Have you ever played an organ recital? Perhaps a few? Can you remember your feeling after and during the first one?
I can't recall my first organ recital but I've heard it might be a terrifying experience. You don't know what to expect. Because of the inner pain you feel and the shame that things didn't go as you wanted often makes people swear they will not play in public ever again.
But if you persist through this initial bump, you play No. 2, and No. 5 and so on. It appears that dangers are not real. They are only in your mind. Once you hit No. 10, it will be your first breakthrough.
I can observe the same with my improvisation recitals. I think my recent Improvisation on the Story of the Nativity might have been No. 10 full length improvisation-only recital for me (maybe more, but I sort of lost count some time ago).
With each 10 we make a small discovery. This time for me it was about dialogues and imitations between the parts which make the playing much more vivid.
I can still remember the terror of No. 1 (or was it really No. 1?) at the end of October, 2013 in Mosedis in northern Lithuania where I improvised an organ mass with 11 movements on the village church Romantic style organ with two manuals (only one of them was more or less functioning).
Even before the recital, when I decided that I should improvise, I submitted the program to the organizers and I remember thinking to myself:
What am I doing? It's so foolish. It's so risky. Why can't I play a regular organ recital with pieces I have mastered long time ago? Why can't I be like everyone else?
Of course nobody felt my terror, everyone in the audience was so happy afterwards but only I knew how terrified I was of my inner dragons.
It turns out that the unconscious decision to improvise was in fact a wise one because of the unpredictable state of the organ at the time. Had I chosen a nice contrasting program with classical and audience-friendly organ pieces, I would have been in even more trouble and greater terror when I found out that the reed of the second manual was on all the time (there wasn't any time for rehearsal, if you are wondering).
I'm sure 2015 will give us plenty of opportunities to be thrilled and to thrill others around us.
If you are thinking about whether to play or not to play a recital next year and you think you don't have time to prepare adequately and be ready for it, think no more. Of course, I don't mean here only organ playing. It could be anything that matters to you.
We will always have not enough time and we will never be really ready. It's the same feeling you get when you jump into a dark pool at night.
Is it deep? Is it cold? Are the sharks there waiting for you?
Is it required of you? Do you have to do it? No, nobody will give you a medal for that because nobody will care.
What's the alternative? Watch more TV, play it safe, or "like" one more picture of somebodies cat?
Another alternative is this:
Here's to our inner dragons.
They are our compass.
[HT to John]
As the old year is almost over, we are entering the new one with renewed hope. We hope that it will bring us success, health, and happiness. But life is more complicated than that. We can't predict the future.
Will we sit together at the special dinner table next year as well? We certainly hope so.
Will everyone in our families avoid serious illnesses next year? We certainly hope so.
Whatever happens next year that is out of our control, I hope we will remember this much:
Unless the bombs will be exploding outside our windows, I hope we will never forget our mission.
Sure it can be re-adjusted as we go along, as the winds blow into our faces. But we don't turn back, we don't give up because of lack of time and money. We don't give up because of lack of encouragement for the real encouragement comes from within. We don't give up because of fear of change for to fulfill our mission is to change and change is scary, sometimes scary as hell.
What reassurance do we have?
Perhaps that there are people like us who do things like this. People from the past and present. You are not alone on this mission.
But it's hard, sometimes it seems impossible to keep going. That's why so few have succeeded. If it would have been easy, everyone would do it. But then it wouldn't have been worth it.
If you're reading these lines, my guess is that you want some kind of change in your life. And next year might be just the year for that.
Shoot for the stars. Maybe you'll end up on the moon instead. It wouldn't be a bad result either.
