Tonya, my student in Pedal Virtuoso Master Course asks why it is so difficult for her to keep her upper body relaxed when playing pedal scales.
This problem might have a few reasons - position of the knees, practice tempo, and position of the feet. Let me discuss each of them in turn:
Turning the knees to the direction of the notes being played is critical, because otherwise there is some danger of damaging your knees if you don't. You see, if you play in the lower regions of the pedalboard but your knees are facing right, you will start to feel tension and pain in your knees. Likewise, keeping the knees facing left but playing on the right side will cause similar problems.
Practice tempo when playing pedal scales should be extremely slow at first. Basically, as you play each note try to feel and check if your body is relaxed or not. Breath deeply and slowly, if you need to.
Position of the feet is important because sometimes the left foot should go under the right and sometimes above the right. It depends on whether you are playing white notes or sharp notes. Keep the heels together and press the pedals with the inside portion of your feet (big toe).
Keep these points in mind when practicing scales on the pedals and it will help you avoid the tension in your upper body. In time you will gain special flexibility of the ankles which is the basis for playing scalar passages with pedals.
What about you? Do you feel tension in your body when performing pedal passages?
Karl asks why we can see some videos online where even master organists use heels when they play music written up until 1800s.
Heel playing was not comfortable on early organs because of the construction of the pedalboard - it was flat, sometimes the pedals were short, sometimes the range was very wide. Besides, in those days, the main practice instrument for organists was pedal clavichord which also can't really be played using heels. That's why there is a tradition not to use heels in music composed until approximately 19th century (there was certainly some evidence for heel playing in early times as well - perhaps maybe as an exclusion to this tradition).
However, not every organist abides by this rule. Not even every master organist is so strict. That's probably because early performance practice technique were re-discovered in the 1970s together with the first wave of historically inspired organ building.
Some master organists decided to re-learn playing techniques (manual as well as pedal) and some not. Some were mature organists already when this was starting to happen and they learned to use heels and play legato early in their career. To erase all this and start learning from scratch - not everyone is so brave (I was lucky to have studied with two of them - Quentin Faulkner and George Ritchie).
There are organists who advocate for early techniques to be used only on early instruments. They say that wider keys and radiated pedalboards make it impractical to avoid finger and pedal glissandos and substitutions, make it impractical to play with toes only the music of Bach, for example.
Others argue that it would be counterproductive and illogical to learn the same piece in two ways - one to be played on early instruments and one on modern and so they choose early technique on both types.
What do you think?
For most people who try to learn to play the organ, pedal playing present some common difficulties, like coordinating hands and feet, playing fast notes etc. But sometimes there are highly specific situations that you don't see in every person or on every organ. In fact, I'm quite sure some people might never experience them altogether. Below is the list of 7 uncommon problems in organ pedal playing.
1. Delayed sound. I have played a few organs which have a curious feature - when you depress the pedals, the sound appears a moment later, even later than those on the manuals. This is due to the fact that either the pedal action is different or the tallest pipes need more time to speak.
Solution: Depress the pedals and release them a moment earlier than the manual parts.
2. Distances in different style pedalboards. It's easy to miss the notes on the pedals when you are used to one style of pedalboard (radial, flat etc.) and you suddenly have to play an instrument with a different pedalboard.
Solution: Play as many different instruments as possible. This experience will help you adjust to the new pedalboard much faster.
3. Bench in historical organs too high. In this situation, you can barely touch the pedals (especially for shorter people).
Solution: Play with your toes only and take a slower tempo.
4. Bench in historical organs too low. When the bench is too low and you can't change it's position, pedal playing requires a lot more muscle work.
Solution: Add additional wooden blocks or hymnals under either side of the bench.
5. Pedalboard too deep. When the organ has several manuals, sometimes reaching for the top manual and playing on the pedals is very uncomfortable - pedals seem too far away. And you can't move the bench closer because you will touch the lowest manual.
Solution: Don't play the most difficult parts of your piece on the top manual. If you do - slide forward to the edge of the bench.
6. Short octave in pedalboard. Some Baroque organs have an incomplete octave in the bass lacking the lowest accidentals. This layout makes it very easy to play the wrong notes by accident.
Solution: Find out the layout of the bottom octave ahead of time and pretend you have the same situation on your organ. Mark those notes on the score and practice them in advance.
7. Additional subsemitones in pedalboard. Similarly to the problem No. 6, some historical organs have additional keys for D#/Eb and/or G#/Ab (even in the pedals). This situation makes it quite strange to play chromatic music.
Solution: Same as No. 6.
Think about the above unusual problems and if you have the privilege to play such organs, you might avoid those pitfalls, if you prepare in advance in your mind.
Imagine, jų press some note in the pedals and while holding it, play some suitable music with your hands. That's called a pedal point - one of the ways to create tention in the piece (dominant pedal point, if there is the 5th scale degree in the pedals) or a sense of stability (tonic pedal point, if there is the 1st scale degree in the pedals).
