AVA178: At the console I hear the congregation sing with a delay of about half a second
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 178 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today’s question was sent by Michael. He writes:
Dear Ausra and Vidas,
First of all let me say thank you for all the valuable information you are generously sharing with us - this is so helpful and inspiring.
I would like to address a problem I have with hymn playing in a church with rather long reverb. At the console I hear the congregation sing with a delay of about half a second. I think this is the time the sound needs to reach the front wall, to become reflected and to reach me at the console in the rear. That makes it difficult to assess whether I am too fast or to slow for them to sing. This is absolutely no problem for me in smaller rooms with less reverb. Last Sunday my wife sat in the nave and said that she had also problems to adjust to my playing.
I have been playing the organ for more than 40 years and - although being an amateur - I would call myself an advanced player. I am used to soloing out hymn melodies in the soprano or tenor and have no problems in leading the congregation. It is just this church where I substitute from time to time and experience these problems.
Do you have any idea what to do?
Thanks a lot.
Ausra, have you had this experience before, where the delay and reverberation is huge, and you seem to drag a little bit with your liturgical playing?
A: Well, not so much with congregational singing. But I had that problem actually in Biržai, the northern city of Lithuania...
A: Which has a 3-manual pneumatical organ. Actually, I remember playing there a sort of huge program and recital together with you, remember?
A: And that time, I didn’t know what to do, because the sound of the organ actually would be delayed.
V: About what? How much?
A: Well, it’s hard to tell, but you know, I just could not manage it at that time. And it was a disaster, because I thought if I will hit the keys harder, the sound will come sooner! But actually, it was even more the opposite. The harder I tried, the more delayed the sound would become.
V: And the slower you played.
A: And the slower I played, yes.
V: It seems it’s a problem of a lot of historically-built pneumatical organs which are not in good condition, right? Because the air pressure in the tubes is not strong enough.
A: You know, but it’s an interesting thing, because when I returned to that instrument maybe after 10 years of a break, I didn’t have that problem.
V: Did this instrument have any restoration in between that time?
A: I don’t think so.
V: So you changed your approach somehow...?
A: Yes, I think I changed my approach--simply, I tried more various instruments in those 10 years, so...probably I became just a little better.
V: I see.
A: But in Michael’s case, yes, it might be a problem when you don’t hear what the congregation sings, and the church has reverberation. But I think there are ways you can improve that and make life for yourself easier.
V: It’s the same as in pneumatical organs, right? You have to lead with your fingers, and you have to not listen to what you are hearing, but rather imagine you are playing ahead of them, a little bit.
A: Yes. Actually, what I would do in a case like this is, I would try to articulate more.
A: That might help, for clarity, in a church with reverberation. Also, I would definitely sing together with my playing. Not necessarily aloud, but maybe in your mind. But just keep singing. It will give you a good idea of what the tempo should be, and how the congregation will sing. And I would keep the accompaniment as simple as possible, in a church like this. And Michael mentioned that he’s already an advanced player, having played over 40yrs. That’s excellent. But maybe you know that...making the melody in the soprano or in the tenor, or an ornamented version or another elaborated version--I would keep that for a drier acoustic, and the churches where he plays more often, and the congregation is more accustomed to his playing. But in this particular case, I would just keep the accompaniment as simple as possible. That might make things easier. What do you think, Vidas, about it?
V: I agree. And I would just imagine that Michael has to lead--not follow.
A: Yes, yes. Don’t wait for them!
V: Because they are waiting for you, and you’re waiting for them…
A: Yes, they need to follow you.
V: And everything gets slower and slower. So what it means, practically, probably--it will not be a pleasant experience for you to play a little bit ahead of them. Maybe half a quarter note ahead, maybe something like that--always leading them, right? It’s a similar situation when you have a slow response in low-pitched pedal pipes. You have to play the pedals a little bit earlier, like subbass ‘16 sometimes, soft. But soft and slowly speaking pipes, especially in the bass register, you have to lead them a little bit with your feet; and it’s not easy to do.
A: I don’t like that feeling, when it seems that you have to play pedal almost a quarter note off…
V: So what it means is, you have to lead with your feet, then.
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: Right. So then, in Michael’s case, he has to lead, perhaps, with his fingers, right? And imagine jumping in a little bit ahead of the congregation every time.
A: Yes. And you know, it would be nice if he would have an opportunity to listen to how the organ sounds from downstairs, when the congregation is singing. Maybe when another organist plays in that church, he could come and listen from downstairs.
V: Or ask his wife to record.
A: Yes, recording would also be a good idea.
V: And then, listen to this recording almost right away--after the service, preferably, when the impression is fresh in his mind. Right?
A: That’s true, yes. But it’s always hard to be an organist, because you sort of have to divide yourself. Half of you sits on the organ and plays, and the other half is downstairs, and listens to what you’re doing, and what the final result is.
V: And if the church is big enough, the sound will travel rather slowly; and people sitting in different positions of the church will hear differently, too. So perhaps people sitting in the front of the church will find, then, “Oh, the organ now is on time!” But then, people who are sitting in the back--“Oh, the organist is always sort of rushing!” Maybe people in the middle will find a balance. So you also have to find a balance between rushing a little bit and dragging. Or playing on time, I don’t know. But as Ausra says, record yourself, and listen to the recording, and then you will know how much you can anticipate the congregation.
A: Yes, that’s true.
V: Thank you guys. We hope this was useful to you. These kinds of questions are really fun to discuss, and they’re very practical, and a lot of people have the same frustrations that Michael has. So we really hope that you apply those tips in your practice; and if they do work for you, let us know. If they don’t--if you have some different experience or perspective, also never hesitate to write us. Thanks, guys! This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: 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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