How to Prepare a Program for Your Organ Recital Even Though You Don't Have Many New Pieces in Your Repertoire
Nothing is worse for an organist than this feeling of helplessness when you know you have to play an organ recital in a few months but you don't have enough pieces mastered and you are a slow learner. Should you cancel the recital ahead of time to be polite for the organizers or is there some kind of other choice you could make?
I think there is, and I'd like to say special thanks to my friend John Higgins who pointed out this solution to me.
You see, you don't have to play all newly mastered pieces for your recital. And you don't have to play pieces that somebody else wrote at all. Let me explain.
First let's calculate some timings here and aim for an average 60 minutes organ recital. More than that would be difficult for the listeners. You could play a shorter recital but for the sake of example let's keep it around 60 minutes.
Think of the title of your recital. Choose about 3 words for the title to keep it easy to remember. This is crucial for publicity campaign you will be doing a few weeks before the recital so that people would actually want to come to listen to you play. If you don't have a coherent theme or topic which would keep all the pieces under one umbrella, you can choose a name of one particular piece as the overall title of your recital.
If you have some previously prepared compositions under your belt, now it would be a great time to refresh them. Find as many contrasting pieces that would work together for this theme and that you would want to play and calculate the time. Maybe you will have 15 minutes this way, maybe 30 minutes. Let's stick with 15 minutes for now.
Then if you have a couple of months left, perhaps you could learn a piece or two from scratch. Let's say it would be 5 minutes. So now with the new piece you have 20 minutes total.
What to do with the rest of 40 minutes?
If you have some hymns that your listeners would enjoy, choose 2 or 3 settings and play a few verses of each. This would be around 10 minutes. To make hymn playing more interesting choose different registration for each verse and place the hymn tune in a) soprano, b) tenor, and c) bass.
For the soprano it's easy - open your hymnal, take a solo reed stop or Cornet with the right hand, place alto and tenor in the left hand on the softer registration and play the bass with pedals on the 16' stop as the basis.
When the tenor has the hymn tune, play it with the left hand one octave lower with a strong reed, such as Trompette and place alto and soprano in the right hand. You can still use the hymnal for this but hymnal's tenor becomes your soprano now. The pedals still play the bass.
When the bass has the hymn tune, play on Principal Chorus registration with mixtures and with the addition of Posaune in the pedals. But here's the tricky part - you can't use the harmony from the hymnal. You have to re-harmonize it. It's best to keep 3 upper voices on the same manual and moving in the opposite direction than the bass. This way you will avoid forbidden parallel fifths and octaves.
30 minutes left now. You see how we have calculated the choices for the half of the concert. So far so good.
Now here's what I would recommend next (and this may sound scary for some of my readers). You could improvise. That's right - you could improvise a piece or a few pieces during your public concert. If you have never improvised in public before then you either a) practice improvising a lot in private first or b) postpone improvisation for the later date. It's really up to you. Only you know your strengths and weaknesses.
But if you choose to improvise a piece or two, then your listeners would be amazed, especially when you tell them that this is the first and only time they will hear you perform this way for them. Because the next time your improvisation (if it's a true improvisation) will be different.
You could improvise on the hymn tune that they know and appreciate. In this case you can improvise a chorale prelude or chorale fantasia on some known hymn tune.
Alternatively you could choose your own theme. Stay with the form that is coherent and easy to follow. An ABA form usually works best as well as ABABA (if subsequent B and A parts are shorter and in other keys than in the beginning to keep it interesting and engaging).
Remember, you could improvise on a well-known story, perhaps a folk story or a legend or a story from the Bible. Then your job is to depict this story with musical means. In this case the form will be much more free. Keep the registration changes and texture constantly changing to fix your listener's attention. Embrace the power of modal improvisation. It works for almost any occasion.
Storytelling improvisation can be quite long, if you can keep it exciting and full of surprises. You can even fill the entire half of the concert with this.
Besides improvisations, you can demonstrate the organ at your venue. Again organ demonstrations can be long but you can do it a brief version in 20-30 minutes. Here too, improvise on separate stops showing off the colorful side of your instrument. Demonstrate different families of sounds - principals, flutes, strings, and reeds. Combine stops in surprising and fresh ways. Don't hesitate to use 4' flutes - usually every organ has at least one nice flute of this pitch level. Show the deepest and the highest sounds the organ can make.
Now the best part in this is storytelling. To keep your listeners wanting for more explain briefly how the organ looked like in ancient Greece, in the Middle Ages, and other periods in history. Explain how the mechanics of the organ work. Tell them even about how the sound is produced, about the pipes and their materials and construction. Tell a personal story or two about your experience with some aspect of the organ.
Invite people to see and touch the organ from up close. Some of them may even try to play it with their hands and feet.
Although this is improvisation too, remember to practice it diligently. Maybe prepare one demonstration first for your family members and then for your closest friends one month before the real recital. This would feel like run-through before the big thing. It will expose any weak areas in your recital that would require more practice and work.
If you are not sure about improvisation, the great thing about demonstration is that it can be done quite effectively almost entirely on hymns people know and love. If you spend about 1 minute on one stop, then that's perfect - that's the duration of 1 verse of the hymn.
To keep hymn demonstration more interesting, you can play one hymn in different keys and in different modes (major/minor or any other). New colors will be a great surprise to people. If you want, you can use 3 hymns this way for the entire demonstration. And don't forget to vary the texture from time to time playing in 2, 3, or 4 voices, placing the tune either in soprano, tenor, or bass, and changing the rhythm and meter of the hymn tune from double to triple.
Prepare to answer people's questions after or during the demonstration because there will be many (if the listeners aren't shy and if you do your storytelling with enthusiasm and good articulation).
So you see, how you can use your constrain of lack of time and repertoire to your advantage and plan your recital very creatively. But make no mistake - these recommendations will still require a lot more time than you think to prepare, but perhaps less than learning new pieces for the entire recital.
Above all remember that your contagious passion in communicating stories that resonate with people will inspire far more hearts than your organ playing alone ever will.
Did I miss something? Share your ideas in the comments.
[HT to John]
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