Today's sight-reading piece is Toccata Sexta from Partitura in cymbalo et organo, Op.2 Book 2 (1664) by Sebastian Anton Scherer (1631-1712), a South German Baroque composer and organist.
In this toccata, Scherer makes heavy use of pedal point and includes much imitative counterpoint as well as free writing.
The pedal points dominate this piece. In fact, the longest is towards the end, on C - 27 measures long! There are only 7 pedal points in the entire toccata: on F, C, G, A, D, F, and C.
Here is the score for printing (p. 89). Choose a slow comfortable tempo and use articulate legato touch, when you sight-read this toccata today. Play separate hand parts, if both hands together are too complex.
Tip: How about applying the same pedal point technique in improvisation? Choose 7 pitches and play something interesting (it doesn't have to be polyphonic) based on the key of that pitch.
When it comes to dancing on the pedals, one of the organ pieces definitely comes to mind - The "Gigue" Fugue in G major, BWV 577 by J.S. Bach. The theme of this famous fugue which you can see in the above picture creates a real dance-like character when played with the pedals. Not surprising - 12/8 meter and fast tempo make it fun to play and even more to watch (especially the feet of the organist).
I've learned this piece many years ago and decided to play it this morning (thanks to Russell who wanted some guidance on learning it).
There are 10 subject entrances in this fugue:
1. (page 1-system 1- measure 1) Subject in G major, tonic, tenor.
2. (1-2-4) Answer in D major, dominant, alto.
3. (1-5-4) Subject in G major, tonic, soprano.
4. (2-2-2) Answer in D major, dominant, bass.
5. (2-5-2) Subject in B minor, relative minor of the dominant, tenor.
6. (3-4-2) Subject in E minor, relative minor, alto.
7. (4-2-2) Subject in G major, tonic, bass.
8. (4-3-4) Answer in D major, dominant, soprano.
9. (4-5-3) Subject in B minor, relative minor of the dominant, tenor.
10. (5-3-1) Subject in G major, tonic, bass.
This time, when I played it, I looked at this fugue with the fresh eye and tried to imagine the difficult places for many organists:
1. (1-2-2) Play a mordent on the beat starting with the main note.
2. (1-5-4) Don't forget to take on the first beat the alto and the tenor parts with the left hand.
3. (2-2-2) Prepare in advance for the pedal entrance.
4. (2-2-2 to 2-3-1) Active pedal part - difficult movement with the right foot.
5. (2-4-1) Additional tenor part - don't miss it.
6. (2-5-1) Active pedal part approaching the cadence in B minor.
7. (3-4-2) Active left hand as well as the mordent in the right hand (start from the upper note on the beat).
8. (4-2-2) Prepare for the pedal entrance in advance. To avoid damaging your knees, your lower body should be facing the high pedal notes and the upper body - looking straight.
9. (4-2-2 until the end) Extremely active pedal part. In descending pedal lines, push off with the right foot and in ascending pedal lines, push off with the left foot to change position on the pedalboard.
Here's the score for printing, if you want to play it. Don't forget to use articulate legato touch and aim for a slow tempo because pedal entrances will not be easy. Play separate parts, if you are a beginner. Feel free to use a secondary softer manual for echo passages (notated - p).
When you hit the wrong notes in the pedals, this happens not because your organ playing shoes feels uncomfortable. It's not even the difficulty level of the pedal part that makes it easy to miss some correct notes. The reason you are hitting incorrect notes in the pedals is also not because you don't know it well enough.
Here's the thing: it all comes from your mind.
The deepest reason for making mistakes in the pedal line is your focus. Our thoughts wander all over the place during the practice and performance. This state of mind often causes you do depress the notes with your feet without being 100 % sure. If you aren't absolutely sure you will play the correct notes, you will probable make mistakes.
The secret is to be laser-focused on the spot you are playing right now.
I routinely observe such trait in some of my student's playing - they constantly are moving their head to look at the score and to the fingers and feet. It's like they don't trust themselves to press the right notes. Therefore they feel the need to look down.
While some checking with your eyes wouldn't hurt anyone, doing it all the time will develop a certain habit - the one when you constantly have to look at your fingers and feet.
If this is happening to you also, you might want to pay attention to the following risks:
1. You will not know your keyboard and pedalboard well enough. This means you will have a difficulty finding the right notes on the organ without looking. This leads to more mistakes when playing.
2. Constant movement of your eyes back and forth to the score and to your fingers and feet divides your attention. Focused attention to the score (or more precisesly, to the measure that you are currently playing) is the key to engaging playing. If you lose focus, your listeners will lose focus all the more.
So how can you fight this natural urge to look at your fingers and your feet? It's a perfectly normal feeling because it feels risky to play without looking. So people look down out of fear of failure.
Or maybe they do so out of fear of fear of failure? That's right - fear of fear of failure. That's different. This is not an actual risk - it's the preconception we create in our mind.
Making mistakes feels bad. Feeling bad produces guilt. Guilt produces shame. Shame produces fear.
But it's not real. It hasn't happened yet. We just think we might make a mistake because you can't look at your fingers and feet.
