This is the final Part 5 of the series of articles about common mistakes in pedal playing. In order to have a full picture, please read the Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 as well.
Looking at the feet when playing the pedals. This can happen quite often, especially at the beginning stages of organ playing. Since the pedal board is unfamiliar to the beginner organist, there is always a strong temptation to locate the keys by looking at them. However, it is always better to look at the music and try to feel the pedal board with our feet. If we insist on not looking down, then after a very reasonable time we will begin to feel where any specific pedal is. Pedal preparation also helps to achieve that.
It is like driving a car. At the beginning you have to think where all the pedals are, how the shift stick works, how to switch on the headlights, how to turn on the windshield wiper etc. But if you use your car long enough, it all becomes automatic to you. Of course, when you have to drive another car, again getting used to it takes some time.
However, if you are an experienced driver and had a chance to drive many different cars in your life, the time required to adjust is very insignificant. This is exactly the same situation with organs. But looking at the music and not at the feet is very important and greatly facilitates the progress.
Not using the entire leg in early music. In order to depress the pedals we usually use the motion from an ankle which is the correct way to play music written after around 1800s. However, not every organist knows that for early music, and especially on historical instruments or replicas of old organs the depression of the pedals should be done using the entire leg.
This theory is debatable whether or not it is applicable to the performance of early music on modern instruments. We should at least try to adhere to it when playing old instruments or instruments that are built in old style. I will explain the reasoning behind this technique.
You see, in the Baroque period, the most common practice instrument for organists was clavichord (yes, there were many pedal clavichords built in the 17th and 18th century as well), and not organ. Churches were not heated and organists also needed bellow operators to practice organs in churches. So many of them practiced at home on clavichords and performed on organs during services and other public occasions.
Therefore, it was the clavichord technique which became the basis of organ technique (at least in German speaking lands). I don’t want to get into the clavichord technique too much because it is a broad and fascinating topic on its own right.
Let’s just say that on the clavichord, if we want to achieve a nice sound, we use the weight of the entire arm (not fingers) and leg (not ankle). So the depression of the pedal keys is achieved mainly using the weight of the leg. Otherwise the string of the clavichord would not make a deep and reverberating sound. In consequence, this technique was applied to the pedal playing on old organs as well.
It is really important that you develop the right practicing habits early on in your pedal playing. Being strict with yourself and paying attention whether or not you are making the mistakes in your performance can save much precious time. However, it is never too late to start fixing the mistakes and forming the right playing habits. If you follow my suggestions carefully, you will have more chances to perform difficult organ music with confidence.
I have written earlier about the secret to a perfect pedal technique. That's an article about Marcel Dupre's recommendations. You might find his suggestions surprisingly simple yet very powerful.
If you would like to know more about pedal playing, I highly recommend studying Organ Technique: Modern and Early by George Ritchie and George Stauffer. This method book has separate chapter on pedal playing with many important exercises.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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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.