Blog/Archive

May. 9, 2019

The plausible argument can be made that it should NEVER be necessary to look down at the pedals during performance because one can practice a passage enough and in the right way to learn not to look, the premise being that once someone is fully and sufficiently comfortable with the kinesthetics of pedal playing, looking down becomes a waste of time and motion.
This inference is false and invalid -- a mistaken idea which should be dispelled immediately; never is a long time, not all organs are constructed the same way, not all pedalboards have the same "feel," and yes, some of the best organists have built very successful professional careers for themselves by adopting habits which include ignoring that rubric when they feel the need; some in fact, who often perform on various historic organs having widely different pedalboards, can be seen to be looking at their feet most of the time [See menu bar, Videos, Bach Passacaglia].
Typically, when we first sit down to the organ, our toes are placed in the spaces between the black keys in the middle of the pedalboard (photo), and, from there, we find our way to the other pedal keys, having previously learned how to gauge the "feel" for where each key is, relative to that starting point; by being centered over the D key in the middle like this, the top F, F#, and G keys will seem further away than the low C key.
When this bench position is consistently taken, with a little practice the feet get so used to the topography of the pedalboard that they learn to find their way around blindly, just about all of the time.
When the feet must separate however, particularly when the right foot plays at the top end of the pedalboard, this sense of blind "feel" becomes more uncertain on different organs, since the upward compass, shape, and arrangement of the pedal keys are all different on different instruments.
The truth is, never looking down is often something that would be a waste of time in pursuit of an unnecessarily strict adherence to what should be a guideline rather than a rule.
Practicing the quick glance -- never losing orientation to where we are in the music -- is actually a good idea, i.e. to practice doing that before the moment when we need it in performance, even at moments when we know or assume that we won't need to look.
As long as it's as quick as possible, it creates no interference with posture, and the eyes can be brought right back to the place on the page where they need to be, looking down is not only an acceptable practice but it would be inappropriate to criticize anyone for indulging in it when some of the finest organists in the world are doing it.
Anyone who has observed virtuoso organist Allessandro Licata perform, for example, has noted that he plays entirely from memory with his head held low, looking down at the pedals a good bit of the time, and his playing is impeccable [See menu bar, Videos, Bach Passacaglia].
No conscientious player in fact would ever consider performing in public certain music, such as Bach's "Aus tiefer Not" (BWV 686) with its double pedal with massive intervals -- especially on a historic, period instrument -- without leaving the possibility open of looking at the pedal keys, as pedalboards come in all dimensions and configurations.
Even if "never look down at the pedals" was a rule instead of a guideline, no rule in organ playing is ever "absolute;" there is no such word in the glossary of organ playing.
It's therefore not a sin to do so; anyone who has ever missed the pedal high F with the right foot in the opening of the Widor 5 Toccata will tell us that it's always better to look down than to miss.
Many organs come with lights below the manuals to illuminate the pedals for this very reason; in fact, the darker the pedal region, the more we get that feeling of "needing" to look.
Organists will sometimes tell us that, if the pedal area is well-lit, they get a kind of subconscious, sideways reassurance about where everything is from their downward peripheral vision.
Despite any sideways comments however, which anyone may offer to the contrary, as long as it helps to hit the right notes at the right time there's nothing "wrong" with sneaking a peek at the pedals at certain "key" moments; to not do so is like saying "don't look at the fingers" when we're playing on the manual keyboards, "don't look at the indicator lights" when we're using the crescendo pedal, or "don't look at the pistons" when we want to use them.
Bottom line: we need to do whatever needs to be done for US to work the machine.

