Blog/Archive - PLEASE SCROLL DOWN

May. 30, 2020

Let me first share an insider's insight ... any church organist of recognized ability who leaves the chancel for the orchestra pit and goes into picture playing discovers very quickly that simply knowing how to play the organ is only the beginning of movie work, that a separate art of fusion of music and action is involved the model for which is the modern orchestra, that the instrument has sound colors and features that generally aren't found in a church organ, that a new study of registration, arranging, and technique is needed, and that (s)he suddenly has oceans more to learn; save for certain exceptions and those today who have followed in their same footsteps, very little popular music currently performed holds the kind of artistry that can be heard on recordings made by the theatre and cinema organists of yesteryear whose talents and creativity put the theatre organ on the map of musical history and in the consciousness of still growing thousands; one could go on and on about the lore and history of their art ... but if all the "Unit Orchestra" theatre organ means to anyone reading these lines is nothing but loudness and pizzazz, every stop engaged in a mixmaster of sound driven at full tilt from start to finish in a single propulsive rhythm, the music overblown, jazzed-up to the max, full of ear-tickling effects but devoid of orchestration and phrasing with never a tempo rubato, never a nuance, always offered up the same ever-predictable "cookie-cutter" way lacking modulation, lacking drama, lacking thrill, without light or shade ...
THEN STAY TUNED ...
Donald Herbert Baker (Feb 26, 1903 - June 26, 1989), often dubbed "the Dean of the theatre organ" and "Mister Medley," would be in the top 5 of the greatest theatre organists in history selected from a field flooded with outstanding and remarkable major talents; he was a superbly gifted musician and unique artist who possessed a virtuoso piano technique, could play anything in any key flawlessly, and was blessed with stocky fingers and large hands which could reach a 12th and easily hold common chords spanning 10ths and 11ths in open position.
He had three careers (moving picture accompanist, concert organist, recording artist), all of them brilliant enough to assure his place in the theatre organ hall of fame; his was the last of the great names to rise to prominence during the theatre organ's golden era, and, with fifteen long-play (LP) 33-1/3 rpm albums and more than fifty 78-rpm disks to his credit, he was a theatre organ recording star of the first magnitude.
A century ago pipe organs occupied a much more important and prominent place in American culture than they do today; theatre pipe organs were being manufactured by many organ building firms in tremendous numbers in the 19-teens and 1920's, and a great many were built with only 4-6 ranks; the theatrical organist back then not only worked the machine but was in command of a legitimate art form which was very much a part of musical culture in the way people were entertained in that time -- an art form which typically took many years to perfect.
The theatrical pipe organ, known in the UK as a "cinema pipe organ," was a machine designed and schemed to be a one-man orchestra for the accompaniment of silent motion pictures, every theatre back in the day had one, over 7 thousand were built (8 major builders -- Wurlitzer, Robert Morton, Kimball, Moeller, Barton, Marr & Colton, Wicks, Kilgen, in that order from most to least -- altogether manufactured over 5 thousand of them in their factories, and about 80 other firms altogether built the remaining 2 thousand) but fewer than 600 of these wonder instruments have survived to this day.
Baker was born in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, began taking piano lessons in 1911 at the age of 8, and went on to study piano at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta and at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, Toronto, Ontario; his quick mind made him a rapid learner, and by the age of 20 he had built himself into a rapid sight-reader in command of a fluent piano technique and ability to improvise; this mastery instilled in him a quiet confidence to be able, if called upon do to do, to handle any new music or work around any unexpected situation involving his instrument, the piano.
This man was one of those precious souls who happened to come to picture playing with all the right stuff going for him -- a keen sense of dramatic values, lively emotions, an eye and ear for genuine melodies, a willingness to make a never-ending search for new material that has a tune, appeal, and a throb in it, quick sight-reading, ability to improvise well when necessary, fluent technique -- he was the total package; feats of incredible musicianship at the last minute also were standard-issue with him, and his fingers could fly over the keys as fast as anyone in the business.
He came to New York City as a permanent resident in 1923 and found work as a pit pianist at the old Flushing Theatre located at 37-11 Main Street in downtown Flushing, Queens, Long Island, working alongside the 6-piece "Flushing Symphony" to provide musical accompaniment for silent motion pictures and vaudeville stage shows; on a certain night when the regular organist didn't show up, Baker, who had never sat at an organ console before, was drafted as an emergency fill-in; having all the requisites to ready himself for work at the theatrical organ, he could only come away having liked it and wanting more [See blog, The Pipe Organ Bug, That Look].
NOTE: The Flushing Theatre had one screen and 1,200 seats, was one of the first movie theatres in downtown, Flushing, Queens, and opened in 1917; the Wicks Company built an organ (Op. 315) for it in 1920, and that instrument would have been the one which Baker knew; it was upgraded and presumably enlarged in 1924 after only 4 years of service to a III/11 Robert Morton (Op. 2930); this organ was sold in 1930 and moved to the Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall of the new 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan where it remained until the 1950's, then was moved to a private residence in Edmonds, Washington where it was enlarged to a non-RM, the console being lost; as for the Flushing Theatre, it was re-launched as the Taft Theatre on New Year's Eve 1931 and in 1938 was renamed the Town Theatre; it was operated by the Century Theatres circuit and then by the Springer chain in its final years; the Taft/Town was closed in 1955 and demolished to make way for a W.T. Grant variety store, which in turn closed in 1976 and was demolished; after a long history of ups and downs the site where Don Baker became inspired to launch his brilliant career as a theatre organist has undergone two demolitions and is now occupied by a supermarket, food hall, two jewelry stores, and a cell phone store.
After this light-bulb moment in 1923 Baker began coming to the Flushing Theatre every Friday morning to practice on the Wicks organ; he advanced very quickly at this, almost as if he had been given advanced coaching and already knew exactly how to train himself to play the organ for moving pictures, thanks to people like Edith Lang.
NOTE: The fact that in 1920 the Boston Music Company published the now classic book "Musical Accompaniment Of Moving Pictures" by theatrical organist Edith Lang and co-authored by George West, a work still available from Forgotten Books reprinted from an original master copy in the library of the University of Toronto, is most significant in this connection; this little book contains in capsule form all of the most essential coaching Baker would have needed at the time to guide his first steps as a theatrical organist; it's very likely that he was well acquainted with the contents of this book -- thus, any members of the Don Baker Fan Club should find this reprint of this century-old book of significant interest.
All who have had more than a nodding acquaintance with theatre organ know that veteran organist Don Baker earned a solid reputation in one of the toughest crucibles of all -- New York City in the 1920's and 1930's; he quickly developed a big playing style best described as "bravura" ... upon hearing one of his expertly phrased and attractively registered arrangements which could be an upbeat treatment of a tune which exudes charm, an ornamented tune full of impish chromatic embellishments, something bouncy, something a lot of fun, or something soaring and a real thriller, one gets the impression that it's "definitive," kinda sorta the last word.
He also developed over the years his own way of classifying [theatre] organs; rather than group them by the manufacturer's name he had his own system -- regardless of make, he classified them as "singing, non-singing, bombastic, pretty, or just fair."
Within the next two years he had scored successful engagements at the considerably larger Rialto and Rivoli Theatres in Manhattan, which have also undergone demolition, in 1935 and 1987, respectively; by 1925 he also had attracted the attention of the Wurlitzer Music Store in New York City where he was hired as a demonstrator and teacher.
The man was entirely self taught at the theatre pipe organ and referred to himself as a "pianist-organist", but his dramatic style of playing characterized by lengthy arrangements of songs with wide dynamic variations displayed an exciting technique that contrasted with most earlier American theatre organ recordings; one can imagine his recordings had quite a dramatic impact when released.
These arrangements of his were harmonically rich, jam-packed with energetic technique, and moved at a very fast clip which made them extremely difficult to imitate; his fingers raced all over the keys but typically not in a pattern fixed once and for all, as with written compositions.
A moment's thought shows this to be hardly surprising; the first theatre organists for silent films had to invent their own accompaniments on the fly, the theatre organ was designed around this need for improvisation, and anyone who plays it, even at an elementary level, finds themselves wading into arranging; it's said in fact that famed Radio City Music Hall house organist Dick Liebert never performed any of his arrangements in public twice the same way.
Baker therefore constantly exercised his powers of arranging which meant that an arrangement one was given to hear at tonight's concert could be and often was different from the way one was used to hearing it on a recording.
Any Baker arrangement was an excellent example for study however, and separating it into its elements to see how they worked to help dramatize a tune and incorporating some of these techniques into one's own sense of arranging has tremendous educational value; reconstructing someone else's playing note for note from a recording also can provide some valuable ear training for anyone with the courage, patience, and stamina to give it a try.
Once all this detective work was done one then would be tempted to create an identical reproduction at concert tempo, and this, as one might expect, would jealously compete for available practice time; one should be warned however that this kind of exercise with someone else's recordings is a slippery slope which, for as long as one is preoccupied with it, puts the development of individual expression on hold.
NOTE: In 1965 George Wright rerecorded for the Dot label using the Pasadena studio III/28 Wurlitzer a dozen tunes first recorded by his idol Jesse Crawford; Wright laboriously wrote out every one of these Crawford arrangements to ensure that the tracks on the new vinyl LP would faithfully follow the 78 rpm originals note -for-note with the exact same stops, touch, tempos, and dynamic changes; this copying project, a hugely daunting and herculean task, was a special circumstance however -- an act of homage and preservation of a limited number of not-to-be-forgotten arrangements reconstructed long, very long after Wright's own individual style had emerged.
For all other situations, the most important rule of theatre organ playing to keep in mind, as Baker stated on the first page of his book, is "ALWAYS BE YOURSELF: EXPRESS YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND NEVER COPY ANYONE ELSE'S STYLE."
When the New York Paramount Theatre of 3,700 seats opened at Times Square in 1926 theatre organist Jesse Crawford, brought East from the Chicago Theatre and known as "The Poet of the Organ," was hired to play the Paramount's brand new IV/36 theatre pipe organ, considered Wurlitzer's masterpiece; Crawford insisted that he did not design the instrument as some have supposed -- he simply specified the inclusion of certain String and Diapason ranks, 3 Tibias, and 4 Vox Humanas.
When the hugely spacious Brooklyn Paramount Theatre of 4,200 seats (now the Long Island University gym) opened in 1928 Baker was hired there to play half-hour concerts for movie-goers at the noon and supper hours on its IV/26 Wurlitzer; he recalled that in 1927, when "talkies" first came in, a development which dealt a body blow to the use of theatre organs, he and Henry Murtaugh used to play incidental music to sound films on this organ very softly, to cover up the surface noise of the old Vitaphone disks.
When Murtaugh left the Brooklyn Paramount, Baker continued to work there with Stuart Barrie, and to this day there still remains an inscription on the little door to the organ lift which reads, "Baker and Barrie -- their door -- keep out -- 'nuff said."
When the less spacious Paramount Theatre of 2,500 seats in Stapleton, Staten Island opened in 1930 Baker was hired there as house organist where his billing "Wizard of the Organ" attracted patrons as he performed on a smaller III/19 Wurlitzer; the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930's was a second devastating blow to the use of theatre pipe organs, caused theatres to struggle for patrons, theatre ticket sales dwindled, and the employment situation for everyone, including theatre organists, became dire.
All through the 1930's Paramount management produced films of acclaimed organists performing as portions of the popular Paramount Pictorials, or "short subjects," that were widely used in its theatres; some of these clips were filmed in different years on the spot in theatres and some in studios and later made into a single film, and the video sometimes did not perfectly synchronize with the audio sound.
"Famous Cinema Organists, 1930's -- Film 7501" is one of these films and has been posted for public viewing on YouTube; in this film Jesse Crawford and Ann leaf perform selections recorded on the Paramount studio IV/21 Wurlitzer in 1931, followed by Baker who plays four selections at the Paramount Theatre Wurlitzer in 1934 upon his return from England; two of Baker's numbers in this clip (Handel's Largo, Mendelssohn's Spinning Song) happen to be listed as recommended repertoire for the theatrical organist in Edith Lang's book; Baker demonstrated the technique of "thumbing down" to play two manuals with the same hand in "Danny Boy," and the clip ended with his sensational arrangement of Tiger Rag; this involved the use of all 4 manuals, double pedal glissandos, and multiple hand registrations, all executed with speed, flawless precision, and split-second timing.
Baker did this HOODWINKED !
The man could continue playing in dim light, complete darkness, or blindfolded -- but he was never the kind of human being who would deliberately try to upstage any of his fellow musicians, ever; in the context of the Great Depression this daring stunt recorded in one take with the cameras rolling was an attention-getting device whose signal purpose was to help out the Paramount management which was doing everything it could think of to encourage theatre patrons during desperate times and to create a drawing-card for the younger generation of movie fans who the management believed would react with favor in relation to the box office and Baker's own earning power.
In 1932, as the Great Depression settled in and the economic motor which drove production of American theatre organs disappeared, theatre organists were either furloughed or, if their employment continued, had their salary reduced; Jesse Crawford, whose very name by then had become iconic, decided to leave the New York Paramount that year over a salary dispute, after which British organist Reginald Foort assumed the organist's job there for a time; the theatre's Wurlitzer fell mostly silent for the next three years.
In 1933 Baker found it necessary to leave New York City for an opportunity to tour England's Granada Theatre circuit as a guest organist, with daily performances opening first at the Granada, Edmondton, then the Granada, Tooting, London where he made some recordings; the latter also was the preferred cinema organ venue for radio broadcasts, and during his time there Baker also made weekly broadcasts over BBC.
Baker was destined to become a naturalized American citizen at some point, but evidently this happened after he returned from touring England since while he was there he was billed as "the Canadian organist, Don Baker."
After spending a year and a half in England he returned to New York City in late 1934 to resume performing at the Stapleton, Staten Island Paramount and continued performing there through early 1935.
Later that same year, following in Jesse's Crawford's shoes, Baker landed the coveted job of solo organist at the New York Paramount, and from then on he built up a tremendous following with his brilliant show-pieces and sing-alongs which brought the voice of the big Wurlitzer there back to life; he held this spot for an unprecedented nearly 14 years, longer than any organist at the Times Square house; it was during these years that he played on bills featuring top big bands headed by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and others.
While he was at the New York Paramount, Baker also made his 78 rpm recordings for the Columbia label along with a host of singles for general background music and many community sing short subjects for Columbia pictures on the Paramount studio Wurlitzer; he also made frequent radio broadcasts from this organ [See blog, Slide Show 9].
NOTE: The New York Paramount recording studio located in a converted office on the 9th floor above the theatre was used for recording and radio broadcasts; both the theatre and studio were demolished in 1966, while the adjacent Paramount building was refurbished for other uses (both Paramount Wurlitzer organs were saved from the wrecking ball).
In 1948 a different opportunity knocked, and Baker and his wife pulled up their New York City roots and headed West and bought a home in Las Vegas; while making his home in Nevada Baker played for 7 years at the Last Frontier and other clubs and hotels; this was followed by 3 years at the Harrah's Club at Lake Tahoe; meanwhile a young California organist named George Wright came to play at the New York Paramount; Wright was to play there for the next 3 years, in a masterful but entirely different style and manner which influenced countless numbers of theatre organists since; the tremendously talented Wright was one of the most able among a number of major talents in the next generation of theatre organists who at the time could follow Baker at this prestigious position, but, after Wright left in 1951, the organ there was used only intermittently.
After 1958 Baker is believed to have relocated his address to Golden, Colorado and returned to recording, made ten LP albums for Columbia records, and began recording and concertizing for the Rodgers Organ Company.
Beginning around 1959 Baker began a long stretch as a touring concert theatre organist for the Conn Company, a job which sent him all over the United States and occupied him three weeks of every month throughout the 1960's; during this time he made several LP recordings on Conn theatre organs and produced written theatre organ arrangements which found their way into many album books which were sold in Conn dealer stores; some of his written arrangements such as Intermezzo, In A Persian Market, and Schubert's Ave Maria were distributed for sale at his concerts while he was touring for Conn.
During the 1960's he also concertized on his own; when farewell had to be said to the New York Times Square Paramount theatre in 1964 the featured guest at the nostalgic, final concert on the Mighty Wurlitzer there was Baker, the organist who had spent more time at that console than anyone else, and he played many favorites "from the good old days."
The closing concert of any convention has to be a precarious one in that a superstar performer is needed; Baker superbly filled that role at the 1967 Convention of the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (ATOE), now the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), held at the Senate Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on the Fourth of July (photo); Don found the IV/34 Wurlitzer there very much to his liking, and with each succeeding selection in the concert the treatments became more daring.
When Don Baker was in a pipe-happy mood he threw caution to the wind and often broke a good many of the rules, with bold counter-melodies challenging the main stream, sudden and shocking key changes, and unexpected emphasis from sizzling reeds; at the same time he never departed from good musical form; he was a master of transitions linking tunes into a medley, and his modulations between tunes still included a bit of the ending tune while a hint of the coming selection rose from the ever-changing harmonies; he used a 2-handed trem effect some have called a "chop-chop" style, but he never used an effect long enough to give it any wear -- he was too impatient to get to the next thriller.
All this time the man would be sitting calmly at the console, his face a study in concentration, but knowing just where to find exactly what he wanted as though he had played the instrument for many years, sometimes generating mid-tune applause; he often had the pleasure of acknowledging a really meaningful standing ovation -- the audience had experienced a sense of greatness which had to be expressed.
Those who were blessed to hear him during these turbulent 1960's would leave the theatre, knowing full well that as they passed through the outer doors they returned to the world of race riots, Vietnam, increased taxes, the Middle East, unrest in Africa, and crippling strikes ... but they would carry with them the glow of a make-believe world which remembered the glittering theatre, living entertainers, and -- above all -- the wonderful theatre organs of a simpler and more graceful era fondly remembered; no one would deny that the effort had been worth it.
It was quite common for people leaving at the conclusion of these various concerts of his to lament that "NO ONE plays like that any more!" ... the fact of the matter is, no one played like that EVER ... save for him.
In 1968 Baker finished writing a now out-of-print book called "A Study In Theatre Organ Style" which was published in June of that year by Peer International Corporation in New York City; this book included in a nutshell such subjects as what theatre organ style is, meaningful use of the swell pedal (a Baker trademark), explanations of stops, how to dramatize an arrangement and learn to read between the lines, the glissando, tricks of the trade, and emphasized the important of thinking ahead, thinking orchestrally, and knowing the scales, chords, broken chords, and dominant 7ths in all the keys; this book also included 10 big stylized arrangements which illustrated the core of his teaching on large pages for easier sight-reading, and it came bound with a plastic comb binding made to sit flat on the rack.
If one could have only one book on theatre organ playing, this would be it.
NOTE: Volume One (2009), Volume Two (2010), and Volume Three (2013) of "The Art Of Theatre Organ Arranging" by Jelanie Eddington published by RJE Productions LLC are in-depth studies of the basics along with 5 big stylized arrangements in each Volume which illustrate the important principles involved; for the serious student of this art, all 3 of these Volumes would be important to get.
During the 1960's many theatre pipe organs were beginning to need rebuilding, and those which were not renovated in their original locations were sometimes sold and removed to private residences and restaurants peppered all over this country; many well-known theatre organists including Baker found employment at these special restaurants during the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's.
Baker was elected and inducted into the ATOS Hall of Fame in 1971; as he neared retirement he moved to Clearwater, Florida where he spent his final years; he lived a nice long life and passed away in Leesburg, Florida at the age of 86 having thrilled millions from all over the globe with his playing and having left his own unforgettable mark on his many friends, fans, and admirers in the theatre organ world.
In 1991, two years after his death, the Orlando Chapter of ATOS began raising money to provided an authentic III/18 Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ to Lake Brantley High School in Orlando, Florida as a memorial to his memory; the group chose this venue because it has the best auditorium in the Orlando area, it was where Don performed some of his last concerts, and the school promised to allow the group, once the instrument was installed, to hold 6 concerts a year there on the "Don Baker Memorial Wurlitzer" featuring organists from all over the country.
This capsule sketch cannot do justice to an artist of this musician's stature, outreach, and influence; he was a larger-than-life figure who deserves to have someone write his biography, a project which, in his case, would be a daunting task in terms of uncovering a complete chronological narrative of information: he was a private person who tended to keep his distance out of respect for the privacy of others, thus a good bit of the factual data which could be gathered into an account of his life written over 30 years after his death would have to come indirectly from newspaper reports, anecdotal stories which may still survive among his friends and former coworkers, or any information, interactions, or experiences which could be related by surviving family members, provided that they can be contacted.
How a pianist with no formal organ training could move to this instrument with such lightning speed, make a hugely successful career out of it, and even win fame from it here and abroad, is among the thousands of questions that remain unanswered about this man.
He absolutely had a sense of humor, a keen one in fact, he needed it for his work, but he also was a gentleman and never ever -- repeat never -- made fun of or uttered a derogatory word against anyone in or out of the music business; he was always encouraging, a lifter, to anyone interested in learning to play regardless of their age or ability level; he also had a way of showing young students what they needed to work on most without finding fault; his life was filled with beautiful things, and it can honestly be said that whatever accidental sadnesses, heartaches, financial stresses, or professional jealousies he was forced to endure as he wandered through this life did not arise from anything he deliberately did to bring it upon himself or others.
He was a one-of-a-kind, of a type which will never come this way again, who stood head and shoulders above the general crowd of players, whose contribution to music made the world a far better and richer place than the way he found it, who thrilled millions with his playing, and who left an indelible mark in the hearts of those young and emerging players who learned from and idolized him ... as this author and so many others did.
Far from being an aberration lacking musical integrity, the "Unit Orchestra" theatre pipe organ and the specialized manner of playing that it demands is a matter of scholarly attention for the post-millennial student of the organ which would necessarily take into account the builders, types of installations, the sonic design, treatises and other instructional material, the organist's use of cue sheets or scores, improvisation, and the films themselves -- not because it's merely part of the history of the organ but because this specialized machine was the state-of-the-art "theatre surround sound" of nearly a century ago, the voice of the motion picture for the first 40 years of its history, and a major part of Anglo-American culture in the way people were entertained at that time.
It would also need to take into account the leading musicians, with Don Baker being one of the foremost on that list.

May. 28, 2020

(con't from Part I)
Many enthusiasts at the organ reach a time when they would like to access modern technology and sound to upgrade and expand their digi home organ ... and, if possible, do it in a way without having to disconnect the digi organ's internal speaker system to convert it to play VPO sample sets [See blog, Virtual Pipe Organ (VPO)].
When one already owns a digi organ and uses it exclusively for home practice, one doesn't have to turn on a PC and wait for it to "boot up" to play, the latency is 0, all the notes of a stop are balanced in timbre and attack, there are no noises, the reverb is easy to adjust, and all the stops can be easily controlled without launchpads or touch screens.
Of course, for an organist, nothing beats the real thing ... but organ scholars who have studied Organ in a college/conservatory of music have reported having to use a practice pipe organ there which had irregular keyboards and pedal, irregular registers in timbre and level, unequal attacks, compressor, bellows, and transmission noises, detuning issues, and, very often, inadequate reverberation; ironically, these things that players can and do encounter on the real McCoy they do not experience with a VPO sample set.
It's for this and certain other reasons that some prefer to stick with their digi organ at home rather than retrofit it with a PC and software to play VPO sample sets; in the end, it's all about one's own ears and whatever suits them best even if it's not in synchrony with others who have different opinions.
Whether one likes to listen to a VPO sample set, or prefers an electronic organ, or insists on playing real pipe organs, or even detests organ music altogether, is simply a matter of personal choice.
When organists spend long hours every day practicing on an instrument it's also vitally important that they have sounds at their disposal with sufficient tonal spread and with which their ears can be comfortable for extended periods.
The current digi organs with sampled sounds or synthesis by physical modeling are far from those of the last two decades of the previous century; the improved processor's speed and the reduction in the cost of memory as well as with convolution reverberation, have greatly improved the quality of the sound.
Interestingly enough, it has happened before that an organist who converted his digi home organ to play VPO sample sets has achieved with his Viscount CM-100 sound module (photo) enough quality not to have to connect the PC each and every time he wanted to practice.
The latter module is a unit which sits on the console and provides up to 12 simultaneous pipe sounds from a library of 176 pre-programmed choices; the voices are generated by physical modeling technology, not by sampling.
This system involves real-time calculation of the audio waveform based on the physics of construction, materials, and wind pressure; the overall effect is to provide better realism as each individual key can have its own set of parameters just like a real pipe organ, as almost every parameter can be individually adjusted.
The 12 chosen sounds are selectable on lighted rocker stop tablets on the front panel but can also be accessed remotely; each one may be assigned to any of 6 output audio channels and controlled by any of 16 MIDI input channels.
Hence, this unit can serve all by itself as a stand-alone small organ or as a source of additional stops for any larger MIDI-equipped digi or pipe organ.
Its 8 voice memory keys controlling 8 banks of memories provide for up to 64 combinations; it also has built-in reverberation and tremulant effects selectable on front-panel keys, transposition selection, 7 tuning temperament settings, expression shoe input, 6 mono audio output channels, and stereo headphone output.

May. 11, 2020

That look.
It says it all.
This is puppeteer, actor, Presbyterian minister, pianist, and gifted song-writer Mr. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood on PBS television, seated at the 1917 IV/108 Skinner organ of Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an instrument rebuilt by Aeolian-Skinner in 1933.
Not many are fully aware of what a fine musician Mr. Rogers happened to be; besides writing all the basic music for his television show he also graduated magna cum laude from Rollins College in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in music composition, was an accomplished performer at the piano, and could play the organ casually because of his piano training.
His expression captures what organists have felt from the first moment they had in their command a really large pipe organ and first heard its glorious voice respond to their own fingers and feet and mind.
That experience does something to the new organist that's hard to describe ...
This is the most gorgeous musical instrument to the ears of organists in existence; the beauty of its voices, its tremendous pitch and dynamic spectra which exceeds that of the grand symphony orchestra and sounds like a symphony of players, its incredible ability to express the entire range of human emotion at the touch of a key, its awesome capacity to affect its listeners at a raw, visceral level, and its sheer, thrilling power transports them to a different realm ... to the place where creation has its home ... to a place of unlimited scope where, for a little while, they're in touch with their own soul in another dimension and in perfect union, able to hear only the sounds of the music, virtually unaware of anything else going on around them.
Hearing the inspired music written by composers for this wonder of an instrument gives organists a glimpse of another world ... a kingdom of LIght filled with power, love, and purpose ... three things our own broken world desperately needs.
This is as "high" as they can ever be with sounds that touch the essence of who and what they are, and it feels to them like it must be genetic.
All organists can relate back to the time when the pipe organ first did this to them [See blog, The Pipe Organ Bug], and they feel it all over again each time they hear it in person up close.

May. 3, 2020

The word "tutti" in music has come to mean two different things:
It can mean all voices or instruments performing together, or it can mean a passage or section of music meant for all performers.
The first known use of the term in the former sense was in 1724, and in the latter sense in 1816.
In the former sense the entire forces of the grand symphony orchestra comes to mind, which translates for the organist into the "full organ" at its absolute strength.
Because controlling the organ involves the ability to bring on or cancel the full organ as quickly as possible, most consoles being built today are supplied with a reversible thumb piston engraved with the word "Tutti" or perhaps only with a "T," which is typically placed on the far right below one of the manuals (photo); this control is commonly duplicated by a toe stud made playable by the right foot to allow the full organ to be engaged or retired when both hands and left foot must be occupied on the keys; this piston and toe stud are typically "reversible" in that the first push turns them on, and the second push turns them off.
In some instruments the first toe stud in the first row to the right of the crescendo shoe duplicates the "Sequencer Forward" piston which moves forward through the general combinations, one-at-a-time, with each push; this is an extremely useful control to have but NOT to be confused with the reversible Tutti piston which brings on the fullest sound all at once with the first push and retires it with the second push.
When a so-called "Seq +" toe stud like this is supplied, another "Seq -" toe stud will be supplied on the opposite side, first row to the immediate left of the swell shoes which duplicates the "Sequencer Backward" piston and moves backward through the general combinations, one-at-a-time, with each push.
Depending upon how the generals combos are programmed the Seq + toe stud might be used exclusively by the right toe to add or retire stops during the course of a piece, and, with practice, the right toe could be easily trained to always find this one same toe stud during the performance of the piece without looking down.
A moment's thought will show that any control which can bring on the fullest possible sound with the touch of a single button makes the most jarring effect the organ can produce and must therefore be used very carefully, thoughtfully, sparingly, with deliberate intention, and be kept in reserve for final, climactic or other special places in certain music.
Organists and builders are not always in agreement about which sound colors and pitches of stops should enter into this Tutti; for this reason the Tutti piston has been made programmable in many instruments so that different organists can adjust it to suit the music and their own personal taste.
In other instruments where the builder has made the Tutti non-programmable, the factory decides and pre-sets this combination in advance, once and for all, and it cannot be changed.
When the music calls for the full organ, this DOES NOT mean "pulling out ALL the stops."
The biggest problem electronic digi organ manufacturers face is what can be done for what price; this market has always been competitive, and manufacturers experience periodic lulls in sales; generally speaking, in the market for these instruments, manufacturers find that buyers are interested in more stops, more manuals, more controls, etc., than the very finest musical product.
This encourages manufacturers to place a less expensive non-programmable Tutti and Crescendo (whose full position duplicates the Tutti) in their products to allow them to be marketed as still "having one."
Unfortunately, in a non-programmable Tutti, EVERY speaking stop in the organ at all pitches, and every sub and super coupler, intermanual coupler, and manual to pedal coupler save for celestes, percussions, and tremulants is generally wired "on" by the factory; this means ALL stops of delicate intonation, large scale, tubby-sounding diapasons and flutes, imitative strings, color reeds, big reeds, the Vox Humana whose characteristic voice depends upon the tremulant, mixtures, and mutations -- at ALL pitches.
Nowadays just about all Tutti and Crescendo controls in new digi organs are programmable, but organists may still encounter older digi instruments from time to time in which they find non-programmable features which have them tied to a thick, opaque, and muddy-sounding full organ Tutti and full Crescendo.
The only logical reason for making these features non-programmable in an organ is cost savings, as they have nothing to recommend them otherwise; organists, when they find them, will only use them when nothing else will do, and then only grudgingly.
The great art in building up choruses to the full organ summit is in deciding what NOT to include in that buildup; mistuned (celeste) stops, percussion stops, stops of delicate intonation, imitative orchestral color, or poor blending qualities, and all big, tubby-sounding flutes and diapasons which do nothing but thicken the ensemble are best left out of the Tutti and full Crescendo.
Leaving out these elements creates a leaner, more transparent full organ without ANY loss of power; it also tends to minimize or eliminate phasing, i.e., the acoustical interference which can be observed between multiple standing sound waves generated by pipes of different families of sound color sounding at the same pitch.
As always, the ear will decide what to include and what not to include; organists need to trust their ear; when it comes to making adjustments in performance their ear is their best friend; the ear will lead the brain.
Obviously then, the complete freedom which a programmable Tutti piston permits in the composition of the full organ necessitates a complete knowledge of registration and familiarity with the timbre of EVERY stop in the organ in EVERY part of its range, and, in the case of enclosed stops, with the swell shades open, closed, and partially open.
There is an inherent danger of abuse in using this control, not to mention the certainty of a complete destruction of a performance of a piece of music if it is accidentally and unintentionally hit.
This could explain why, if the Tutti piston in a large pipe organ is found to be not working, the reason could very well be that a previous Principal Organist, or perhaps the current one, had it disconnected.
Some years ago at a time when the late Dr. Alexander Schreiner was still serving as organist for the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, he had the programmable Tutti piston disconnected on the big Aeolian-Skinner organ there; this indicates that he not only found no use for it himself but had serious objections to it being provided at all.
Takeaway: how we draw the stops, and how frequently we add or retire them, is balance.
Everything is organ playing is balance.

Jan. 28, 2020

For those organists who would aspired to move from the chancel to the orchestra pit and work with the theatre organ, the glissando is a special study.
By "glissando" in organ playing is meant the technique of a quick sliding up or down, note to note, of a single finger, a thumb, the fingers and thumb of the same hand, the palm of the hand, or both hands moving in similar motion separated by the same intervallic distance; this is done chromatically (in half steps), and, when fluidly performed, is very effective at rendering a melody line cantabile, i.e. smooth and in a singable manner, while being ear-catching and, at times, majestic.
This is a subject best taught at the keys; this posting is merely an attempt to codify in words how the various types of glissandos are executed.
Any finger or either thumb can be trained to "slide" to any adjacent key to effect an uninterrupted legato of a moving melody line; this so-called "finger glissando" and "thumb glissando" along with substitution, are employed in piano playing to a much less extent, if at all, due to the presence of a damper pedal which permits notes to continue sounding when the fingers move to different keys; these however are all non-negotiable, essential points of organ technique.
The question of which notes to play as well as how many is most important; a solid knowledge of harmony in how to build chords (major, minor, 7ths, etc.) and being able to run ALL the scales in general and the chromatic scale in particular up and down the keys with either hand will make the correct, natural fingering and the working out of all forms of glissando seem second nature.
There has always been some slight difference of opinion among teachers regarding the fingering of scales and chords, and the construction of a person's hands should serve as the guide here.
For persons with average-size hands the traditional teaching is for the 3rd (middle) finger to always be on the black keys when fingering the chromatic scale ascending or descending (photo); the middle finger is the longest, strongest finger and can be trained to work very quickly with the thumb.
When playing pieces the thumb should be kept on the white keys whenever possible but at times it will be necessary to use it on the black keys.
The touch used with any form of glissando is ALWAYS legato.
When a very rapid, all-white-key glissando is to be performed on the manuals ascending, the part of the hand which contacts the keys can be either 1) the side of the thumb at the thumbnail or 2) the palm of the hand.
When the latter is employed, more than one white key sounds at the same time, but the dissonance, being of extremely short duration and ending on a consonant chord, is fully accepted by the listener's ear.
When this is done using the palm of the left hand on the manual below where the right hand is playing, it can make for a spectacular finish using the full organ; in this case the left thumb ends on a single high note which, for emphasis, and with a sharp turn of the wrist, could be doubled at the octave below using the little ("pinky") finger.
The ascending multiple-note all-white-key "accordion-type" glissando for the right hand starts on a chord in close harmony position which matches the same fingered position as the destination chord; freezing the fingers in the position of the first chord and keeping them in that same position as the entire hand glides upward along the white keys simplifies its execution; with this technique the right wrist is slightly rotated (supinated) and the fingers of the right hand are curved; should the destination chord be of a different fingered position than that of the starting chord, the fingers can be left in the starting fingered position until the just before the end of the glissando.
When playing dramatic song arrangements which have a big finish it's always a good idea to save an extra inch of swell pedal opening for the very last; if an extra "kicker" is desired after the right hand reaches a high final chord, a 32' pedal stop and a big untremmed manual reed can be drawn on the manual above as the swell shoe is closed; the final left hand chord on that higher manual, which is typically a 2nd inversion triad of the tonic chord, is then approached from a half-step higher; the fingers and thumb of the left hand hit that chord and then gliss downward a half-step to the tonic chord as fast as possible to land at the same time that the left foot hits the tonic note in the bottom octave of the pedals; when this is followed by a full crescendo of the swell shoe before the hands are released, a very dramatic ending can be effected.
This technique of half-step chord glissando downward to the tonic chord also works best when the final chord lands on mostly, if not all, white keys (for example, C, F, or G major).
On the pedals the all-white-key glissando is almost always performed descending and with the inner surface of the left toe; the "feel" is that of using the big toe of the left foot to slide downward until the destination pedal note is reached; here again, the starting note and destination note may be either white or black.
Chromatic glissandos are performed on the manuals only and may be either single note or multiple-note.
When traveling between 2 different single melody notes widely separated for the right hand, the insertion of too many intervening chromatic notes will make it obvious that the performer is striving for the glissando effect; to keep from overdoing it and to stay in rhythm, it's best to glissando through ONLY the first 2 intervening chromatic notes and then leap the the destination note; the listener's ear will "fill in" the rest of the intervening chromatic notes.
If the harmony at the starting melody note for the right hand moves by leap to a different harmony at the destination note, the general tonal trend also must be considered; in each case the notes in the glissando between consecutive notes in the melody will need to incorporate a semitone which moves the harmony into the destination chord.
The video of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" posted on this web site demonstrates how glissandos can be incorporated into a song to make it more flowing and attention-getting [See menu bar, Videos].
Multiple-note chromatic glissandos for both hands ascending in similar motion are of many different types; some are executed in close harmony position, some in open harmony position; the left hand could follow the right hand at the interval of a minor 3rd below, a minor 6th below, or at some other interval; when the glissando starts in open harmony position and finishes up high in close harmony position the top melody note is held only part way through the glissando.
In the long chromatic glissando for 2 hands ascending 2 octaves or more in range the moving lines are kept a minor 3rd apart; if the destination tonic chord happens to be a major triad in root position, no adjustment will be needed to arrive at the 3rd and 5th of that chord, which are automatically a minor 3rd apart; all that's needed is to add the tonic note at the end to complete the triad.
At other times one of the hands might have to be started first to establish the correct intervallic distance; in general, perfect 5th and major 6th intervals are adjusted to form minor 6ths in the chromatic sweep, but this is not a rule; if one hand arrives where it needs to be in the destination chord just ahead of the other hand it may have to be held through one note change to allow the other hand to catch up to where the all notes in the destination chord can be sounded at the same time; the alternative to that would be to start that hand a little ahead of the other hand so they both arrive at the same time; either way would be fine.
At a perfect (V-I) cadence the lowest 2 notes of the dominant chord in root position and 1st inversion can be played in open position a minor 6th apart; the upward glissando from there to a 1st inversion tonic chord in close position (with root on top) would start with the 2 lowest notes with the minor 6th interval maintained all the way to the top; the top melody note meanwhile would be held momentarily for as long as it doesn't get in the way of the upward sweep, then would be dropped; when the destination is reached one would only need to add the 5th note of the scale between the 2 moving notes to form a 1st inversion tonic triad in close position.
This description will make more sense by going to the keys and trying it out, slowly.
In a descending chromatic glissando between 2 chords the starting chord is played in open position; provided that the right hand is able to stretch the entire time without releasing the top melody note, that note would be held the entire time for its full value; if the leap is wide however and the right hand cannot hold that note for its full value, the note would be held as long as possible; the destination chord here lands also in open position.
The coda for full organ which incorporates an ascending double note glissando with both hands spaced a minor 3rd apart over 3 octaves of range and ends on a root position tonic major chord with the 5th of the chord on top is a spectacular way to end an arrangement, but, it too, like any glissando, can be overdone.
To keep the final right hand chord from sounding too thin in highest compass of the manuals, an abundance of 16-foot manual tone needs to be drawn when executing this kind of glissando.
It starts first in the right hand, typically on a single dominant note in the bottom of the tenor octave; as the upward chromatic sweep begins the next note to enter in the left hand is a minor 3rd below and slavishly follows the right hand upward, always maintaining its same intervallic distance; when the right hand arrives at the dominant note in the top octave it stays there while the left hand plays both the 1st and 3rd note of the scale to form the tonic chord in root position.
The holding of a dominant pedal point at least part of the way, if not all the way, through this glissando as it climbs will be found advantageous in that it provides a tonal anchor amidst all the fast-paced chromatic sweep going on above it.
Ending on a root position tonic major triad happens to work perfectly with this because, as stated, the 3rd and 5th scale degrees which make up the root position of this chord are themselves a minor 3rd apart; as both hands arrive on these 2 notes in the top octave all the left hand has to do is hold the 1st note of the scale with it to form a completed triad.
Mastery of this technique is not all that difficult, but it does require concentration and slow practice of the chromatic scale, hands separate at first, then both hands together, gradually increasing the speed so that it can be played very quickly, accurately, and effortlessly; it's critically important that the hands maintain the interval of a minor 3rd or minor 6th at every point along the upward sweep and a minor 6th on the downward sweep (this is realized more by "feel" than by trying to watch the movement of each individual key -- an impossible task); with steady practice this will seem to fall into place by itself and is well worth the time to master it.
Once should not be discouraged with this if progress seems to be slow-going in the beginning; with patient, deliberate, meaningful practice the hands will learn what to do, and it will fall into place all by itself.
NOTE: Working these chromatic glissandos, both hands together, upward in minor 3rds and 6ths and downward in minor 6ths, is critical to learn because they're a big part of dramatizing an arrangement and almost seem demanded at times; these need to be practiced SLOWLY in the beginning, striving first for accuracy; the tempo should NOT be quickened until the entire glissando can be done with strict accuracy at every place along the sweep without mistakes.
The biggest impediment to running these glissandos cleanly is trying to practice them too fast before accuracy is attained; working them at a slow tempo and gradually speeding them up may seem the long way around, but it's actually time gained.
The more we watch others perform, the more we can steal an education with our eyes; this is especially true when learning theatre-style glissandos; certain videos posted on this web site will be of interest in this respect [See menu bar, Videos, I'll Be Home (For Christmas), Jingle Bells].
A valuable reference work which has a whole chapter devoted to the glissando is the out-of-print plastic comb-bound book "A Study In Theatre Organ Style" by the iconic theatre organist Don Baker [See blog, Don Baker Arrangements]; this work was published by Peer International Corporation in 1968, contains 10 big stylized arrangements, and comes highly recommended; if one could have only one book on theatre organ playing, this would be it.