Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ghosts of Christmases Past, part two

Then there was the year I played 25 verses of Silent Night in a twelve hour period.

It was my first year at Faith UMC, and Christmas Eve happened to be on a Saturday. The Worship and Life Center wasn't finished yet (leaving a large part of the church with only plastic to protect from the outside air--not very convincingly, which is why the piano was getting tuned four times a year back then). The Fusion ("contemporary") service was still jammed into our much smaller South Sanctuary (capacity 150?) and for Christmas Eve there would have to be two of those to accommodate the surge of persons. That meant that there would be four Christmas Eve services, at 3, 5, 7 and 11pm. Each service was about 90 minutes, and of course, concluded with the singing of Silent Night with the candles. We sang all four verses each time, in addition to the introductory verses while everyone lit their candles.

You are still wondering how I made it to 25.

Since Christmas Day happened to be a Sunday, we had a single Christmas Day service (usually we have three on Sunday morning). At it, for no known reason on the planet, our pastor decided we should sing Silent Night. Again. I am not a vindictive man, nor am I Catholic, but I do hope he gets at least a few minutes in purgatory for that.

That was in 2005. In 2011, the phenomenon repeated itself. Christmas was again on a Sunday. However, this time we only had three Christmas Eve services (the Worship and Life Center can hold close to 600 people). Although 1,000 people come through our doors on Christmas Eve, during all the rush, all the hurry-up-let's-get-to-the-silent-night-part, and despite three opportunities, nobody lit my candle during the singing of said carol. I needed both my hands to play the organ (in the dark) so I couldn't do it. I complained about this the next day when someone noticed my unlit candle still on the organ console. So, as three friends sat with me up in the organ "loft" one of them lit the candle with his lighter and we watched it burn during the entire Christmas Day service, which I filled with good organ music despite the exhaustion, because I like going to church on Christmas Day, darn it, and wish, now that the feast has actually arrived, we Protestants didn't all scatter to the winds, and not show up in church for a few weeks. I was tired, but it was a good service. One of the ones I'll always remember. Friends, music, joy. Blessed tiredness.

Also, our church mouse, Charlie, sitting and warming himself by the glow of the candle....

And here's the postlude I played on that Christmas day, from an anthology of Renaissance music of suspicious editorage. The piece is by Gabrielli, and I wonder whether it was originally written for organ (I suspect not). But it is still of good cheer.....

Gabrielli: Fantasia on the Sixth Tone

Monday, December 28, 2015

Ghosts of Christmases (slightly) past, part one

Will you indulge me a little while I walk down memory lane?

Folks who come here looking for musical content must find this somewhat strange, but as I mentioned at the top of the year, although this blog is not a diary, it does try to see things in a larger context. Music is a part of life, and the author's own life is the one on which he can speak with the most authority. Also, as the second semester rolls on, there will be more of this memory sharing, as a major transition awaits us. A new city, a new job...a presently uncertain future. But I'll get to that later. Before Christmas goes back to the attic I wanted to visit a few of my favorites from Christmases past in Champaign, Illinois, at the church I've served for over ten years. This was probably my last one. I'll start with it. And, it looks like I'll conclude with it, too. But more on that later. For now, Advent....

Probably my favorite moment came at rehearsals for the Christmas pageant. We had one of those, this year. The All-Church Christmas Drama came to an end (or a haitus) with the departure of our Associate pastor, who ran it, and in its place we resurrected a program for the children in the afternoon. It had all the hallmarks of a typical pageant: kids dressed as angels, shepherds, one dressed as a sheep (very cute); one, I think, was a cow. One of the angels was very young and very unhappy, which is quite a sight (and a major blow to one's theology). During the rehearsal, the children took turns reading scriptures, sometimes in a tag-team fashion. One of the girls apparently kept finding the pages messed up when it was her turn, so when the young man at the opposite lecture read "this is what the prophet said" she returned "Everything's out of order!"

Which is exactly what the prophets said, if you want to know. Of course, many churches like to forget about all that and just read the handful of verses that set up the coming of Jesus. Prophetic greatest hits, you know. But this little girl had it right on. Everything WAS a mess. Still is. Of course, what distinguished the prophets from uncle Phil at the dining room table was that they wrote it all down, often in exquisite poetry, and they specifically targeted corruption of the people in power. Not those other people--our people. Which didn't make them all that popular. But I digress.

Besides the children as sheep there was a bird in a T-shirt shop that was very entertaining. It bopped to the music, when it wasn't squawking away. I went there to get my wife a T-shirt for Christmas. What? Don't look at me like that. It was a very cool shirt. Custom made. And relevant. I sure she will have loved it by the time this goes to press.

Then there was the fun of jamming on a few Christmas carols with our "resident" jazz saxophonist Robert Brooks, which you can find on last Monday's blog. I don't officially speak jazz, or maybe I have an accent (!) but I can improvise and I know a few extended chords--since we didn't have a lead sheet (we were going out of the hymnal) I made up the chords on the fly and we listened to each other and made it work. A cool experience, and probably something you weren't expecting if you've been listening to all the baroque organ music I've been posting on my website. But Christmas is always full of varied experiences.

