SOPP269: I have a suggestion for your program is to diversify the focus to other kinds of instruments especially large British and American instruments that have pistons and toe studs
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 269 of Secrets of Organ Playing podcast. This question was sent by Howard. He writes:
One suggestion I have for your program is to diversify the focus to other kinds of instruments especially large British and American instruments that have pistons and toe studs. A program on the recommended piston settings for a ~30 min recital on an organ with say 6 General and 6 each of Divisional pistons would be great. Thanks.
So obviously, this type of situation where you play modern instruments--not only British and American--is very common, Ausra, right?
A: Yes, but what kind of problem is it? I don’t really comprehend the question, I think.
V: Howard probably wants to know what kind of pieces you could play on an organ with general and divisional pistons. Anything!
A: Anything; you could play anything, basically.
V: If you have the opposite situation: a mechanical--purely mechanical--historical organ, let’s say from the 17th century or 18th century, then your choices are very limited.
A: Sure; but on a modern instrument, with that combination system of pistons, you could play anything.
V: Right. It doesn’t mean all the pieces will sound equally well or interesting...
A: That’s right.
V: But you surely could play anything.
A: Because if you are playing a purely mechanical instrument, you are limited not to choose pieces that need a lot of registration changes.
V: Sudden registration changes.
A: Sudden, yes. Because it’s sometimes simply impossible to do all of them. But if you have a pistons system, that’s not a problem.
V: Okay, so our friend Paulius is about to play a 30min recital in our cathedral in Vilnius. And we could discuss, a little bit, what he’s playing. And yes, he’s using that combination action. It’s not the same as pistons and toe studs as in British and American instruments, but it’s still modern type of combination action, where you can program in advance and push the button when you need it to change. Right?
V: So it’s the same situation. I could imagine that Paulius could travel to another city with a modern organ with pistons and toe studs, and perform the same thing all over again.
A: That’s right. I think sometimes it’s very nice when you can set up your registration in advance, and then to just press a button when you need to change it.
A: That’s what we did in London.
V: Well, exactly, yes. So Paulius is playing a program with 5 or 6 pieces, maybe 5 pieces, and he’s using 5 combinations, one for each piece. And I’m helping to turn pages for him, so I know closely what he is doing. So basically, without giving too specific names of the pieces (because they’re less frequently performed and not well-known), we could give simple, general ideas, right? First of all, you need variety, contrast--right, Ausra?
A: That’s right.
V: Loud/soft, fast/slow, major/minor. What else? Those 3 are the main contrasts you should be aware of in your program. So it’s not good to play everything fast, right? Or everything slow, or everything loudly, or everything very softly, or everything just in a major key. Although it would be possible, of course, if it’s a festive occasion. Or just in a minor key--it would be perhaps too sad. You need variety. At least 1 or 2 pieces--
A; Well, what could you say if you have...let’s say, the general, as Howard told, six general pistons, what would you do? What would be your registration suggestion--what would you keep on those six general pistons, let’s say, if you would be a church organist?
V: Probably for general...If I’m really scared to do the stop changes by myself, right, and I want to create a system where I could just sit on the bench and play whatever is in front of me, and I would push the button, and it will sound sort of okay--not, perhaps, perfect, but okay--so then, the six piston combinations would probably be pianissimo, piano, mezzopiano, mezzoforte, forte, and fortissimo. Sort of like Mendelssohn recommends, this kind of dynamic gradation.
A: And what would you use for divisional pistons? Would you do some combinations for like solo voices, with you know, reeds or cornet stops?
V: Obviously, yes, because you need to have solo registration sometimes in the RH or in the LH, and the other hand could play the accompaniment. I would check my instrument for nice solo stops: cornet, as you mentioned; krummhorn; oboe; trumpet. What else? Vox humana sometimes works well. Those few are the main ones. Oh, flute--flute combinations, like 8’-4⅕’, 8’-4⅓’, or just and 8’ flute and a third, 8’ flute and 2⅔...It’s possible to have variety in your colors.
A: Okay, then you have an instrument with pistons. Do you use the sequencer, if you have one, or not? Do you think it’s a good idea to use a sequencer? Let’s say your organ has not 6 general, but many pistons, like we had at Pease Auditorium at Eastern Michigan University. Have you used the sequencer?
V: Yes, I did--I have. And I would use it if I’m playing my pieces from the beginning until the end without stopping, for a performance like this, for a concert; and this is useful because you don’t have to worry about pressing the correct number of pistons.
A: But yes, and what will happen if you would miss to push it once, or you would push twice instead of once?
V: Then you would have a different registration.
A: I know, but then you would be screwed! Don’t you think so?
V: Obviously, yes. Obviously you have to be really careful; it has those disadvantages, too. But it’s a big help, you know, if you’re a traveling organist, used to one particular type setting with toe studs and pistons, then you don’t have to worry about where this piston is, under which key--number 2 or number 4 is. You just look where the sequencer is--sometimes to press it with your foot, sometimes with your hand.
A: And I think the advantage of having piston and toe stud system is, you only need to program your registration for a particular registration once, and then you have it. Next time you come back to rehearse, you don’t have to set it up again, so it saves time.
V: Exactly. Local organists will probably tell you what number to use...
A: That’s right.
V: What memory level. And you’re free to do whatever you want within that memory level. So, that’s the idea about using toe studs and pistons for registration changes, right? It saves a lot of time, but you have to also think about divisionals, right, so that your RH registration and LH registration would have variety.
A: Yes, true.
V: Mhm. One last thing, Ausra: On a big organ with, let’s say, 100 stops, would you ever play without a combination system--or just pulling the stops by hand?
A: Well, I might do that, but probably not during a recital.
V: I did that for trying out the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral, when I improvised for maybe 5 or 6 minutes. I created those registration changes, and even dynamic changes, with my hands only. But you know, I was free to create whatever I wanted, because I was creating the music spontaneously. If you’re playing from a sheet of music, you’re restricted by what’s in front of you.
V: And that’s why combinations and pistons are helpful.
V: Thank you guys; this was an interesting discussion. We hope this was helpful to you. Please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
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