Much of organ music is written for more than one manual. Quite often manual changes are required within composition which might be challenging to perform accurately. Organist may hit the wrong note accidentally, especially at the beginning stages of organ playing. This is especially dangerous when jumping over two or more manuals. Just like any other skill in organ art, careful planning and practice are needed to achieve accuracy in manual changes. Today I would like to give you some tips which will help you to avoid hitting the wrong notes when changing manuals.
Mark manual changes in the score. Although it might be tempting to have a clean score, it is always best to write in manual changes in your music, however obvious they might be. Mark not only the graphical representation but also write in which manual you will use. For example, if the right hand has to jump from the first manual to the second, write in the exact manual separation by drawing a line. In addition, at the exact place when manual change has to occur, write “II” in your score. This is indeed necessary to avoid confusion when performing the piece in public, at least until you will have more experience in organ playing.
Stay close to keyboards when changing manuals. Once you know the place where the switch has to be made, make sure that you only lift your hand or hands as little as possible from the keyboards. The distance between the manuals is about 5 cm (sometimes more) so your hand has to make a rather noticeable movement in order to reach a different manual. This is even more obvious when jumping from the first manual to the third manual or vice versa. For example, the distance between the manuals on my organ is 6.7 cm (when a note on the lower manual is depressed). It is even greater when I have to reach the second manual diagonally – around 10 cm. I remember having a great trouble when practicing the last page of the notorious Motto Ostinato from Sunday Music by Petr Eben (the most important 20th century Czech composer). This particular episode has frequent jumps over three manuals which make an astounding echo effect on the organ. I managed to learn it with accuracy only when staying close to the keyboard.
Practice slowly. If there is one single most important point about accuracy in manual changes, it is slow practice. Practicing slowly can make a big difference in a challenging spot. Try to overcome the temptation playing technically difficult pieces in a concert tempo frequently. By applying slow motion in your practice you will be able to control your movements much better. You see, at the beginning stages of organ playing, your hand movements are still not precise and fast or medium tempo does not help here at all. In fact, you should take such practicing tempo that will not allow any or almost any mistakes and you will feel comfortable. It is precisely slow practice which helped me master the abovementioned page of Motto Ostinato.
Practice repeatedly. If you managed to play the difficult spot with manual change correctly, do not be satisfied with only one correct attempt. Instead, practice this episode repeatedly 10 or more times until it becomes automatic. Try to achieve the level when you can play correctly with precision and accuracy at least three times in a row. This means that if you play correctly twice and make a mistake on a third attempt, you have to start over and begin counting from one. I know from my personal experience just how frustrating this can be sometimes. Do not get discouraged by your mistakes. They simply mean that you need to take a slower tempo. If you insist upon making manual changes automatic, when the time comes, you will be ready to perform the piece with confidence.
This article continues in Part 2. If you found the first part useful, I suggest you read the second part also because you will find even more helpful tips there.
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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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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.