Friday, October 30, 2015

Be very afraid....

Tonight is my subtly named "Scary Organ Concert." I plan to give my audience a scary experience. About time I turned the tables, isn't it?

I mean, preparing a recital is often a scary experience for the artist. There is a deadline, there is a lot of music to prepare, there are often scads of details to take care of that have nothing to do with the music...

I don't want to give anything away before the concert tonight, so I'll just obliquely suggest that there will be a few surprises.

Sometimes those details are what make the concert for some folks. I could, after all, just come out and play the organ, bow and leave, and that would already require preparation, but, usually, when I give a concert there are other dimensions. That's probably why we had a pretty full house for an organ concert last year and why I'm anticipating another one. It doesn't mean I compromise the music, though. Tonight's concert is all original organ music--no transcriptions, no theater organ--and some of it is Bach. It will be an occasional challenge to the ears, unless you happen to be a Bach lover or a classical music expert. On the other hand, there will be moments of near-Vaudeville, too, and I'll do plenty of talking. This time-honored mix of high and low art is something I learned from Shakespeare, so you know it's got quite a pedigree.

In any event, I've had a real adventure getting everything ready on time (or trying) so I'll keep this blog short and just let you know that over the next week I'll be telling you all about it as well as posting video and/or audio of the live event as soon as I can get things ready. You'll have to give me a few days, though, since it is also All Saint's Day Sunday (four services) and I have a Halloween party to play Saturday with my band, and a lengthy choir rehearsal Sunday for the following week's concert. I am planning to be a bit tired on Monday morning.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to tell if you're making progress

An emailer asks how to tell if you are making progress. That can be tricky, can't it?

What exactly does progress mean? How do we measure it? And, after all, isn't that the point, that we want to be able to measure, to quantify, to be sure that we are better than before, that we aren't just wasting our time, spinning our wheels? Well?

I'm quite sure that I'm a much better organist than I was five years ago. On the other hand, I may have topped out as a pianist (I have an advanced degree in that instrument; my efforts at the organ started later and my real passion for the instrument developed more recently). However, from one day to the next I probably would not have been able to notice a great deal of difference in my overall ability at either instrument. General progress tends to happen over time, which is why it is so hard to be sure of it. If you want to develop an overall sense of your ability, the only thing I can suggest is that you start recording your performances (if you haven't) on a fairly regular basis. Then, a year from now, listen to a recent recording of yourself, and one from a year earlier and see if you can spot a difference. Of course, that will take a year!

But looking for general progress may be the wrong focus. When you are trying to learn a piece of music, the point is to try to play that particular piece well. You want to master the technical difficulties of the piece and play it musically. Most of your practice time is going to be spent on specific problems and specific pieces, just as, when you are running a Marathon, you can't run the whole thing at once; you have simply to put one foot in front of the other each moment that you are out there. We can obsess about progress, but it can be a chimera.

Still, it is natural to worry about progress, and teachers have ways of making sure progress happens. Most lesson books are designed so that pieces get gradually more difficult from the front to the back of a book, so that the student will know that they are improving their playing ability simply by learning all the pieces. Once you get out into the general literature, that gets more difficult to figure out, though there are still patterns to notice. Here's one: Haydn Sonata, Mozart Sonata, Beethoven (early) sonata, Beethoven Middle Sonata, Schubert sonata or Beethoven late sonata.

In college it became clear that the freshmen were given Haydn and Mozart (and early Beethoven), that as a promising Sophomore I was assigned an ambitious middle period Beethoven Sonata, and that only graduate students played Schubert, not because he was more technically difficult than Beethoven, but was considered more poetically challenging, and needed a more mature sense of musicality.

I was rather proud of myself when as a junior I got to play a large piano cycle by Schumann, since I had already figured out that those were mainly for graduate students. Other cycles include French suites by Bach, pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the English Suites, and the Partitas at the summit of difficulty in that corner of the literature.

