Have you ever played some piece of music that was truly and utterly ugly? That you didn't enjoy playing at all? That your listeners thought you were wasting your (and their) time?
Sure you have. We all have, in fact.
How about the piece that was ugly on the outside, very bitter and harsh sounding to start with?
But then something extraordinary happened - it started to grow on you. You began to like it. The more you played it, the more you enjoyed it. The more you thought about it, the more you seemed to understand it.
Every piece of music has a life of its own.
Imagine that regardless of what you think about it, it wants to tell a story, it wants to be heard, it wants to get out of the paper page.
And when you don't like it, it becomes sad and thinks "Oh, not this joker again."
Give this piece a chance, especially if it's a modern composition.
And maybe, just maybe (if the piece is good), and you're ready for it, you can become friends again.
PS This is true about listening, not only playing, of course. (Oh and books, people, and just about everything in life, too).
So many deep layers of meaning in this quote, isn't it? But here's one:
What's more important in organ playing - art side of this activity or science? Objective or subjective? Emotions or intellect?
I think it's both.
If we, organists think of organ playing only as an art form, we might become sloppy in detecting and eliminating technical mistakes, mistakes in foundational things, such as posture, hand and feet position, or articulation.
If, on the other hand, we would only think about these scientifically measurable things, we would miss big time on transferring meaning and feelings to our listeners
This is especially true in improvisation. Tense just a little and you will focus too much on counterpoint, harmony, and form and not enough on depicting a musical story.
But without those foundational things a great musical story would be shapeless, isn't?
It turns out that a great artist must be a great scientist as well.
(And vice versa).
[HT to John Higgins]
PS 50 % discount on Modern Variation Workshop ends Wednesday night.
How many times do we have to repeat a fragment of a hymn or an organ piece before we can say to ourselves that this is enough and can move on to the next fragment?
I usually recommend at least 3 correct repetitions in a row and Mateusz Marcinowski asks what is the significance of 3 rather than like 5, 10, or 20 repetitions?
If we count closely being very strict with ourselves, 3 correct repetitions in a row will most likely mean about 10 total repetitions (sometimes more - even up to 20).
Here's the thing - often we don't notice our mistakes. Often we count only mistakes in notes and rhythms. But what about articulation, what about rhythmical hesitations, what about wrong fingering and pedaling, ornaments, posture, hand, and feet position? These are things that could be improved too.
That's a lot to think about, isn't it?
That's why we have to look deeply at what we are doing, how we are depressing the keys and pedals, how we are sitting etc.
What happens when we play just one or two correct repetitions?
I think that our bodies can't internalize the fragment successfully when we move on to the next fragment too soon. We will have to go back and correct those mistakes later on anyway (if we want to perfect the piece).
So I say we need 3 correct repetitions in a row of the fragment of a hymn or an organ piece but in reality it's more like 10 total repetitions (if the tempo is slow enough and the texture is clear enough).
Welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast #9!
Listen to the conversation
Matthias Schneider is the Professor of Church Music and Organ at the Greifswald University and the president of the GdO (Gesellschaft der Orgelfreunde -Society of Organ Friends).
"And then he wrote his own tries, but not to play these pieces one to one within the service but to learn how to manage, how to improvise, how to get the right counterpoint to cantus firmus. In my opinion, this is not music to be played, as we do today but music as a starting for its own improvisations."
Video version of our conversation:
In response to my recent post and videos about the organ at the Holy Ghost Cathedral in Liepaja, Latvia, and impressions of the concert quite a few people had interesting questions. Here are some.
John Jeavons asks:
"What is a ventil system? What is a Barker machine? I really appreciate hearing about your experiences on such an organ. How did you select the registration such that it would match with the choir? Did you do it beforehand in anticipation of what they want or did you get some time to work with them and choose the registrations?"
Ventils in the mechanical action organ serve at least two functions - to conserve wind and to prepare certain registration combinations in advance. If you put, say 10 stops on a separate windchest than the rest of the stops in that manual, you can prepare any combination of these 10 stops in advance and when the time comes, you simply draw the ventil out and this combination would start to sound.