May. 6, 2019

We can't let it bug us (photo).
Let's say, we've performed recently at a 2-day major event like we have many times before, things went fairly well this time, the audience left satisfied with the musical offering we've given them, the event is now history, but the kind of job we did isn't sitting well with us -- something (or maybe a few little things) unexpected happened this time that left us displeased, and, while we know better than to "beat ourselves up" over it, we're still disappointed that the audience didn't get to hear our best work.
This is very commonly encountered, and the more conscientious we are, the more we feel it; we've played it many times before and know we can play it well, but we found ourselves this time in another performance situation and had one shot at it -- only something messed up that wasn't supposed to mess up, and there was no way to fix it or rewind the tape, go back, and start over.
This can take many forms: maybe we were all prepared to start the intro to a well known patriotic song and there was a delay in getting started; our eyes left the page for a split of a second to check the floor to see what the delay was all about, our fingers and feet still poised over the keys, and suddenly the cue to begin was given; knowing that if we didn't begin immediately the song would be preempted, we launched into the intro before our eyes could catch up to the correct spot on the page, and we wound up stumbling all over the keys, making a dissonant mess of things; we recovered after a few beats, but the fact that it's already a blemished performance has us a little upset.
Here's another one: let's say, despite hours of practice beforehand, we lose our place during choral evensong after committing the cardinal sin of thinking "this is going pretty well;" things were also made worse when, after the organist broke down and came to a stop, the director stopped the singing and called for verse 4 to start all over again.
In situations like this it would have been better if the singers just kept going, which would have made it sound like a partially unaccompanied verse -- the organist then could have just rested for a moment, found the right place, and come back in the final moments for the intended finish.
"This is going pretty well" is literally, word-for-word, one of the cardinal sin phrases that the organist or singers should never think during performance because it causes us to relax our concentration and robs us of our focus when we need to be staying right with the moment.
The present moment will save us.
All organ playing is a balance of ease and tension; we need to blend in relaxation and still stay focused, but too much relaxation isn't good either.
At times we're just overly tired; maybe we had to play very late one night and then, after only 3 hours sleep, had to come back and play very early the next morning; maybe we're performing something well known and famous from the solo repertoire, we've played it hundreds of times the right way, but, this time, we manage not to play the right pedal octaves in the right places with the full organ during the closing bars; it still sounds pretty good to the uninitiated, but it just isn't the same as the composer wrote it, and it can leave some of us shaking our heads on the inside and feeling a bit undeserving of the applause being offered to us.
These are easy mistakes; we're human -- we've all made them or done something like them; we've all had our moments of dissatisfaction with ourselves; the more we're involved, the more we've all experienced our horrors in one way or another -- no one is immune to it.
Many years ago an organist was asked to sub for the regular organist who accompanied the chanters; all the director told him was that they we're going to do such and such a choral number in the usual way for the final song; that was until, during the performance, the director took the singers into a different key "the usual way" without seeing that the organist had the right music in front of him, leaving the latter stranded and still playing accompaniment in the original key, two keys going at the same time -- which sounded loverly.
Since the director had all the singers together in their own key, that left only one person (the person presiding at the instrument) who sounded to the audience as if he were reading his music upside down; nothing of the kind was going on, only it sounded that way, and it reflected very poorly on that organist, who happened to be a very solid player.
What started out as a well performed choral number went off the rails with the last verse and ended up a train wreck -- an entirely preventable one.
When the director left the scene of the accident without saying a word to the organist (sometimes the less said, the better), it was all the latter could do, just to keep a lid on his anger and subdue his passions; as people were filing out of the room he was observed to stare at the keys motionless for a couple of minutes afterwards, not even moving his eyes, concentrating on remaining calm; only the touch of a warm hand on his shoulder from someone in the audience and the words "it's okay, my brother" spoken in his ear in a low tone seemed to snap him out of it.
As long as we live in this imperfect world full of imperfect people and imperfect situations, stuff like this is bound to happen.
Yes, it can have us leaving the building feeling defeated in expectation; yes, it can also have us going home in a state of disgust; yes, depending on what happened, it can even have us embarrassed, if not mortified; and yes, it can even have us rightly provoked and our ire aroused, all for good and sufficient reason; it can be any or all these things, in any combination.
It's also a big part of how we learn.
Life is full of interruptions and disruptions; we can show up well practiced and prepared, then find that the final verse was mistakenly printed twice in succession before someone caught the error, and the last verse wound up getting sung twice; we can misjudge which verse is the final one and insert the 32' reed too early, in the wrong place; we can receive the cue from the director to begin playing the intro to a choral song only to be told to stop immediately by the frantic director a few seconds later because it wasn't yet time to begin.
It happens to the best of us; all we can do is keep our sense of humor about it and resolve to do better next time; it's not the end of the world.
We've all been there; we just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and carry on; we learn to laugh and just chalk it up to experience; all we're trying to do is make some beautiful music: no one's life is at stake -- no blood will be lost -- no one will be maimed or die -- if something in a public performance "goes kaplooey" when it wasn't supposed to.
When something doesn't follow the play book, it's simply a part of the game; if we happen to get hammered over it, the thing to do is keep going, make it to the goal line, rub it off, be determined to learn from it, pull ourselves together, LEAVE IT BEHIND, and get back IN the game.
This world is full of surprises, but knowing in our hearts that we've done our best to make the most of what we've been given to work with -- and that we've learned from the consequences of the decisions we've made, the actions of others, and whatever else has come our way -- is what really matters.