By the time I began assisting for my teacher at the conservatory (which mainly meant giving lessons to preparatory students), I could pretty much tell where a student was simply by what pieces they were playing. That assumes that they COULD play these pieces adequately, and with a qualified teacher to guide them and assign them pieces as the teacher felt was appropriate, I could trust that as a indicator.

A number of persons who ask me questions via email do not seem to have teacher, and this is where I jump in again and suggest to you that it is infinitely preferable to have a good teacher guiding you because he or she will know many of these things and will be able to keep a good eye on your progress.

For example, I could tell you which Chopin Etudes are the easiest, which the most difficult, and what sort of skill is required to play each without looking in the score. If a student of mine wanted to play one but was not ready for it, I could suggest another piece which would have some of the same difficulties in it but was simply not as tough overall so that by playing THAT piece, the student would then be ready to take on the one they really wanted to play. That is one of the things a good teacher will do. Knowing the piano (or organ) literature really well gives you those tools.

My emailer did seem to equate speed of learning with progress. When he went back to earlier pieces, there was some initial difficulty, and then he could play them again, he said.

This is an interesting way to look at progress. Do you learn pieces faster than before? Do you remember the pieces you've learned?

I can tell you that when I return to a piece that I've played before, I notice two things:

1) the longer and harder I worked on the piece before I put it away, the longer I can go without playing it and still get it back under my fingers quickly.

2) sometimes, a piece that I've not worked on for a long time will seem strange to me at first. That first day I wonder if I'll have to start all over again and why the heck I can't seem to just haul off and play it already! But by the second day a mysterious thing happens and I start to be able to play it again. If it has been several years since I last played the piece it may take a few days, but I will notice that I "learned" the piece much faster than I did the first time, which tells me my brain has been storing it somewhere and it just took some time for the recall process to fully work.

There are various skills all at work here, including memory, sight-reading ability, technical ability, and so on, all of which may be improved by working on them separately, and all of which can sometimes help improve the others. My ability to learn quickly, and to sight-read (not the same thing) have both improved enormously in the last decade or so, which is good because I have a concert in a couple of days, another different concert a week later, and church services every week with new music to prepare for each. Speed of preparation helps greatly here.

But a pianist playing for his or her own enjoyment may not really care about these things. In which case, what IS your overall goal? And how will you get there?

And who might be able to help?

Monday, October 26, 2015

It was there all along

Yesterday in church I played a unique little organ piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Unique because it asked me to use the sequialtera.

The sesquialwhat? You might be asking. Our associate pastor wondered that very thing.

Sesquialtera literally means "relating to or denoting the ratio of 3:2, as in the interval of a fifth." (I know this because I looked it up.) Basically if you played a C, you would hear a G instead. It's an odd sounding stop, indeed, but that really isn't the point of this installment.

What made Bach's piece odd was that he specifically asked for the organist to use one at the beginning of his setting of "Ein feste Burg" aka "A Mighty Fortress [is our God]" and there are in fact two reason this is unusual.

The first is that Bach almost never indicated which stops he wanted the organist to use, beyond occasionally asking for "full organ" (organo pleno). The second is that this a really weird stop to be asking for by itself, and the lower voice should be supplied by a bassoon stop, which is also quite colorful.  It is a very interesting combination.

We are told, however, that Bach's choice of stops often surprised his contemporaries, who thought they wouldn't sound very agreeably, and were astonished to find how well Bach knew how to find pleasing and interesting combinations.

It is also theorized that Bach wrote the piece to show off the newly improved church organ at his second church, which happened to have added these stops, and he wanted to take advantage of this rather interesting and recently acquired sound.

The reason I am mentioning all this, however, is because this fall I am writing several blogs to help persons who are either young or beginning organists, or people who are basically pianists playing the organ and are not familiar and/or comfortable with the instrument. Specifically, this group of blogs has to do with the topic of organ registration, namely, what to do with all of those knobs!

