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Taming of the Pipe Organ I - A Class for Non-Organists

Introduction: Since the advent of Covid-19 and “virtual” worship, the church has been making recordings of the worship services that can be viewed on the Park Church website by members of the congregation, or by anyone else who is interested. For this I meet with the minister during the week to record the music, then leave it to him to add the remaining parts of the service. Even when I threw him a curve, such as playing a piece that begins with the pedals alone, or by adding a second performer, he has been able to change the frame of focus appropriately and create a satisfying result. These videos have allowed members of the congregation to watch organ playing up close in a way that is normally not possible. Your comments to me suggested that there was interest in knowing more about the organ in general, and specifically about the Park Church’s wonderful instrument, so with that in mind I set about describing the instrument, its music, organ technique, and my own impressions through a series of questions. This is the result. I hope that you enjoy reading it.


What are the parts of the organ and their functions? Our organ is a wind instrument meaning that the sound is produced by air under pressure. Parts that make the sound (technically called the organ) include the blower that supplies the air, reservoirs that store it under pressure, and the wind chests that blow it into the 2,832 pipes. Finally there are the chimes, dated 1900 and the last remainder of the 1906 organ, they now ring to open every service of worship. Parts that allow the organist to control the sound are called collectively the console and include four keyboards – three for the hands (manuals) and one for the feet (pedals), the draw knobs to determine which groups of the pipes will sound, and the swell pedal to control the volume of sound. I made my first acquaintance person- ally with the blower just recently to check out an “explosion” that had resulted in a loss of air pressure. The blower is located in the farthest back corner of the basement and is enclosed in a room made of concrete blocks (to deaden the blower sound so that it is not heard in the sanctuary). The problem as it turned out was not the blower, but a wooden air reservoir whose side had given way; it could be, and was, glued back together. What a relief! Our organ was built by the Schantz Organ Company and installed in 1974. Well-built and well-maintained, it is by pipe organ standards nearly new and should have a long life ahead. More detailed information on the Park Church organs can be found in the booklet Musical Treasures of the Park Church (1995) by Thomas Bohlert. Why is there more than one keyboard on our organ? There are at least two reasons – one based on the organ’s strength, the other a result of its weakness. One of the organ’s great strengths are the many different sounds available. Unlike the piano or a violin which pretty much sounds the same every time you play it, the organ can, in addition to its basic “organ tone,” also imitate brass instruments, strings, even woodwinds, all at various pitch levels from low to high. With several manuals the organist can access this abundance of different sounds simply by shifting from one keyboard to another. But, and this is the weakness – unlike the piano, it is not possible to control the volume of sound on an organ by how hard you strike a key. How then does the organist make one line of the music – let’s say the melo- dy – sound louder than other lines in the music – say the accompaniment? On an organ with more than one keyboard it can be done by setting a loud sound on one manual and a soft sound on another, and playing the melody on the louder manual. Why are there so many pipes? Because one pipe can produce only one sound, be it a trumpet sounding a middle C or a flute sounding a bass G, several thou- sand pipes are needed to encompass all the possible combinations of timbres and pitches available. With 58 draw knobs, 61 manual keys (x3), and 32 pedal notes, the numbers add up. How often does the organ need to be tuned? How is this done? The answer will be different for each instrument, how it is used, and how particular the organist is. Our organ is normally tuned twice a year, once before Christmas and again before Easter. This is done by changing the length of the pipes as necessary by tapping a metal collar or tuning sleeve up or down depending on whether the pipe is sounding too high (it needs to be length- ened) or too low (it needs to be shortened). With small pipes, a minute adjustment can make a great difference in the tuning – a word to the wise, while in the pipe chamber be careful and don’t touch any of the pipes, and especially not the small ones. Tuning surprises are not fun! By contrast, the huge 16’ pedal pipes are not as susceptible and seldom go out of tune. A well- maintained pipe organ usually needs little maintenance other than tuning. Of course, if the church is too hot or too cold, that can result in a temporary mistuning since the pitch of the pipes changes with temperature as well as with the length, but it be- hooves the organist to be patient if this occurs since it will surely (hopefully) fix itself when the weather changes.


