Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 213 of Ask Vidas and Ausra podcast. This question was sent by Brad. He writes:
I am a 39 year-old music educator and church musician who has played piano for twenty years, and began studying/playing organ five years ago (with two years hiatus due to a significant job change). I returned to my study of the organ a year ago and have made significant progress.
1. My dream would be to become a proficient organist, capable of playing standard classical repertoire (Johann Sebastian Bach, especially) with good technique both on manual keyboards and on the pedal board (which I am currently struggling with), as well as being proficient/comfortable at hymn playing and accompanying a soloist/congregation.
1) I am 6 feet, 8 inches tall and I have a size 16 foot. The majority of my height is in my legs. I find it very difficult to develop my foot technique on the organ because sitting at an appropriate height and distance on the bench often restricts my ability to move my legs with the necessary freedom from pedal to pedal or from pedal to swell shoe/crescendo pedal. I experience this issue on most church organ consoles. In addition, the size of my feet make it very difficult to play the pedals accurately because (even with a good set of organ shoes) the slightest change of angle in my foot can cause me to accidentally press another pedal. Have you known taller people who experience these challenges?
2. I am a full-time public school music teacher and also work at a church part-time. I practice at church 4-5 times a week for 2-4 hours a day (with appropriate breaks). I also play one piece every Sunday at church for performance experience. I find it very difficult to keep up a consistent practice and performance schedule with the demands of both jobs.
3. I am improving in my comfort level with performing on the organ, but it is still a challenge to keep calm and collected when playing a challenging piece on organ with an audience. I often find it difficult to recover from a fingering mistake or other technical error during a performance--my mistakes on organ feel so much more exposed than mistakes I might make on the piano.
V: So what do you think Ausra?
A: Well that’s a nice you know letter and very explicit. I’m sort of very much admire you know him for all his hard work.
V: Yeah, he struggles with both jobs, right?
A: Yes, and I know what he means because I am also teaching full time, not in public school, thank heavens, but I just can’t imagine what a hard job it is to teach in public school and music, not in math or literature. But I admire him for being able to practice for so many hours a week.
V: Yeah. Two to four hours a day is quite a lot.
A: Yes it is. And especially because I know how teaching job takes all the energy away. He really is very devoted to the organ.
V: One thing he is struggling with is his height, being a tall person.
A: And maybe you could talk a little bit more about it, not that you are so tall, but still you know you are much taller than I am and maybe you experience some similar problems.
V: In addition to adjusting the height of the bench maybe with wooden blocks or maybe with hymnals on both sides of the bench he could maybe sit and position the bench further from the keyboard because he has long legs, right? When you sit closer your knees bump into the keyboards often and that’s not good so I assume his hands are also quite long then and he can reach the manuals too.
A: If that’s the case I think it would be a good suggestion, but what if you know hands are not as long as you know as it would be comfortable to play and to reach let’s say upper keyboard.
V: Umm-hmm. Then I would sit probably more on the edge of the bench to balance myself and be a little bit closer to the keyboards, but if I sit on the edge then I don’t lean backward so much and I can move my feet better and easier this way.
A: Wouldn’t it be dangerous in falling down from the organ bench?
V: Yes, if you sit too close. It has to be a balance, very delicate balance. You move yourself closer or farther a little bit. You experiment with certain distances and find your ideal spot. I think it will come to him naturally since on the organ he is less experienced than on the piano, right? Piano he has studied for twenty years. But on the organ he needs probably also more time to adjust and get better. And I think with experience and experiments he can also adjust and feel comfortable at sitting on the bench. Do you think so?
A: Yes, I hope so, yes.
V: It will not be the most comfortable position though, because yes, the benches are standard sometimes and if your height is not average, right? Then you have to sort of adjust but with time I think people find a way I think to do this.
A: Yes, but remember that organ bench is not a couch at home in front of TV so you will never feel as comfortable as being home.
V: Right, right. But you know some benches have the support for the back. It’s more like a couch.
A: Well I wouldn’t wish to play such an organ.
V: I see what you mean. So he wants to play standard classical repertoire, right? Johann Sebastian Bach especially. So his piano technique would help of course him. He just I think, Brad has to remember to articulate more with each note and also not to lift the fingers off the keyboards and pedalboard.
A: Yes and no. Bach of course is standard classical organ repertoire but maybe he would also want to explore some other style of music. French music for example. And you know I thought if he is struggling with the pedal playing maybe he needs to play some of Cesar Franck’s music which is considered to be a standard classical repertoire but his pedal part is not as demanding as some pieces of J.S. Bach’s organ music. And since he must have quite a good piano technique so I would say that Franck’s music is more challenging in manual parts.
V: Exactly. I think it should be doable for Brad.
A: Sure and it’s such nice music.
V: What about keeping calm and collected when playing a challenging piece in front of the audience.
A: Well you know that’s a lifelong training that you should do. I doesn’t come so easily and there is no magic trick or magic pill that you could take and be calm while making a mistake. Anyway what helps me to stay relaxed is probably breathing.
V: Umm-hmm. Because when we are frightened or panicking we forget to breathe, right? We imagine the worst possible outcome and lose control this way. And what we need to do instead is to sort of stick with the current measure. Our thoughts have to stick with the current measure. It’s easier said than done of course and the great deal of it comes from practice, from constant performing in public, right?
A: Yes, I think that’s the best way to control it. To play in public as often as you can, but since you know Brad plays at church often so I think he’s on the right track. Maybe he could expand his solo repertoire. Right now he is doing one piece of music per week. Maybe you know in the future he could do more.
V: I think what he also needs, I don’t know if he does that, is that maybe sight-reading could help him save time, right? And improvisation too. If he for example sight-reads regularly new music, like every day one piece of unfamiliar composition that he likes. Then little by little over time he will gradually build up the skill to sight-read slowly in public without mistakes which means you could put in some work for easier pieces but not too much and perform without mistakes in the concert tempo as well. Much faster to learn this way if you are constantly reading new material.
A: That’s right. And he also mentions in his letter that you know that his mistakes on the organ sounds worse for him than his mistakes on the piano. But I think it’s very natural because an organ is such a much larger instrument than the piano is and it doesn’t have that sostenuto pedal so that’s natural that organ mistakes sounds worse than piano mistakes.
V: Right. And to reduce the time for preparation for church organ playing of course improvising would help, right? People sometimes improvise because of lack of time. Because they don’t have enough time to sit down and practice diligently the pieces they improvise regularly. It’s like a practice, but then when time comes on the Sunday to play in front of public he could sort of compose on the spot while performing and this will be lifelong skill to have too.
A: Yes, that’s true, and that’s a good idea except that some organists start to sort of improvise all the time and we stop learning the repertoire.
V: Ah. So that’s a balance then you have to do a little bit of everything regularly. Sight-reading, learning your repertoire, and improvising a little bit. Thank you guys, this was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: We hope this was useful to you and please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. 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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