For those of you entrusted with an organ, and feeling somewhat intimidated by it, let me suggest that while that is perfectly understandable, I hope you'll also realize what an opportunity you have to explore all of those knobs. So many possibilities exist in this instrument!

Including some right under your nose. Let me make a clean breast of something. In 2004, when I was still a piano major in graduate school, I was just beginning to take an interest in the pipe organ. I played Bach's piece for the first time at my church in Baltimore. A year later, I moved to Illinois, and was chagrined to discover that the organ there had no sesquialtera. I had grown rather fond of that queer sounding stop; I didn't use it a whole lot, but it was awfully flavorful when I did.

It was about 10 years later, during which I gradually took more and more of an interest in the music of the organ, and began reading books about organ registration, going to online resources, basically anything I could find, that I found something curious, which also made me feel foolish. That stop I had been missing for years was actually there!

A sesquilatera is something known as a "compound stop." The one at my former church was marked "sesquilatera II." The roman number "two" means that two different ranks of pipes are joined together to make up this stop, and that you can access both of them joined together by pulling this single stop knob.

On the other hand, it turns out you can make your own sesquialtera by drawing two other stops, known as the Tierce, and the Nazard. Pulling these stops both out will give the same result. Too bad it took so many years to find that out!

In other words, some stops can actually be created by building them from the right combinations of other stops. This is what is so fascinating, and, for better or worse, sometimes takes a while to find out.

I'll back the truck up for a few weeks and talk about more basic ideas for organ registration to help anyone who is getting started, but I hope you find this sufficiently interesting to start experimenting with the stops on your organ, which, granted, can be dangerous if you do it on Sunday morning without checking the results during practice, but can lead to some pretty interesting results.

As for the old sesquialtera, I happen to have a recording of it from my old church. It is part of a series of articles I did about the organ back in 2004, and which included recordings of every stop available on that organ. Here it is:  [listen]

I tried to have a little fun with the various stops, so if you think you might be going a little crazy, let me assure you, that really IS the opening of "smoke on the water" on the sesquialtera.

Is that enough to make you want a sesquialtera of your own? It helps if your stop knobs have fractions on them; we'll discuss that in a few weeks.

In the meantime, here is a recent recording from the organ in Illinois, of J. S. Bach's Ein feste Burg, complete with the opening combination of sesquialtera and bassoon:


Friday, October 23, 2015

Back to the Organ

Wednesday was Back to the Future day. In case you missed it, October 21st 2015 was the day that Doc Brown and Marty McFly, the heroes of the 1980s franchise "Back to the Future" movies, having travelled 30 years into the future, arrived to straighten out and inevitably cause more trouble by messing with the space-time continuum. People have been having fun seeing whether the movie accurately predicted what life would be like thirty years into the future. Cubs fans took heart that they were supposed to have won a World Series, even though with the expanded post season it would have been impossible to win it all by the 21st of October (the World Series won't have even started by then). And "Jaws 19" is, alas, not playing in theaters.

[by the way, reality hurts, doesn't it? The Cubs spent the time during Doc and Marty's adventure getting bounced out of the playoffs in 4 games. Next year....again.]

But I would like to take a trip in the other direction, back to 1985, because October 20 of that year just happens to be an anniversary of mine, so if Doc and Marty could just hold the DeLorean for a minute or two I may just hop in...

There is a gangly teenager sitting at the organ console in a little white church with a steeple in a rural suburb. He can barely reach the pedals, and you can see the concern on his face. His mother is seated halfway back on the same side as the organ, giving signals: up for make it louder, down for make it softer. For some reason there is concern he will play the organ too loudly. His mother has offered this sage advice for hymn playing: "Slow down and make your breaks." Apparently these people need to be able to breathe between the phrases of a hymn.

