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May. 6, 2021

Generally speaking, the more musical talent the student has, the better will be their ear and memorization.
This presents a slippery slope for the serious student in that over time, without attention given to sight reading practice from the very beginning, the ear and memorization will reach a level of development well beyond their ability to sight read, which can have them looking at a score with information overload (photo).
Organ music is so captivating, and the desire among students to learn it is so great, that they're constantly tempted to take on new repertoire that's simply beyond their current ability to work their way through new material with dispatch.
Under these conditions getting what's on the page into the fingers and feet can become a real bear.
Talented students who have a great ear and can memorize with ease can get to where they're capable of performing a very limited number of pieces from the standard repertoire quite well, perhaps even on the level of a college senior majoring in organ, while their ability to sight read may be barely past beginner level.
There are many with great potential who find themselves exactly in this place; the foundations of their playing are well in place, their playing of a few things is very fine, but they're also acutely aware that if they would resume private lessons their speed at learning new repertoire assigned by a teacher would be slower than a snail with a broken leg.
For them, practice can be drudgery; they're overworking, measure after laborious measure for months on end, sometimes over a span of years even, just to learn the notes in one piece they don't know yet -- all because of sight reading.
This should not be.
Since sight reading is a skill which requires no musical talent whatsoever -- the performer simply sees symbols and pushes keys, just like a typist -- the solution is to go back to basics and retrain the brain to sight read simple music so that the eyes can catch up developmentally with the ear and memorization.
It's always best for students to start with material at or a little below what they can just manage without mistakes, slowly at half concert tempo or less -- perhaps each hand separately at first before putting both hands together -- and gradually take on more complicated material after that.
This is certain to seem frustrating for proficient performers to find themselves going back to this zone and may fool them into thinking that they're not getting anywhere with it, day to day, but, they do progress this way, and it's the correct prescription needed for busting up and pulverizing the logjam that's blocking their progress.
TIP: touch typing is all about the idea that each finger has its own area on the keyboard; the 8 fingers are assigned to 8 keys called the "home row" and, thanks to that fact, we can type without looking at the keys; regular practice will quickly teach the fingers their location on the keyboard through muscle memory; the same concept can be integrated into sight reading practice; a "home row" of white keys (such as tenor C to B for the left hand and middle C to B for the right hand, for example), can be selected once for all, each hand can be placed in the same "home row" position and kept there, and this can be programmed into muscle memory; we can always start from these same keys and always return to them and make this idea of a "home row" of keys work for us in a similar way.
This system as with typing will seem foreign at first and have the student in a different zone for a while, but if students keep using it and relating each note on the page to the home row of white keys they've selected it may succeed in helping them to digest their way through unfamiliar music with much greater speed.
No one starts out an Olympic sprint runner; natural development requires us to learn to roll over before we crawl, learn to crawl before we stand, learn to stand before we walk, learn to walk before we run, and learn to run before we get into our first foot race; thus, when first adopting this approach, it's important to remember to do the same -- not to rush, to take our time with it to avoid mistakes, and speed up only when our fingers hit the right keys out of habit; speed will pick up with repetition, being consistent with it, and keeping good habits going.
It's also important to remember, as with typing or when reciting prose, that bad reading proceeds one symbol, one word, or one beat at a time; the eyes need to get into the habit of ALWAYS scanning ahead (by a few symbols, a few syllables, a few beats) in advance of present action to get the big picture and take in as much information as they can; this requires us to train ourselves to concentrate and tune out any possible distractions until we get the hang of it, after which it will become automatic -- but if as our eyes are preceding our hands by a couple of beats we find that we're making a lot of mistakes during practice we should take a break and come back to it when we feel more refreshed.
A few minutes of this every day or every other day will produce better results than one long session scheduled once every week or two.

May. 3, 2021

Burnout -- the lassitude and loss of interest people tend to feel when they've "given it their all" within a given time frame and didn't arrive quite where they anticipated -- can happen to anyone when reality doesn't exactly line up with their expectations, and organists are not somehow immune to this.
Fierce determination to never stop playing, no matter what, is a very commendable and greatly desired quality in an organist, but, at the same time, it's also important to maintain a sense of perspective, to set realistic goals for ourselves, and pick our own battles with respect to what and in what order we learn new repertoire [See blog, Balance In Organ Playing, Part III].
One can be a very capable organist, a sensitive artist, an inspired interpreter, an imaginative improviser, and even a composer of genius -- any or all of the above -- without ever having successfully reproduced some incredible feat of musicianship which few others in history have ever attempted.
Just because we may not be among the very few who have ever recorded or performed the complete organ works of J.S. Bach in a series of recitals, for example, does not mean that we need to pursue that objective to prove to the world that we're a solid musician and capable performer.
No matter what our current level of organ playing proficiency may be, we do not have to be what society might define as "a great musician" in order for the Giver of all good gifts and graces to use our gifts -- such as they are, and just as they are -- in a great way.

Apr. 17, 2021

(con't from Part V)
Today's modern digital organs are incredibly powerful, beyond the imagination of the pioneers whose dream was to make it possible for every worship center and also every organist to have an affordable organ to play.
At the same time, they have increased in price, caught up in what the business world refers to as "feature creep" -- adding more and more features to compete in today's fast-paced business world.
The pioneers had a goal -- an affordable organ for everyone -- which is also the goal of the developers of The Choir Organ (photo).
The developers of this new device have stripped away everything that is not necessary for an organ to play hymns and basic organ music repertoire.
This is a unit with limitations but limitations which make it affordable paired up with a relatively inexpensive keyboard with MIDI and headphones, stereo sound system, home theatre system, an existing organ speaker system, independent audio system, or even a boom box.
All that's needed to play this plug-and-play device is 1) a MIDI keyboard or organ with MIDI OUT, 2) the 3 cables (MIDI, AUDIO, and POWER) and 110 volt adapter which come with the unit, and 3) an audio speaker(s).
Besides having a master volume control, a MIDI keyboard expression pedal may also be connected to express and nuance the volume.
This device is an affordable church organ MIDI module which brings the sound of the organ into every church and defines the core of what organs are required to do, to play a church service; it is not a Hauptwerk organ, nor is it based upon any existing digital organ designs; it is not built to compete with or replace existing organs but rather to get the sound of the organ into churches again and help them to visualize and acquire a church organ that will inspire and create new organists.
The device is equipped with 31 banks of stored preset registrations including those with organ ensembles which increase in level and brilliance; these banks are used one at a time and can be quickly changed.
Certain stored registrations feature an invention which makes it possible to play pedal stops within a registration -- "Graduated Pedal" stops decrease in scale as they rise in pitch, eliminating the sudden drop-off of pedal stops played using a Bass Coupler.
This is just one of the innovations built into this device, created by working not to recreate a pipe organ but to provide affordable and useful organ stops and registrations for churches and organists unable to afford any kind of organ.

Apr. 16, 2021

(con't from Part II)
Those who instruct and coach people at the keys may one day encounter an organ student working a bit too hard at it when (s)he plays for them at a lesson.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the trouble with overworking at playing is that muscular tension tends to develop; an observant teacher will notice it at the student's mouth, and, if left unchecked it will work its way down the neck, shoulders, and arms to the hands and wrists, maybe not so obviously at first, but it's there -- it's heading that way -- and it leads to fatigue, which isn't good.
Such a student is usually surprised to be told they're doing this -- sometimes they're even shocked to find out from their instructor that if there were a print-out on their shoulders it would say "tense."
This is why having the right kind of teacher is so important -- not just helpful books, videos, and web sites -- someone more than a proficient performer who simply offers lessons and assigns repertoire making only markings of fingerings and phrasings along the way.
The "right kind" of teacher means someone who understands the teaching process and what never to say or do which would risk destroying a student's interest -- someone who can analyze each student's physicality as an individual and develop their awareness of it -- someone who can mentor and watch their students carefully one-on-one, who can tell them how to move their hands and feet and set the bench to accommodate the natural facility they were given -- someone who can provide constructive advice about balancing ease and tension, how to make corrections to play the building as well as the instrument, see to it that the foundations of playing are firmly in place, and then get the student to hone that around, do some different things, and add in new concepts all the while being mindful of what habits to establish to counteract one that must be eliminated in order to progress to the next level and explain why such a correction is important.
Sometimes overworking can be the result of anxiety about a tricky passage coming up on the next page.
In this case, it may help to look at it this way: that tricky passage up ahead isn't a rapids poised to capsize our canoe the moment we get there -- it isn't a rapids at all -- it's just a pasture -- with a bunch of little sheep lying down and snoozing.
We just need the right tools, and, after that, it's just a pasture.
Part of the overworking problem also could be related to the student's habit of playing from a bench that's too low for them, which will automatically make them work harder to play.
While a willingness to perform on any bench and try to adapt to it is commendable, it adds to the work of playing just to pursue accuracy.
We play for accuracy, of course, but not primarily; organ playing is many more things than that.
It may come as a surprise, but accuracy in organ playing does not have to be actively pursued -- instead, it will come to us.
It's like a cat -- if we call our cat, it disappears -- when we don't call it, it's right there -- it comes and visits us if we leave it alone -- when we reach for it, it's harder to attain, and it hides from us.
It's freedom which leads us to that, and freedom is gotten by repetition, i.e. practice, and keeping good habits going.
Part of those good habits is working from a bench that exactly suits the length of our legs -- it's really critical to freedom and ease of pedal playing, more so than it may seem on its surface.
Some benches are equipped with a crank mechanism built into the bench which can be adjusted up or down plus or minus 2 inches to suit the performer -- which would be ideal; it's also possible to retrofit an older bench with the same, the only drawback being cost; a bench with this feature is not cheap.
More commonly however the console bench at hand lacks this feature, and it's height is fixed by the builder; the organist is thus faced with a one-size-fits-all seat which will need to be tested [See blog, What About Bench Position, Parts I-II].
For those performers of medium to small stature the bench as it comes from the builder may work fine, but it compels the taller player to examine it carefully to see if and by how much it may need to be raised.
NOTE: If we're subbing for the regular organist who happens to be a large man a good bit taller than we are, we can expect to be exposed to the opposite situation with the bench too high in the air; in this case we need to check this out in advance and see what can be done to lower it, if that were possible; when we're still forced to play the pedals from a bench that's too high and there's nothing that can be done about it we can expect our toes to be doing just about all of the work.
When wooden boards measuring 2 by 4 inches are placed flat on the floor as shims to raise the bench, the center of each board can be routed, i.e. ground out with a special drill bit to create a recess in each one about 1/8 inch deep to accept the bench legs and keep them from slipping off; these wooden shims may then be sanded, stained to match the bench color, and finished with a coat of spray lacquer.
NOTE: When the rough-cut board measuring 2 by 4 inches goes through the planer, the planer removes 3/8 inch, resulting in a finished board measuring 1-5/8 by 3-5/8 inches; this is the "standard two by four" builders purchase from the lumber yard; when a pair of these are laid flat as organ bench shims and are rounted 1/8th inch deep to accept the bottom of the bench legs the bench height will be raised by 1-1/2 inches (1-5/8 inches take away another 1/8 = 1-4/8, or 1-1/2 inches).
A word about books: Alternatively, in a pinch, some older or little used editions of certain sturdy-bound hardback books can be retrieved from storage and used as temporary shims.
NOTE: The photo shows copies of the Gather Comprehensive hymnal (hardbound green cover) being used this way; this alternative of sitting the bench on top of books is being mentioned to underscore the importance of securing the right bench height, that it overrides whatever has to be done to achieve that objective, and that books are one more temporary option that might be considered to remove the obstacle of the bench being too low for the organist; any book used for this purpose is still organist-friendly and "raises" the level of playing [See blog, Improvisation, Part IV].
Bottom line: Better to prop up the bench with two-by-fours or even books than to watch (and listen to) a taller organist struggling to play from a bench that doesn't suit him/her.

Apr. 10, 2021

At its most elementary and primitive level, teaching the organ to pupils involves basically two things:
1. Identifying what, if anything, could be standing in their way on their road to mastery.
2. Figuring out what in the blue blazes to do about it.