AVA200: I’m surprised how well you picked such good stop selection and it sounded so great and balanced, even though you never played this instrument before
[This is the 2nd part of our conversation with John Higgins, organist and mechanical engineer from Australia who came to Vilnius to play a recital at Vilnius University St John’s church. Listen to the audio version here. Here is Part 1 if you missed it. The sound quality isn’t great but this is the best I could do while cleaning up the audio file.]
Vidas: Can you remind us, how many years have you been improvising? Two or more years?
John: Probably three.
V: Three. And you been playing the organ for seven years, right?
V: So, we can quite safely say that you are a seventh grader when it comes to playing the repertoire, and only the third grader when it comes to improvising, right? So that’s, that’s normal if you feel more insecure when you are improvising or more nervous because you haven’t spent, you know, that much time while playing your own creations. And it’s normal to prepare, you know, diligently, music that you improvised almost to the point of memorization sometimes. We all did that with the beginning, and in it’s initial level, and after that you kind of want to break free and create on the spot. But that’s the next level, I think. Right Ausra and John?
Ausra: Yes, I think so.
J: I would say that when I play the improvisation at time, I would say I’m less nervous playing them then playing pieces because I feel in control and it’s my own creation so it’s familiar to me. To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed in my improvisation on ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ because there is one part I played the chorale theme with double pedals to the melody on the pedals with both feet playing parallel octaves and I had that mastered very well on organs with radiating concave pedal boards so it’s very comfortable with that. But this is the first organ I’ve ever played with a flat straight or flat parallel pedals, and particularly on the edges of the pedal board the spacing between the pedals was so much bigger than I’m used to and I played, I felt like I played poorly with my pedal work. That’s I think partly because of the limited preparation.
A: I think you did a great job. It’s unbelievable that you could only rehearse for one day on this organ and your recital was right after such a long flight.
V: Because normally people who come from abroad to play at St. John’s, they come on maybe Thursday evening and spend the whole Friday and Saturday rehearsing. So maybe they can get four rehearsals total, two-three hours each, you know. That would be plenty. But for you it would be more like four hours total. And considering that you are still learning you have to play many, many organs and only prepare for this recital in your mind, right? Both having registration and stop layout. I think you did better than could be expected. Right Ausra?
A: Yes. And you know, yesterday during recital I thought that John is sort of a living example of someone who’s doing those things that we are talking so often about on our podcast that they actually work, if you apply in your practice, mental preparation. When you have no access to a real instrument or when you travel. And John told us yesterday that he practiced mentally at the airport while waiting for the plane to go to Vilnius. And it’s just amazing.
J: An experience that helped me was, in late, late last, no it was early this year, January 2018. A very good friend of mine who has other friends in the organist world gave me a wonderful opportunity to come and try out the organ at the Melbourne Town hall, which is one of the largest park organs in Australia — four manuals, and I think nearly nearly 130 stops, and also the Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. A beautiful organ there, four manuals and about fifty stops, fifty or sixty stops. And there was nobody else at the Melbourne Town Hall, just me and my friend. And I played through quite a few pieces that I played in my recital. And afterwards my friend said to me, ‘I’m surprised how well you picked such good stop selection and it sounded so great and balanced, even though you never played this instrument before’. And I told him that I downloaded the stop list off the internet and spent quite a few hours of time in the kitchen studying the stop list and thinking, ‘what stops should I use, to get different sounds?’. And that experience in January prepared me for this and helped me to go to a more professional level that as you saw I had, had two or three different stop options, so suggested the organ.
J: Maybe you could tell our listeners about what I showed you.
V: John had prepared a list of registration changes on separate sheets of paper, like five sheets of paper—full stop lists and full stop combinations written out. And I just had to check, right? Double check if they work. And to my amazement, they almost all work without any additional identification with some exceptions right, that I added some spices hidden there, but Ausra, didn’t now that until this morning, right, Ausra?
A: I thought that you did all that.
V: No, it was almost all John’s work.
J: So what I did; I spent many hours in the evenings. I think I watched nearly all of, all of the videos that Vidas has put online, and I watched what manual he was playing on the St. Johns organ, and I had the stop list in front of me and I tried to guess what stops he pulled out.
V: That’s right.
J: And some of them, when you did the organ demonstration to the German tourists,
V: Uh, huh.
J: You were telling them longer to play flutes, and I saw, look at the stop list go, what flutes were on this manual and I tried to guess which ones you used and I thought I like how this sounds, or maybe I’ll try something different and then that is how I worked out my stop list.
V: You did excellent detective work, right? Excellent. So your research actually paid off, and your hard work of mental preparation and doing everything in advance, made your rehearsals much more efficient, right?
J: Yes. I knew that there would be so little times to practice. I remember one of the earlier recitals I played at my home town of Victor Harbor; I, I just turned up at the church, no preparation, and I spent maybe four hours just going through registrations,
V: Uh, huh.
J: And I was so exhausted that when it came to play the recital in the evening, it was not good at all. And that was a very valuable lesson I learned that if you spend too, if I spend too long rehearsing in the morning before I play in the evening I’m mentally exhausted and, and couldn’t concentrate, so I knew that I had to have most of the work of the registrations done so I could just play the pieces and get used to the organ and then take some time to relax.
V: Right! Ausra, how do you usually prepare for instruments like that, in advance or on the spot?
A: Actually I like to prepare in advance as much as possible. (Not understandable).
V: That’s life saving lesson right?
V: That John learned the hard way.
V: Excellent! What was the most frustrating thing yesterday for you when you played, or when you were preparing?
J: I was disappointed that I couldn’t adjust pedal to the pedal board.
J: But I, I don’t know why it always irritates more than anything when I make mistakes in the pedal. I always like to try play the pedals well and I shouldn’t focus on the negative; just focus on the positive. The pedal solo for the Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 557.
V: It was good!
J: I Was very, very happy that went, that went well, because it was in the middle of the pedal board.
J: But some of the notes on the edges of the pedal board, the low C, felt like I was putting my foot off the edges of the pedals and onto the timbers that supports the pedal board. It felt like a B Natural below the C.
V: They have a radiating layout. Good.
[This conversation continues in tomorrow’s episode. Stay tuned.]
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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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