The young lad (that's what they called us back then, if I recall) labors away. After the service he seems disappointed by his efforts. Apparently there were some extra notes in the mix. So a pastor sits down to write a letter:

October 22, 1985

Dear Andy:

I thought you did an excellent job on Sunday and I'm writing to say so. Many people commented on your playing and it was all good.

I know that you probably heard an mistakes you may have made and you're feeling badly about them. Believe me, you're the only one who heard them.

You're doing a fine job and I appreciate all the work you're doing.

Thank you,
Pastor Seawright

The gig goes on for three more weeks. The regular organist is out having a baby, and there have been some complications (all resolved to the good long ago; that baby just turned 30!). After the month-long debut, the session, the governing body of the local church, writes a letter

November, 1985

The Session of our Church wishes to thank you for playing the organ for worship services these past weeks.

We enjoyed your special music choices and you played so well. We are very proud of you.

you have a wonderful gift, Andy, and we appreciate you sharing your gift with your Church Family!

Love and Blessings,
Mrs. Carol Pittis
in behalf of Session.

Many people are very encouraging of this young lad. Not everyone; this movie has to have a bad guy in it. One of the members thinks that because this is just a teenager he shouldn't be paid the regular amount budgeted for a substitute organist. The boy's mother and several others respond that he is doing the same job as an adult, playing for the entire service and choir rehearsal, so why shouldn't he be paid in full? It's a familiar issue if you are an organist.

Nonetheless, the month goes sailing by, into the vortex of time, full of anxiety and suspense, and also providing the opportunity to learn to have quite a bit of music ready on deadline, and how to handle this strange instrument known as the organ. It's not a pipe organ, and it is fairly small, but there are still a number of buttons, draw knobs, and pedals to handle.

That young man took all of that encouragement and parleyed it into more substitute positions over the next two years; then the organist of the church mentioned to a friend whose church was looking for an organist that there was a young man who could play pretty well. That led to a regular church position at the age of 16, and a few since. I'm on my fourth church now, having spent roughly a decade at both of the last two.

I thank all the people who helped me get my start, including my piano teacher, Ann Meck, who gave me a few organ lessons, and the organist of the Northfield Presbyterian Church, Debbie Langford, who showed me what the numbers on the tabs meant. And, of course, mom, who made sure I didn't rush ahead of the congregation or burst their eardrums. Even though I was a teenage boy, I must have eaten just enough vegetables that I can now reach the pedals. If you are in the neighborhood, you can see me using them next Friday evening at 7.
"Scary Organ Recital"
Friday, October 30 at 7 pm
Faith United Methodist Church
1719 North Prospect, Champaign Illinois, 61821

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Not too loud, now!

About a month ago, I was visiting another church. After the service, I went up to introduce myself to the organist. I had to get in line behind a lady who was complaining that the hymns were too loud. Specifically the first line of the hymn introduction, which she said, seemed like a jolt.

When I got a chance I commiserated with the organist, who was quick to point out that she was really a pianist playing the organ. That's ok, I said. I got my start that way, too. I now consider myself an organist as well, but that's only been in the last few years. There are really two main differences between an organist and a pianist pretending to be an organist, and one is pretty obvious. It is familiarity with the pedal board. Most pianist-organists don't use their feet very often. Very well, there is a lot of literature that doesn't make use of the pedals much or at all--we'll explore that sometime. The other difference is in the handling of the organ stops, the registration. That comes with experience as well. Over the next several weeks we'll talk about that so that you who are pianists pretending to be organists will feel more confident handling the instrument. It really is a pretty terrific beast, and allows for a number of sonic possibilities.

The immediate problem, however, the one that the woman complained of, is pretty easily taken care of. There are two main approaches.

One is to recognize that most hymns in hymnbooks are written in 4-part harmony all the way through. They are not really intended as keyboard accompaniments. Sometimes they are rather awkward to play on pianos and organs. But it is not necessary to play all the notes all the time.

In fact, if you need to ease into a hymn, rather than jolting your congregation at the outset, here are a few things I do virtually every time I play a hymn.

I almost NEVER play a pickup note with full harmony. In the hymnal, the first note of the melody will be accompanied by a full chord. Leave it out. Save it for the downbeat of the first measure, at least.

Fairly often, particularly if it is a meditative type of hymn, I'll play the entire first line of the hymn with the melody alone. That's right, one note. Leave out the alto, tenor and bass.

When you get to the second line, you might add the bass, and just play the top and bottom voices. This way, there is a gradual crescendo of texture, throughout the hymn introduction. You can then save the full 4-part treatment for the last phrase of the hymn.

I've been assuming, of course, that you are playing the entire hymn through once as an introduction. There are other ways to do this. You might only play the last two phrases of a hymn. In any case, find ways not to do everything on full throttle, by leaving out some of the voices at the beginning.

Another way to provide tonal relief has to do with the choice of organ stops. I suggested to my organist colleague that she consider using less full registrations. Pianists who are not comfortable with the different stops tend to pull them all out a lot of the time. But the organ allows a great degree of dynamic control, and when I play a hymn, I rarely use the same stop combination for more than one verse. And I never use a full, robust organ sound except in the climactic verse of a hymn (which isn't always the last one, by the way).

I encouraged my colleague to experiment with different combinations of stops. Getting to know them well takes time, but over the next few weeks we'll explore this topic in detail. I find it quite interesting.

When I came to my current church, just over ten years ago, I remember introducing myself to members of the 8 am congregation. I went into the pews before the service and said, " Hi, I'm Michael Hammer, your new organist." And they would say things like, "Hi, I'm Bill don't play the organ too loud." "Hi, I'm Geraldine don't play the organ too loud." I noticed there seemed to be an awful lot of people with the same last name!

Fortunately, I've never gotten that complaint since I started. It may be partly owing to the practices I've outlined above. Also, the woman I replaced was a pianist, and may not have varied the organ registrations for the verses of a hymn. It is interesting: in my travels over the past couple of years I have noticed that I seem to be the only one who changes registration between verses (for which many members of my congregation have thanked me, actually!) and, despite what appears to be the prevailing wisdom, have not felt the need to provide a full organ sound for every verse of the hymn (and if the choir is in really good form that day, I've been known to drop out altogether and let the choir and congregation sing a verse without me!). It may not be that I play the organ any less loud than my predecessor, but that I don't play that loudly all the time.

If you are a pianist in an organist position, the good news is that it really won't take you that long to get comfortable with organ registration; you may even enjoy it! And it will help you sound like a "real organist!" So don't be discouraged. Take advantage of your weekly position to learn a little bit at a time, and be a little bit better every week. That's been my motto. It's taken me pretty far, so far.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Taking on a cliche

When I mentioned that I was going to play an organ recital last year at this time, people wanted to know if I was going to play the piece. You know, the FAMOUS one. The one that goes....

DADADAAAAAAA!!!!! deedeedeedee DUH! DAAAAAAAAA!!!!

In other words, the entirety of the known organ literature!

It can be tough to be an organist, or at least lonely. I've read that only about one in every two hundred people regularly attend classical music concerts. Of these, I'm betting that only about one in a hundred know or are interested in the pipe organ. That's a pretty small group, limited to mostly other organists.

On the other hand, it leaves quite a bit of virgin territory for those with missionary zeal, like a young John Wesley, who thought it would be a grand idea to leave England and go preach the gospel to the Indians on a continent he didn't know among a people he didn't know to bring them a religion they'd never heard of. Because why bother trying to convert your next door neighbor? That would be boring! He would have made a great organist (aside from not liking instrumental music). As it is, he will probably be rolling over in his grave a week from Friday, when I give my next organ concert.

