Vidas: Hello and welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Ausra: This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better organist.
V: We’re your hosts Vidas Pinkevicius...
A: ...and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene.
V: We have over 25 years of experience of playing the organ
A: ...and we’ve been teaching thousands of organists online from 89 countries since 2011.
V: So now let’s jump in and get started with the podcast for today.
A: We hope you’ll enjoy it!
V: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 641 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by John, and he writes,
Dear Ausra, thanks so much for this superb recital! Sorry I couldn't join it live, I've been very busy traveling and catching up with family, Covid restrictions are returning in Australia so I am cherishing every moment with family.
Well done on the Bach, it sounded great, your articulation was so clear! How do you decide on a tempo for these Prelude & Fugues, do we have any historical indications or is it more based on how it sounds in the acoustic you play in?
And please thank Vidas from me for his lovely contributions also! I am so lucky to know you both as friends and my teacher, you are so inspirational!
Happy New Year to you and your family! Please stay safe and well!
Take care, John
V: Ausra, please give me John’s thanks!
A: I give you John’s thanks.
V: Thank you. And now over to you - entire question is dedicated to you.
A: Yes. It’s such a rare case, yes?
V: I’m free now, I can relax and sleep a little.
A: Well, let me just enlighten you a little bit on John’s question. Actually, this was his response to our last Christmas recital, where we both actually performed solo pieces, and also we both performed a duet - entire quartet by Josef Haydn. So if you haven’t listened, you can find it on my channel - on my YouTube channel. And since not I wasn’t alone who played Bach, I did the G Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 541, and Vidas did the C Major Toccata, but it’s not original C Major Toccata, it’s actually original E Major Toccata, BWV 566, only transposed by Bach himself to the C Major key. And so Vidas did the C Major Toccata, which is actually E Major Toccata. (laughs) So the tempo issue is a question for us both. So how do you take tempo when you are working on Bach’s fugues and preludes?
V: It’s not fair. You are deflecting John’s question. He asked you first.
A: Well, okay. Then I may start about what I think in general about taking tempo. I think every person has different tempo for every piece that he or she plays, and I don’t think there is one correct answer to how to pick out the right tempo, because I don’t think there’s even such a thing as the right tempo or wrong tempo. I think for each person a different tempo is the right one. Because I like to take such, to pick up such a tempo that I would still be in control of the piece. Because very often when people want just to play faster, we lose the control of what is going on, and this is especially true with virtuosic pieces by J.S. Bach. And I have heard a recording of Koopman’s…
V: Ton Koopman.
A: Ton Koopman, yes, of the same same piece, G Major Prelude and Fugue and it was way, way much faster comparing to my recording. And it was fine. He plays everything really, really fast, too fast for my taste, for example. But who I am to criticize Ton Koopman, who is one of the top 10 performers of Baroque music in the world? And, well, how I choose tempo, I choose according to acoustics, according to the instrument that I’m playing on, because for example, on our Hauptwerk setup, we have truly soft keyboards. It’s really really very, very soft. And simply I very often cannot pick up the fast tempo, or as fast as I would like to, it to be, because the keyboard gives me no resistance, and if I would play it even on the faster tempo, it simply would just collapse, and because I still want to have an articulation. So I have to sort of sacrifice a little bit on the tempo.
V: You’re right. Our Hauptwerk setup is quite customized, right? And I bought those keyboards, Nektar keyboards - they’re extremely light touch. The real benefit is of course affordability of the price. They cost very little in comparison to, let’s say, tracker action keyboards. So, but of course it was the mechanical touch. But obviously it’s like with car - you won’t, you wouldn’t often buy a first car for yourself like a luxury car or the best car you could buy. You try it out on the cheaper side, more economic side. And then if you still continue to drive and you like luxury, then you might invest in something more comfortable. The same is with Hauptwerk. I believe we will invest into real mechanical touch, tracker action keyboards, on a later date.
A: Yes, and of course when choosing the tempo, you also need to listen to the acoustics, it’s so important. For example, Vidas’ mom just sent us our older recording from 2017. I will publish it on our YouTube channels pretty soon. It was arrangement that Vidas made out of J.S. Bach’s cantata, Ein Feste Burg. And I already have forgotten that we had performed it there. And she was present, and basically she recorded it from downstairs. And I was just simply surprised that I forgot how big the acoustics are at St. John’s, because I used to play upstairs, and listen to Vidas’ playing upstairs, and I am always upstairs. And now I could listen to our duet from downstairs, where Vidas’ mom recorded us, and acoustic was just so much larger than what we hear while being upstairs at the balcony.
V: Very true. We could hear to our playing, like through listeners’ ears.
