Vidas: We’re starting Episode 50 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And today’s question was sent by Anna, and she writes that she tries to sit correctly on the organ bench, but she doesn’t seem to be able to find her position--her convenient position. Ausra, is it a common problem for beginner organists?
Ausra: Well, that’s a very common problem; and, knowing that you have to play on different organs, that also might be a problem; because when you’re playing at your home or a church, you’re used to the instrument. But when you go to another instrument, you have to adjust. So the problem depends on how tall you are you, the high person, or not, and how long your legs are, and what kind of instruments you are playing--can you adjust the organ bench easily or not?--and all that kind of stuff; so basically, you have to experiment. Because you must sit not too far from the organ and not too close to it. You have to be able to reach the upper manual, and to play comfortably on the lowest manual; and of course, be able to reach the pedal board.
Vidas: Mhmm. So let’s subdivide this question into some parts, some elements that we could discuss in greater detail. For example, height of the organ bench, this is number 1; the distance of the organ bench from the keyboards, this is number 2; and perhaps even number 3 would be, how you sit on the organ bench--further, or deeper, or not so deep on the bench compared to the keyboards. So how would you position the bench in terms of height, for yourself?
Ausra: Well, I make the height of the bench depending on the pedal board, because I must be able to play the pedals comfortably. And because I don’t have very long legs, so I need to adjust the organ bench according to that. And the important thing is that the weight of my body, when I’m sitting on the organ bench, I must feel it basically on the middle of my hip; so you don’t press your tush hard, but you press your hips hard to the organ bench...I don’t know if it makes any sense. That way, I’m able to move easily on the organ bench when I have to turn, for example.
Vidas: Do your abdominal muscles have to be tense or not, when you play the pedals?
Ausra: Well, actually, yes, they have to be.
Vidas: And the lower you sit the more you tense, right?
Vidas:That’s why we don’t use a normal chair, it would be too low, right?
Vidas: And we would really need to tense our legs and the abdominal muscles--too much, probably, in this way. So for me, I tend to sit on the bench, and position the bench so that my feet, when fully extended, they would be touching the pedals, gently--touching but not depressing.
Ausra: And your toes should be touching the black keys.
Vidas: So that’s another thing: if you position the bench so that your feet are touching when relaxed, when fully extended and relaxed--but not depressing, right? That’s good. And then--now you can investigate if the bench is close enough, or not close enough, in relation to the keyboards. So the thing is, your toes should be touching the sharps.
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: When relaxed.
Ausra: Yes, sure. And of course, everything depends on what kind of instrument you’re playing, too, because sometimes you have to make exceptions. For example, if I’m playing on a Baroque instrument, sometimes I have to sit a little bit higher than I’m used to, because I use only my toes in Baroque pieces. So I don’t have to use my heels, so I can sit a little bit higher on the bench; and then it is more comfortable for me to reach, let’s say, the third manual or the upper keyboard.
Vidas: Exactly. And then, going forward with the last section of this question, is how deep, or how on-the-edge you can sit, right? So the lower the bench, the deeper you can sit...
Vidas: ...And vice versa. The higher the bench, actually, the closer to the edge you must sit. But then there is a danger of slipping.
Ausra: Well, yes, that’s very often the case with organists, especially when you’re wearing something very slippery! But I don’t think that’s often the case with the male organists, but quite often the case with the women, because sometimes we like to dress nice and fancy and...slippery sort of clothes, and that might cause a problem, that you might end up on the pedal--falling down on the pedal board! Have you experienced something similar to this?
Vidas: Yeah, when I have this suit, my organ clothes on special festive occasions, then sometimes it’s slippery to sit on the bench. It’s not really comfortable. But when I use jeans, for example, my regular, everyday jeans, also sometimes the sweat might be another issue. The jeans might stick to the bench; it’s also not very nice.
Ausra: Well, I haven’t experienced this kind of stuff that you’re talking about jeans, but I definitely have slipped from the organ bench. Luckily, that happened not during a performance! And this usually happens when I have to play on the upper keyboard.
Vidas: Well, talking about the upper keyboard--people might have seen my pictures from my concert trip to Liepaja in Latvia in recent years. This organ has four manuals; and this fourth manual is so deep and so high--it’s so uncomfortable to reach and to play the pedals at the same time. The bench is kind of low, and positioned so that you could not really move it. So when you play the two lower manuals, it’s kind of okay; you can adjust, even though it’s not the best feeling. But the top manual is extremely strenuous work for you; and then, if you play, for example, with the pedals at the same time, then you begin to slip very soon.
Ausra: Well, I would suggest that in that case, you might want to do your registration differently, and maybe not use that upper manual.
Vidas: That’s exactly what the Latvian organ builder and our friend Janis Kalnins said. He knows this organ inside out.
Ausra: Yes, because sometimes also when I tried to reach the upper manual in some kinds of instruments, and I would put the organ bench very high up, and the lowest manual then would be next to my stomach; and I would feel that I’m playing not with my fingers but with my stomach on that lowest manual.