May. 1, 2019

(con't from Part XII)
Being a fraternal organist and being a church musician have many parallels, being virtually identical save for the weekly regularity at which the church musician is expected to carry out his/her duties and responsibilities.
A church musician is also part of a group in the business of ministry; this dedicated group of people (composed of organists, pianists, other instrumentalists, directors, vocalists, and choir) are not there to see how many times they can "perfectly" perform a piece of music; they know that that no matter how many times they practice a work, each time they perform it there will be a difference; as performing musicians they are aware of spontaneity and believe in it.
They do strive for excellence, of course, as they must -- and teamwork, and timing -- accuracy is important, musicians know to pursue it, and it's freedom which leads them to that.
And freedom is gotten by repetition, i.e. practice, and keeping good habits going.
The point is, they are not there to prove anything or to entertain the congregation; they are not there to transform worship into a musical extravaganza; they are not there to make a name for themselves; they are most certainly not there merely to demonstrate their musical talents and use the occasion to spotlight their own abilities only to end up wallowing in a cesspool of self-aggrandizement ...
Quite to the contrary, they are there to bring the art of music to bear on serving and singing praises to God for the purpose of uplifting hearts and minds to thoughts of Him and higher things.
They are there to touch and gently agitate the faith of listeners in a way which causes it to rise.
They are there to help lead worship, and, in that process, to pray that their listeners hear the Word through the music they make.
This music ministry with which they have connected themselves thus has pastoral dimensions; they are not merely performers on a stage; they are not working in theatre or concert hall; they are not there to have fun or receive attention; they are not there merely for the salary or honorarium; it's something far more broad than that.
They are musicians using their gifts for God to the best of each of their abilities, often at considerable sacrifice, to help bring people closer to the reality of God's presence in their lives.
They are there because they love what they're doing and the effect they know it will have on others.
They are there because they know that what they're doing when they're there is enriching and making a difference in people's lives, that it shows that music is a wonderful gift given to humanity from above -- a gift which communicates a language of warmth and meaning like nothing else can.
They are also there because they know they can fill a niche there which not everyone else can.
While fraternal organizations concern themselves with making good men better and improving the world one man at a time, they do not promote themselves as a substitute for the ministry, which is the function of the member's worship center and the people who work there.
But when fraternal organizations are composed of good men of high moral character who believe in God and work for the betterment of their fellow man, use the Bible to teach moral lessons, and rely heavily upon Judeo-Christian philosophy, the members who volunteer to serve these organizations as musicians are nevertheless involved with the music ministry, as thus defined, and share its outreach to the world at large.

