...then inevitably you will have to deal with frustration and the list of valid excuses will get longer by the day.
There are too many things to learn;
I'm too old;
I'm never going to play/improvise/compose like (fill in the blank);
I'm not talented enough;
I don't have a good teacher;
I don't know where to start;
It turns out that if you focus on what you already know, it's all downhill from there.
I'm really good at playing this harmonic minor scale;
the first/last line of this piece comes very naturally to me;
I can play the left hand part fluently already;
This hymn gives me no trouble;
I completely nailed the pedal part of this piece;
I can play this chord in any key I want;
Look deeply at your skills, pick the best one and build on it.
I few days ago I observed a student playing Bach's Two-Part Invention in C major, BWV 772. I will try to describe the issue with the tempo he was having because I think many people run into similar problems.
He seemed to speed up in easy places and slow down in more difficult ones. Easy places for him meant ascending and descending sequences and difficult ones - around cadences.
I think it is logical that sequences are easier than cadences because in sequences, the music simply repeats in predetermined manner up or down. In other words, composer uses the same melodic and rhythmic idea but transposes (more or less) it from different pitches.
Sometimes the sequence modulates to another key and sometimes it stays within the same key. At any rate, since there is only one idea, once you learn how to start it, the rest of it continues in a fairly straightforward and predictable manner.
The cadence can be much more difficult to play because often the harmonic rhythm changes faster than anywhere else in the piece. In other words, around cadences there is too much going on musically and so the challenge is to play it in the same tempo.
Now this student appearently felt quite strong during sequences and less so around cadences. Therefore his tempo fluctuated. It was especially noticeable in descending sequences when he began to play faster and faster as if he was in a race.
Have you been in such situation yourself? If so, I think the best solution always is to count out loud the beats of the measure. When you are keeping track of the pulse, saying the numbers of the beats out loud prevents from speeding up or slowing down because it's too obvious.
Of course, if you can't play fast enough, slow down and choose a tempo while checking the most difficult passages of your piece first. Sometimes it means you have to master them on a higher level and repeat many more times than the easier places in your composition.
I often get to play organs which have imperfectly functioning wind systems - it's possible to see the holes in the bellows and sometimes the wind system in the organ is not reliable in general.
You can feel this when playing fast and loud, with thick texture, large chords and all the stops of the organ. The impression is that the organ has a difficult time breathing. The bellows, by the way, are often called the lungs of the organ not by accident.
What can you do in this situation?
1. Avoid using stops which require a lot of air but add little to the general loudness of the organ - 16' and 8' flutes.
2. Avoid doubling stops of the same pitch level.
3. Avoid using manual couplers.
4. Some of the chords can be played and released not entirely together.
5. Choose a different piece.
Sometimes the impression that the organ lacks air comes not necessarily because of the defect in the wind supply system. It may be entirely possible that this is simply a part of the organ style.
We must remember that many Baroque instruments have quite low air pressure in the bellows. Because of this, the Romantic or symphonic music sounds unnatural on such organ. In this case, better choose a piece which suits the style of such organ.
Don't fight the instrument. Simply let it play.
When you know how to set up the pistons for registration changes, the inevitable question is this: how to know which stops to use for which combinations?
There are really many variables here to consider: what kind of piece you are playing, what kind of style, what kind of instrument and so on.
Remember this: pistons only facilitate the change of organ stops. Instead of pulling many stops by hand, you simply press one piston with your thumb and everything changes instantly.
But the choices of stops that go into each piston depend on a lot of things. Sometimes you can use pistons in a public performance when you have to play some pieces with contrasting registration and pushing a piston simply reduces the time you would need to change the stops by hand between the pieces.
Sometimes pistons are very useful even in the middle of the piece when you have several contrasting sections and each would require contrasting registration which otherwise would require an assistant to make changes.
Sometimes the pistons are used to make crescendos and diminuendos in the middle of the piece. You set up the pistons in advance in a way that each subsequent piston has a little louder combination of stops. This happens a lot in many French symphonic pieces.
In this case pistons (and toe studs) are used similarly to the ventil system that traditional Cavaille-Coll organs had.
In many pieces of French organ composers, the places for change registration are very obvious - they write in the necessary reeds, other stops or couplers you have to add.
When a composer doesn't indicate the exact pitch level or exact stop combination, then you only see signs for dynamics in the score (pp, p, mf, f, ff etc.) - this is often the case with German Romantic composers. Then you have many more choices for your pistons but still try to consider the general characteristics and requirements for registration for this particular style.
Try to learn to read your score and composer's intentions and you will understand how to use pistons in changing registration.
Many of today's organs have combination action with general and divisional pistons which can be used to make sudden registration changes.
Here's how you can set up the pistons in advance in most cases:
1. Draw the desired manual and/or pedal stops.
2. Locate the "Set" button on the left hand side of the lowest manual.
3. Locate the number of the piston on the front of the lowest manual you will want to use.
4. Press the "Set" button and while holding it, press the desired piston, release it and only then release the "Set" button.
5. Locate the "Cancel" button on the far right hand side of the lowest manual and press it to cancel all the stops and prepare the next combination. You can skip this step if the next registration combination is very similar to the previous one. Simply add or remove a few stops by hand in this case.
6. Repeat the steps 1-5 for any other pistons that you want to set up.
Note that you can use the divisional pistons as well. The divisional pistons are the buttons designed to change registration only for a certain division or manual. For the pedals, there are toe studs. The divisional pistons can be set up in the same way as the general pistons.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to practice using pistons:
1. On the place of the score where you have to change the combination, write the number of the piston and circle it. This will differenciate it from the number of the stop. You can use sticky Post It notes or something like that in order to keep the score clean.
2. If the piston change is difficult, slow down the tempo and practice the same spot with the exact motion of the thumb over and over.
3. If your practice instrument doesn't have pistons, you can pretend that it does and practice the movements with your hands anyway. This way you can prepare for public performance on the organ with pistons quite effectively.
There are toe studs for pedal division and/or for general combination pistons on many organs. They can be set up, practiced and used in the same way as the general pistons.
Note that during the performance you can add or remove any number of stops by hand in addition to the piston system.
Some instruments also have a sequencer ("Next" or "Previous" buttons or toe studs) which can facilitate the piston changes for the organist. If you set up the entire combination system in advance from 1 to 10, instead of pushing these pistons by hand, you can simply press "Next" which would engage pistons 1, 2, 3 etc. Likewise, pressing "Previous" will result in engaging pistons in descending order.
As with any other hand or feet movement, using the pistons during the performance requires some repetitive practice to do it fluently. Don't take the piston changes for granted because in many difficult pieces, the changes can throw the inexperienced organist off balance, disrupt the flow of the music and provide the opportunity to make unwanted mistakes.
Simply regard the piston changes as an integral part of the performance process and practice keeping them in mind in advance. This way you can be sure that when the time comes, you will be ready to locate and press the required piston or toe stud successfully and effortlessly.
After I recently saw one pianist play piano music on the organ, a few ideas came to mind:
1. Do not lift the fingers off the keyboards. Loosing the contact with the keys will greatly diminish your ability to control the releases.
2. Legato touch is not useful in early music. Consider playing with articulate legato even in the middle voices.
3. Avoid very short staccato touch. Extremely short notes can be used effectively on the piano in fast tempo and lively character pieces but on the organ, make the notes longer.
4. Play the organ mezzo piano. Avoid making dynamics with your touch. Instead use as little force as possible.
These things require great attention to detail and focus, otherwise it's easy to get back into habit of playing the organ with pianistic approach. However, if you listen to the result of your organ playing, you will understand why it is better to learn to play the organ differently. By the way, the same points are valid when you practice organ pieces on the piano.
When you play a slow organ piece from the Baroque period and it sounds boring to the listener and lacks a sense of direction, sometimes it means that your tempo is too slow.
But what if your tempo is just right and the music still sounds boring? There are 2 things you can do here:
1. Shorten the weak beats of the measure.
2. Start counting the beats out loud.
When you shorten the last beat of the measure, it naturally connects with the next measure and the music begins to flow (even in the slow tempo).
When you count the beats out loud, you are aware of the meter and pulse - very important components of the piece which you should never forget.
I know, it's exceedingly difficult to count out loud while performing but stick with it for a while and this trick will help the music come alive.
Organists who like to play jazz and blues on the organ (yes, that's possible and perfectly legitimate!) use the Blues Mode all the time. Watch this video and I hope you will feel compelled to incorporate it in your organ playing.
It's fun but I don't advice it for Communion and other parts of the liturgy (unless you know how to create a religious feeling with it) because it has a certain worldly association with it (except when it comes naturally for your denomination). However, it could be used for concert music very effectively.
If you like modern French organ music, you will love the whole-tone mode. It comes very handy in improvisation and creates a unique character. This is because it doesn't have any half-steps, it consists entirely of whole-steps.
You can use it whenever you want to create a feeling of uncertainty, tension, mist, swamp etc. This is because, in this mode you can't play major or minor chords - only augmented chords. I hope you will try it in your improvisations.
The point of today's lesson is not to demonstrate how you can use the chromatic scale with 12 notes for your warm-up but how it is built. In other words, you will learn how this scale is put together. There are really 2 systems for this scale (I personally like the 2nd one better).
If you know how to build chromatic scales, you are not very far from building chromatic intervals, and consequently, the colorful seventh-chords.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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