Last year, having just refurbished the console of our organ at Faith to fix some longstanding issues with the relay system and some very outmoded parts, and having added a few bells and whistles into the bargain, we moved the console out onto the floor (the first time that was possible) and I invited the entire church and a large chunk of the community to come celebrate this exciting instrument in all of its relieved post-operative glory.

It's an organ recital, remember? Wasn't likely to have people knocking each other down to get in like a Black Friday sale at Walmart. We advertised how much fun it was going to be. I did my best to convince people that organ recitals really weren't that scary. And a large chunk of the community actually showed up, practically filling the sanctuary (upwards of 250?). It was the first time I'd seen that many people at an organ recital in this town. Not that I've been to more than a handful, but it's usually 30 to 50 people. And that enthusiastic throng was on their feet at the end, demanding an encore. I hadn't prepared one so it is a good thing I can improvise! Somebody called out a hymn and I gave them an energetic rendition of "I'll Fly Away!"

That concert was right before Halloween and people kept asking if I was going to play scary organ music. Part of me found this annoying. After all, why does the organ always have to be associated with the Phantom of the Opera and haunted houses? People who attend our "traditional" services know that it speaks with many voices. It can be majestic, consoling, humorous, full of vigor and enthusiasm, somber, melancholy--only the strength of our imaginations limit the possibilities.

On the other hand, I thought, the organ does scary pretty darn well. Better than any other instrument, in fact. So if people want scary, well, let them have it. And while I'm at it, I can mention that none of the pieces on the program were actually written for Halloween and what it is about the organ that has always provoked such a thrill and a shudder in its hearers, and what a pagan holiday like Halloween is even still doing in a (post) Christian world. I'm making this concert sound like a symposium, aren't I?

Well, it won't be. Just like last year, it will be a blend of erudition and slapstick; entertainment and thought provocation, and a variety of music from several times and places, with a few tricks up my sleeve. Unlike last year there will not be ensemble pieces but I do have a small cast of helpers. And the lights will be a lot lower. Also the concert is on Friday evening this time, because there is nothing at all scary about Sunday afternoon.

By taking on a cliché, I get to explore it, and to have some fun with it. Besides, there is still that kid in me that enjoyed the thrill of the Toccata and Fugue which I played as a teenager. And what organist doesn't enjoy the sound of the pedal reeds and the manuals on full, the organ blazing away at the finale of the Passacaglia in c minor?

I think we'll all have a scary good time. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Prayer and Persistence

October 4th was the start of my 11th year as organist of Faith church. How did I celebrate? Some bombastic organ voluntary?

Actually I didn't play anything. At the 10:30 service, since it was World Communion Sunday, the choir director programmed a lively choral opening piece. When she asked about doing it at the start of the service, I said that I had had a failure of imagination this year and hadn't found anything I particularly wanted to play for that Sunday anyway, and it would be interesting to open the service by way of the choir instead of an organ piece for a change. So I got to sit on my hands and listen.

The choir anthem also happened to be unaccompanied, so aside from the hymns I had a pretty light week. As for anniversaries, I've got another one coming up soon anyhow.

That brings us up to last week. Our new pastors have given us a sheet with sermon information--topics and scripture lessons--for the entire semester. Jealous? This, however, does not mean it isn't subject to change.

On Monday, in fact, the lead pastor sent out an email to that effect. Since I am in the middle of preparation for an organ recital, I was rather proud of the fact that I had not only found suitable pieces for the voluntary and offertory, but had managed to record them for my internet audience on Friday. I was well ahead of the game. I felt a little bit like the guy in the parable of Jesus who build bigger barns to store all of his grain and congratulates himself on his success, which is ironic, considering that is the scripture being used at the end of the revised series a few weeks from now. Woe unto him!

The scripture that I had used as a reference for the week's musical selections, however, was now gone completely--not simply moved to another week--so now I have a nicely pre-recorded set of pieces for use some day in another context.