Now imagine that there are 16 ventils on the organ (every manual has 2 but Haupwerk and Pedals have 5 windchests each) This means there might be 16 x 16 combinations to choose from. Huge possibilities to change dynamics and colors and very efficient on a large mechanical organ. Also when you have that many stops on one manual, having just one windchest wouldn't work - the pipes would lack air to sound so you need to separate them.
Here is an explanation of how Barker machine works. Basically under each key of a particular manual (in the case of Liepaja organ - the Hauptwerk) - there are miniature bellows which help to depress the keys on that manual. An organist doesn't have to fight the resistance of the action on a large mechanical action organ because these small bellows do the work.
When playing with or without the choir, I always prepare my registration before hand (either on paper or in my mind). This saves precious rehearsal time. For the last year's recital in Liepaja, I didn't use much of the ventils, most of the stops my assistant pulled by hand. That's a lot of work. But this year, after following the advice of Janis Kalnins, my friend and organ builder from Latvia who knows this organ inside out, I decided this time would be different. Here's what I did:
I looked at the score of the Gounod's Solemn Mass for Saint Cecilia and noticed that there are 8 different dynamic levels: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff. Then I looked at the disposition of the organ in Liepaja and selected certain ventils to go with certain dynamic levels. This I decided after examining the nature of the stops on each manual and windchest. The same I did with the pedal windchests. Then I wrote out the stops and their combinations for each dynamic level on a specific windchest I wanted.
This was my starting registration with some of the ventils engaged. During the performance, my assistant only had to operate those ventils which are grouped together on the right hand side of the organ console (plus one coupler). As far as I could tell, it was so much easier for my assistant because everything was so close together. On the score I only wrote the numbers of the ventils and plus and minus signs.
What is interesting that I didn't have any additional personal time at the organ, we started rehearsing with the choir right away. So it's good I was prepared. And it worked for most of the ventils. Of course, a few ventils had to be adjusted (reduced or increased sound).
John Higgins asks:
"Are there any challenges around keeping timing with the choir in a resonant acoustic? I have heard that sometimes certain keys or pitches can be difficult in large cathedrals. I would imagine being mechanical action and having the pipes right in front and above you there wouldn’t be too many problems with a delay from the key being pressed to hearing the note? Also I notice the naming of the manuals and some of the stops seemed to be in the German style. Pardon my ignorance of the culture in this area, is this common that organs in Latvia (and Lithuania) would be named in the German style? Also, would it be more common for the Echowerk to be the top manual rather than the bottom manual?"
As strange as it may sound, this cathedral doesn't have a very reverberate room. Acoustics were not dry but moderate, I would say and certainly less reverberate than in our Vilnius University St. John's church. Because the organ is so large and the pipes are all over the place, there was a certain tendency to drag the tempo so I knew that in advance. Leading with the organ helps. If you are following, you are late. But if you are leading - you might be on time.
The reason the stop names and manual names are German is that this organ was built by the Curonian organ builder Heinrich Andreas Contius and enlarged by Barnim Grunewald from Stettin and because this Curonian area was German influenced culturally. In Lithuania, we have more Italianate names of organ terms. Perhaps because this is mostly Catholic country whereas Latvia is predominantly Lutheran.
Concerning position of the Echowerk - yes, it seemed strange to me that it is the lowest manual and not the top as usual. I had to adjust my expectations with manual jumps as well.
Anyway, I hope this helps to clarify the questions people might have about this organ and my experience in playing it.
When you go to church to play for service or when you play an organ recital, whose decision it is that you choose one piece over the other, one hymn over the other?
Sure, you can become good at dealing with people who want you to dance after the beat of their drummer but ultimately you have to decide if you want to be known for that, if you want to become a person who just does what he's told.
It today's world it's not enough.
Because if someone tells you what to do, he can always find a cheaper person than you to do it.
You see, it takes a certain amount of bravery to say "no" to the proposal that is simply not for you. But it also takes an equal amount of bravery falling in love with what you do choose to play.
I think it's OK to play the music that somebody else asked you to play as long as it matches YOUR goals and mission (you do have a mission, right?).
If it's not - you are wasting your time.
In today's world it's far more productive, rewarding, and lucrative to become a person who does what nobody else can do.
So ask yourself as an organist, what it is that only you can do and nobody else can?
The answer "I don't know" doesn't count.