A: Yes, and I always articulate a lot actually, and while listening it from downstairs, I could barely hear it. Of course it wasn’t like all the legato, but I think I could have articulated even much more.
V: But you know, the point about articulation, it’s a different topic of course, but the point is not to articulate, but the point is to play clearly - clearly for listeners, not for yourself. So, when you listen to this recording from downstairs, was it really unclear?
A: No, it was fine. It was still fine.
V: I think we managed to listen to the echo as well to what we’re hearing upstairs.
A: Yes, but as you said that articulation is not related with picking out the tempo, I think you are not right.
V: I didn’t say that.
A: You said that we are talking about different topic, and I think that articulation and tempo, picking out a tempo is very much connected.
V: Oh okay. But it’s a wider topic on articulation - not only for this podcast episode. That’s what I meant. So obviously, it’s good to consider your acoustics and your instrument, what kind of instrument you have when you choose the tempo. And of course, you could choose a different tempo tomorrow, if you’re comfortable with that. Don’t you think, Ausra?
A: Sure. I think in the future when I will perform it, for example at St. John’s, I will play it faster.
V: Yeah. It’s a different instrument, mechanical touch - you are much more in control, and you can do many more things.
A: Yes, but you know, the tempo is often the topic that arouses lots of discussions, and I think after hearing discussion by professionals, I am left with more questions than answers. Because you would need to hear how people discuss, for example, how to play the Fugue in E flat Major by J.S. Bach, and how to pick out the right tempo, and if you have to keep the same tempo through all the three fugues, or change it while going from one fugue to another one. And people start to discuss it, and we have different opinions. And basically, we start to argue, and there is I think no one right answer. Because we actually don’t have very strongly proved historical evidence about what the right tempo should be in a given piece.
V: It’s because in Bach’s days, those metronomes didn’t exist, modern metronomes at least. So what we have now, even editions with metronome markings, those were written in later. And they were subjective things, based on editors’ opinions. And today of course, with online music streaming, you can get 100 or 1,000 different recordings on the same piece. And you can compare and choose, and discover your favorites or least favorites this way. And this puts performer in a very unfortunate position, because you’re being judged against 100 other recordings. Remember you were playing Litanies by Alain, and how you were actually, how you were not, I wouldn’t say scared, but basically distracted with the recording of Marie-Claire Alain, right? She plays it very fast, and comments around her recording are extremely positive. And when you post something on the same theme, like Litanies, people who know this piece always compare your recording to Marie-Claire Alain’s recording. And you can compare yourself to Marie-Claire Alain, right? And you say, “Oh no, I played it in five minutes instead of four minutes” you see?
A: Yes, but you know, about this recording and this about others, I listened to Olivier Latry’s recording at Notre Dame de Paris, and I read people’s comments. Of course many of them were very positive, but I read such nonsense as basically that, “Well, look! He’s playing from the score, he hasn’t memorized it! Look, he’s using the assistant to do all that kind of stuff to help him.” And also very very constant complaints about comparing him to Marie-Claire Alain, and I just love his recording so much. I think it’s really musical. It’s very well done. It’s - actually if I would have to choose between Marie-Claire Alain and Olivier Latry’s performance of this piece, I would probably choose Olivier Latry’s performance, because musically, it was more convincing to me. Because, it’s just my opinion. You know, you can have other opinions. And after reading all these comments I just felt so good that people criticize Olivier Latry, but I just adore his performance. So, well, let them just criticize mine and do whatever. I really don’t care. Everybody has its own opinion, and it’s okay. But usually the most of your critics cannot play themselves. That’s almost a rule, with rare exceptions.
V: Yes. So, you’re so right. People who criticize rarely, rarely take the time and effort, make the effort of learning difficult music. And even if they do, they almost never share it with other people to criticize. So they feel safe behind the screen. Even behind anonymous user name, let’s say, of YouTube user - we don’t even know of other person’s real name. So that’s the reality of social media today, that you can get criticized by armchair critics - experts, so-called - who listen to hundreds of, thousands of recordings, you know, and they think they have the right to criticize everyone. They do, actually, because you give them the right. Because you share your work, and you’re not disabling comments like some people. You’re not afraid. But it doesn’t mean that it’s morally correct to criticize even if you have technical possibility to criticize, you see?
A: Well, so you know, from my critics, I just say - either I write it down or I just say in my mind - “Well, do it better!”
V: Yeah, obviously the best response is either to ignore or just to ask for their own rendition of the same piece.
A: Yes, and when I ask about their rendition, usually they just simply disappear.
V: Or they start to come up with some excuse: they don’t have keyboard, they don’t have something, you know. But they have the time to criticize. So obviously, let’s thank John for his great feedback.