At the end of the year, it's good to look back and see what we have accomplished. Here are the highlights of what I was able to do this year in the organ world:
Blog Posts: 365
Recitals (at Vilnius University Saint John's church unless indicated otherwise):
Life-Painting (improvisations on the paintings of my dad) (January, 18)
Seven Centuries of Organ Music, Part 16 - Music by Francois Couperin (February 22)
J.S. Bach - 329 (March 22)
Joyful Day For Us Has Dawned - improvisations on Easter hymns (April 26)
Franz Tunder - 400 (June 21)
Improvised Organ Chorale Fantasia "An Wasserflussen Babylon" (July 19)
Improvised Organ Meditations at Chapel of the Oncology Center in Klaipeda (August 17)
Lithuanian Organ Music (August 23)
Pinkevicius Organ Duo recital in Rumbonys, Alytus district (September 7)
Lithuanian Organ Music in Liepaja, Latvia (September 18)
C.P.E. Bach - 300 (October 18)
Cantantibus Organis Caecilia Domino - improvisations on the text of the Song for Saint Cecilia Day by John Dryden, 1687 (November 22)
The Nativity Story - improvisations on the Story of the Nativity (December 20)
Coaching Programs and Trainings:
Couperin Mass Training (February 6)
Menuet, Polonaise, and March Training (February 27)
Organ Verset Improvisation Master Course (March 12)
Hymn Harmonization Workshop (April 7)
Basic Chord Workshop (April 14)
Hymn Playing Workshop (April 16)
Bach Choral Analysis Workshop (May 7)
Suite Improvisation Workshop (June 18)
Two Part Training (June 28)
Estampie Retrove Training (July 1)
Seventh Chord Training (December 17)
Compositions: (for organ, unless indicated otherwise)
Mini Waltz, Op. 25 (January 23)
2 Part Choral Fantasia on Herr Jesu Christ, Dich zu uns wendt, Op 26, handwritten copy, (May 8)
Veni Creator Spiritus, Op. 1a - Version for Mixed Choir and Organ (August 28)
3 Arpeggio Variations, Op. 27 (September 24)
Processional March in C Major, Op. 28 (October 15)
2 Settings of Lithuanian Ave Maris Stella, Op. 29 for mixed choir (October 16)
Lithuanian Ave Maris Stella, Op. 29a for mixed choir, organ and instruments (November 5)
Processional March in C, Op. 30 (November 16)
Now Thank We All Our God, Op. 31 (November 27)
The Annunciation, Op. 32 (December 6)
Joseph and Mary Travel to Bethlehem, Op. 33, handwritten copy (December 12)
4 Variations on Santa Lucia, Op. 34, handwritten copy (December 14)
Fantasia, Op. 35 (in progress)
Looking back, the single most important thing which helped to write these blog posts, prepare and play recitals, create training programs and compositions is accountability.
Accountability to myself and to others. I planned most of my recitals in advance, set the date and tried not to change it. I knew that my listeners depended on me. This idea kept me going, kept me to produce. It isn't very difficult when you create a new habit of shipping regularly.
The same is with my training programs - I felt that they would be helpful to my readers, subscribers, and clients. With compositions, it happened naturally, out of habit, because I understand the importance of doing the work as opposed to just talking about it.
I'd like my next year to be creative, productive, and brave. It will start with the improvisation recital on the motives from the poem by Kristijonas Donelaitis "The Seasons" on January 17 at my church. Donelaitis was a Lithuanian poet and a Lutheran priest of 18th century. In 2014, Lithuania celebrated his 300th anniversary. In "The Seasons" with the help of double hexameter he depicts the cycle of life and nature as well as peasant activities of Lithuania Minor (which was a part of former Prussia at the time - now Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia).
One more thing: every New Year's resolution is a choice. It can happen but you have to choose. Choose to do things that matter (hint: they are the ones you are the most afraid of).
So what would you choose your next year to be?
Although piano has similar keyboard that an organ does, the technique required to play the organ correctly is quite different. This is of course because the nature of the sound production is entirely different on the organ - instead of strings with a quick fading of sound they have pipes with the potential to sound indefinitely. Here are the most common pianistic habits to avoid:
1. Using excess force. On the piano you have to strike the keys with more force in order to play louder. On the organ, the dynamics are done with the swell pedal, crescendo pedal, or employing different registration. Using too much force will damage the clarity of the piece that you play. Instead, always play mezzo piano regardless of the dynamic level of the composition.
2. Lifting your fingers off the keyboard. Pianists prepare each strike of the key with lifting the finger off the keyboard and driving it down. On the organ, you must use different muscle groups and whenever possible stay in contact with the keys. Lifting your fingers high in the air is not good for playing polyphonic organ music. Instead, always slide from one key to another (this advice is valid for pedal playing as well).
3. Imprecise releases. Because piano sound fades as soon as the key is struck, many average pianists are not aware of its ending (with the exception of the best ones). When such pianist tries to play the organ, he or she may depress the keys together (which is good) but will not notice or forget to notice the release of the note. Instead, try to be very precise by practicing in extremely slow tempo and especially separate parts and part combinations which will help you to control both the attack and release much better.
It doesn't matter what is your experience with the organ playing (several months or many years), the old pianistic habits will not go away unless you mindfully try to produce the sound differently on the organ and on the piano practicing organ music. Especially on the piano.
Here's the biggest danger of all - practicing organ pieces on the piano but with pianistic touch (because playing with organistic technique sounds strange and lifeless on the piano). Beware of this, switch to the organ playing mode and with every day practice you will develop a solid organ technique.
Have you ever wondered what is the process of learning an organ piece? Of course, most organists know that you have to learn the notes, rhythms, articulation, fingering and pedaling, ornaments, and similar things. But on a broader sense what does it really take to master it? It turns out that there are 3 stages of learning a piece: learning to play it from the score, learning to play it from memory, and learning to transpose it into other keys. Let's examine each one of them in turn.
1. Learning to play it from the score. That's the initial stage. Here you learn to play correct notes, rhythms, articulation, fingering and pedaling, ornaments, and similar things. Many people stop here. If you are fluent with this stage, you can even perform the piece in public.
2. Learning to play it from memory. Some organists choose to transcend further and memorize the piece. This stage requires a deeper knowledge and understanding of the piece. If you learn it by heart, chances are that fear of public performance or anxiety will not affect you as much.
3. Learning to transpose it into other keys. This is the ultimate stage. It takes a lot of willpower and very few people I know attempt it, even fewer actually finish it. It's a longer process because you have to travel through all major or minor keys in the system of ascending number of accidentals.
Bonus Stage 4: Learning to improvise a piece based on the model composition. Here you can take composer's rhythms, texture, registration, and form, and supply with your own themes or melodies and create your own improvisation. By the way, by doing this you are fulfilling original intention of many organ composers which is this: the vast majority of pieces written in the Renaissance and Baroque periods were created with the intent of becoming models for improvisations and compositions for composer's students and future generations.
If you are in the 1st stage of learning a piece that you love, don't feel bad if can't play it from memory or transpose it. Being fluent with musical text means a lot to the performance level and quality. If you nonetheless have finally memorized it, know that this is really a small but important victory.
However, I'm sure there are quite a few people among my readers who are not satisfied with their current stage and would want to graduate to the next. If that's the case with you, know that each stage takes considerable amount of time and effort.
I think the most important thing for you, if you want to advance, is to enjoy the process every day, every hour, every moment that you practice and feel that you a taking the right little steps which inevitably will lead you to success if you won't stop now.
Lots of church musicians are pianists. Their churches might have organs but their instruments are piano. They probably have a fairly well-developed finger technique and an extensive experience playing piano. What they lack is of course organ-specific skills such as pedal playing, hand and feet coordination, articulation, and coordination of releases among others.
A cure for pianists trying to play the organ would depend on their goals. Some of them might want to learn to play hymns in church while others - original organ compositions. There are also pianists who would love to learn to improvise on the organ as well. Of course, there is a considerable overlap in people dreams - some people who would want to learn hymn playing would love to play organ music as well. Would-be improvisers might also love to learn to play original organ compositions of classical organ masters.
Here's a cure for pianists who want to learn to master hymn playing:
Take your favorite hymnal and begin learning to play the hymns with pedals. It's best if you practice parts separately first, especially the pedal line. When you can fluently play the pedal line, play two and three part combinations before attempting to play all parts together in a slow tempo.
For pianists who want to learn to play original organ music:
Find easy but quality collections of organ music and learn a few pieces that you like or that fits best the liturgical season of the church year. Make sure you also learn very systematically step by step in a slow tempo. Try to avoid the temptation to play pieces from the beginning to the end without correcting mistakes and all parts together right away. In most cases, you would still have to go back and learn the pieces the right way and develop correct organ practice habits. Learning the pieces correctly in the first place will save you from a lot of frustration in the future.
For pianists whose goal is to learn to improvise on the organ for the liturgy:
Start anywhere. Literally. Just choose a theme (a hymn or your own melody), a mood which would work for a specific place within the liturgy, meter, mode, key, texture, and registration and improvise something interesting. Nobody will tell you what to do or how to do it or that you made a mistake. It's your improvisation. The only thing that matters is that you set your goal to be this: to keep the listener transfixed with your playing and that it would fit the liturgy of today.
It's important to understand the differences from the piano and organ and learn new skill sets that any organist need to be successful. Regardless of your goals in organ playing, you can use the existing hymns, organ compositions or your own improvisations to acquire organ playing skills which you can later use in church service playing.
Discover Your Christmas Greetings
This year I couldn't think of a better musical present to my readers than this:
Recital of Organ Improvisations on the Story of the Nativity
1. The Annunciation
2. Joseph and Mary Travels to Bethlehem
3. Jesus Is Born and Laid in a Manger
4. Shepherds Are Keeping Watch Over Their Flock at Night
5. The Appearance of an Angel
6. Heavenly Host Sings "Glory to God in the Highest"
7. Shepherds Run to Bethlehem
8. Shepherds Find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
9. Shepherds Come Back Glorifying and Praising God
10. Jesus Is Visited by the Three Wise Men from the East
PS A musical surprise from Pinkevicius Organ Duo
More than half of the challenges people face when trying to play the organ concern the lack of time - too many things to do, too little time for organ practice. This is true across the board - for women and men, for youth and for the elderly. The fact that we don't have to go to work anymore when we retire doesn't necessarily mean we have more time, does it?
This is not exactly right. While in some cases the phrase "I don't have time to practice organ" really means this, often it means something entirely different: "organ practice is not my priority". In other words, lack of time means that during our days there certainly are instances when we know we should be doing what's important but we end up doing what's urgent. What's urgent for our inner dragons who want to stop us from finding that treasure, from discovering our true self, from fulfilling our mission (if organ playing is our mission in the first place).
Check your email
Prepare this report
Click this link
Watch more TV
Come to this meeting
Watch this video
Buy more stuff
Polish your car
Bake more cake
Clean your drawers
Nag this person
Fire back your defense
Eat this snack
We don't need more time for organ practice. We need more bravery to recognize when this urge is from our inner dragons and when from our true self.
Have you ever been to a church service only to discover that you really can predict how the next hymn will be played? What kind of texture, disposition of parts, registration, articulation, and even the introductions? Perhaps you play this way yourself? This and other situations are myths that don't have to be true. They only remove the joy of musical experiments and discoveries from the service playing which makes organist feel that he or she is a cog in a machine and not an artist. Here they are:
1. Number of parts in hymn playing is four. No, you can choose any number of parts between 1 and 6.
2. Disposition of parts is SATB. No, any voice can be placed in any part, even the soprano.
3. The part in the pedal can only be the bass. No, treat your feet like an extra hand and play any part you want. Even the soprano. Especially the soprano.
4. Rests between the phrases are only for breathing. No, you can add flourishes and runs of any kind between the phrases (just like Bach when he returned from his study with Buxtehude).
5. Registration is principal chorus with mixtures. No, depending on the size of the congregation and the meaning of the particular stanza of the hymn, you can choose a wide variety of combinations from flutes, principals, mutations, and reeds.
6. Articulation is legato. For hymns created after 1800's, yes, it's best to play legato but for earlier hymns - use articulate legato touch (smooth, singing style - not too choppy, emphasize the meter - the alternation of strong and weak beats).
7. Introduction for the hymn can only be the first or the last phrase of the hymn. No, you can create anything you want for an introduction, even a short 3 part fughetta or the choral prelude (if the time allows). Remember Bach's Orgelbuchlein?
Bonus Myth 1: You should always use classical tonal harmony in harmonizing hymns. No, on special occasions, you can surprise your congregation by harmonizing a hymn in chords containing seconds, fourths, fifths, tritones, and even modal harmony as well as jazz chords.
Bonus Myth 2: The style of hymn playing should always be chordal. No, you can make use of polyphony as well - make the parts more independent.
You don't have to believe these myths, if you want to make your hymn playing and church service playing in general much more creative, brave, and rewarding. Instead always ask yourself, "why am I doing this or that, why am I playing this hymn this way?" and try to challenge yourself with: "What if...?"
Sure, not everyone in your congregation is going to like the change in your playing but you are not trying to please everyone. It's not your job. Your job is to explore the boundaries, what works and what doesn't. Your job is to be an agent of change.
Let the people take part in your explorations, communicate with them why are you doing this. Then some of them will gratefully cheer you on and become true evangelists for your cause.
Don't be afraid to do something that matters to you. They didn't like Bach's hymn playing in Arnstadt after he came back from his study with Buxtehude after that Christmas of 1705 either...
When I was just starting to learn to play the organ some 22 years ago, things were not as clear as they are now. Every new discovery came with a price. Here are 7 things I wish I knew then which would have made my road much more straight.
1. Organ Practice. It takes at least twice as long to master a piece. No matter how fast you are learning, now matter how good a sight-reader you are, you will still need a considerable time to help the piece to really sink in.
2. Fingering and Pedaling. Writing in fingering and pedaling is not as boring if you work out only the fragment you are currently practicing - perhaps one line at a time.
3. Public Performance. It's all about focus. If you can fix your attention on the current measure and watch your slow and deep breathing, any worries and fears will fade away.
4. Music Theory. It's helpful to try to see the piece you are playing as a collection of modes, intervals, and chords (besides the themes, and textures, and form). Then you can decipher it and convey to the listener what's the most important and what's not as much.
5. Harmony. Simplicity is an advantage. Many wonderful things can be played using only Tonic, Dominant, Subdominant, and Dominant seventh chords and their inversions. The colorfulness comes from changing keys and modes frequently.
6. Hymn Playing. Four-part SATB hymn playing with the tune in soprano is overrated. Two-part hymn setting with the tune alternating in the soprano and the bass can be just as beautiful as a classic SATB arrangement. Placing the tune in the tenor is as easy as flipping the soprano with the tenor.
7. Organ Improvisation. The most important thing is facing yourself. Noticing your own fears and limitations. When things get scary and tough, staying on the bench no matter what is as difficult as improvising a well-thought out fugue. It's all in your mind, though. The danger is not real and it will pass away sooner than it seems (until the next one).
All these 7 points can be summarized in this one sentence:
Curiosity, combined with the willingness to get slapped in the face and put in the hours is the key to forge your own path.
Secrets of Organ Playing Community:
David Oyen: The 104 year old two manual Casavant organ Op. 396. The first of six organs built by Casavant for use in Masonic Temples. It has only two manuals, but includes two octaves of mechanical chimes. The manual was relocated so that it is at 90 degrees to the organ, allowing the organist to see the floor below without using mirrors. There are two other keyboard instruments in the room... a two manual reed organ from the 1880's and a Hammond 2B from the 1950's, but this is the one I prefer to play.
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Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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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.