Playing the organ is different than playing the piano, mostly due to differences in the style of the music and to peculiarities associated with the instrument. For example: How do you make a crescendo (a gradual increase in sound) on the organ? Music that featured the thrilling crescendos so prominent in orchestral music was written in the 19th century and later, about three centuries after the organ was invented, and I must confess that the organ is really not very good at thrilling crescendos. An impressively powerful sound, yes, but gradual changes from soft to loud, not so much. Music of the 17th and 18th centuries (when the organ was ascendant) required only that it be capable of abrupt changes of sound, so-called “terrace dynamics.” The organ was, and is of course, quite able to do this. You probably already know how to do it (Hint: change from one keyboard to another). As you might expect, later organ com- posers and builders were not satisfied with what they considered to be such an old-fashioned and inexpressive instrument, and as a result organs were equipped with swell boxes and shades that could be opened and closed to increase or decrease the volume of sound. Even so, the capability was not very great (think of opening and closing a door in a room). One additional solution was the so-called “crescendo pedal” that adds stops (sounds) when opened and subtracts them when closed. Although capable of powerful crescendos, the sound of the organ necessarily changes as stops are added, and because of this I use it sparingly. If you want an “organ” that can really swell, get an electronic, where the sound is augmented electronically and not acoustically – I can’t believe I said that! Forget what you just read!

Why is silence so important in organ music? I contend that in organ playing the silences are at least as important as the notes played – not usually true of the piano. Organ silences are used for the following reasons:

  • To play a repeated note. The piano’s percussive attack signals the beginning of the second note, but on the organ a silence must be placed between the two repeated notes if they are to be heard as separate, a technique that needs happen auto- matically and without conscious thought, and one of the many skills a beginning organist needs to master.

  • To accent a note. This is easy on the piano. Just strike the key with more force and there it is. But how to do it on an instrument that does not respond with more volume to striking a key harder? You guessed it – with the organ this is accomplished by putting a rest (silence) before the accented note, giving the impression of an accent even though there is no actual change in volume.

  • To point out where one phrase ends and another begins. Because the piano notes begin to die away as soon as they are struck, the ends of phrases mostly take care of themselves as the final note of the phrase is struck and dies away. This is not the case on the organ because the volume of the note does not diminish as a key is held. One way to separate phrases on the organ is to put a silence between them. You guessed that already, didn’t you?

  • To give a melodic idea life and character. This is important on both instruments, but more essential on the organ, again because the sound of the organ does not diminish once a key is struck, so notes must be stopped with accuracy as well as started.

  • To change stops. Changing stops while holding down a note almost always results in an unpleasant sound; this can be avoided by making the change while the organ is momentarily silent – another technique for the beginning organist to learn.

  • To communicate to singers or instrumentalists, as in a hymn. Putting in a beat of silence between the end of the hymn introduction and the beginning of the first verse tells the congregation exactly when they should begin to sing. The same is true going from verse to verse. I also find that if a congregation is lagging behind me, separating the notes on the organ (putting in silences!) will make my leadership clearer and inspire them to pick up the pace.

(P.S. If I’m doing my job right you should be able to hear the silences in the music I play and judge their effect – whether to sep- arate repeated notes, create accents, divide phrases, or whatever.) What do you normally play on the pedals? That depends entirely on the piece of music. The pedals are like the keys, only they are further apart and designed to be played by the feet. They can play the bassline, but also the melody and anything else that the manuals could play. Organ scores often have a third line of music just for the pedals. As with the manuals, it is possible to separate pedal notes with silences, and for the same reasons. It is also possible to “solo out” a pedal melody in the same way as on the manuals. How do you choose what stops (sounds) to use? That is where the fun begins, and especially on the Park Church organ! I first play through the piece to get an impression of its style and character, then try to imagine how I want it to sound. Is this a soft meditation or a vigorous fanfare? Are there melodies that need to be soloed out? I make my initial choices, listen to them, then gradually fine tune as I practice and learn the piece. The final step is to practice any stop changes so that I am able to do them accurately and hopefully without breaking the rhythm.


