SOPP607: I am a pianist and I’d love to get the pedals working when I sit at the organ. I also struggle with improvisation which can be a real hindrance during church services.
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 607 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Richard, and he writes,
I am a pianist and I’d love to get the pedals working when I sit at the organ. I also struggle with improvisation which can be a real hindrance during church services.
V: So two things, Ausra. Richard wants to play with pedals more, probably more effectively, and also improvise during church services. What do you say?
A: Yes, I guess if you are playing the organ, then feet pedal is essential part of playing it. Because otherwise, you could just play on the piano. But because as we understood from your question, you are playing at church, yes, and during services it means you are accompanying congregational singing or a choir. And that way you really need to support it by pedal playing, because it consists of 16’ sounds that are crucial in accompanying singing. At least that’s what I think.
V: So what’s the first step in playing the pedals. How to not get scared.
A: Well, just to play more with it. Just to choose that, since this day I am always be playing with my pedal, too. Because especially pianists, they tend to select repertoire without the pedal, which is not bad sometimes, but you will not improve your pedal technique if you won’t use it often enough.
V: Of course, don’t think that the only way to play the pedals is to play Toccatas and Fugues right away and jump straight to the most advanced techniques with the pedals. No, you can just gradually wade your way into pedal playing, selecting easy pieces, or maybe even hymn playing, playing soprano line in the pedal, like an exercise.
A: Well, or just to play all of the hymns with the pedal, because some of the organists tend to omit playing the bass line in the pedals, too. I think that’s quite a good start, if you will play all the hymns with the pedals.
V: This is really difficult, you know, if you have very fluid pedal line, or bass line, and to put it in the pedals right away will take at least a few days. And if an organist has four or five hymns to play that Sunday, I think it’s too much, don’t you think?
A: Well, it might be too much, but you could cheat sometimes. You would, say, could learn one hymn just to play in octaves, and you would double everything what you are playing with the pedal. The same melody, you know, soprano line, to play it in octaves, adding the pedal. Other thing what you could do while playing bass line in pedal and playing alto and soprano voice with right hand, you could omit tenor part. Which often gives trouble for beginners especially.
V: Yes, and try not to make this crucial mistake: when you are playing the bass line both in the left hand and in the pedals. Don’t double it. Because we tend to learn hand and feet coordination by playing different melodies, not the same kind of melodies, in the hand and feet. So be aware, because I know many people still do this.
A: Sure. And then of course you can choose to play organ repertoire with the pedal, too. But for example, if you are not capable to learn the new music every week, maybe you could pick up some pieces that have easy pedal part. Let’s say some of Italian composers, like Zipoli, for example, Domenic. He often uses only one sustained pedal line throughout the piece. Or it goes from C to G and back to C. So that’s really easy.
V: You mean like pedal point.
A: Yes, like pedal point.
V: What about the courses that we offer for pedal playing. Would that be helpful?
A: Yes, I think our pedal course is very helpful.
V: We have several. For example, you can choose if you are really beginner pedal playing, you could choose 10 Day Pedal Playing Challenge. And for 10 days, you could play those exercises, not a long time, right? To see if it’s doable for you. If you are more advanced, and want to perfect your pedal technique, we recommend Organ Pedal Virtuoso Master Course. Pedal Virtuoso means you would be playing all kinds of scales and arpeggios over one and two octaves, with one or even both feet together. So check them out, and remember that the secret to perfect pedal technique is the flexibility of an angle. That’s what Marcel Dupre said when he wrote his organ method book. And in his memoirs, he wrote that when he was a boy, like teenager maybe, he cut one of his wrists, and it was dangerous, because it was just a centimeter away from very important artery. And for three months he couldn’t play with his hands. But he said for three months he played pedal scales and arpeggios with vengeance. And that’s how he became invincible in pedal playing.
A: Excellent story. So now, what could you advise about the improvisation?
V: Well, also, we have courses for that. All kinds of courses. You just have to choose which direction to go. Hymn-based improvisation, or free improvisation, or both! For hymn improvisation, we have this Level 1 course, where the hymn melody is in one hand, and the accompaniment, or as we call it, counterpoint, is in another hand. It’s without the pedals for starters, just two simple voices. And it starts note against note, really really simple. One chorale note = one counterpoint note. And then goes a little bit more fluid: two against one, four against one, and then finally, sort of like suspensions and free counterpoint in the free voice. This is really helpful if you want to start creating chorale partitas later on, and chorale preludes in historical styles maybe. What do you think, Ausra?
A: Yes, I think it’s really helpful courses.
V: I’m kind of applying the same technique now, but more advanced way, when I’m recording videos based on Genevan psalms. And I’m teaching various techniques: how to put chorale line in the soprano with ornamentation, how to put chorale line in the tenor with the trumpets registration, or in the bass, with organ principal chorus mixture sounds, create like a chorale ricercare style. It’s possible to do this. You just have to be patient and scale back a little bit your expectation. And don’t be scared of the unknown. Because every day, when you’re doing this, you discover something new, and this is really fun. What about free improvisation if you were a beginner, Ausra? Where would you start?
A: Well, I would probably start by improvising prelude.
V: Like a verset?
A: Yes, like a verset. Short prelude.
V: Yeah. If you want to base your improvisation on a tonal style, before actually doing the verset, probably harmony is the first step. Or even theory - to know all those basic chords - three note, four note chords and their inversions. And then you can go to four part dispositional voices and voice leading of harmony, connecting those chords, like Ausra and I would be teaching in our courses. But then later, you can start kind of making up melodies and making up answers and questions, questions and answers, and expanding those questions and answers into meaningful dialogue between those parts into let’s say, 16 or 20 measure short verset. This could be very helpful for playing a prelude or a postlude for church service, right?
A: Yes, or you could improvise toccatas, too.
V: Yes, you just have to add some kind of figuration in the hands. And place the tune in the bass line.
A: Yes. Or also sustain the long notes in the pedals, too, if it’s hard for you to play pedals for now.
V: Or actually have variety of those textures: sometimes pedal line is moving, sometimes it’s stationary, sometimes the tune migrates to the right hand, or even to the left hand if you are more advanced.
A: But what would you say is easier for beginner improviser - is it free improvisations or is it chorale based improvisation?
V: The way I teach chorale improvisations, it’s obviously chorale improvisations. It’s just two voices, note against note. Anyone can start. If you can read one line at a time, like a hymn tune, if you can play one hymn in the right hand, you can think about those sweet intervals, thirds and sixths, in the left hand part. And then switch.
A: Actually, that’s what I was thinking, too, that probably to have some kind of melody, some kind of theme given to you is easier. Because it’s your beginning, you have something to grasp on.
V: Yeah. And the harmony would come later. Remember, before there was harmony, harmonic style, tonal style, there was a contrapuntal style with counterpoints. And people first learned polyphony like this, in species counterpoint. 17th century. And then later, in 18th century, more people started writing harmony treatises, based on figured bass.
A: Yes. It was very important in the baroque times.
V: So all kinds of directions you could take, but choose one path and stick with it for awhile. At least until you get to see some results and decide if it’s for you or not. All right, guys, this was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
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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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