SOPP686: "As of January, I became the Director of Music, a position I had never expected to hold"
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 686 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Robin, and she writes:
I am a singer first and a pianist second. . . and an organist very much third!
I was asked last September to serve as a short-term substitute pianist for a church whose organist had fallen and injured herself. The piano playing was easily accomplished with my existing skills. After a short time, the organist decided that it was time to retire, and the organist job became available permanently, and it was offered to me. I made it clear that I did not play the organ but that I was willing to learn, and the church was willing to accept me on that basis. The church's choir had not sung for 22 months because of COVID, and so they had lost their choir director as well. I offered to cover both positions, as is done in many churches. So as of January, I became the Director of Music, a position I had never expected to hold. I'm taking organ lessons as fast as I can with the best organist in town, and I am playing the organ every Sunday and working hard to choose fine, liturgically appropriate music that is manageable at my novice level.
All of that is a long way of saying that there is way more to playing the organ than I, as a pianist, ever imagined. I had thought it would mainly be a matter of learning about the stops and learning to play the pedals, and the manuals would be no problem. I had no prior understanding of the very different fingering technique required for the organ. So I am doing my best with my limited abilities to play music that contributes to the worship services, that interests and uplifts the congregation, and that is musically of a high quality.
The three main obstacles I am working to overcome in order to do that are 1) learning to play the pedals, 2) learning about registrations and 3) learning about proper fingering technique. I realize that that pretty much covers most everything about playing the organ, but you asked for the three main things with which I need help! I need more time and more practice and more instruction on all of these aspects in order to play at the level to which I aspire.
Thank you. ~Robin
V: Well, that’s a very very detailed question, right, Ausra?
A: Yes, it is. I think it’s wonderful that Robin received this opportunity in life. I think many musicians would dream about it. But of course, it’s a big challenge, too.
V: It could be overwhelming to fall in a position like this immediately. It’s one thing if you are observing a current organist or director of music from the side, and they let you try out the organ, play a prelude or postlude or interlude here and there, once every month or so, then more frequently, then one hymn, then two hymns, then maybe a psalm, then maybe some anthem, then gradually incorporating you into the service – very gradually. But in this case, because of covid, that church lost both organist and director of music, right? So Robin needs to be both at the same time, and there is no time to prepare.
A: Yes, but I think everything is manageable. Now I’m reading through those three things that she mentions at the end of her letter. Learning to play the pedals, I think that’s the struggle that all the beginners have to overcome while starting to learn to play the organ. And then of course learning about registrations, well yes, that’s two. And learning about proper fingering technique – well, I would actually put this, the third remark, in other words. Because fingering on the piano and on the organ are not so significantly different. But I would say that probably the right touch and the right articulation is the more important issue than the fingering.
V: Mm hm.
A: And fingering and articulation in organ is also related.
V: And behind the lines that she’s writing in number 3, learning about proper fingering technique, I can feel maybe that the way she played piano was more with sustain pedal, and therefore she wouldn’t need to play more legato with her fingers and she would lift whenever she wants because pedal, sustain pedal would do the work.
A: Yes, and I think that many pianists actually take advantage of that pedal, sustain pedal, too much, and that’s why we cannot play without it. Which is crucial for organists. So you really need to think what you’re doing at the organ and to control not only your touch but also your release.
A: That you don’t have to worry so much while playing the piano. So I’m glad Robin discovered that organ and piano are actually like a different world. It’s like apples and oranges. They are both fruits, but totally different.
V: Similarities between those two instruments end with the keys itself, but everything else is different. Sound production is different. Talking about sound production and registrations, yes it’s very complex and comprehensive topic, but for church musicians who are just starting out, it could be very, very simple to explain…
V: …what you need…
A: I think you need to choose for your organ, particular organ, let’s say five dynamic levels.
V: Yes, yes.
A: For a beginning. I think it will be enough for church service, at least for a while. You can do more combinations as the time passes. But basically, that’s it.
V: Exactly. You don’t even want to play with solo registrations, one hand on a secondary manual, because it complicates things at the beginning. Both hands on one manual, for starters, would be best. And our suggestions in terms of registrations here are not so very different than Felix Mendelssohn wrote, or basically German romantic registration suggestions were written in the nineteenth century. If you have an organ with pistons, you can program those pistons – five or six levels of dynamics, like pianissimo, piano, what else?
A: Mezzo forte.
V: Mezzo forte, forte…
A: And fortissimo.
V: And fortissimo. If you need, you could add mezzo piano. That would be six, but maybe five would be even enough. So pianissimo is just 8 foot stop alone…
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: In the manual.
A: And you know, because at church you have one instrument and you’re playing always the same instrument, you don’t have to worry about how to register the pieces on the other organ so far. You may learn it with time, but it’s not necessary now with your church position.
V: And probably at this level, don’t use reeds, and don’t even use strings. I would stay with flutes and principals.
V: At this level. For church, congregational singing. So one flute alone, 8 foot level, is pianissimo, perhaps on the swell. Two flutes maybe would be piano. Flutes 8 and 4 could be mezzo piano. If you add a principal to that list, that will be mezzo forte, and more principals add more dynamic levels. But basically, always use 8 foot stop as the foundation stop in the manuals. And in the pedals, one octave lower, 16 foot stop. So you would need 16 and 8 in the pedals. But balance to the manuals, not too loud.
A: And then for fortissimo, you just add mixtures to the principal chorus.
V: Yeah. Not full organ, not necessarily full organ. Unless you are playing solo, then you could play with reeds. But that’s a little more complex.
A: And of course if you are leading congregation singing and if congregation sings really loud, then you might add reeds to the mixtures, too.
V: Correct. It depends on your situation. So you see, yes, it’s complex, but not as complex as it could be.
A: True. I think it takes not so much time to make a registration comparing to all those other technical issues like pedaling, and articulation, and fingering. That takes much more time. And it’s easier to manage.
V: And if you set up those pistons in advance, you don’t have to worry about them at all. Or if you don’t have pistons, if let’s say it’s a mechanical action organ.
V: Tracker action organ - you will just remember those combinations for yourself.
V: Generally, that wouldn’t be a big instrument. That would be a modest instrument, and it’s quite easy to remember after awhile, after you use the organ for a few months. So, you think this is helpful to Robin?
A: Well, I hope so. But anyway, I really, really envy her this possibility and this opportunity to find new challenges, to overcome new challenges and to have this wonderful position as being a music director.
V: Yes. And one more thing – don’t forget to record yourself, because church music position is like a built-in opportunity to play for others, right? Like practice playing in front of others. A lot of other musicians go out, need to go to find concerts, and you have built-in concert opportunity. Not necessarily a full concert, but several pieces per service you could perform like in a concert setting – prelude, postlude, even at communion. Don’t forget to record yourself and analyze your recordings in order to improve yourself. And if you are satisfied, you could share those recordings with others.
A: Yes, and about recording, what I wanted to mention too – if the organ is upstairs in the balcony, then record yourself from the downstairs. Because you know the real balance of things might only be discovered by listening from downstairs.
V: Yes. If you record yourself from the close distance, then you don’t hear what your listeners will hear. So place the audio recorder down in the church, or at the very very least, somewhere at the edge of the balcony – well, if there is enough room, if the church is big. But better down in the pews somewhere. And you could film yourself with a phone, video. And position that phone let’s say, close to yourself so that your hands and even feet would be visible. Okay! 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
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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