, the composer can write the slower tempo indication such as Andante but the metronome marking could be much faster. It really depends on what kind of metronome was used by the composer back in the day.
So I think speed is not as important as general musical feeling. When you are playing a piece, you have to transfer the emotion and the musicality that is built in into this piece. And if you are not ready to play this piece fast at the right concert tempo, then play it slower. You don't have to play it too fast because you if you are not ready for that, you will make more mistakes than usual and your piece will not sound as musical. It will sound like a race, like a sport.
In most cases, music is not sport. Of course, when you play scales, etudes, and exercises, there is some sport involved. But even then try not too play too fast.
Play as fast as you can possibly hear. That's the most important point here, I think. Listen to every single cadence, dissonant chords, important structural points, and modulations.
When you practice this piece, try to be aware of these things and the speed will take care of itself. That's because with time your fingers and your feet will become much stronger and the speed become more natural to you.
So it's better to think about these musical things, like how the piece is put together when you play. Try to really transfer your idea of analysis to the listeners.
Imagine, that you play something and you discover this modulation and find a nice dissonant D65 chord in the key of G major. You are not playing like a machine. You notice these things. You are feeling and leaning on the dissonances and hearing each voice and each part. By the way, that's why singing each part is so crucial when you practice. I hope you are doing that.
It's not easy, but well worth the effort because by doing it, you will learn to play musically and not like a robot. You will think like a real human being and transfer the thoughts and ideas that the composer has put into your piece. Remember this in your organ practice.
Today I'm going to talk about how you can play with another instrumentalist or vocalist and keep a good timing. In other words, how to make sure you are not speeding up or slowing down. If you want to know my advice, watch this video.
On the first day of Easter I was invited at the Vilnius university St. John's church to play during the mass where I performed a few improvisations. One of them - for the offertory - I would like to introduce to you today, because it demonstrates an interesting situation when the improvisation has to be adjusted to the changing liturgical situation.
Because I was preparing for the improvisation recital on the most famous Easter hymns which will be tomorrow, that day I planned to improvise the piece in the form of a modulating rondo based on the three Easter hymns: Wer nun den lieben Gott (A), Gelobt sei Gott (B), and Alelluia by Palestrina (C).
The main refrain which should occur 4 times was supposed to be Wer nun den lieben Gott, and the entire rondo structure would look like this: A (G minor), B (G minor), A (D minor), C (Bb major), A (C minor), B (C minor), C (G minor), and A (G minor).
This plan, if executed fluently would sound quite nicely, because Bach used it in one of his most famous preludes for organ (Eb major, BWV 552). But what to do, if the improvisation has to be shortened unexpectedly, when for example, a certain part of the liturgy lasts shorter than usual?
That's exactly what happened to me - in this video you will hear how the improvisation has to be completed before I finish this plan - as I was playing the ending of the second B part (the third episode from the end), I saw in the organ mirror that the priest is ready to start his prayer for the Offertory part of the mass.
Because I wasn't ready to return to the original key of G minor, I had to do it very quickly, if the piece should be ended on time.
Therefore after starting the new episode C, even at the end of the first sentence I created a final cadence in G minor and finished the improvisation. At the end of this video you can hear that it was done just in time, because the priest started to read his prayer for the Offertory right away. In my case, the final version of this improvisation could have been more complete (if there was more time to do it), but at least I ended after the end of the musical idea.
So if you are ever in a situation like I'm here describing, I think it's not really important on which part of the improvisation you are on, because the best way is simply to return to the main key as quickly as possible and create a final cadence. But try not to end the improvisation or a written down composition abruptly and without warning, as sometimes might happen to some organists.
Every organ composition has to be performed at a certain tempo which can be felt best if you are feeling the counting of the beats of the measure. This counting has to be regular. You can't count by speeding up or slowing down.
That's why keeping track of the pulse is so crucial when you either sight-read a new composition or practicing and perfecting a piece. A steady pulse is even more important when you play with another instrument. In this video, I will teach you how to do it.
Today I'm going to talk about how can you discover what kind of key is in your organ composition that you are practicing right now.
When you open your music score and want to practice this piece, I recommend you first analyze it, by looking at its structure, modulations, cadences, and chords. And the first step in doing all this is finding out the key. Without knowing what the key is, there is a danger of not understanding how the piece is put together.
Sometimes composer writes the key in the title of the piece like "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor". But often the key has to be discovered by the organist. For some people this task is quite complicated. I recorded this video in order to help you understand exactly how to do it.
As I have hinted in yesterday's post, my 2nd day Easter service was quite an adventure and a good lesson for us all. Today I would like to elaborate a little on this and give you some details of what was going on there in hope you will learn from my experience as well.
I was prepared to improvise at this service on some of the most famous Easter hymns, such as Jesus Christ is Risen Today and others. But when I came to the church I met my priest who after greeting me with the words "Alleluia" asked me if there wasn't going to be Handel's Alleluia for the organ during service.
I answered that this was a good wish but knew that I don't know this piece from memory and I left the score at home (plus I haven't played it for several years now so I was sure it wasn't going to be a nice performance anyway). Besides I felt like the priest was not really serious because he must know that such things have to be asked for quite in advance (I don't approach him with the special request for the theme of his sermon just before the service starts, for example. In fact, I would never do such a thing even a month in advance - there are some professional boundaries we must honor).