PS Making pipe organ educational video (in Dutch with English subtitles)
[HT to Marcel]
Have you ever wondered how to compose organ variations in a modern style?
I'm starting to work on creating a set of 6 variations on the hymn tune "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee". This is a commission of my subscriber Judith Miller, who will play this piece as part of her recital in April.
Originally she wanted me to help find an organ piece on the topic of Service and Stewardship because her recital will be based on the stained glass windows in a church which has a 2 manual organ. These windows are dedicated to the elderly couple who served faithfully to this church.
As it often happens, because I couldn't find easily such a piece I decided to create my own. Judith wanted me to use a variety of rhythms, meters, tempos, registrations, dynamic levels, and textures. The variations should be about 5 minutes of duration.
In order to help other people learn to compose organ variations in modern style, I'm creating my Modern Variation Workshop (it's with 50% discount until the end of September). In this video program you will see my compositional process with detailed explanations which you can apply to the hymn tune of your choice to create your own variations.
A few people asked me about the feeling while playing the organ with choir in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Liepaja, Latvia so I thought I will post my impressions today.
Playing with the choir often involves quite a bit of coordination between organist and conductor. You have to work out with the conductor the registration, tempos, and even touch.
The thing about playing with Rasa Gelgotiene, the conductor of Vilnius University choir "Pro Musica" is that she allows total freedom of expression from the organist part.
Maybe she's this way only with experienced organists, people whom she trusts that she leaves the organ introduction without any conducting. I was also very free to choose registration I wanted, provided the balance between the choir, soloists, and organ was at the optimum level.
Of course we have to keep in mind that Rasa's relaxation comes partly from her enormous lifelong experience of working with choirs and from the fact that she has two fantastic assistants whom she trusts - Ignas Garla and Modestas Jankunas who worked this piece (the Solemn Mass for Saint Cecilia by Charles Gounod, 1855) with the choir over the summer.
So even though this organ is as complex as any mechanical instrument can get (especially with the ventil system), I actually had a pleasure and a relaxed feeling while playing with them.
The soloists (soprano with heavenly high register Gunta Gelgote, tenor with dramatic color Viesturs Jansons, bass with a special interest to early music Nerijus Masevicius) were also fun to work with.
I even almost didn't have to look at the mirror (partly because the mirror was located very high and partly because WE FELT EACH OTHER.
I think this is the key.
If you want to stay relaxed in these seemingly unpredictable and stressful situations (and believe me, we had plenty that day), you have to feel the performers, the music, and the instrument.
Don't worry - it comes with experience (I had my doze of stressful but useful appearances as an accompanist and chamber musician earlier in my organist career).
I think the festival uses the services of an organ builder from another city who maintains and tunes the instrument during the festival so everything worked well (more or less - it's a really LARGE organ - there's always a room for some ciphers and other adventures which is part of the deal).
A great assistant who stays invisible to you helps a lot, too - thanks to Maija Zakis who operated the ventils and page turns for me. She also turned on the Barker machine very quickly during one episode of the Gloria while I was wondering why the 2nd manual was so out of tune and worked only half way.
And of course all of this wouldn't have happened without the tremendous efforts of Dace Bluke, the director of Via Cultura and her team who organized this 14th International Organ Music Festival in Liepaja, Latvia and which continues to keep this incredible organ a symbol for the entire city.
I spend last weekend in Liepaja, Latvia, playing the largest mechanical organ in the world in the fabulous Holy Trinity Cathedral. Together with Vilnius University choir "Pro Musica" and soloists Gunta Gelgote (soprano), Viesturs Jansons (tenor), Nerijus Masevicius (bass) we performed the Solemn Mass for Saint Cecilia by Charles Gounod (1855) under the leadership of Rasa Gelgotiene. This concert was a part of 14th International Organ Music Festival held every year in Liepaja, an enchanting town on the Baltic coast.
I had a few minutes on my own on that instrument and decided to create a couple of videos demonstrating this landmark organ (thanks go to Deimantas, my camera man and my assistant Maija Zakis).
Enjoy Part 1 and Part 2. Here are some photos of the event.
Welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast #8!
In my opinion, one of the best organ improvisers alive, Sietze de Vries from the Netherlands shares his inspiring insights about improvisation on the organ.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
Our Hauptwerk Setup: