This blog is for you
Hi and welcome to Organ Bench, and thanks so much for stopping by. This is a substantive educational blog dedicated to you and to all others who love or have a thirst for information about the pipe organ and its music. It was launched to encourage and assist those interested in learning to play this noble instrument or to improve their playing, to aid and inform the uninitiated, to help guide those who are fascinated with the creative impulse of writing for it, and to inspire musicians and non-musicians alike. Truthfully, this can be one of the most encouraging and potentially helpful blogs to the aspiring musician or devotee of the pipe organ to be found anywhere online.
Not everything about organ playing can be learned away from its keys, but much of it can, and some of it must. As you check out this blog with its photos, videos, essays, and some 400 educational postings in the archive, I'd like to invite you to accept a free token of my thanks and appreciation for visiting [See menu bar, Free Stuff], to begin to care even more about the pipe organ and its art, and to better understand the pathway to success in your own personal study of this, the largest, most complex, and most fascinating musical instrument in Western civilization.
When we first think of the pipe organ we think of its power and unique ability to create an almost incomputable number of combinations of tint for tone color. Over 2 million permutations are possible even in a modest instrument of just 21 stops [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations, Part II]. This is just one of its amazing characteristics. We're talking here about a musical instrument which prior to the Industrial Revolution was the most complicated piece of machinery in the world ... one which can sustain its notes indefinitely, whisper a barely audible phrase one moment and roar the next, and single-handedly express the entire spectrum of human emotion ... an instrument whose range exceeds that of a symphony orchestra and sounds like it's under the control of a symphony of players ... an instrument custom made for its building and whose magical play with the acoustics is unique to itself ... an instrument that has to be played differently in different buildings ... the one musical instrument that best leads congregational singing and lifts the hearts and minds of men to thoughts of God and higher things. No other musical instrument in the world works like this or can make these claims.
We also think of keeping it maintained, which isn't just a matter of donating to a noble project for that space exclusively, but it's something more broad than that. It's supporting great organ music which spans hundreds of years ... and this music will be heard by countless numbers of people, indefinitely into the future. A large specimen will have thousands of pipes, and not just pipes but a myriad of mechanical parts which seem to coalesce into something far bigger than themselves. Sitting at its keys, you get the sense that playing a pipe organ, large or small, isn't merely an esthetic experience, it isn't just something you do because you like it, but it's attached to something sublime, something profound. It's something that can open the gates of heaven before any and all listeners. The instrument to this day remains a mechanical wonder, and thanks to modern technology and expanded means of communication the person who plays it is transmitting an idea to the whole world which can take many shapes, both inside and outside the institution which owns it.
We also think about Bach's music. The organ was a huge deal in Bach's time. It reached a golden age in the 17th and 18th centuries in northern Europe, and Bach the organist was responding to the glories of prevailing organ construction and design. It has often been said that "the music of Johann Sebastian Bach sounds as if the salvation of the whole world hangs upon every note." It's a very sensible way to describe his music. People sense this. During Gothic times the instrument was exclusively loud, coarse, and noisy with no way to control the character of the sound or its loudness. Every rank of pipes was on all the time at full blast. But as the centuries passed it was made softer and less harsh in sound with the introduction of slider pallet wind chests and controls at the front of the case called "stops" which would either admit or "stop" air from entering one rank of pipes at a time depending upon whether the knob controlling the air to a particular rank was pulled out to admit the air or pushed in to shut it off. The organ is still known for its power ... and SHOULD be able to make a glorious racket.
There are many individuals, probably, who might entertain learning how to play it for their worship center, the organizations they've joined, or just their own amusement, maybe even offering up some sort of writing for it, but instead they're listening to their fears ... the fear of failure, the fear of being embarassed, the fear of trouble, the fear of criticism, the fear of shame, the fear of not knowing what to do midway through, the fear of it sounding bad if they do happen to finish it. They're simply yielding to a natural force from within all of us, that voice inside our head telling us, each and every time we want to try something new that's generous or creative or could uplift us and pole vault us over the bar educationally, ethicly, physically, or spiritually, that we're insecure, to play it safe and back off, to be careful, to go slow, and to compromise our dream.
That same voice is selfish, scared, lazy, and not generous at all. It tends to put jitters in every effort, every project of ours that moves us to a higher level of spiritual, physical, ethical, or educational attainment. It's the same voice that causes people to freeze up when they're trying to perform. It reasons with us like a lawyer and tells us we're wasting our time. Then it goes for the throat, to kill our desire. As we get closer to an insight, closer to the truth of what we really want, closer to realizing what we're envisioning, closer to finishing some creative project, closer to realizing our dream, this natural force is experienced as fear and grows to sabotage our success (author Steven Pressfield calls it "Resistance" ... author Seth Godin calls its home, where it lives inside us, "The Lizard Brain"). It has no power of its own. It derives every ounce of its juice from fear. Deny it the fear that fuels it, and it has no power. This is so important for a musician to understand that I wouldn't even begin to write a single note of original music, take the first steps in improvisation, or even perform in public until I had read The War Of Art by author Steven Pressfield [See blog, The Book, Part I] carefully and thoughtfully ... which is why this book was made the very first posting in the archive. Author Seth Godin uses a whole chapter to describe it in his little book called Linchpin [See blog, The Book, Part II].
A physical part of our brain, 2 little prehistoric lumps called the amygdala near the brain stem, are responsible for this fear and are a primitive leftover from the early days when our ancestors needed them to help protect the body from the perils and dangers of the wild world. Today, of course, we don't face these perils and dangers every day as our ancestors used to. But this part of the limbic system in the human brain is still there, and our job is to figure out how to quiet it, to ignore it, but, even more importantly, to acknowledge its function where we can use it to guide and direct us, like the magnetic needle of a compass, to do the exact opposite of what our fears are telling us to do, which, for us, will be the creative work that matters [See blog, The Lizard Brain, Parts I-VIII].
This blog was created to help show you, among other things, that, while we're all subject to this natural force, while every practitioner of creative activity wrestles with Resistance all day long, and while the peril or danger we sense with it isn't actually real, we can use it to remind ourselves, every day, of what it is we need to be doing, and then do the opposite of what the lizard brain is telling us. The hypercritical lizard brain will pick apart anything creative we try to do in order to preserve its own selfish sense of short-term safety. Our alternative, as creative beings, is to develop a sense of loyalty to our mission and generosity in our work.
This blog is therefore bringing you something more valuable perhaps than even academic credentials could provide. It's a message of courage, of understanding, of positive thinking, of inspiration, and of experience from the bottom up, about your impact on the world through your creative powers, and how you can win against your fears and whatever other obstacles may be facing you in this study on your journey to achieving that success.
These are things you need to know. These are important things, even if you're not a musician, even if you never had a musical instrument in your home, even if you never had any musical interest in your entire life, what you learn here can help you achieve whatever creative, artistic, educational, or worthwhile objective you've got in mind with that next project.
A YouTube video (See menu bar, Video) has been posted for you here of my Recessional in D Major Op. 2, one of several pieces composed on 2 staves for hands only which are equally at home on any single manual organ, acoustic piano, digital stage piano, reed organ (harmonium), or full size pipe organ (See below). These scores have been posted pro bono for you here [See menu bar, Free Stuff] for your own personal use to download and print as a token of my appreciation and thanks for visiting. Every one of them has something to offer and I think you'll find them interesting, instructive, bold at times in their craftsmanship, full of ideas, lesson worthy, recital worthy, and of significant practical use.
These scores were inspired by the sound of the historic IV/53 (4 manual, 53 rank) Kimball pipe organ of the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Saint Louis, Missouri [See menu bar, Photos 3] ... a nearly century old fully expressive and truly musical instrument kept fully playable to this day which sounds with incredible dynamic range, remarkable color stops, tremendous versatility, and with twice the power as one would expect for its size ... an instrument which can present any music including classical repertoire, transcriptions, and even theatre organ arrangements in true concert fashion (most pipe organs, even the largest ones, aren't fully expressive like this one, and a crescendo on this large of an organ with a big combination drawn is an absolute thrill to hear). This music was composed primarily for traditional worship, ceremonial, or concert use and to help fill the needs of fraternal organizations but, in addition, and more importantly, they're examples: they represent a blueprint of sorts for those who would entertain writing their own organ music.
Why is this important to you? ... because keyboard musicians are continually called upon to pair suitable music with the situation and are expected to either already have this kind of material ready, know where to get it, or know how to create it. Knowing about any resource, especially whole groups of pieces of this type which encourage and help lead the musician into a path of composing at the same time making a significant contribution to the arsenal of material that works for the musical situations which confront them, is valuable. Some pointers are provided in the blog/archive about how to use an online music writing application to create, store, view, print, play back, and convert your original scores to PDF form for export to the documents file of your notebook PC.
When these scores are examined they leave the impression that they were composed by someone who spent time in composition classes at a major college/conservatory of music and had worked regularly at least part time as a paid professional musician. That isn't where it is. They were written by someone who was never employed as a musician, never took a composition class in his life, never received a diploma from a music school, and never tried composing anything before. He simply found out how to win against his fears by reading Pressfield and Godin, learned the basics of musical notation and theory, and had the guts to give it a try.
Once you make up your mind that you're going to create something of your own like this out of nothing, and you begin to acknowledge the function of your fear in guiding and directing you to what you need to be doing, it's all within your reach. You don't have to be lucky, gifted, rich, or even particularly clever. This is a skill which can be taught. You just need to be doggedly determined, be persistent and generous (with yourself), remain connected with it day to day, work in little bits at a time, realize that your fear is good and can guide you, and have the courage to go down that trail that scares you to death. Bottom line: it's a matter of attitude.
Consider this: If we go far enough back, as soon as the early Christian church began to embrace the pneumatic organ as a resource to be used in divine worship, organ playing took on pastoral dimensions that it has retained to this very day. During the Middle Ages in Britain and on the continent, 11th century monks were the professional organists of their day. They were primarily occupied as non-musicians, and the instrument they knew was the Gothic Blockwerk organ, an extremely crude, loud, noisy, clumsy affair that required many men to pump the bellows. Each "key" of this Gothic organ was a large, very crude paddle-shaped lever which protruded from the case and required considerable pressure to depress, normally with the weight of the arm on the entire fist. Everything these monks performed, every single note, was either improvised, i.e., spontaneously composed, or played from printed characters called neumes, which were inflective marks indicating the general shape, but not the exact pitches or rhythm, of a plain chant melody.
We can be certain therefore, that there were times where these monks would stare at the organ case, its pipes, and the overgrown keys in front of them, wondering how they were going to express their musical thoughts. Undoubtedly, there were times when they were afraid of performing at all, of being embarassed by the awful, unbearable noise they were creating, not to mention their concerns about making mistakes, of failure. If they could have transcribed any of their improvisational ideas to paper afterwards they would have done so, but there was no notation system in those days for showing exact pitches or rhythms on a staff of five lines and thus no real literature that could be studied.
None of this stopped them. They simply acknowledged the function their fear had in showing them what they needed to be doing and then forged ahead, no matter what. They made up their minds to sit down and do their work as improvisors, in little bits at a time, at regular intervals, based upon the known melodies of plain chant. As soon as they did this, something mysterious happened: ideas came, insights began to accrete, and they were struck with inspiration.
By simply sitting down to do their work, a process was triggered which caused their hands and heart to bring to life a stream of inspired sound. This was done by using their fists to hold down an array of large paddle shaped levers for keys, at the most 2 at a time (one for each hand). which protruded straight from the organ case and required considerable force. As time passed more of these large keys were added to the case where the organist sat which were connected to the lowest notes of the instrument by means of simple ropes which could be held down by a foot, one key at a time, to add a single bass note or drone.
The vast body of organ music written over the last 700 years had its beginnings from there as the science of organ building progressed, the chromatic keyboard evolved, the keys were reduced in size, the action lightened so that fingers could hold them down, the slider and pallet wind chest and "stops" were invented which allowed the various ranks of pipes in the instrument to be controlled separately, the pipes were reapportioned into divisions operated separately by one or more keyboards and a pedal keyboard, and methods of notation gradually developed which allowed the actual pitches and rhythms of the improvisations created by the organists who followed the pioneers of the Gothic organ to be notated.
What this means is, if you can sit down to a keyboard today and drum out a simple child's song using only one finger, you're summoning essentially the same creative processes for which medieval church musicians were known. It also means that you probably have something far more elaborate to say, which these days you can do the efficient and easy way using the right tools. Understanding and adopting the ten step method for easier and faster fugue writing described in this blog/archive, for example, and employing a notebook PC and online music writing software program to say what you want to say musically, could lead to some surprising, if not astonishing, results.
We're far off the mark if we buy into the notion that composition and improvisation are only for professional composers and graduates of music schools. Creators create. That's what they do, regardless if they have a diploma for it or not [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Parts I-XXIII]. If you're looking for evidence, then all the proof you need are the scores posted on this blog [See menu bar, Free Stuff] and your own work will take shape in less time than you think. Among the free scores posted here, a nice Communion song was written in only 2 days. Two rousing "jig" Fugues, a big Choral and Fugue, and a big Fantasia and Fugue, each were composed in just 5 days. A big Prelude and (double) Fugue and a big Introduction and Fugue each took only 6 days to write. The composition of a big Praeludium (multi-sectional north German toccata) and Fugue occupied just 7 days. Even a big, rapid fire, French Romantic Toccata and Fugue was composed this way in just 8 days. From this you can begin to draw substantial encouragement for yourself, whether you have a degree in music or not, to do the same or better as you begin to express what's within you, to begin to release and feed all those things that you never knew were there before, and to benefit, grow, and progress in your own writing for this, the most awesome musical instrument on the face of this earth.
The most inherent quality we humans possess is our creativity ... our ability to produce or bring into existence something entirely new out of nothing, through imaginative skill. The moment that we decide to do the opposite of what the Voice of the Lizard, or Resistance, is telling us, and we just sit down and start working, is the moment that we're struck with inspiration. Pablo Picasso was so right in observing that inspiration comes, but it has to find us working.
This is when the windows of heaven, where creation has its home, seem to open. It's as if the creative energy or force behind this inspiration, like one of the 9 female Muses from Greek mythology, which has its home in heaven where all the powers of creation reside, flies over us every day, almost like Santa Claus ... and if she doesn't happen to find us on the bench or working on anything at the time, she decides not to grant us any creative ideas that day and passes on.
But if, when the Muse flies over us the next day, and she happens to find us on the organ bench practicing or maybe working with our notebook PC composing some piece of music, it's as if she decides to sprinkle us with something mysterious, some creative thoughts from the timeless sphere in which she dwells, in the same way she gave creative idease to those struggling 11th century monks and every other musician who had the courage to simply start working. Ideas then come, insights accrete, and it's this creative force from another sphere from where creation has its home that provides it. The artist simply does the "dictation," so to speak, to bring it into existence in this material sphere. All true artists, after a while, realize that they don't know diddly; they're simply the conduit through which a higher intelligence in a timeless sphere of existence communicates with this time-bound one. And we can rightly conclude that such communication from a higher world of dimensions invisible to this one is something this higher intelligence desires and makes it happy.
It's also true that Resistance, the Voice of the Lizard, is there every day, almost like Santa's evil twin, always present, always working against the Muse, always trying to derail the creative artist from starting or finishing their work. Once again, you're going to want to read Pressfield and Godin, which have the best descriptions of it in print, then keep them handy so you can refer back to them. It makes perfect sense in explaining this mysterious process of writing or improvising music, as well as any other creative endeavor.
Imagine that you invested in a private jet plane parked at the airport. You've never piloted an aircraft before. The voice in your head is telling you that you're not a pilot and never will be, but you still have that dream ... it's in your heart, and you've made it your business to become acquainted with its controls. You stare at this airplane of yours with a certain awe, wishing you were a pilot, wondering what it's like to sit at its controls and fly it. The voice in your head keeps reminding you that you've spent your entire life up until now outside the field of aviation and that you need to compromise, play it safe, and back off. You've got no particular flight plan or destination in mind, you don't know how much fuel it has, you don't even know if every instrument on the instrument panel is working, and you certainly don't know what kind of weather you're goint to run into. Your fear is reasoning with you like a lawyer, telling you to play it safe, ease back, and just stay on the ground.
Instead, you decide to use that fear of yours to guide you in the direction that's important to the growth of your soul. Instead of yielding to the winds of fear blowing in your face, you head directly into it. You take a 180 degree turn in attitude and climb into the cockpit. You turn the key. You start the engines. You taxi that aircraft of yours down to the end of the runway. You look up the runway with the voice of the lizard screaming in your ears that you don't have what it takes, and then you lean on the throttles. You're picking up speed. All of a sudden unseen forces come to your aid, they you lift off the ground, and you're airborne. Pretty soon you're looking down upon the tops of the clouds from a place where no one, including yourself, ever thought you could ever go. You've drained Resistance, the voice of the lizard, of all of its juice by denying it the fear that fuels it. You've beaten it at its own game and, in the process, realized your dream. That's what it takes, and that's what it's like, to sit down and write your own music.
Sometimes, rarely, you start with a musical idea for a theme already in your head, but more typically that isn't how it works at all. It doesn't happen by standing in the hangar staring up at our airplane, waiting for our fears and misgivings to disappear before we take action. No, the vast majority of the time we get our musical ideas only AFTER we sit down and start working ... only AFTER we've started our engines, taxied to the end of the runway, and leaned on the throttles. It doesn't matter if you're writing a novel, drawing a picture, painting a landscape, sculpting a statue, choreographing a dance, arranging flowers, or composing a symphony ... every creative endeavor like this is subject to this same mysterious process. It's the craziest thing in the world, to think that you have to start working BEFORE you get an idea for what you're going to turn out, but that's exactly how it works. Every score posted on this blog was written this way ... and every one of them, to a piece, can stand side by side with any organ music being composed today. You don't wait for an idea to arrive in your head, you just get to work, and then, inspiration comes. Inspiration has to see us working before it alights on our shoulder.
Don't let any of this intimidate you, my friends. No matter what your level of skill, even if that musical instrument that captures your fascination isn't the organ, you can learn how to play it and even learn how to compose for it. You can learn how to improvise. You can train your brain to sight read the printed page. You can train yourself to perform whatever in the repertoire suits your fancy. You can even learn how to lead hymn singing. All of these things are within your grasp because every one of these things can be taught. Don't be afraid of trying. Whatever that dream of yours is, don't be afraid to follow it. It will change your life and the lives of the people around you ... without question ... for the better.
The scores for the first 9 Opus numbers posted on this blog were written for an instrument without pedals or with an inoperative Pedal division. These can make a digital stage piano with good pipe organ samples or just the manuals of a pipe organ sound quite big [See menu bar, Video, Photo Album 2]. It helps a student of the organ to keep handy some practical contemporary music like this which covers a broad range of need for traditional worship services, fraternal use, filling out recitals, or situations where only electronic keyboards are used ... if a small chapel type instrument or an old, historic pipe organ with no pedalboard is to be used ... if the pedalboard is too diminutive to perform the music first contemplated ... for unexpected emergency moments (for example, if a critical pedal key is discovered loose at the last minute and unusable) ... or for teaching, especially if the student is unable to reach the pedals or is not yet fully comfortable playing them. We never know when we're going to need stuff like this. It's this writer's hope that, for whatever purpose they're needed, all of the scores offered here will "have legs" and leave this blog so people may benefit from and have use of them.
Imagine being tasked with playing for a half hour or more without pause on an unfamiliar instrument (this can happen), you're wanting to have a few things prepared in case you're called upon to play longer than expected, and you're pressed for time to find and learn the right kind of material. The solution would be to have some pieces like this tucked under your arm before you travel and included with all the other material you plan to practice.
What if you know ahead of time that you'll be performing on a very fine single manual pipe organ and you don't know exactly where to start looking for some effective, contemporary scores that will come across on this type of instrument Half of the scores posted here can help serve this purpose too, as they're all recital worthy.
What if you're a pianist/keyboardist moving to the organ? ... while you're learning to use the pedals with the Nilson or other method book [See blog, Exercises, Part II] some pieces like this, where the feet at certain climactic places can be given the lowest note in the harmony, can get the feet working a little right away and help bridge the transition to the organ. It may come as a surprise to many in the audience that, with judicious use of the bottom octave in the manuals by the left hand, the pipe organ's pedals don't always have to be employed to have a pervading bass or big sound [See menu bar, Video].
For those who have the ambition, physical wellness, and determination to prepare for the AGO Service Playing certificate or Colleague certificate [See blog, American Guild of Organists (AGO)], the materials available from AGO national headquarters should be considered required reading. The material on this web site, including all the scores posted here combined with the Nilson book, could serve as a very solid supplement in preparing for these examinations.
No matter how small or diminutive the instrument at hand happens to be, even if it has only one manual of limited compass and no pedalboard, the first 10 pieces for two hands only can be performed on it. Among these works are a Processional March, a Recessional, a Choral, a Diapason Movement, a Voluntary, a big set of 13 Variations, a brisk "jig" Fugue, a Prelude in the free style of Vierne, and 2 early Sketches using improvisation themes of Louis Vierne [see menu bar, Free Stuff]. The scores for the remaining 14 Opus numbers have an obligatory pedal part and include another exuberant "jig" Fugue, a big Prelude and (double) Fugue, a big Choral and Fugue, a big, fiery Toccata and Fugue, a big Praeludium and Fugue, a big Introduction and Fugue, a big Fantasia and Fugue, a brisk Trio, a Pastorale with 2 themes, a Canon, a Communion song, and a Lied (pronounced "leed"). There's also a fugue entitled "Postlude" which works the Dorian mode and another, shorter, stand alone Fugue. Among these scores 11 are adjudged difficult, 8 are only moderately difficult, and 5 are easy. They're doing all kinds of different things in different ways [See blog, Smorgasbord] and offer something for everyone from beginner to advanced.
Organists are going to appreciate having copies of all of these pieces, and once they have a look a them or hear them performed, they'll see why. Besides having a certain attractiveness and being nice to listen to, besides being useful contemporary repertoire for worship, fraternal, or recital use, besides being helpful with technique, these scores exemplify what their 30+ individual archive postings have to say about how they were put together. Anyone who cross compares these scores with their archive descriptions will receive step by step instruction in how to begin their own writing for the organ.
A very great deal of information and practical assistance, the products of experience from a lifetime of private lessons, and a literal treasure trove of coaching and realistic encouragement are all waiting to be discovered here, to be mined from the depths of the blog/archive.
Whether you're advanced, intermediate, a beginner, someone contemplating beginning, or simply an interested listener, there's something here for you, something you can use, something you need, something you might desperately need.
Once again, thanks so much for visiting, and please feel free to browse the menu bar and return as often as you like -- to seek all you like.