Monday morning, then, consisted of a few minutes of grumbling, several more minutes of scrambling, a sudden moment of inspiration, when I realized that a piece I had practiced and recorded this summer for the topic of prayer (which I had then assumed might be of use some time in January) would furnish a nice opening voluntary. Then I remembered another musical 'prayer' by Cesar Franck and found a Youtube video with such a piece. Within a half hour I had found it on IMSLP and downloaded and printed it; even practiced it once at home on the piano. It is from a collection called L'organist, which contains many short and simple pieces, of which this is one, and required next to no practice. There is another Franck piece called "Prayer" which I had been thinking of, his opus 20, longer and not extremely difficult, but far less simple, but again, I've got a recital to think about, and I did not want to spend very much time on music for church this week until I feel comfortable with the recital program, only three weeks away.

This is life in the church. It is often a scramble, and requires quick preparation. That unfortunately can mean loss of quality, since quantity and quality are often enemies (I still love Arthur Loesser's phrase about one piano composer having "all the fecundity of a low-grade organism"). I have never allowed the weekly need for new music, for topical music, or the working rhythms of collegues to force only music requiring little or no effort (and let's hear it for pastors who put out the week's liturgy and service information no later than Monday, not to mention a blueprint of the entire semester in advance!). There are various ways to keep standards high and survive the inevitable twists and turns and rapid adjustments necessary to serve in a church. It also helps when you've got flexible and communicative colleagues, willing to do what it takes to have an effective service. This week we managed a last minute inclusion of a very effective benediction response by calling an "audible"--there were several quick "team meetings" with everyone concerned and we figured out how and where to put the new piece right before the service began. Those occasions often turn out to be my favorite memories of worship at Faith, how we all came together and unselfishly made something happen that made the worship better. Those are times I can be proud, not of my own efforts, but of everyone around me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Whose Idea is Organ Registration?

At my Pipe Organ Encounter a few weeks ago, and again when a blog reader asked the question a few days ago, I was asked about the art of organ registration--that is, deciding which groups of pipes,and thus which sounds, to use when playing a piece on the pipe organ. The question was simply this: who decides? Does the composer tell the organist what to do and the organist simply follows a recipe, or does the organist get to/have to figure it out on his or her own?

And the answer is decided YES! (can you tell I've been to grad school? I want to have it both ways.)

The organ literature is vast. And each organ is unique--more so than other instruments. Those two things will help with the answer.

Most of the organ music written before the 19th century contains few, if any, instructions in the score indicating what stops to use. There is a single piece by Bach that I can recall that has a few (very unusual) indications, and several others that give the instruction "organo pleno" or "full organ" which basically means pull out all the stops. But most of the time specific instructions are lacking.

Of course, music from that time (18th century) doesn't usually contain dynamic or tempo markings, either. If the composer himself were playing the music that wouldn't be so much of a problem, and dynamic marks were less of an issue because keyboard instruments of the time couldn't vary their level of sound except by changing registration, which was hard to do while playing. As for the tempo, and the single dynamic decision you might still want to indicate at the beginning of the piece, the performer was expected to know what kind of piece was being played, and for what reason, and to make informed decisions as to what kinds of sounds would be appropriate. Beyond that, there was a certain degree of freedom. Bach is said to have surprised a lot of his contemporaries by the choices of stops he often used.

On the other hand, the French composers of the 18th century had quite a few rules for registration, and often put the one they wanted in the very title of the piece! An organist had to know which stops made up a "grand jeu" or a "cornet separable"--using your imagination was probably frowned upon in that situation.

Leave it to the French then, in the 19th century, when the organ was getting larger and more diverse, to start indicating specific registrations for each piece, and often to suggest registration changes within a piece (this was usually done with the aid of an assistant or two).

The problem there is that each organ is its own animal. The composer might have stops on his or her organ that a given performer doesn't have, in which case, it helps to find "synonyms"--to know which stops belong in which groups, and to find stops that more or less sound like the ones the composer has asked for.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, composers take different approaches to registrations of their works. Some are very specific. Others give general suggestions, and occasionally, none at all. But the variety of instruments require that the composer will have to leave at least some of the decision making to the taste of the performer. Sometimes even the same stops on one instrument won't balance as well on another. In nearly every case, there is some collaboration between the composer and the performer--even, sometimes, when they are the same person!

When it comes to deciding which manual to play something on, decisions are similarly left to the performer in many cases, and sometimes actually detailed in the music (which also requires specialized knowledge of your subject because different countries use different names for the manuals--a "great" in one country can be a "hauptwerk" in another). Since the Baroque period (Bach, etc.) organ music is usually written on three staves, with the pedal part on the third staff to make it clear what belongs to the pedal. But again, in older music, we find that there are only two staves, just as in piano music. There the pedal part was often placed on the second staff along with notes to be played on the manuals, and unless there was a special "ped" designation in front of the first note it would be partly guesswork to decide whether or not to play those notes on the pedal or in the hands. Usually the pedal would take the lowest note, and, if it is impossible to reach all of the notes on the bottom staff with your left hand, then you have a pretty good indication that the notes should be played with the pedal. Otherwise, you might not use the pedal at all.

Short answer: it depends.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Once the dust clears...


It's a word I use frequently--it appears on the banner of all 99 of Pianonoise's web pages, and I use it here to welcome you back for another "season"--that busy period from October through June in which I attempt not only to live like an artist--perform, compose, study, and learn--but to hold down several musical jobs and be part of a functioning household--all while writing blogs three times a week, and updating the accompanying website every Tuesday as well.

These blogs are often about what I've learned or are learning as I continue my artistic existence. Loosely speaking, on Mondays I write about a piece of music and the act of listening to it so that it really comes alive for the listener--and my audience then is everyone who is at all interested; no musical skills or background required. You are my webwide concert audience, and whatever I am working on--usually for the piano, but sometimes for the organ--I will share with you, most likely before I play it for a live audience someplace.

On Wednesday, I am generally concerned with fellow musicians, and wish to help them refine their skills by offering whatever advice I am able to give. Consider this a very informal teaching studio on Wednesdays.

Fridays revolve around music for the church, and may include more music for listening, or discuss some general aspect of church music making, or share something that happened in church last week. It is a bit of a grab bag.

Generally, these blogs are meant to enrich your experience rather than simply sharing mine, although it is inevitable that whatever I am working on at the time will furnish most of the fodder for what I write about.

This year the articles will also be more likely to take on a diary-like aspect, simply because Kristen and I are in transition, and will probably be moving to another state in the summer, which will mean starting over both in terms of jobs and of associates. She is finishing Medical School and looking for a residency program, a very complicated process that has already engaged us for the better part of a year and won't be completed until March. Although that has nothing to do with the subject matter of this blog--piano and organ music, the concert hall, the teaching studio, and the church--you may hear about it from time to time. Some of my fellow towners may want the occasional update, even though most have chosen to be in denial about the whole thing!

Three years ago this week this blog began, and it has become standard practice to take the summer off and begin blogging again in (mid) October. But already it feels like trying to hop on a moving train. I am in the midst of preparations for an organ recital that you will no doubt hear more about, and there are a number of things that have gone on at my church lately that might be of interest to fellow organists and non-organists alike. But then, Henry David Thoreau wrote "My life has been the poem I would have writ, but I could not both live and utter it."  Mr. Thoreau did manage to write quite a bit, however, besides really short poems. If even he didn't feel he could keep up, or adequately share the experience, what chance do I have?

Probably you wouldn't want to read it all anyway. You are busy living your own lives and trying valiantly to write your own poems. But I thank you for stopping by and reading, whenever you can, whatever of my broad subject matter interests you. I'll be here three days a week from now through June. Let's enjoy each other's company.