A: Yes, it’s so nice to read and to know that people appreciate what you are doing. It really gives us support, and inspiration to go on and keep going and creating.
V: And if anybody else listening would like to support us even further, you can buy us some coffee. You can go to the “Buy me a coffee” page that I have set up. It’s buymeacoffee.com/organduo. And you can buy us some coffee. In return you will get, obviously, early access to these videos. And we will get to keep going.
A: Yes. And if we are returning back to John’s question about picking up a tempo, I think you need to look at the particular instrument, particular acoustics, maybe record yourself from upstairs or from downstairs, and then listen to yourself, how it sounds. But the most important thing is that you need to be comfortable while playing the certain piece, and to be able to control of what you are doing. Basically, your head needs to lead you, not your fingers.
V: Well said. So please guys, send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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Karen asks about the concert tempo in Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV 680 from the Clavierubung III by J.S. Bach. She has listened to various recordings and studied the information she has about this piece, but the question about the concert tempo remains unclear to her. She writes that Hermann Keller recommends eighth note at 138, but recordings she has listened to seem to have anything from eighth note at 100 to quarter note at 120.
This is a great and very important question because in many compositions of the Baroque period composers didn't leave any precise tempo indications. When you don't have a tempo suggestion written in (like Adagio, Moderato, Allegro etc.) nor metronome markings, how are you supposed to figure out the concert tempo at which to perform in public?
In order to answer this question about many pieces from the Baroque period (like this chorale prelude), we have to take into consideration these 7 things: meter, acoustics, mechanics of the organ, your technique, hearing, singing style, and breathing.
1. Meter of the piece. Generally speaking (but not always), the smaller the beat value in the composition, the faster the tempo should be. For example, 3/8 is faster than 3/4. Count the beats and pay attention to the alternation of the strong and weak beats. This will be helpful in slow pieces.
2. Acoustics of the room. The space that you are playing in will be one of the major factors in determining the speed of this piece. If you play in your practice room or at home, you can perform much faster than in a cathedral or church with huge reverberation.
3. Mechanics of the organ. The type of organ action also determines the tempo of this piece. In general, if you are performing on the tracker or mechanical action instrument, try to play a bit slower because of the action. On the other hand, if you are playing on the electro-pneumatic or electronic organ you can play much faster.
4. Your technique. If your technique is not developed enough, naturally you will not be able to play very fast. In this case, choose a tempo on the slower side of the spectrum which you would be comfortable with.
5. Your hearing. Try to listen attentively to each harmonic turn and dissonance. This is particularly challenging to organists who have great technique and want to show off their virtuosity. Remember that in the Baroque music, we are showing off the music and the musical story and not ourselves.
6. Singing style. Try to retain the cantabile style in the performance of the piece. Even the fast pieces should have this character.
7. Your breathing. Try to sing with full voice the phrases with one breath. This will help you choose the tempo which would not be too slow for the musical flow.
Keep in mind the above 7 tips when you try to decide what kind of concert tempo is best suitable for you and your piece. Since we all are different and play in different spaces with different organs, the tempo may fluctuate quite a bit.
How fast is Moderato?
I've received this question from Andreas:
"Would you know how to find some reference on the speeds? Such as
metronome settings? I don't have a good feel how fast to play a Largo,
Lento, Andante, Allegro, Allegretto, Allegro Vivace, Allegro con brio,
Allegro brillante, etc."
That's a great question. I think a lot of people are not sure how fast should Allegro be. If you don't know what do Moderato or Allegretto mean then your performance might be a little out of character. Of course, it's always possible to listen to recordings and watch videos but then there is so much variety in tempos.
Also the acoustics of the building where the organ is located need to be taken into account as well as the style of music - while in a cathedral acoustics it would be OK to play some (but not all) virtuoso symphonic or modern music very fast, in the same acoustics Bach's fugue would sound quite confusing.
While usually mechanical metronomes should have tempo indications alongside with beats per minute written in, I guess some digital metronomes or smartphone apps lack this. In this case a musician would need to consult an outside source for precise tempo meanings.
If you want to find out the most common tempo indications and how many beats per minute do they take, here is a good list. Keep in mind that in various countries and periods metronome markings were different. Hence the faster than usual (even virtuoso) performance of some Franck's organ works (by Belgian organist Joris Verdin), for example.
Today's sight-reading piece is Moderato (p. 2) by Niels Gade (1817-1890) who was the Danish composer, violinist, organist, conductor and teacher, basically the most important Danish musician of his day. Since this composition is not for the performance, as you sight-read, don't worry about the tempo indication - just play at a speed that is comfortable to you, generally very slow.
Usually people sight-read too fast, if you know what I mean...
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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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