But when I was going up the stairs to the organ loft I started thinking maybe I should give Handel's Alleluia a try. I thought people would enjoy it. Besides - I like musical challenges. But how can you play a piece, if you don't have a score and don't know it from memory?
I decided to take my own advice and improvise on the beginning few lines of this piece. It should have been a prelude before the service - so really not very long - 2-3 minutes of duration should have been just fine.
I turned on my organ, choose Organo Pleno with mixtures registration on all three manuals (just in case) with III/I coupler and principals and 16' Posaune with I/ped coupler in the pedals and began to play.
I foolishly chose the C major key and soon realized that the original is in D major so yes, I had to transpose it in my mind (at the beginning in the video you can probably feel a short moment of this sudden unpleasant realization).
In the short few moments I had for preparation before playing I thought up a rather simple plan for this improvisation. I was going to present this Alleluia theme in various related keys of the C major scale (d, e, F, G and a - not in this particular order, though) and connect the thematic entrances with modulating sequences taken from the fragments of the theme.
The end of the improvisation was supposed to be about 30 seconds after the bell (announcing the beginning of the service) rings. That's about time when the priest has come to the altar in our church. As I was playing, I didn't have my watch on but kept one eye (and ear) open to this bell sound...
The time passed but there was no bell sound so I had to keep on playing. But here's the thing: how do you keep on improvising when your original plan for improvisation was rather short?
I guess improvisation is such a handy skill for any organist because you can make it shorter or longer according to the situation. It's not easy to find a nice place to stop in a written down organ composition but if you are spontaneously improvising, you can make it as long or as short as you wish.
This means that your original plan can be extended with more modulations and more sequences which was exactly what I did then.
What was supposed to be a rather modest prelude of 3 minutes of duration, became a rather solid 8 minute piece. If you are curious what I played, watch this video, since I recorded it.
The performance is not perfect, there are a few wrong notes here and there but I think it's worth sharing it with you not because you can see how can I play without mistakes or because I want to entertain and amuse you (that's not the point). What's more important here is that you can see what can YOU do with such a famous theme (or in fact with any other theme) for 8 minutes.
So what lessons can my readers draw from my musical adventure of yesterday?
1. Some fear and anxiety in such situation is fine but if your mind feels paralyzed, then it's not a good sign. If you feel paralyzed or in panic, it means you are biting more than you can eat at the moment. Start with small baby steps.
2. A good knowledge of harmony and chords is of paramount importance for such improvisations.
3. When playing modulating sequences for connection of the theme presented in various keys add or omit one accidental at a time. For example, if you are modulating from F major to G major, first modulate to C major (omit the Bb) and then modulate to G major (add F#). For sequences use a dissonant four-note chord and its resolution, just like we are learning in Basic Chord Workshop.
4. You don't have to know the entire piece from memory. In fact, the less you know, the better. A short theme or an episode of 8 to 16 measures is usually sufficient. You just have to be able to transpose your theme to various keys.
5. In order to have a variety of texture and color, play some episodes on the secondary manual without the pedals only. This gives you a nice time to think ahead of what are you going to do next.
6. Maintaining a steady tempo is vital in improvisation. You might miss a few notes and a lot of your listeners will not notice a thing but if you miss a beat, slow down, or speed up without any good reason - then the feeling is not so nice.
7. When you prepare for some sort of recapitulation or re-entry of the theme, or return of the main key, the dominant pedal point works very well - it builds up the tension.
8. When you are prepared to end your improvisation, incorporate the tonic pedal point with the shorter or longer excursion to the key of the subdominant.
9. In order to feel a little more secure, don't start improvising in public right away. Improvise for a friend or a family member first (even recording yourself feels very different, right?). In church service, start small - perhaps invert soprano with the tenor or re-harmonize the bass. Another good way to start improvising is to memorize your hymn and transpose it to various related major and minor keys, connect various stanzas with different modulating bridges, add a coda at the end and it will sound and feel quite nice.
10. Don't blame yourself for any mistakes. Record yourself, analyze what happened, learn from the mistakes, find any nice tricks to reuse in the future and move on.
11. Lower your expectations. Your progress is more important than the result. If you improvise even a little better now than 6 months ago, then you are on the right track.
I hope that my experience has inspired you to create musical experiments of your own and start your own adventures.
By the way, do you have a musical adventure or experiment from this Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Day) to share? If so, please post them to the comment section.
Yesterday when I shared my analysis of the Easter Hymn, the technology I used to record it, appeared to be quite unreliable - distorted sound and view made the watching of this video a rather unpleasant experience. I apologize for this and at the same time would like to thank everyone who noticed the problem and wrote to me so that I could fix it.
I'm amazed at how patient everyone was (no screaming and cursing) with this technological disaster. So this morning, before going to my own second day Easter service I re-recorded this video. It became a little more extended and more detailed than the previous one - but the more details, the better, right?
If you want to know how this famous hymn is put together, all its tonal plan, modulations, cadences, and chords watch it now. I'm sure many of my readers played this hymn for their Easter services. Therefore it would be quite handy for them to know what's exactly is in this hymn. Enjoy!
PS Today's Second Day Easter service at St. John's here in Vilnius was quite an adventure for me (in terms of improvisation) and a good lesson for many organists, I think. Stay tuned for the details in tomorrow's post.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University Centre of Culture, teachers at National M.K. Čiurlionis School of Art, creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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