AVA201: And remember, when you practice, miracles happen and you might end up playing a recital in Australia!
This is Part 3 of our conversation with John Higgins, the organist and mechanical engineer from Australia. Listen to the audio version here. Here are Parts 1 and 2 if you missed them. The sound quality isn’t great but this is the best I could do while cleaning up the audio file.
V: Was it difficult for you to depress the keys? This organ is notorious for its heavy action. ...Or not?
J: I can tell you it was a massive relief, when I first sat down and played one note. I was like, “Ahhhh! It’s gonna be okay.” And from that moment I knew it was gonna be okay, because I knew the reputation of the organ, and how heavy it was; and I was quite concerned. For 2 months before I came here, I’d been playing Hanon exercises with full organ at my home church. So, my home church has a mechanical-action organ, and I would say that organ has the heaviest action I’ve played in Australia. And I’d couple the swell to the greats (only 2 manuals) and pull out all the stops--which is quite harsh to listen to, on the ears!--and I’d play Hanon exercises on full organ. And I think that’s what got me through.
V: I see. That’s a clever strategy, right Ausra?
A: Yes, it is. I think it helped you a lot.
V: I would probably use organ couplers on a different organ, but not necessarily all the stops--maybe I would use just the flutes.
A: And it still has a different touch.
A: Yes, even at our St. John’s Church, yes. If you will play that C with the Principal 8’, the keys will be lighter because the air compression is different.
J: I especially notice on my home organ, particularly the large 8’ stops are, I think, maybe the towers have more area, so there’s more flow of air into those big open diapason parts, you should really feel the difference between playing like, a Salicional, a string-scaled versus the open diapason.
V: And of course, a few weeks before John came here, the organ suffered a little bit of my adjustment. I had to make the springs harder, or stronger, right? On 2 keys in the middle of the first manual--E and F. Did you notice that?
V: Good, because later I relaxed them a little bit; because to play, it’s a very uncomfortable and uneven keyboard. Because the cipher was taking place, and the only thing I could do or could find to do to help the springs make wider, just a little bit.
V: And that fixed the problem, at least temporarily. But Ausra was playing there, the E♭ Major Prelude and Fugue by Bach, BWV 552. And she got this organ when the springs were very very tight, at that moment. It wasn’t a good feeling, right Ausra?
A: Yes, it was a bad feeling.
J: I found that Manual 1--the bottom manual--I found it was quite beautiful to play: I found it was firm but very responsive, and I felt very connected to the sounds. The second manual, which is the swell/closed manual--the keys felt like they had quite a lot of spring; and when you pushed it down, it wasn’t just initial resistance and then it would go easily--you had to push firm right to the bottom.
V: Because they have 2 levels of springs, one on the bottom and one on the top. Because they have 2 winches.
V: So, stops you control on the LH side are on the upper winches of the second manual, and stops on the RH side are controlled from the windchest on the lower level. So that’s why they’re difficult to depressed. Not a very pleasant manual, actually, to play virtuosic music. What about this third manual? Did you like it, the lightness of the touch?
J: Yes. That was. Overall I really enjoyed the experience of playing the organ.
V: You said the pedals were easy to depress, right?
A: I think that the audience loved your concert.
J: Thank you.
A: And loved your speech, too. I think you connected very well with them.
V: And I translated John’s words to Lithuanian. And later, after the last piece, John came down to bow to the audience, next to the people, and then he talked a little bit with the people. And one person got John’s autograph, right, on his program notes; and a second person gave John...candy, right?
V: Or a chocolate box.
J: Yes. it was very touching. I think there were about 50 people, which is quite a good crowd--that’s quite a large crowd for an organ recital.
A: Yes, it is, especially for a Saturday night in Vilnius, when there are so many other attachments and events going on.
J: I found I was very humbled and very touched, that even though maybe many of the people didn’t speak English, it was amazing to feel that I could communicate to them in music--that we all speak the same language of the music. And when I came downstairs from the organ loft to the exit of the church, I wanted to shake everyone’s hand to say thank you as I left. And you can tell so much from how people applaud and how they shake your hand. And I felt very honored; it was very special. People appreciated it. And I hope that in some way I could touch them and inspire them.
V: Wonderful. So John, what’s next for you? Do you have plans for your next recitals?
J: So, I’m very excited that I’ve been asked to play the Nine Lessons and Carols at our church this year before Christmas.
J: And that’s the first time I’ve played for a big Christmas service. I’m very very excited about that. And I’d like to learn “In Dulci Jubilo” by Bach as the postlude--I’ll have a grand piece to finish with that’s appropriate for Christmas! And I’m looking forward to studying that piece for the next few months. And I’ve also had a dream for a few years to record my own CD--not really for making money, but so that family and friends can play the CD and enjoy listening to some of the music. And then, if I ever go to other concerts and play, then sometimes people like to buy a souvenir afterwards.
V: Ausra, don’t you think that would be a great gift?
A: Yes, it would be, yes. I think that would be wonderful.
J: So perhaps you could take this opportunity to give me your advice, seeing that you and Ausra have recorded some very special CDs that have then given you an invitation to play overseas--at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the UK, and at Notre Dame in France.
V: Yeah. That can be like an audition for you, to collect your best performances in one place, right, and release them in public, for public viewers--either as a gift or for sale. And when you travel, for example, overseas, you could bring the box of CDs with you and sell them afterwards. People who like your concerts are interested in having some of your music, too.
J: So do you have some advice for me--how would you prepare for CD recording, and what things happened that you learned during your recording that is quite different from playing a recital?
V: Well, that’s probably a topic for the next conversation, right John?
V: Because we are now arriving at the town of Trakai, about 30 km southwest of Vilnius, where there’s a medieval castle from the 15th century, right Ausra?
V: Fourteenth century, actually. So this was one of the historical capitals of Lithuania, right?
A: That’s right.
V: There have been 3: Kaunas, Trakai, and Kernavė. And it’s also a tourist visiting site, because it’s a beautiful lake surrounding the island of the castle, and it also has a very old Baroque church, where we’re going now to find a place to part. Even if it’s on Sunday, there are lots of people. Even though it’s in early spring, visitors are starting to come and enjoy the medieval culture. By the way, before we end this conversation, John, what do you think about Lithuania so far?
J: There’s a sense of history here that is very touching; and things that I’ve never seen before; and very different and beautiful architecture. And I appreciate how many people speak English--that has helped me out a lot. And it’s a lovely country.
V: Well exactly. People can be friendly here, sometimes not so friendly, right? It depends on whom you approach. In front of us, we’re approaching this church--a very old church, right? I think it’s sort of Baroque. And now we need to park somewhere. So thank you guys for listening, we hope this was useful to you, right? This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
J: And John!
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen...
J: ...And you might end up playing a recital in Australia!
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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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