Last Saturday I played an improvisation recital in my church (Vilnius University St. John's church). The idea was to improvise on the chorale tune "An Wasserflussen Babylon" - the famous melody that Johann Adam Reincken from St. Catherine's church in Hamburg used to create a long chorale fantasia. Probably out of huge respect to Reincken, in 1722 J.S. Bach improvised in front of him on the same tune for half an hour and received the following compliment from the old master:
"I thought that this art was dead but I see that it lives in you".
Without any intention to surpass Bach or Reincken I wanted to try to improvise an hour-long recital based on this chorale tune only. We could all imagine that it could be done for an hour if we use different chorale melodies and create a number of various pieces but is it possible to use just one melody for an hour and still make an interesting music for the listeners? In other words, is it possible to create a long chorale fantasia that the listeners would appreciate?
I didn't now that of course ahead of time but since these sort of musical experiments, challenges, and adventures are my daily bread, it seemed like a great idea to try out and see what happens.
The style and the techniques for this improvised chorale fantasia were taken from the models of Franz Tunder (1614-1667) who was a predecessor of Dieterich Buxtehude in Lubeck's St. Mary's church.
Incidentally, this year the entire organ world celebrates Tunder's 400th anniversary (as well as C.P.E. Bach's 300th anniversary) so I hope you will do something interesting with his numerous pieces. I already played one recital with Tunder's music this spring - it takes two hours to play his entire organ works so maybe I will do the second half later this year.
So anyway, I had to keep track of the time during my improvisations. This is because it was only one long improvised piece as opposed to some 10 shorter compositions played from the scores. I didn't want to bore my listeners and play too long.
In order to keep track of the time, I brought a timer from home and put it next to me so that I could see when to end. Now, this particular timer has one peculiar feature - it beeps shortly when the time limit is getting close to the end (I think 5 minutes is the mark). More importantly, the timer beeps much longer when the set time interval has ended.
Obviously, this is no good when someone plays a public recital. It would be quite a distraction both for the listeners and for me. So instead of setting the timer for one hour, I set it for two. This way it would be very simple - once I see the timer move to about 1 hour, it would mean I would need to prepare to end my improvisations.
By the way, if you are wondering why couldn't I set the timer to go forward instead of backwards - here's why: it counts only up to 20 minutes and then starts from 1 again. That could be possible too by simply counting three rounds of 20 minutes to complete the recital on time in about one hour. But this seemed a little risky - I had previous experiences when I would start to wonder (during improvisations) is it close to the end of the 2nd or the 3rd round?
Anyhow, at the beginning of the recital I set the timer to 2 hours and began to play. At first I played the chorale-tune harmonization and then began my improvisation with the prelude-like introduction (with imitated sections for more interest).
About 5-8 minutes into the recital all went well until I noticed that the timer doesn't move - it shows 2:00 all the time (so much for keeping track of the time accurately that day).
Luckily, I had my smartphone with me in my right pocket which I had to take out and put in the place I could see. As you can imagine, everything had to be done quite smoothly without disturbing the flow of the music which meant I had to play with my left hand and pedals only while working on getting the smartphone from the pocket with my right hand.
Here is Lesson 1 which might be applicable to you as well: make sure you can play without one hand during the public performance.
For the right-handed people, left hand is the secondary choice and it takes some practice to get used to do it. Such playing might be quite useful not only when you perform an improvised music but also when you play from the score - sometimes the pages might fall apart and you have to use one hand to sort them out and put them back on the music rack. Another reason to do it is when you have to turn the page with one hand and continue playing smoothly with the other.
In case you are wondering how I felt or how it went for me, I have to say, it seemed a little funny, that's all. Deep down I knew it all be fine in the end.
The reason the timer wasn't working was that I didn't push the Start button. When I thought about this after the recital was over, I felt so stupid - all I needed to do was to push that Start button the moment I found out that the timer wasn't working (but I didn't understand that on time). Oh well, that's part of the experience - adventures are always waiting for you just around the corner.
I will have a few more useful lessons to share with you soon so stay tuned for the continuation of this series.
To end this article, I want to point out that since some of my current Total Organist members didn't have a chance to update their subscriptions to the half-priced versions until Sunday night, I have to extend this special offer for a couple more days to anyone who wants to subscribe now (right now we have 33 active members).
Also after subscribing, some people had technical problems loging in into the member area. This is all fixed now - it was my fault the way protected member area was set up but tech support at Sentrylogin kindly helped me with this.
As a courtesy to my loyal subscribers and students, I just wanted them to be aware that my special discounted Total Organist offer ends on midnight tonight. This is great news for current members, too. They can subscribe at the 50 % discounted rate (while canceling the old regular rate).
Take action now, if you want to join others who are in this program which has the best value in any area of organ training anywhere.
If you have already subscribed over the weekend, make sure you start your training by visiting the Welcome page after loging in at the right hand side top corner of this blog. On the Welcome page you will find all available courses and trainings to register to. There's plenty to choose from, as you'll see.
A note for people who are wondering if they can still subscribe to separate courses only (such as Organ Playing Master Course, Level 1) etc.:
Right now it doesn't make sense to pay for the courses separately, when there is such a great discount on Total Organist. For example, if you choose Premium or Premium Plus monthly memberships, you can take any other additional courses that you like and cancel after 3 months (if you are no longer interested).
Here's the amazing part - this would cost you 50% less than if you would subscribe for one course only. And for the price of one course, you would get something like 6 months with Premium.
As it says on that page, Total Organist is the best value in any area of organ training anywhere:
Of course, it's your choice. But I just wanted to make sure that you are aware of the differences in the hope that you will want to transform your organ playing forever.
The most profound definition of non-clinical anxiety I found is by Seth Godin:
Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.
For organists it means something like this:
Seth suggests another path:
Experiencing success in advance.
How about this:
It works, when you write it down. I can't wait to hear about your next adventure (and the one after that).
I have received this question from Trevor yesterday and after replying to him personally I thought that perhaps some of my other subscribers have a similar situation.
The thing is that this particular organ that Trevor is getting ready to play for a wedding soon in a church where organ's pedalboard (which is unusually short) is not lined up with the manuals in the traditional way. This means that when he plays what supposed to be a tenor C he finds himself playing an A (a minor third below).
Trevor compares this feeling with mixing the pedals while driving a car. He rightly points out that "it's rather like finding you have your feet on the clutch and brake instead of brake and accelerator. It's very disconcerting and makes me feel rather incompetent."
Perhaps your organ also has the keyboards moved a little bit to the left? What to do in this situation?
How about centering yourself around the pedalboard instead of the keyboard?
In other words, disregard the manuals and sit where the C is in the pedals.
Of course, then you would have to adjust to the manuals but I guess this is easier simply because usually the fingers have a better contact with the keyboards and you could look down to see exactly what you play. It's not an ideal situation but at least a temporary solution.
Either way, if it's just one time playing, maybe you can get through it. But of course over time it would not be a nice experience for your body. With time, though, your body will adjust much more but the side effect of this is that you will have a more difficult time adjusting to the normal centered pedalboard.
By the way, the same can be said about the pedalboards which have very narrow or very wide keys (or organs with different stop layouts). These differences in organ design are something that we all must face when playing historical, unfamiliar and strange organs.
Another advice would be this - get acquainted with as many different organs as possible. The more diversified your experience is, the faster you will adjust. Part of the beauty of the organ world is of course that most of them are very different and unique.
Do you have any experience with playing not centered pedalboards? If so, please share your ideas of how you adapted in the comments below because they might be helpful to others as well.
Imagine you sat down at the organ and where asked to improvise. A lot of people would freak out. They would freeze. It seams so scary. The idea that you should play something which is not written on the page might seem so frightening. You don't know what key to press, you don't know when to press it, you don't know when to release it, you don't know what's coming up next.
Some people seem to be perfectly at ease when improvising. This uncertainty doesn't seem to bother them at all. On the contrary, they seek out opportunities to improvise, they even start by playing a written piece and later expand it and finish it by improvising.
So what can you learn from improvisers? Are there any things that can be applied to your performance even if you don't improvise, even if you only play music from the score. Here are some things that might be helpful.
Focus on what you know. When you sit down to improvise and are given a theme for strict improvisation, you might be afraid of not being able to do it in the correct manner. Instead, you relax and play what you know. You might not know how to play in a contrapuntal style but the modal techniques might work for you.
The same can be said about playing from the score. Out of several pieces you are working on right now there surely must be your favorite one. Over time the list of compositions you are comfortable with will become longer and longer, just like the techniques and tricks for improvisation.
Enjoy the ride. So many people suffer from performance anxiety. The primary reason for this is where you put your focus during the performance. If you focus on yourself (inward), then it's really frightening because others are watching you and supposedly judging you. It might even be more true when you sit down to improvise. You might be thinking that your listeners will notice your shortcomings.
Instead, you should focus your attention on the music (outward). Simply know that your listeners came with good intentions. They want to enjoy your performance. So should you. Every moment you spend on the organ bench, you bring great joy to some. This feeling always relaxes the pressure and helps treasure the moment.
Tell stories. Improvisers always tell stories. The story might not be easily understood by the inexperienced listener because it might be a musical story. Just like creating a verbal story, we use words and language to communicate, so do improvisers who use sounds and musical language when they create music.
You could use the same idea when you perform from the score. Figure out what kind of musical story can be created out of this piece. Analyse the tonal plan, thematic development, melodies, rhythms, harmonies, texture, and form and be conscious about at least some of these musical elements when you perform in public. Don't just play the notes. Put some meaning into them.
Make mistakes. This one might be the hardest to accept but it's vital, I think. Improvisers always make mistakes. People just don't notice them. Sometimes when the mistakes are noticeable, improvisers incorporate them into a piece. Improvisers train themselves to use whatever is at hand, including the mistake because it might and it will lead you to some interesting musical adventures.
Are you afraid of making mistakes when playing from the score? You shouldn't be.
The thing is, if you are not making mistakes, you are not doing anything that matters, you are not creating value, you are not reaching your full potential.
And the twist is (because there's always a twist) that when you allow yourself to make a mistake, when it's OK to fail, you suddenly notice that mistakes disappear. Isn't this the case when you play alone so relaxed and nobody is watching you? When failure is an option, so is the success.
Keep these things in mind when you perform in public. I know, it takes completely different mindset to be relaxed and assume improvisational stance but it makes all the difference. Just remember that the vast majority of organ music composed up to 1800's was created with the idea that it might serve as model, as an example for improvisations.
It actually is fun to create musical conversations (whether written down or not) when somebody is watching you. Isn't it the same of how we feel when we act in front of others? Humans need audience.
The voices in the piece become living characters that can interact, mimic, scream, weep, cheat, fight and do the things that people normally do. Then stage fright becomes a distant memory in the back of your mind which will not bother you during performance.
Is fingering more of a science or an art? Are there special rules you must adhere to or is it just what feels comfortable?
This question is a very complex one. I think you can treat it like it is both a science and an art. There are definitely rules and traditions that help to decide and also since everyone's hands are somewhat different, you can look at it quite creatively at times.
What can I recommend for an organist who is stuck in choosing the right fingering? Imagine that you have no teacher to help you, no treatises to consult with, no experience with the scales and arpeggios. Is it hopeless? Do you need a coach to do it for you? Or perhaps there could be some secret trick that would save your day?
If you want to do it on your own, you have to prepare yourself that this process will be much slower than if someone guided you. Here are some general guidelines that might be helpful:
1. Avoid placing the thumb on the sharp keys (especially in the right hand).
2. Use finger substitution only when necessary to play legato more than one voice in one hand.
3. If the passage is wider than a perfect fifth, figure out the place you can change position.
4. Change position by placing the thumb under.
5. If the passage starts with an accidental, begin with 2 or 3.
6. Play the thirds with 1-3, 2-4, or 3-5.
7. Play the fourths with 1-4 or 2-5.
8. Use 1-5 for wider intervals.
9. For the middle note in three-note chords use 2 and 3. It depends on the interval of the fourth - play it with 2-5.
10. For the third note in four-note chords use 3 and 4. It depends on the interval of the third - play it with 4-5.
11. For root position chords in the left hand with accidentals use 3-5.
12. Use 3-5 when the third is major in chords.
13. Use 4-5 when the third is minor in chords.
14. Use 4-5 when the third is major in chords with natural keys.
Probably the most important thing to remember about fingering is that it's best not to take it for granted and figure it out, especially the tricky places. There is no use in playing the same passages with accidental fingerings repeatedly. Your fingers might become confused. However, sometimes you need to give it more thought and practice before writing it out with pencil.
Whatever the case, playing scales, arpeggios, chords, scales in double thirds and double sixths in different major and minor keys will teach you to choose the correct fingering for music composed after 1800's.
For early music, there is much more variety about the strong and weak fingers in each hand. But the rule of course is to avoid finger substitution and placing the thumb on the accidentals whenever possible. I find it very useful to play the same intervals with the same fingers in early music. This helps me to create ideal articulate legato touch without thinking about it.
By the way, if you want to be good at choosing fingering, become a skilled sight-reader.
In one of my previous videos, I have already discussed Chorton and Kammerton, pitch levels which differ from our modern A - 440 Hz approximately by the half step up or down. Hopefully these terms make sense to you now. But in the above video I didn't explain the reason why the tuning of these organs was based on different pitch levels. In case you are still wandering, here is my answer.
Old Hundredth tune is sung in many countries and in many languages. Therefore, it's not surprising that this lovely hymn is one of the most popular melodies sung in churches today. Surely every organist knows how to play it in G major or F major (the keys in which this hymn is the most easiest to sing for people). But have you tried to play it in 12 different major keys?
In this video, I demonstrate how this hymn harmonization sounds in all major keys. This could be a great exercise in hymn transposition which you might enjoy playing yourself.
It is a great challenge to play from memory in public. Often we might panic, lose focus and simply forget even half of the piece. In cases like these, it happens that a person starts the piece from the beginning and gets stuck in the same place or stops and doesn't know what to do.
This situation is very awkward for both the performer and the listener. Afterwards the performer might swear to never again perform from memory in public or even tries to avoid public performance altogether. In order to finish the piece as fluently as possible, you need to stay calm and perform a special trick which will surely save you.
If you have ever had to perform in public on an organ which is unfamiliar to you, you surely know how difficult it might be to adjust to the instrument (especially if you are given very little time for rehearsal). On top of that the stops and their layout are different from what you are used to, swell and crescendo pedals might have different positions and sensibility, not to mention the different piston placement. All of this certainly has an effect on the organist. In order for your performance on a new instrument to be as enjoyable as possible, I prepared a video for you with my advice which you might find helpful.
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Don't have an organ at home?
Download paper manuals and pedals, print them out, cut the white spaces, tape the sheets together and you'll be ready to practice anywhere where is a desk and floor. Make sure you have a higher chair.