Children singing, that's another one. I got to watch the CU-symphony rehearse with the Central Illinois Children's Chorus. That's conductor Stephen Alltop cueing them in. He rehearsed with us alone an hour earlier, jammed into one of the Krannert Center's glorified shoe closets (somehow we got all 50 kids in there, plus a few adults, a conductor, and a piano.) I'm used to being in tight corners, anyway. It's been part of the season since I arrived in 2005. So has the Children's concert the previous week. I couldn't take a picture during the concert, so you'll have to imagine kids on the risers, but I did get one of the setup because I couldn't resist the hilarity of where I would be sitting--directly behind the tree, with the occasional arm sticking out, perhaps.

Pianists always show their best side to the audience!

The church choir always performs a variety of interesting things at Christmas, and the community Chorale has a big New Year's Eve concert, which keeps the rehearsals (extra long) going during the busy season. We'll hit the stage at the Virginia at 7pm on Dec. 31 for what will probably be my last time. I'll miss the Mighty Wurlitzer. (remember, Michael: don't look down!)

 It doesn't look like much of a drop from here, but if you look down into the pit you'll see what I mean.

I got a chance to play a gig with our funk band, "Timezone" for a benefit concert during the month of December, as well as making merry with our "Fusion" band over the weeks of Advent. There has been a little Christmas Chaos at our "contemporary" services this year, courtesy of a defective soundboard. Look for a Christmas special to come out in a few years called "The Soundman who saved Christmas." It will be based on a true story. We've lived it. 

I'm sure I'm leaving things out, but the season isn't over as I write this, and besides, you and I both have some things to do so I'll leave you to yours. Have a happy holiday season and a wonderful New Year.

That holiday music program at is still up, in case you missed it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How did he do that?

Think of this like a "making of" documentary. Programs that let you go behind the scenes and watch how they made a particular movie have become quite popular. It's almost de rigueor to include one with every DVD. And considering last week's Christmas improvisations went straight to video...

I'm going to do my level best not to seem like a magician next year when we talk more about improvisation. It isn't really all that mysterious. And it operates on several basic musical principles. But of course, it helps if you understand them. And you have to know them well enough to put them in place immediately. Otherwise, it is called composition: creating new music by writing a little, thinking, pacing around, rejecting some ideas and developing others. That's composition. A reflective activity. The basic difference between composition and improvisation is that you don't get to change you mind. You have to make your decisions in real time.

I happen to do both, however, and they do inform each other. Different speeds, same process.

Let's get a quick review of the handful of carols I posted last week and I'll give you a succinct approximation of what was going on in my head during some of them:

Go Tell it on the Mountain

This is one of the last carols I did. It was a Tuesday afternoon; I was tired, and I just kept the tape rolling while I reeled off about 5 carols, which was a good thing because it turned out to be the only time this year I've gotten a chance to do that. One thing I've noticed about all of them is that they tend to be more technically contained than sometimes; I wasn't feeling as confident, I suppose. But keeping to a less ambitious series of harmonies (you'll notice the bass part simply rocking up and down) and leaving a jazzier rendition aside (this one's very tame rhythmically) left me with a chance for a more songful melodic line. As I've often reminded my students, many pieces of music have one very strong and two rather weak musical elements. If the rhythm is involved, the melody may be less so. The harmony might be as well. Or two of the three will work together. In this case, I've done what arrangers seldom do with pre-existing pieces (get used to it) and added moving 8ths to the melody, so that the tune is in continuous but unhurried motion. The original tune is almost an outline for the melodic turns. I didn't do much beyond inherit the structure as it stood in the hymnal, but note the additional measure at 2:03 after the quiet chorus and leading into the louder final repetition of the chorus. It felt like I needed another measure to get there. That quiet chorus comes out of a verse beginning "down in the lowly manger"--yes, the text gave me some ideas as well. Though somewhat understated in this setting, the angel chorus, and the star shining forth also make an appearance.

Angels We have heard on High

This one is the closest to the untouched hymn. About the only thing I've done differently (besides the occasional reharmonization) is to add some melodic touches to the glorias. A long time ago I served as a church pianist in a place with an organist--we played duets on all the hymns and because the organ usually took the melody and all the necessary other parts (!) I spent much of my time creating filigree and descants.  Of course, at some point we'll have a discussion about when to leave something well enough alone, and this could be an exhibit. It is Christmas, and if you'd like to hear a carol in its pristine original (or something like it) this may be one. But not quite.

The Friendly Beasts

This is one of the silliest carols I know, but I know well a very silly person who likes it. You'll note that the melody, alone, is ornamented in a very strange fashion (are the animals drunk?). Then, they've formed a college glee club and are singing in four-part harmony, or something.

The concept I want to point out here is the law of economy of motion. In the material world, if you were playing pool, and should you shoot a cue ball into another ball, the first one will stop, but the second will continue with the force of the first one. The energy has been transferred from one to the other. In music, if one of the voices stops -- ie, holds a long note--notice that the other voices rush in to fill the void. This type of attention to various voices makes my improvisations sound contrapuntal (and is, frankly, something I don't hear in the improvisations of other people most of the time).

Then there is a verse with the melody in the left hand, and right hand arpeggios swirling about. This can be tricky for a physically inept clod like me, but I've had plenty of practice playing for church services like our 5:15 Saturday service, where the same handful of hymns are requested by the congregation each week, and in order not to be bored, I try to play them using a variety of techniques. This is one.

Why the cows chose to sing their voice in open fifths I'm not sure. Ask them.

Next come the sheep. There is a short reference to Bach's "Sheep may safely graze" in the intro to that one.

The doves get to do their thing up in the stratosphere. Range is another element we can have fun with here.

It's time for the final chorus--loud, obnoxious, and with a hint of Angels we have heard on high before in the final chord.

See, improvisation doesn't have to be serious.

If you are wondering how on earth I could manage all that in real time, the short answer is experience. I've been doing it for a long time. I have a large stockpile of technical and musical ideas from which to draw, and the chances are even pretty good I've improvised on the same hymns or carols before, and might even remember the outlines of what I did with them the last time so I can either try it again or strike out in a new direction. It is a lot all at once, but we'll unpack all of this in January so if you are new to improvisation I'll give you some of these tools. They'll eventually build on one another.
just a reminder: the homepage at has a ton of seasonal music for listening enjoyment--and it will be up until after Epiphany, for you busy musicians who are too busy making your own music to listen to someone else's.

Also, this is my last chance to wish my fellow organists a Merry Christmas Eve tomorrow, and good luck and much enjoyment at all of your Christmas Eve Services, Midnight Masses, etc. God bless you all.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" for saxophone and piano

One of the best things about improvising is that you can do it with friends.

For the past two years our congregation has been blessed with the presence of jazz saxophonist Robert Brooks, who came to the University of Illinois to get his Master's degree, then stayed on to do a Doctorate.

Yesterday, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we played this classic hymn, " O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Enjoy!

Robert Brooks, saxophone
Michael Hammer, piano

just a reminder: the homepage of contains close to three hours of Christmas music for piano and organ through the holidays. Happy listening!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Return of the Shepherds

It's a year later and the shepherds are back on the hillside, tending their sheep. Last year I wrote them a nice ten part series having to do with pastorales, musical representations of the bucolic countryside and their own romantic, if smelly and dangerous, occupation. Twelve months later, they are still doing their thing. Same shepherds, same sheep.

Is that the same hill? Man is this a low budget production. I knew I kept seeing the same rocks over and over.

There they stand, subaltern as ever, keeping watch over their flocks by day and night. And we've got another way to let them appear as unpaid extras in our Christmas story. It's a nice, traditional, German carol. The words, translated, go like this:

While by the sheep, we watched at night.
Glad tidings brought and angel bright.
How great our joy! (Great our joy!)
Joy, joy, joy! (Joy, joy, joy!)
Praise we the Lord in heaven on high!
(Praise we the Lord in heaven on high!)

In case you were wondering about how that goes in German, it runs thusly:

Als ich bei meinen Schafen wacht
Ein Engel mir die Botschaft bracht.
Des bin ich froh, (bin ich froh)
Froh, froh, froh, (o, o, o)
|: Benedicamus Domino. :|

German and Latin, actually.

Since the acoustics of the hills are quite reverberent, this carol has become known alternately as "the echo carol" (besides being called "While By the Sheep" and "How Great our Joy")--I was stupid enough to type it first as "While By our sheep" but of course the shepherds don't own the sheep; they are there to look after somebody else's. Probably a big sheep conglamerate.

Anyhow, we can leave them alone now that we've had our look, and listen to this nice carol, which I've set for organ. If anybody wants the score I can send it to you--it's a bit more challenging than last Friday's selection, though there is no improvisation required.


While By the Sheep

Last year's shepherd series can be found nicely indexed on the blog--just scroll down until you find it in the right hand column.

Don't forget, the homepage now has two-and-a-half hours of Christmas music for piano and organ for your listening pleasure. It will be up through Epiphany.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Improvisation season

Does the Christmas season ever feel just thrown together to you?

Obviously there are the pageants. Not enough practice because the kids didn't show up half the time and don't really know what they're doing; also, many of them are too young to be able to do anything but just look dumbfounded and cute. Is it surprising that our species continues to survive? That sheep did look really adorable, though. And the kids did more or less know how to sing their songs this year.

The concerts are often the same way. While leaving the rest of the year to professionals, at Christmas everybody has to get in on the act, and God bless them all, but amateurs frequently don't seem to be much for preparation. They don't think the professionals need any practice, so why should they? If only they knew.

I don't mean to sound like a grinch. We're all busy, overbooked, overloaded, and under-prepared this time of year, and that includes those of us who do this for a living. The difference, besides knowing how to prepare when it is at all possible to do so, being that some of us have gotten better at being able to fly by the seat of our pants and not make that too obvious.

What I'm getting at is that improvisation is not simply an art, with a long, serious, tradition. It is not simply a way to stupefy people into admiration of where all that music just suddenly came from. It is a survival skill. Being able to sit at an instrument and suddenly create music with no preparation whatsoever because it is suddenly required of you or you had no time to practice--is a real gift. But like any gift, you have to purchase it first. That takes time.

Over the last several Christmases I've actually managed to play a lot of written out repertoire. This usually works because I practice it in the summer. The recordings I post during Advent were most likely made in July.

But I still improvise during December. For a start, it is very difficult to find time to capture a creative impulse if you have to find the time to put it all on paper. I still have a few pages around here somewhere with only two measures of music on them--ideas I had for settings of Christmas carols that I tried to write down while I was walking down the hall to the next service or rehearsal. That's as far as they got. So a recorded improvisation, while it may be crude, can be a good start on something I'll write down later. And if I was having a good day, I may be able to simply write what I hear without editing anything.

There are other good reasons for the match of December with improvisations. Beside the high demand for a lot of music for a number of different occasions, even before those demands materialized in my life, I improvised, even as a teenager. I've been doing it now for a long time--for a while, every year I would make a series of improvised arrangements of carols. The first year was 1987, the year my grandmother died (see Dec. 7 blog). For some reason, Christmas seems like a portal in time from year to year as I reflect on Christmases past and present, and ponder mankind's uncertain future. Dickens' ghosts need something to do, after all.

And improvisation in general is a good way to truly connect with musical art. It is a way to THINK musically; to try ideas, and to digest the musical universe swirling around you, to put some of it into your own words, to converse in music. And you can connect in the moment to what is happening, musically and otherwise, all around you. There are a hundred good reasons for doing it. I'll be sharing some of them next semester as we dive into the subject and swim around. Just remember, no musical gift exists in a vacuum. Improvisation  isn't just about improvisation. It is about (and requires, and strengthens) a number of other musical gifts. We'll get into that, too. For now, I leave you with a tiny example of the sort of thing I might do at a Christmas party, or a Christmas service, or a Christmas concert. It's a short improvisation on the carol "Go, Tell it on the Mountain." It was right after lunch, I was tired, less than ambitious, but still this very contained, simple setting has something interesting about it. And it's not like the way I've ever played it before. Like any great story, there is something different about it each time you approach it. The same can be true of a musical source: a hymn, a tune, a folk song, a carol. What did it say today? Or last Friday? Or two weeks from now?

Have a Listen.

And if you're in a listening mood, the homepage at now has the annual Christmas program. Some two-and-a-half (?) hours or piano and organ music you can dial up anytime through January 7th. Enjoy! and Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Music in Space

I'd like to do something special for you this Christmas. I'm going to take you up to the pipe room.

If you're not an organist yourself, you've probably never been up in one. Even if you are, you may not have spent a whole lot of time up there.

Careful on the ladder! This one's not bolted down.

By the way, don't tell our building manager we're doing this. He'll be worried about the liability issues. I'm not even sure whether our insurance covers virtual falls during virtual tours on the internet.

Great! We made it. Also that's what these pipes go to. The Great! ....nevermind.

We are surrounded by pipes. Careful! There are over a thousand of them, and some of them are pretty small; still, you can do quite a bit of damage to them if you fall on one. And to yourself, of course. No wonder we don't give tours regularly.

The reason we are up here is so we can get a little perspective. The piano is a pretty terrific instrument, but it doesn't take up three rooms like our organ does. And despite our organ's being on the large side of small, as pipe organs go, it has some 1200 pipes. Now, that takes up a lot of room. And when you are up here, you really get a feel for the size of the instrument. In fact, it is all around you. That console downstairs is only where the decisions are made. The sound comes from up here.

A year ago, when we got our playback system, I got to do something I couldn't do before. I could listen to myself play from somewhere other than the organ bench. So I made my way up here to listen from inside the instrument. It's quite something. And--aren't you lucky--I spent half an hour dragging my recording equipment up into the pipe room so I could make some recordings from in here as well.  I'm going to share one of them (there are some others we can get to later).

This is a nice little Canzona (90 seconds) by Franz Tunder (1614-67) who was organist at St. Mary's in Lubeck before Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach traveled so far to hear. First I'll play it for you the way you would hear it in the sanctuary.


Now, as it happens, I was able to record the very same performance from a wholly different angle. Notice the difference in sound. For one thing, it is dryer, there is no resonance, the pipes are close by, and you will distinctly be able to hear some of them coming from one or the other of your speakers--assuming you have two. I hope you are listening to this in stereo, because otherwise you will lose the effect.

In the opening section, it is just a single flute stop playing, so all of the notes will be coming out of one speaker. (the one on your left, I think. The other speaker is making blower noises because that's the side where the blower is located, in case you wondered what was making all that non-musical racket).

But in the next part of the piece, an even more curious thing happens. Although this is the part where I add several more stops and the piece becomes much louder, I've closed the shutters, which closes off the pipes in the front--the ones you can see from the sanctuary--from the ones back in the pipe room. That's at least 3/4 of the organ that the congregation never sees. The reason they are behind shutters is so you can make them louder or softer depending on whether or not you have opened or closed the shutters in front of them. However, we are now BEHIND the shutters, which makes things sound rather backwards.

You see, the foundation stops--the main stops of the organ, which are expected to have some volume--those are placed out in front, and are not able to be quieted by closing the shutters. But the rest of the pipes are affected by the shutters. Now, here, the stops that would normally be loudest are actually on the other side of the shutters. The ones that you will hear best are the ones in the back of the pipe room, nearest to us. It actually sounds like I am using a completely different registration to play the piece now, but that is only because we are listening to the organ from the opposite direction!


Cool, huh?

By the way, this was recorded on a hot day in July, and if it sounds to you like one of the pipes was leaking some air, it sounded like that to me, too. I've think we've gotten that fixed by now. The tuner was just here a couple of weeks ago.

Sometimes it is nice to here things from a different angle and to realize how differently they can sound. If only humans could do that more often!

for more perspectives, you can check out my recent podcast interview with host Vidas Pinkevicius on the "Secrets of Organ Playing" blog.

Also, coming tomorrow to the homepage of three hours of piano and organ music for the holidays. It will be up through Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Music for Gaudete Sunday

This Sunday is "Gaudete" Sunday in the Roman Catholic church. If, like me, you weren't aware of this until recently (perhaps as recently as the reading of this blog), it might be because:

a) you are Protestant
b) you are Orthodox
c) you are Catholic but not very observant (that can be taken a few different ways)
d) you are anybody who hasn't gone to mass during Advent, including persons of different religious persuasions who really weren't planning to do so to begin with!
e) you are a tree sloth in Armenia

Does that cover everybody?

Many Protestants do not practice a very complex church year. In this "low church" model, There is Christmas, and there is Easter, and then there is practically everything else. On the other end of the scale, which tends to be the practice of Anglicans and Catholics, every Sunday has its own name, its own function, its own feast, etc. Being Methodist means our church tends toward the low end of the scale, but with occasional pastoral nods toward more church events like Ascension Sunday and Trinity Sunday. And then, they have an organist who finds history interesting, as well as having a natural curiosity about the customs of others. But the occasional liturgical accident sometimes helps, too.

Advent, as practiced by the church, is a period of waiting. It is also a period of penitence and more somber observance. Sound like Lent? It is, actually. And here is what I've found interesting. Making people wait and watch, reflect and wait, is pretty counter cultural. It takes a discipline that you wouldn't expect to find in 21st century American society. I can't speak for Europe, but I imagine it's a little out of place there, too. Waiting for things is not in a capitalist's vocabulary. Nobody tells you not to come into their store right away for the best deals of the millenium happening RIGHT NOW!

But waiting patiently and penitently appears to have been considered somewhat burdensome many centuries ago, too. Suppressing some of the most joyful parts of the mass, doing without pleasures like the playing of the organ--apparently it was too much for too long. So, just as in Lent, a little more than halfway through, the church lightens those burdens for a week, allows some of these things back into the mass, and we have a Sunday of rejoicing. Gaudete! Rejoice!

Where it gets more interesting is that the series our pastors are using to preach on (courtesy of a major Methodist website), using themes from the four advent candles, just happens to line up with this older tradition. In fact, I learned about it while trying to figure out which order those pesky advents candles were supposed to go in. Four Sundays in Advent, and four candles. Is it hope, joy, peace love? Love, joy, hope, peace? Joy, peace, hope, peace again? argh.

Short answer: there isn't an "official" order. I assumed if anybody had nailed this down, it would be the Catholic church. And they haven't. But the third candle is Joy.


I mentioned this to our choir director, because she had chosen none other than a modern arrangement of the 15th century chant itself for the choir to sing this week. "Gaudete!" for Gaudete Sunday. She thought that was pretty cool, and called it a "God thing" which means she hadn't planned it that way. It just happened. Of course, the curriculum was responsible for getting her part way there. But the choosing of the piece "Gaudete" itself....I can't explain that one.

Since the choir doesn't sing at the 8 am service, I have to have something to play in their slot. I've come up with an organ solo version of "Gaudete." One of the things that I like about the organ is the way it is so many different instruments. A couple of months ago I shared music from my organ concert. Much of it was full-on all-the-stops-out glorious sounding. But this piece is just the opposite. Using my favorite 4-foot flute stop all by itself, the organ sounds like a recorder consort. It is answered by the 8-foot krummhorn alone. Another Reniassancish ensemble sound.

After a few rounds of that, it is time for some verses. But there is no music for verses provided in the 15th century source. It's customary to use another tune from a period source to cover the verses. I had a different idea.

That's why, for organists reading this, I'm providing the score I whipped together at an insane hour last night, and giving you a chance to do what I did. Improvise.

That's right; I didn't provide any music for the verses either!

If you are following the score you'll see how it works, though you can hear it on the recording also. First the flutes play. They are answered by the krummhorns. Then the flutes. Krummhorns. Then an extended solo. Then the krummhorns. Each of the four verses is a spot where I improvised a Medieval sounding solo over a drone accompaniment. It's not so difficult. Basically you use the notes of the scale--we're in A dorian, which is all the white keys except F# instead of F natural. Hold the A down with your left hand and move up and down in expressive and dancelike ecstasy, then change the left hand note to G (right hand continues), then F (natural) and finally E as your solo comes to a close. If you haven't improvised before (and we haven't talked about it yet on this blog) this isn't a bad introduction to the sport.

Each of those solos is answered by the written out krummhorn chorus, which I varied a little at whim, but basically played as written. Then for the final chorus, I doubled the flute stop and the krummhorn by coupling the manuals together for the grand finale.

Non-organists and organists alike: I hope you enjoy the recording. Rejoice!


and for the organists, here is the score.  I'd love to hear your performances, if you are able to record them. They will all be unique, courtesy of a score that calls for your own improvisations as an integral part of the music.

score here

(update: the 12/10 version had some errors in it--haste will do that, unfortunately. The version linked to above is from 12/12 and has been corrected. My apologies)


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

organ registration survival tips part five

This is the last in a series of five articles discussing organ registration for beginning organists or pianists becoming organists. It is an introduction to the stops on an organ. The first four parts can be had here: 
  (part one)  (part two)  (part three)  (part four)
It's time to introduce you to some of my favorite stops. We've already discussed the basic ones--flutes, foundations, and strings--all of which "speak" at regular pitch level (8) or up an octave (4) or two (2). My point in starting with these is that you could get in less trouble by using them, but along the way we started to experiment with them, using them in different combinations, and found that there are a number of fascinating sound combinations that might result, some of which would be useful in hymn playing, and others for solo work. We'll flesh this out later, but we haven't finished learning about new types of stops yet.

More recently, we started with those "colorful" stops. These have something other than whole numbers below their name because the pipes aren't an even 8 or 4 or 2 feet tall (that is, the lowest pipe in each rank is 8 or 4 or 2 feet tall) and they don't speak at a regular pitch or at the octave.

First came the mixture stops, a compound stop consisting of at least two pipes sounding together for each note played--at pitch, and a fifth higher, and often adding the octave and the octave-and-a-fifth higher than that (if you have a four-rank mixture) to give the organ its majestic, full-throated sound, provided you don't try using it by itself but instead have a full compliment of foundation stops pulled as well. These are the stops with the roman numerals on them to indicate how many pipes are going to sound each time we play a note.

There are two families of stops left. One is the mutation stop--don't you just love the title? I'd like to see some organist horror movies sometime with titles like "The tierce from Tabago" and "Tales of the Nazard." How about "Night of the Sesquialtera" or "It came from Larigot?"

If you didn't find this at all funny, you are well on your way to becoming an organist. Organists, it is well known, do not have a sense of humor. If you have one, it will only get in the way. Have it removed as soon as possible (this is known as a humorectomy). I am trying to suppress mine, but it slips out every once in a while.

In any event, a mutation stop does something really interesting. Try playing middle C using only a flute stop. Now, remove that, and play the same note using only a mutation stop.

It isn't the same note!

That's because a mutation stop sounds the harmonic of the pitch but not the fundamental. I'm sure we'll get around to talking about this a lot later on, so if you don't know what I just said, don't worry about it. Basically, if your stop has a fraction under it, and you play a C, you will hear either a G or an E an octave above instead. Mutation stops are the ones you are least likely to use in general service playing, but, if you combine them with 8 foot flute stops, you can get a really nice sound for a solo line. If you have a piece of music (not for the congregation to sing) with a solo melody which you can play on one manual, and an accompaniment you can play on the other, you can use the mutation-flute combination for your solo line and a soft flute stop alone on the other and sound like you are really an organist. Here's an example:

Buxtehude: Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan jam

Doesn't that sound beautiful?

The last type of stop to discuss is called a reed. Now up to this point every family of stop has had ones basic characteristic which was that it was a pipe which produces sound by having air blown through it, and the column of air made the sound. No moving parts--just a pipe. There are lots of variations--some pipes are made of wood, most of metal. Some are capped on the end, some have holes in the sides, some have little chimneys on top--all of these things affect the sound. But in the end, these pipes have nothing inside them. They are all known as flue pipes (that's not a typo, there is no T in flue--think chimney flue).

A reed pipe is a different matter. It has a reed inside that vibrates, just like in a clarinet or oboe. Unlike the mixture or mutation stops, reed stops speak at regular pitch or an octave above (8 or 4 foot). But they sound quite different. The obvious suspects are stops that are named after reed instruments of the orchestra. But your organ may well have a 'trumpet' stop--which is also a reed stop in an organ, though it is a brass instrument in a band. That's simply because of how the sound is produced--with a vibrating reed. It will still sound like a trumpet.

My favorite reed instruments are the posaune stops (in English, "trombone") on the pedals, which are wonderfully loud and either hugely majestic or terribly funny, depending on how they are used!

Now you know all the different types of organ stops. And you should be able to figure out which ones on your organ belong to which group. The real art of registration consists in combining these possibilities. There may be literally thousands of possible combinations on your organ.

At some point, we'll want to stop just trying to survive and start being creative. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, actually--creativity can really help a church organist survive. Being able to create music on the fly in whole or in part is a great way to make some of your deadlines. And the ability to quickly digest new materials leads not only to less of a panic when you have to play a lot of music every week, but a sense of discovery and curiosity and joy. This is also true of a topic like organ registration. It is true of anything, from hymn playing to choosing repertoire to accompanying the choir. All this means that this is the last post about organ registration with the word "survival" in it. (We'll see what that does to my blog numbers; the last four weeks every time I post one of these organ registration survival posts there is a spike in my readership). I want to spend the next couple of weeks on some basic principles of organ registration with a few hints for experimentation and creativity. We'll get back to the topic at a more advanced stage later in the year. I hope you've learned enough about the organ to feel comfortable with the various stops and at least some of the buttons.
Don't forget to check the homepage of each week. This week's featured recording holds a hint about the next topic: improvisation.

Monday, December 7, 2015


2015 has been a year with several anniversaries of a centenary sort. At the top of the pianonoise recording catalogue, for instance, sit several pieces that were composed in 1915. Two of these are sets of Christmas Carols composed (adapted, really) by Bela Bartok. Bartok captured thousands of songs sung by Romanian peasants by going out and recording them, and then fashioned some of them into suites for piano. He did the same for a set of dances, also in 1915.

Then there is "Nola," a little novelty piece I played for a New Year's Eve concert a couple of years ago. If you listen carefully you can hear the pedal squeak--the piano had just gotten back from the theater (we moved it for the concert) and was still getting over the shock. Although now I realize it was probably because the pianist's shoes were wet.

These pieces could not be farther apart--the songs of Romanian peasants and the song of American entertainment, but they were both born in 1915, when the piano on which I recorded them was already four years old.

But there is a more personal anniversary. October 20th of this year would have been my maternal grandmother's 100th birthday. This was the same day in which, 30 years ago, I played my first service in church, an anniversary I mentioned on this blog. I was not aware until my mother reminded me that my grandmother's birthday was the same day.

It is strange that, for some reason, I was not good at remembering my grandmothers' birthdays (did we not celebrate them?) the way I did and still do remember the birthdays of other members of my family. I have, however, always remembered the day she died. It was December 7th, 1987. Exactly 28 years ago today. From cancer.

I was only 16 at the time, and I remember mainly a feeling of sullen frustration as the news got worse and worse, knowing that things were not well, that there was nothing I could do about it, and that life just wasn't fair and too bad for you (and everyone else). Apparently it was a relapse, and not only wasn't I told about the first episode (too young?) I probably wasn't warned until things were already pretty bad. I don't remember the decline lasting very long.

Before all this, there was Grandma. I liked her. Given that most of my time with her was spent as a child, this makes sense. Simple pronouncements like this are natural. What I liked about her is perhaps more complicated.

Some of it had to be typical grandma stuff. When you went to Grandma's house, there was candy in the glass bowls on the end tables. She had pads of paper from the place she had worked that you could draw things on, and, when you flipped the pages, animate them. She had army men--lots and lots of them. There were at least a hundred, which made it more fun, and allowed for a full battalion of men as they attempted to take the couch. She had dominoes--a lot of them, too, and if you managed to get them all set up, you could get a pretty impressive run as they all tumbled over in intricate ways. What, did you think we used them to actually play the game dominoes? Who'd want to do that?

You got to play with things that weren't at your house when you went to Grandma's, and this came in handy when everybody was talking about adult stuff (booorrrinnngg!). But she was an interactive grandmother, too. Culturally she was of the same stuff as my mother (Middle American rural Presbyterian), so we went to church together, and she liked hymns. She also liked it when I played the piano.

Actually, she was pretty proud of her grandson. It is a nice touch that my organist debut happened to be on her birthday. I now have a vague recollection of my mother pointing this out in 1985.

Grandma came to visit our house too, fairly often.  She would sit in the living room and listen to me play, sometimes requesting songs. My parents did this, too, and I saved them a lot of money in sheet music by playing everything by ear. (Well, not everything. I was taking lessons, and we did have books of music, it's just that most of their favorites weren't in the books.)

She must have spent plenty of her time listening to me goofing around, or rather, improvising, at the piano as well, since I often got bored playing pieces for my lessons. Usually she didn't ask what I was playing and I didn't tell. It is perhaps appropriate that some of my early improvisations that have been preserved on cassette tape (which means I have no equipment left to play them on!) are a group of Christmas carols, arranged in my own unique manner as a 1987 Christmas album gift for my parents. While the eventually 45 minute album was still in progress, I rushed a tape off to the hospital, and this was the last music Grandma ever heard.