How do you learn to play a piece of organ music? – the answer of course depends on the piece, but here are some practice tips: First plan and mark the following in the music: the fingering, which foot to use for which pedal note, whether heel or toe, what keyboard(s) to use and where to change, when to open the swell (and very occasionally the crescendo) pedals, when to make stop changes, what silences to add for phrasing or style, and when to turn the pages; I then try them out, and practice them into the playing. Simplify problem areas – in a section where I can’t play everything, I play what I can – only the hands, or only the feet, then try putting things together again; or I play everything, but VERY SLOWLY. Repeat, repeat, repeat – I practice until the playing becomes automatic; reading three independent lines simultaneously is probably impossible, meaning that at least one of them has to happen automatically. How long do you usually practice? As long as possible. It is my favorite activity. My limit these days seems to be around four to five hours maximum before my brain (not my fingers) wears out. Of course I enjoy practicing. It is one of the few activities (besides mowing the lawn) where I am assured significant and noticeable progress even after as little as a half an hour. And none of it is wasted. If I return even years later to a piece I have mastered, my fingers and feet remember it. How do you find the right pedals? Others may do it differently, but here are my “trade secrets.” There are two “free” pedals at the start of every piece, one for each foot, so I always start by claiming these – looking down to make sure my feet are safely positioned on those two pedals. From there the remainder can be located by knowing where I am and by measuring how far it is from the current pedal to the one I want next. Steps (adjacent pedals) are easy – just slide from one pedal to the next – but the technique works for larger intervals as well as long I keep contact with the pedals and slide. Do not hop! Beyond that I learn – after many hours of pedal exercises – what each of the intervals – a third (3 notes apart), fifth (5 notes), an octave (8 notes) – feels like and can use that skill to help me slide accurately to the next pedal. It is tempting to try to find a pedal by looking down at the pedalboard, but once a piece begins this is a dangerous move, the usual result being losing my place in the music. Why do you change your shoes to play the organ? Organ shoes have leather soles and a raised heel. Making a legato (smooth) connection from one pedal note to the next is accomplished by sliding from one to the other or by alternating heel and toe; the leather soles help me slide smoothly as I measure the distance between pedals, and the raised heels make it easier to press the pedals down with my heels; it is also possible to connect one pedal note to another by playing with alternate feet; a third way is through a technique called substitution, or changing from one foot to the other on a pedal without lifting it. It is possible play in stocking feet – never in street shoes please to keep the pedals clean – but for me it is not as efficient. And please don’t be tempted to do the organist a favor and wax the pedals! A smooth slide is good but a skating rink down there is not, especially if you are not expecting it! The same advice goes for waxing the bench, for obvious reasons. Do you ever have to change your position on the bench to reach pedals at the ends of the pedal keyboard? No, because to locate the correct pedals it is important to always sit in the same position. So I stay in the middle of the bench and pivot back and forth to reach the far pedals, a technique that is especially important for short folks like me. It can be chal- lenging however because to pivot I need to push against something, normally the pedal I am currently playing. Hands on the keys can assist as well, and of course if I am playing a pedal solo, I can simply grab the bench with both hands. Is it possible to play piano music on the organ? Yes, but ... This happens most often with choir accompaniments written for piano that I want to arrange for organ. The process can be as simple as deciding what stops I want use and whether or not I will play some of the notes on the pedals. Alternatively, it can be as extensive as deciding whether any notes should be added and whether there are some that can be left out. Although it can be time-consuming and results in a very messy-looking score, such “arranging” is one of my favorite activities. This is also true of arranging solo organ music to include one or more instruments. This said, there are some piano pieces that do not translate well to the organ, regardless of how hard I try. The music of Chopin comes to mind in this regard. PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS

Which is more difficult to play, the organ or the piano? I would say the organ is more difficult. For one thing, the organist has to learn to read three separate lines, rather than just two as in piano music. My comment from years ago while learning the organ: “Logic suggests that it is impossible to play the organ. How can one mind read and interpret three lines of music simulta- neously? One of those everyday mysteries I sometimes take for granted.” It took me about two years of lessons to begin to feel even a little comfortable playing with two hands and two feet and to stop feeling as if I were about to fall off the bench and on- to the pedals. Of course, I don’t really know how long it took me to learn the piano because I can’t ever remember not being able to play. Why did it take you so long to learn to play the organ? I think it was because it involved learning an entirely new set of skills and that these had to become habitual. There are many other things to think about when playing in addition to just getting the notes out. By the time I started playing the organ in earnest (around age 40), I could, of course, read music, but beyond that I had to learn how to press the keys down, how to start notes on time and even more important, how to make them stop on time, and then there were the skills involved with the pedals. I had to start with pieces that looked super simple – seemingly beneath my dignity, but played correctly, were not that easy. Which of the two instruments do you like the best? That is a difficult question to answer. Organ music is very different from piano music and the two require a different set of skills, all of which come with their own satisfactions and frustrations. At the time I decided to study organ, I did it for a very practical reason – I didn’t see myself as recitalist material, which left only teach- ing as a fallback. I wanted to find a job where I actually got to play music, not just teach it. I still carry some guilt over this per- haps rather self-centered approach, but in any case I decided that even though I considered the organ inferior to the piano at that time, I would learn the organ because there were church jobs available that involved actual playing. Have you changed your mind about the organ? Yes, but only after my new skills had been developed and I could set about trying to actually make music rather than to just play notes. I now find it fascinating to discover how to use both sound and es- pecially silence to break up what is essentially an unchanging wall of sound into meaningful phrases, and to turn what could be a comparatively inexpressive “machine” into a musical instrument. In addition, the organ is such an old instrument that its rep- ertoire is broader with a larger variety of styles than almost any other – stretching from medieval to modern times. By compari- son, the piano showed up only quite recently – in the 17th century, at least 200 years after the organ. What about the organ is especially satisfying? First and most important, I enjoy the organ because playing it engages my whole body; I play with my feet as well as my hands and it feels a lot like dancing, a way of making music by dancing to it! Be- yond that, I think it’s partly the power! I can with the proper stops, drown out nearly anything, command any room. Or I can whisper. What an array of sound possibilities! It’s like having my own orchestra. All organs are unique, so choosing the stops is done by informed trial and error with careful listening. What works on one organ will not necessarily work on another. I simply have to make an educated guess and try it. Of course, once I am familiar with an actual instrument, this process becomes more trial and less error, but on any organ it is dangerous to assume something will work without trying it. The musical score some- times makes suggestions, but deciding what will really work for a particular piece on a particular instrument is up to the organist – another chance for me to be an arranger as well as a player. This is where the Park Church organ really shines! Although it may take some time to choose the appropriate stops (this is called “registering a piece”), the result is almost always satisfying. Are there things about the organ that are especially frustrating? Yes! Yes! Yes! Some examples: It can be awkward to play. For instance, if I want to change the volume of sound, instead of doing it completely through my fingers as on the piano, I have to open or close the swell pedal with whatever foot (if any) is not currently in use doing something else. Changing sounds by changing keyboards is easy, but if I need to add or subtract stops, I have to plan when and with what hand, and then practice it into the music. The job is made easier through the use of pistons that can be set before starting a piece and that allow several stops to be changed by pushing a single button (the piston), again assuming there is a hand or foot free to do this. Playing the organ leaves little space for day dreaming! It is more difficult to get out of trouble on the organ than on the piano. Placing even a single finger or foot incorrectly can lead to disaster, sometimes immediately, often several measures later. And there is no sustain pedal to help. If you take your hands off the keys to regroup, the sound stops abruptly, and often in an ugly manner. It is more treacherous than the piano. I am perched on the bench with feet suspended above (but hopefully not resting on) the pedals, so there is always the possibility of brushing a key or pedal by mistake. On the piano this is usually not a problem, as the note often does not sound at all, but on the organ an accidental note can and will roar out as loudly as an intentional one depending on what stops are pulled. What do you particularly like about the Park Church organ? I especially enjoy the bright, clean sound of the principle and flute choruses that are particularly suitable for accompanying hymns; beyond that there are a couple of favorite reed stops that I use often – the Krumhorn (clarinet) and the Fagot (oboe). The Krumhorn is useful either as a solo stop when accompanied by soft strings, or as a “fake trumpet” when combined with the louder principals or flutes; the Fagot can also sound like a trumpet or a trombone when added to other stops, and I like to throw it on at the ends of hymns as a grand finale. In addition I enjoy the bright bubbly flutes and the warm undulating sound of the strings, produced, believe it or not, by playing together pipes that are slightly mistuned – the beats between them warming the tone with a slight vibrato, as with a vocal soloist. Finally there is the Trumpet, a powerful stop but so loud and aggressive that it is useful only in very specialized places. In other words, I like almost everything. This is a great organ! Do you enjoy listening to music? I like “live music” and going to concerts, but seldom enjoy listening to recorded music, and much prefer silence to “background music.” I’ve always enjoyed playing more than listening, and this is especially true of organ music – how strange is that! I think this is because I do not think of music as a “spectator sport.” It is always so much more fun if I’m playing rather than just listen- ing! I count it a blessing that there are also people who prefer listening to playing.


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