Without a clear understanding of what are the strengths and weaknesses of any particular approach, it will be very difficult to succeed in developing one’s technique. In this article, I will give you my thoughts on this topic.
First of all, let me say this: if you have a teacher or a mentor whom you can trust, do as they tell you. It is important that you accept and follow your teacher’s suggestions. Otherwise, he or she can’t take full responsibility for your development.
When I first started to play the organ, my teacher asked me to choose a choral prelude from the Orgelbuchlein by J.S.Bach. Imagine that – playing from Orgelbuchlein right from the beginning...
I have to admit, although I had a fairly well developed piano technique (I played the piano for 10 years before starting taking organ lessons), I had much trouble with this chorale.
I did not know the reason why it was so difficult then, but now I can confidently say it was so because it had 4 independent voice parts (one in the pedal).
Talking about Orgelbuchlein, it would have been better to start with the trio texture with 3 independent voices (chorale prelude “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”), because it does not require to play two voices in one hand, which makes too difficult for a beginner to control the articulation.
So going back to this topic you can see, that if the organist chooses a piece from the repertoire, it should be a wise choice.
On the other hand, having a good organ method book, proceeding from the beginning and diligently following the instructions might save a lot of precious time.
You see, the author who writes a particular method book gives you not only very specific exercises to develop your organ technique, but usually a good method book is structured in a very graded manner – from easy to difficult exercises and compositions.
A traditional method book might start just with a single line and large note values and proceed a little bit further and involved with each set of exercises. This way the beginner might not feel overwhelmed by the subtleties of texture and technique.
I understand that in many cases method books have long sections with dry unmusical exercises which are focused just on one particular element of organ technique, like pedal playing and the organist is supposed to complete them all. Organ pieces sometimes are only at the end of such method. For some people, this approach might be too boring.
Isn’t the most beautiful organ music that they first heard was the most important reason for them to start playing this instrument in the first place? And here they are forced to play these exercises for many pages.
Perhaps they could feel better about them if they had their goal, vision, or a dream in mind. For example, imagine that the organist wanted to play some piece that he or she always dreamed of, like the D Minor Toccata and Fugue by Bach or Toccata by Widor.
But this organist would understand that they are too complicated for a beginner and start studying organ from the method book first with this goal in mind. In fact, it is possible to use a mixed approach.
With this approach you would study exercises from the method book but integrate compositions from the repertoire of your level, too. Incidentally, the best method books available today integrate pieces within the exercises or construct the exercises out of the excerpts of the pieces.
In addition, such a book also has extensive details on early organ technique, registration, ornamentation, service playing, organ construction, and even on the new late 20th century techniques.
Another option would be to start playing the organ with very easy pieces from organ repertoire, such as the chorale prelude “In dulci jubilo” by Johann Michael Bach.
However, be aware that you will need to figure out many details by yourself which otherwise would be included in the method book. These details include choice of fingering, pedaling, articulation, registration, ornamentation etc.
So you still probably would need to consult your teacher or a method book. Otherwise, your solutions might not be the best and the road to mastering these pieces would be too long.
Following the directions from your method book in a way is like studying with an experienced teacher but without the benefits of feedback, motivation, encouragement, and support. By the way, most of the teachers I know use method books in one way or another in their teaching.
In the end, I would say that it is possible to start playing the organ with any approach described here. Of course, the choice is yours but my recommendation would be to choose and practice wisely. Treat the pieces like the exercises, find and isolate the difficulties, practice them diligently and you will have no trouble in mastering any organ piece.
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