So here's what I recommend: memorize your piece and play it from memory with your eyes closed for a week. This will feel weird at first - you will make lots of mistakes at the beginning. But towards the end of the week they will start to disappear.
Blind organists do this all the time - they can't see so they learn to feel the keyboard and the pedalboard. You only have to struggle for a week or so because after that it will become easier.
Have you been in a situation where you had to play an unfamiliar organ which had a very sensitive pedalboard? On such instrument your feet are in a position to hit the wrong keys all the time. Even if you avoid the forceful movement, your feet are always in danger of playing with constant mistakes.
I think a sensitive pedalboard has something in common with driving an unfamiliar car. In order not to confuse the accelerator pedal with the break you have to always be conscious and think before pressing the pedal of which pedal is the accelerator and which one is the break.
Also sensitive pedalboard might be compared to walking on an ice. When it‘s slippery you have lots of possibilities to fall. Therefore you have to think before each step where you put your feet and of course walk very slowly.
Finally, the problem with playing on the sensitive pedalboard could be similar to one when you eat the fish with lots of bones and in order to do it without swallowing the bones you have to always be conscious of each and every bite and think about what it's in your mouth.
So my final advice for people who have trouble playing unfamiliar and sensitive pedalboard is this: pay constant attention to your feet and be conscious of every movement of your feet. If you have a chance to practice on such organ in advance, play very slowly in order to adjust to situation better.
When you play organ pedals, how much force should you use? Should you pound the pedals as strongly as possible or should you depress them very gently? I think you can feel what the right answer is and here is why.
If you play the organs very gently, you can control the movements of your feet much better. This comes especially handy when you play in a fast tempo. This is because increased level of control can greatly reduce the number of mistakes.
Another benefit of playing very softly is for the instrument. Gentle movements of your feet will help the instrument to respond more clearly. This way you won't damage the pedal action with your feet.
If you depress the pedals mezzo piano, then the instrument will not make as much mechanical noise. The reasonable amount of action noise can be very interesting especially on mechanical action organs but too much noise can be distracting to listen to.
However, it is not easy to control the force level of your feet. When you play fast pedal passages, the tendency is to get excited and play loudly and strongly. The evidence of that is increased tension in your legs and rather loud pounding on the pedals.
If you use much force when playing with your feet, there is a higher risk of making mistakes. The reason for that comes from the tension in the feet. Also people tend to lift their feet higher into the air which prevents control of the action even more.
I have seen some organists play with much force and after their playing the pedal keys would stick and some ciphers would occur. It is not uncommon that a person might even break the pedal tracker. This is not a pretty sight, especially during the organ recital.
Therefore, I highly recommend you relax your legs and try to play as softly as possible. Use just enough force to depress the pedals and not more. On some organs, you will have to adjust the level of force because some instruments are especially sensitive.
It is best to relax by playing very slowly, even the faster pieces. This way you can begin to feel more secure and increase the speed little by little. However, the amount of force you apply should not be increased.
Apply my tips in your organ practice today. They will help you always stay in control and your instrument will be grateful to you. In return, the sound of the organ will be more natural, you will make much fewer mistakes in your pedal part, and you will be able to perfect your pedal playing.
Do you have some experiences about playing organ pedals with too much force? Or perhaps you discovered your own ways which helped you to apply minimal strength when playing with your feet?
Share your thoughts in comments.
One of the most difficult textures to play in organ music occurs when pedal lines go in contrary motion with the manual parts. In other words, when the pedals go up, and hand parts go down and vice versa.
For our brain this arrangement of parts is especially tricky to process and we must take good care when learning such episodes in our organ pieces. The best advice would be to isolate the manual and pedal parts and practice repeatedly and separately.
Let's say that your difficult passage extends over 4 measures. So I would recommend you practise pedals alone 10 times in the tempo which is about 50 % slower than the concert speed.
You will notice that at the beginning repetitions are quite shaky but the 9th and 10th repetitions feel quite secure. Then practise manual part alone. If it is polyphonic, play the hands separately first, repeating 10 times the left hand part and 10 times the right hand part.
Once you do that, you will be ready to combine the right hand and pedals, and left hand and pedals. It is important to go on to the next step only when you feel like you are ready and feeling very secure and your playing seems quite fluent.
Otherwise frustration soon kicks in and real progress would be very difficult to achieve. But if you patiently wait when this combination becomes so easy, that you can play it very slowly without thinking, automatically, then you are ready to go on to the next step.
This way you can master even the most dreadful looking pedal parts going in contrary motion with the hands. Remember that for many right-handed people left hand and pedal combination takes longer to master. Nevertheless, the process is the same - isolate the problematic episode and practise solo lines and each of the available combinations before putting everything together.
All of the preceding advice won't work unless you figure out the fingering and pedaling in this episode so make sure you do this first.
By the way, do you want to learn my special powerful techniques which help me to master any piece of organ music up to 10 times faster? If so, download my video Organ Practice Guide.
DON'T MISS A THING! FREE UPDATES BY EMAIL.
You have successfully joined our subscriber list.
Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
Our Hauptwerk Setup: