Vidas: Let’s start now Episode 72 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today’s question was sent by Matt, and he writes,: “Vidas and Ausra, I have enjoyed your posts and appreciate all the work you put in. My goal is to be a better church organist.”
So Ausra, can we help Matt today with this goal, and give some pointers that he could apply in his practice? And perhaps other people as well, who would want to become better church organists over time?
Ausra: I hope so.
Vidas: So, what’s the first step in order to become a better organist, in your mind?
Ausra: Well, we should keep in mind that now we’re talking about church organists. So it means that liturgy comes first. And that is a crucial point while being a church organist. You must know what is going on in the liturgy, and to select your repertoire appropriately, and to play appropriately. What do you think about it?
Vidas: The number one skill that organists need when playing at church services is probably playing hymns.
Ausra: Yes, that’s number one.
Vidas: Then accompanying choir, perhaps, too.
Vidas: And then providing organ music for preludes and postludes, and maybe communion when the choir is not there. Even an offertory when you play, when the choir is not singing. Sometimes you need more than just the prelude and the postlude.
Vidas: So in general, it’s like a public performance. Some sort of performing for people in general, but with additional element of hymns.
Vidas: For the most part.
Ausra: And while playing in church, you always have to know what time of the liturgical year you’re in--if it’s Lent, or if it’s Advent, or Easter and Christmas, or just regular time with no particular festivity; and you need to choose your hymns and your music appropriately.
Vidas: Probably the first thing that every organist needs, to be a better church organist or a concert organist, in general is solid technique.
Ausra: Yes, definitely.
Vidas: And good sight-reading skills. So those two things will lead to better results while playing in public for church or in concerts. I would say that first of all, sight-reading is even more important than having virtuoso technique for church organists, because you have to constantly play a lot of unfamiliar hymns.
Ausra: Yes, and the more you will sight-read, the easier you will prepare for your services. Because you have to play so much music, if your job in the church is regular.
Vidas: Sometimes I ask my students at school if they like sight-reading on their instruments, and just a few of them say they do. But from those who say that they like sight-reading, only one or two actually do it regularly enough. So I think a lot of people underestimate the value of sight-reading over time; but still, it’s quite important to start, just start with a simple voice. I know the trickiest part of sight-reading is they cannot really play four parts in the hymns right away. So they make mistakes, they try to play maybe fast or slow, it doesn’t work, and they quit.
Vidas: What would you suggest for them, Ausra?
Ausra: Well, just keep going. Just don’t stop practicing!
Vidas: Do you think that reducing the texture would be a better solution than to simply go in with four parts?
Ausra: Yes, that’s true, and the same works for church organists--if you are not in your best shape yet, or you have not reached a very high level of performance, just pick pieces that you can play and practice them. Maybe easier at the beginning, maybe with less pedal; and even when accompanying hymns you can play in octaves--just playing two voices. Solo melody in parallel octaves, with both your hands.
Vidas: That’s a good technique, because then people will know exactly what the melody is, especially on an unfamiliar hymn; and both your hands will be active at the same time, and soon enough, let’s say, after a few weeks or months, you are ready to tackle the next challenge: basically two-part texture.
Ausra: Yes and if you want to be a good church organist, the collaboration is so important. You must find out what your priest or pastor expects from you, what the congregation expects from you as an organist; if you have a music director, also you have to collaborate with the music director--that’s a crucial thing to do. If you have that good relationship, then everything should work just fine.
Vidas: Do you think that keeping a steady tempo in playing hymns is good and important?
Ausra: Yes, it’s very important, if you’re leading congregational singing.
Vidas: And a lot of organists do, right?
Vidas: So what’s the best way to keep the tempo steady? Can singing yourself help?
Ausra: Yes, and that’s what I always do. That doesn’t mean I’m singing aloud; most of the time I just sing the hymn in my mind. But I always sing. That way, you will know, for example, how long it will take you to take a breath at the end of the phrase, and how to choose the right tempo. So that’s very important. And you have to read the text, too. And it will help you to register right.
Ausra: Because not all verses of the hymn must be played with the same registration.
Vidas: Exactly, Ausra. People can really sing and read the text and discover the different meanings of the stanzas. Maybe choose one stanza with reeds, another stanza with principal chorus; even softer, meditative hymns could be registered with some flutes, especially in Lent, right? But you have to know what people are singing about.
Vidas: So in general, we mentioned three steps, right? Sight-reading, technique, and then keeping a steady tempo while singing yourself. Three things to keep in mind. We haven’t talked a lot about technique, yet. Can you mention some of the things that would be helpful?
Ausra: Well, you know, the technical things will be the same as for somebody who isn’t a church organist, but organist in general.
Vidas: Hand and feet coordination, first of all.
Vidas: So when you practice hymns, it’s very similar to sight-reading, actually, hymns; except, when you practice and perfect them and polish them, you have to repeatedly play them over and over. Maybe not even an entire hymn, but maybe one phrase of the hymn. So also don’t start with four-part texture right away. Maybe start with a single line, maybe then proceed to two-part textures, then three-part textures, and so on. What would you think about that, Ausra?
Ausra: Yes, that’s a good technique, and a good way to do it.
Vidas: And then choose a few preludes and postludes for your church services, also working and practicing in a similar way. Treat your hymns as organ compositions, and treat your compositions as organ hymns singing each line; that would be the easiest way.
Ausra: Yes; and if you will pick your music, try to find, for example, organ compositions based on those hymn tunes that you will be accompanying the congregation, that’s also a good thing to do. That way, your services will be more complete and more unified.
Vidas: For example, if the opening hymn is based on a specific tune, so your prelude could be based on the same tune.
Vidas: Or your postlude could be based on one of the hymns that is sung in the church service that day.
Ausra: Because most people appreciate music that sounds familiar to them. So the more you will repeat the same hymn tune, the more people will like it.
Vidas: What to do if I can’t find a piece of music written on a specific tune?
Ausra: You could improvise.
Vidas: I knew that would be the best solution, right?
Vidas: So guys, please improvise more; it’s probably the easiest way to find the most suitable repertoire for your church services. You don’t have to start with advanced versions. You could simply harmonize some tunes, add a middle part, extend a little bit with interludes and recurring melodies, like ritornellos; or, for the postlude, you could add a toccata-like figuration in the hands, and let the feet play the melody with the 16’ registration--maybe Posaune in the pedals as well, with slow rhythms in the pedal. Would that be a nice start?
Ausra: I think so!
Vidas: Excellent. So, of course look at the example that every master wrote, that every piece that you’re playing on the organ could be a model for you to improvise.
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: And we also try to incorporate improvisations in our practicing, and we also try to analyze pieces that we play; so our advice and suggestions are based on what we do exactly, too. We hope this will help you to grow as an organist. And please send us more of your questions; you can do that by subscribing to our blog at www.organduo.lt if you haven’t done so already, and reply to any of our messages that you will get. That’s the easiest way. Thank you so much for listening and applying our tips in your organ practice. This was Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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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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