Before that occurred the incident that will lead us finally to this morning's recording. I was doing my usual job of screwing around at the piano, only this time when I finished, Grandma wanted to know what that lovely piece was. I had to admit sheepishly that it was a group of variations on the tune "Mary had a little lamb." My mother, out in the kitchen, found it pretty hysterical that my grandmother hadn't recognized the tune.

So, three decades later, I've improvised another set for you, in various and sundrie styles--whatever came into my head on a distracted Tuesday as I prepared to head off for the Thanksgiving holiday. That makes it no great musical edifice, but I hope you'll enjoy its quirky effulgences anyway.

improvisation:  Little Lamb Variations

Friday, December 4, 2015

More secrets revealed!

 This past Sunday I was on the podcast over at Secrets of Organ Playing talking with its host, Vidas Pinkevicius. It was a wide ranging conversation, dealing with subjects like organ improvisation, what motivates an artist, blogging, organ registration, and so on. The hour was over in a hurry!

The pull quote that Vidas used from the interview, in which I basically said that I reason I do what I do--blogging, teaching, sharing music--was just that I felt compelled to do it, reminded me of a quote I have on my website (on the About page). Most of my pages have quotes on them at the top from some very diverse sources, and this one comes from a tightrope walker named Phillipe Pettit. He was once interviewed by Stephen Colbert, and was asked what made him do what he did. He said:

It’s because I have no choice, and I think a true artist should always have that as an answer. If you know why you paint, well, maybe you’re not driven by painting and waking up and hav[ing] to face the empty canvas. If you don’t know, it’s much better than if you know.

We also spent time on the power of storytelling--in music and otherwise. I'm thankful that many of my new readers this week have been telling me their stories. I'm interested in hearing about your interests, too. This blog covers a wide range of topics, from concert preparation and music to various aspects of playing both the piano and the organ. In a couple of weeks I'm going to tackle the topic of improvisation.

You can find the interview [here]. That link will take you to Vidas' soundcloud page which has many other episodes from organists, professors, organ builders, recording engineers--pretty much every aspect of the art and craft of organ playing is covered. And I have to say from listening to several of the other episodes that it puts me in pretty exalted company.

I hope you find it interesting and useful. And if you also have plenty of holiday concerts and rehearsals to play this weekend, good luck and enjoy. And for my European readers, Happy St. Nicholas Day on Sunday (or whenever you celebrate it).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

oops! (organ registration survival tips part four)

Before we get on with our primer on organ registration I thought I would make you feel better about any mistakes you may make by admitting a few I have made myself. These always make good stories for later, particularly if you tell them dramatically and with humor. Remember that when you are playing in front of people and something doesn't go as planned. Think of it as an investment in a funny future. It isn't fun now, but wait until later...

If you've been reading this series, you may recall that one of the first things I told beginner organists or pianists turned organists to get familiar with was the crescendo pedal. There is a good reason for that.

I was in my first position as an organist, still in high school. It was a little Methodist church in a suburb near my home. The preacher there asked me to play softly while he gave the pastoral prayer each week. At the time I thought it was for the atmosphere--I later found out that since the church was close to a four-lane highway it was to drown the traffic noises!

It was about seven weeks into my tenure and I was starting to feel confident--which is probably more dangerous than when you are still worried and focused. I selected a soft string stop to use by itself, with a soft flute in the pedals. Only two stops in the entire organ. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about the crescendo pedal, which was still on from the end of the last piece. Remember, it will (on many organs) add stops up to and including the entire organ whether you've deployed them manually or not.

And so, our preacher closed his eyes and earnestly began, "Our heavenly father..."


Fortunately I found the offending pedal and disengaged it mighty fast. Three decades later I can report that the church did not spontaneously combust, no paramedics were called, and most of my hair has even grown back.

And that particular effect was a one-off. I haven't done it since. No way to improve upon something like that, you know.

Then there was the week I forgot the doxology.

I mentioned a while back that there is considerable merit in memorizing the doxology. It is the same every week, it is short, and if you don't need music you won't have to shuffle it up on the music rack after the offertory and then grab the closing hymn by the scruff of the hymnal and toss it up too, all in a few minutes. One less piece of music to worry about, you know...

But one week, also at my first church, I finished the offertory and....uh.....had a little problem.

Fortunately I was in the choir loft. I whispered to the choir director "how does the doxology start?"

She obliged. "Oh yes!" I said after she'd hummed the first couple of measures. And away I went.

It reminded me of the time Bartok was on tour with his own piano concerto, second movement of which begins with piano alone. After the first movement, Bartok was confused, and had to whisper to the conductor. "How does this go?"

He had already been playing this for weeks. And if he could have a brain fart over a piece that he wrote and had played over and over, why can't you?

on to part five (the last one!)
the first three installments in this mostly useful series can be found here:
Organ registration survival tips (part one)  how not to make a scary noise in church
Organ registration survival tips (part two)
  We'll start with what some of those knobs mean

Organ registration survival tips (part three)  
     fear not...I bring you tidings of hope and confidence!
also, don't forget to check out the homepage of for the weekly recording and lots of other useful and quirky articles about music and musicians (updated every Tuesday)