Although there are many technical elements in organ playing, one of the most important and noticeable is articulation. It is precisely articulation which might be the decisive factor about the overall level of the organist. It is such a vital aspect of organ playing because it can help to achieve precision and clarity in your performance. Therefore knowing what kind of articulation to use in any specific organ piece is indispensable skill any organist must strive to achieve. One particular type of articulation, the Ordinary Touch, is commonly used in certain organ music. Today I would like to explain what it is and when you should use it.
Articulate Legato in Early Music
If you play music which was composed before 1800s, the general traditional touch is articulated legato. Writers of the Baroque period used a term “Ordinary Touch” to describe such an articulation. As a general rule of thumb you might think of articulated legato as having small distances between the notes. It is not non legato because the spaces between the notes are very delicate which does not make the music sound choppy. Actually, this playing manner is quite vocal and Bach refers to it as “Cantabile”.
The authors of the Baroque period called this touch “Ordinary” because it was widely accepted and there was no need to indicate it in the music score. For this very reason you will rarely see any articulation markings in early music. But you should not assume that although the score is clean, you should play everything legato, which some organist still do even nowadays. The habit of playing legato comes from our background of piano playing. Actually, people who have experience with articulated legato touch use it for playing early music even on the piano.
This touch has many similarities to the tonguing of wind instruments and bowing of the strings. For example, when a violinist uses up and down strokes of the bow we barely hear the articulation. Nevertheless, we can clearly hear that the notes are not slurred. The same is with articulate legato on the organ. Although there are small distances between the notes, we may not even be aware of them unless we pay attention. The ordinary touch can easily be tested by playing a scale with only one finger but as connected as possible. Then try to copy the same sound with the usual fingering.
Emphasize the Meter
Although the ordinary touch is very important for early music, you need something more to make the music come alive. You need to emphasize the meter and the strong and week beats of the measure. Because the organ pipes cannot sound louder or softer depending on the level of strength that you are using with your hands, there are three primary ways to make accents in organ playing. First, you can make the strong beat longer which will have the impression of accent on the listener. Second, you can make the weak beat shorter which will have the opposite effect. Finally, you can come in a little late on the strong beat which will make it even more accented.
As you can see, not all the notes have the same length in early music. Some notes are longer or shorter than the others depending on the beat of the measure. In syncopation, the weak beat becomes accented. Therefore, make the weak beat longer and the downbeat shorter.
If you are interested in articulation and other issues of performance practice, an invaluable resource is "Performing Baroque Music" by Mary Cyr which I highly recommend.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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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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