Ausra: So it’s always a challenge to adjust to a new instrument.
Vidas: So, when the bench is too low, you can put some wooden blocks underneath the bench, and it raises the height; it’s kind of easier. Or you put thick hymnals--
Ausra: Sure, like old hymnals. Many churches have hymnals that they don’t use any longer, so you can use those.
Vidas: Or old tax books.
Ausra: Hahaha yes, that would be nice.
Vidas: But when the bench is too high, and you cannot really adjust, then it’s a problem.
Ausra: Oh yes, that’s true.
Vidas: What can you do then?
Ausra: Well, if you know that in advance, then maybe adjust your repertoire. I would suggest for you then, just to play Baroque music. Then you will not have to use your heels. That’s probably the best suggestion. Because if you would play big Romantic pieces on an instrument like this, then you would not be able to reach the pedals very well--it will not be good. You cannot play legato.
Vidas: Or...If you have organ shoes with high heels, it helps, then.
Ausra: Well, yes, it helps, to some extent. And usually if the bench is too high for me, then I try to sit closer to the manuals; then usually it helps a little bit.
Vidas: To find this right balance--
Vidas: --between not slipping, but also reaching the pedals.
Vidas: What about a situation when the organ console is movable, and you could actually put some wooden blocks or planks or something underneath the entire organ console to elevate it? Is it possible?
Ausra: Well, I think it’s possible, nowadays. I have never done it myself; I have never had the need to do it. But I think that’s possible.
Vida: So, when you can’t adjust the bench height, you can maybe adjust the organ console height.
Ausra: I’m just thinking how to lift it. It might be hard. Very heavy.
Vidas: Anyways, the organist profession requires us to adjust to hundreds of thousands of different instruments. And that’s the beauty of it, right?
Ausra: Yes, it is. It’s very exciting. Each time it’s like a little adventure.
Vidas: And never boring.
Vidas: You never know what will happen. Even though you sort of know the situation--you are prepared in advance, and you have seen the pictures, and you practiced the right way--when you sit down on that organ…
Vidas: ...your plan goes out the window!
Ausra: That’s true.
Vidas: Wonderful, guys. Please practice more on unfamiliar organs; this is the only way you’ll get more comfortable with tricky situations.
Ausra: And then you’ll go back to your home, and your organ will be so easy to adjust to!
Vidas: And please send us more of your questions; and the best way to contact us is through email; and you can do this by subscribing to our blog at www.organduo.lt (if you haven't done so already), and simply replying to any of our messages that you will get with our tips and advice about the art of playing the organ. Okay, this was Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
I made the above drawing after the real bench of the organ by Adam Gottlob Casparini (1776) which is located at the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Here's how you can determine if you are sitting on the organ bench at the correct height:
Sit at the middle of the bench, relax your feet, and let them touch the pedals. The feet should be slightly touching the pedals but not depressing them. There should be no sound.
If there is some sound, you are sitting too low.
If you can't touch the pedals with the heels, you are sitting too high.
Now the problem usually is when the bench is permanently too high (because if it's too low you can simply put thick hymnals or wooden blocks under each side of the bench).
If the bench is too high (and you can't adjust it's height), then try to do one of 3 things:
1. Sit as close to the edge of the bench as possible without sliding.
2. Play using mostly toes.
3. Get organ shoes with higher heels.
Hope this helps solve the optimum organ bench height problem for you.
Am I missing something? What are other things you do when you encounter the bench which is too high? Share your ideas in the comments.
How did organ builders and carpenters make organ benches back in the 18th century? In this picture on the left you can see an organ bench from the Holy Ghost church in Vilnius, Lithuania where in 1776 Adam Gottlob Casparini built an organ with two manuals and pedals which today is considered one of the best preserved historical organs in northern Europe. This organ currently is under restoration which is on hold because of lack of finances.
To me this organ has personal value as well because in 2000 I was one of the people who helped in the documentation project of this priceless instrument. I helped make various measurements, drawings etc.
I remember how I made a drawing of the very same organ bench - my task was to draw it as closely as possible to the real thing. Therefore everything had to be copied exactly as it is. It was especially difficult to copy all these ornate curved lines you can see in this picture.
The final details in my drawings were always made by an expert organ restorer from Sweden, Niclas Fredriksson who led the documentation project of this organ. He spent hours upon hours sitting inside of the organ meticulously making computer measurements so that this documentation would be as complete as possible. In fact, the documentation was so thorough, that they were able to build a replica of this organ in Rochester, NY.
Note that the bench is made without any nails - on top of it, you can see 5 wedge-shaped connectors which had to be masterfully calculated so that the vertical and horizontal parts of the bench would hold firmly together.
Incidentally, when an organist sits on this bench, there is not enough room to put the entire foot (toe and heel) on the pedals. This may well be one of the indicators that they didn't use heels in pedal playing of the early music back in those days.
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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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