Friday, February 16, 2018

Piano vs. Organ (part 3)

We get tourists, sometimes. Or visitors. In any case, a young woman walked into our sanctuary one afternoon while I was practicing the organ and decided to ask the question that was pressing on her mind: which is harder to play, the piano or the organ?

She did not, it seems, want a complicated answer.

I've become proficient at both instruments, and I don't like to disparage either of them. And I like to get people to think, which usually requires a longer answer, which is something for which patience is required.

The piano, I explained, has a sustaining pedal, and an organ does not. So you can play a group of low notes and hold the sound of them while your hands are in the air leaping to notes far away. This is impossible on the organ where the sound ends the moment your hands quit the keys (depending on the building's reverb, I guess) and generally tends to sound stupid on an organ. Therefore, leaps are one of several things that abound in the piano literature but do not in pieces written for the organ. Also the piano tends to emphasize hand crossings, and rapid runs more than pieces written for the organ do. So in that way, the piano requires something that the organ usually does not. It is also an instrument that rewards or punishes according to the subtlety of the touch, where an organ has a little more room for error. There the articulation matters, but a heavier attack on one note in a group will not produce a distracting bang like it will on the piano, ruining the phrase.

I said all this to set it in counterpoint to the next part, which is what most people would assume I would say, namely that the organ has all kinds of buttons and knobs that the piano does not have, and notes to be played with the feet on top of that, and is therefore a more complicated machine than the piano, case closed.

Actually, I didn't close the case, but my interlocutor did. She decided the organ was way more complicated and that was that. And therefore, I suppose, better. Or more praiseworthy as a pursuit, anyway. After all, the technical difficulty score counts big, just ask the Olympic judges.

And considering that the organ at Third Church has 175 ranks and about 188 knobs, with 4 manuals, two rows of couplers which I haven't counted, probably around 40 toe studs and 50 thumb pistons, 4 expression pedals, two kinds of crescendo, and a magic drawer with multiple features I would need several paragraphs to begin to describe...well, it's a large organ. I don't know that it is really fair comparing it to a piano since it isn't really an average organ. It is complicated. And difficult. And maybe I should get  a gold star for being able to play it. And maybe, when people simply want to be really impressed by something I should leave well enough alone and let them be impressed.

But I still like to think. And I think that life is not about being impressed by something that is difficult if your appreciation stops there. Admiration is only a start. And though I've noticed people at dinner parties would rather hear about the organ than they would the piano that nobody is playing organ music on the radio. Not even the classical station. People aren't lined up to come to organ concerts either. I hope I can do something about that.

Meanwhile, the piano in our sanctuary is out of tune. The tuner comes next week. I'm looking forward to that. I've been missing the piano. It does only have one manual, and only three pedals for the feet, no knobs, no buttons. But it is a wonderful instrument. Many feel a closer connection to it than they do the mighty organ. I can understand that. I'll be making more pianonoise very soon. Until then, Hector and I are going to make some wonderful music together.



What, I can't give the organ a name?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Watch your step

Last week I got another surprise. I'm in the midst of teaching a class on the organ, which includes miniature concerts, and as next week's class is on 19th century French literature (and includes a fun bit about the organ in popular culture; i.e., as an instrument of terror) I decided it was time to learn the Boellmann Toccata. This is probably the easiest of the many flashy toccatas I've already learned to play. I was expecting to have it licked in a day or two.

That didn't quite happen. One of the reasons for it was that it was trickier to memorize than I thought it would be. Although quite repetitive, the phrase endings are all different, so that it is like being on the same section of road and having to take a different exit each time.

Of course, I could have just gotten a page turner for the performance, but that would have meant that every day during practice I still would have to stop every 30 seconds to turn the page. Mr. Boellmann keeps the hands busy the entire length of the piece so there is no way to turn the page without stopping the music altogether. And the music from our church library looks to be from about 1920 and is quite brittle, so every time I did turn a page part of the page would come apart in my hand.

I did eventually get the piece memorized but it took about five days. Most of you are realizing how wonderfully impatient I am. If it had been a more difficult piece like the Vierne Final (from Symphony no. 1) I would have expected it to take a couple of weeks (it did, and that didn't bother me very much). I'm realistic enough to expect some things to take time; it was the mis-diagnosis that threw me.

But there was another issue at hand, an issue of execution.  Once the piece was beginning to function as a piece of music (that is, mostly memorized: the actual playing of the notes while looking at them took very little time at all as the piece is practically sightreadable) I was still having a bit of difficultly getting the thing to work without any hesitations. And that came down to those pedals you see at the top of the page. Not the organ pedals, the several gas pedals. Those are the expression pedals. They make each of the manuals that are under expression (which does not include the loudest of the four) louder or softer according to whether you've got them pedal to the floor, or in the up position, or somewhere in between. The fact that there are four of them is rather new to me, and is a sign that I've got a pretty large organ console to deal with. Simply put, those pedals give the feet something else to do besides play notes and kick toe studs to change registration. Bach's organ didn't have them at all. They are an innovation dating from the 19th century.

Being able to find the correct expression pedal and depress it quickly enough that the musical flow isn't interrupted and I can also get in all the pedal notes and registration changes is a skill in which I am not surprisingly deficient. It is one of the fun things about being an organist. The organ isn't really one instrument. Depending on the size and makeup of the organ it can demand very different things from you. One of the things I learned this week was the ability to arhythmically deploy the expression pedal and to scan the console to make sure that all of the indicator lights were where I wanted them to be, all while the fingers were on autopilot and the memory was feeding them uninterrupted information. If they weren't I would have to make another try as soon as one of my feet was free for a moment. Organists practice the same gestures over and over to make sure that they can play consistently and smoothly, but it is a fine skill to be able to make adjustments to a performance that includes gestures that you have drilled into yourself just in case something goes a bit wrong. And that seems to require dividing one's brain up into more and more pieces, each acting independently.

That may not sound like a lot of fun (it is if you get it right, I suppose) but I did actually have some. Because of a leaky roof, the lights were out in the sanctuary last week. That made for a rather spooky atmosphere as I took on this rather spooky piece. And yes, that is an actual shot of the view from the organ console, not some stock Hollywood horror footage.

I also made this recording you so can enjoy it yourself, in the dark. I'll know if you don't turn off the lights as you listen.

BWUAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA!!!!!
 
Boellmann: Toccata from Suite Gothic


Friday, February 2, 2018

Februaries I have known

You may have picked up on this, but I am not a fan of February.

The novelty of winter has worn off, and all we have left is the grinding cold, the ice, the snow--I can do snow when it's fluffy and not too deep, it's even charming, but let's not have to spend an hour in the bitter cold trying to dig out one's car, shall we? And have I mentioned the wind? People fight most bitterly when they know they've lost, and the elements take after them. As the cold season draws to a close the wind can sometimes take your face off. Politely, of course.

You would think I would spend the month hibernating, but, it turns out, quite a few Februaries have featured major events. And, even if those events were laden with stress, they gave me something to focus on beside my dreary, Siberian thoughts.

Some of these were concerts. I recall a February when I appeared with orchestra, playing Brahms's Second piano concerto in Bb. This is quite a large piece, and a challenge to the technique and the stamina. I'd won a concerto competition a couple of years earlier and they put me on a subscription concert. I don't know why they picked February, but there it is. I think this was on the 20th of the month, the year I was a senior in college. Six days and several years later, I was on stage at Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not Pittsburgh!). I remember several pep talks I've given myself and this one was focused on one thing: the music was not so hard, I could play it well, it is only because I am nervous that I am nervous. Just go out and do your thing and it will be fine. It was.

Of course, February is audition month. Curiously, I've forgotten the date of my audition for the Cleveland Institute of Music--it was sometime in late February, I think. I remember the weather at Oberlin pretty well, though--bitterly cold and windy. I chose Cleveland. (No tropical paradise there, either)

My audition for graduate school was actually on the 1st of March. But that still made February the operative month. When I auditioned for my doctorate it was sometime in late February, but I can't remember the date for that, either.

I think that my cousin's wedding, all those many years ago, was in a  February, in Florida. I was 13. It was probably my first wedding reception (that I played for). And to think that I lost my amateur status so young. Actually, I don't remember getting paid. Who knows? Doesn't matter.

In the church calendar, February is often the start of Lent. Having served as a church organist lo these many years I can remember several challenging Februaries which featured some ambitious programming. One year I played two of the three Choral Preludes by Cesar Frank on back-to-back weeks (while I was sick!). I also remember a 15 minute memorized delivery of a sketch by Mark Twain for the Ash Wednesday service (it fit the theme, honest). Lent was often a time for some hefty music, which is odd, because it is an old Catholic practice not to allow the organ to sound during Lent at all.

This year, February will be marked by a class I am teaching for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). This program, run locally by the University of Pittsburgh, allows the 50+ crowd to sign up for classes as if they were in college. There are no degrees granted. My course is off campus at the church which features my new organ friend (see the last two weeks). It is about the history of the instrument, and includes musical performances of pieces representing the different schools and composers that make up the best of the organ literature. It also features an extended organ demonstration. In five weeks, we'll have time to talk about all the buttons, knobs, tabs, and toe studs. Which reminds me, I was going to count all of them to see just how many there were. I imagine my class would like to know.

I am writing this on Wednesday--tomorrow is the first class, and the weather is planning a nice respite from the snow and cold for just one day so I don't have to contemplate cancellation or a drop in attendance. Nice of it. We'll see how things progress--given a choice between two sessions, this nutcase chose February in order to be less busy at Easter.Thus it joins the parade of active Februaries, adding a bit of stress to the cold.  At least it keeps the mind occupied, and the fingers limber. And when it is over, I'll have survived another one.