Apr. 11, 2019

(con't from Part I)
The digital electronic organ has improved tremendously in recent decades and continues to improve; the waveforms of the sound produced by digital organs are made to look exactly like those of real organ pipes.
This has fueled an intense debate that has raged on for many years about the virtues of the pipe organ versus the accessibility of a digital electronic organ.
The answer to the crux of the argument lies simply in the physics of natural sound and its full array of harmonic frequencies as opposed to listening to the world as filtered through speakers and processors, no matter how advanced; in the end, the harmonics are compressed, and it becomes the difference between virtual reality and reality.
The builders of digital electronic organs will concede that there are perhaps irreducible differences in the aural and even physical sensation of a pipe organ's sound compared with a digital electronic instrument; the way the air pressure presses on the human body is also a very different experience between the two.
Any musical sound that we hear is a collection of many separate vibrations; the lowest in the series is called the fundamental and determines the pitch heard by the ear; the remainder are termed harmonic upper partial tones, or "partials" for short, and these determine the timbre or tone quality of the sound.
Some sounds such as an orchestral flute or organ pipe producing a flute sound contain just a few partials; other more complex sounds such as a violin string or a Trumpet organ pipe contain a very large number of partials.
The differences in the number and relative strengths of the partials between two sounds of the same pitch is what allows the ear to distinguish whether the organ pipe producing the sound is a Flute or a Trumpet.
The partials of a given sound are related to each other mathematically.
In a digital electronic organ, this scientific and mathematical data of real pipe sounds can be carefully duplicated, but the difference is recognized when the sounds are "sent out" of the instrument; here the pipe organ has the profound advantage.
When several musical notes are produced by several organ pipes, every partial of every note creates its own sound waves in the air; each individual wave does it's own thing as far as being reflected from the walls and ceiling, and becoming absorbed by carpeting, curtains, or cushions; each wave takes its own amount of time to reach the ears of the listener.
The human brain is extraordinarily capable of detecting these difference in wave arrival times, and consequently the brain receives the message that the sound is "complex"; the brain even detects the difference in wave arrival time between one ear and the other, and this desirable effect is drastically compounded when a large number of pipes are played, as when many stops are on and large chords are held.
In contrast, digital electronic organs contain speakers that send the sounds to the listener; each speaker sends only a single sound wave, and that wave is the electrically combined total of ALL of the partials of ALL of the notes played; the complexity of the wave reflections and the resulting fullness and beauty are therefore reduced.
The sound from speakers is always significantly "directional"; in a pipe organ however the sound of each pipe emanates in all directions, and this room-filling sound of many scores of pipes speaking all at once provides a tonal advantage over a smaller number of speakers and is based on scientific and mathematical principles.
These differences in sound quality become more noticeable when the instrument accompanies singing or when other instruments play in addition to the organ; when only one or a few vocalists sing and only a few stops are used on the digital organ, the sound quality of the digital organ is good; but when the same organ is used to accompany a large number of singers, it's sound becomes degraded because in the midst of so many partials and so many waves from the voices of the vocalists and other instruments, the relatively simple wave that comes from the speakers of the digital organ (as contrasted to the very many and complex waves sent out by a pipe organ) loses some of its distinction; the result is interpreted by the ear as a reduction of identity and clarity.
We can all get on board therefore with the statement that there has been weakness in the digital side of organ building, but this weakness stems from trying to imitate the complex reality that is the pipe organ.
Digital electronic organs are however the de facto home practice instrument; they certainly take up less space, and their initial expenditures are certainly more cost-effective, than with even a very small pipe organ; buyers however must also take into consideration the possibility of needing to replace an all-digital instrument in a generation due to advancing technology which does not compare favorably against the regular maintenance costs of a new pipe organ.
Beautifully voiced pipework can and does last for centuries, but digital technology becomes outdated quickly; the availability of replacement spare parts is also generally better with pipe organs than with all-electronic organs.
Digital organs however, and "hybrid" pipe organs augmented with certain digital voices, are not going away; they have a distinct place and much to contribute.
Hybrid digital and pipe organs (photo) have existed now for decades bridging the possibilities and realities of budgets and space; whenever possible the pipes in these instruments, as opposed to the digital voices, should remain the primary sound source with the digital stops functioning as secondary voices which complement the pipes.
Personal preferences aside, if having the daring to push technology to the limits like this can bring the repertoire of the organ to new audiences that would otherwise ignore the organ, the "hybrid" pipe organ can only be judged a positive development.

Apr. 3, 2019

(con't from Part XL)
Looking at it through the lens of the organ, anyone focused on composing organ music these days is writing for a medium whose core repertoire spans hundreds of years and is automatically entering into a dialogue with the past and having enduring works for models.
It's therefore natural for us to give some thought to what it might take for our own writing to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs -- something that might have a life beyond its original premiere and even possibly labored over, loved, interrogated, or admired by future generations.
The overwhelming majority of music being created today is made with an entirely different goal in mind, i.e., to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public at the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.
The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite, and contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire; we see this, notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by such eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbit, and Gyorgi Ligeti, among others, and the tireless efforts of people like Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music.
Nevertheless, if our own writing expresses a certain stylishness, substantive ideas, integrity with a seriousness of purpose, craft in the sense of attention to detail, and an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish, including perhaps a little of the unexpected, it will be on the right side of history.
If within it we can find elements of intricacy, subtlety, and sophistication that balance simplicity, contrasting ideas which generate interest, and a form molded with the intention of creating a satisfying sense of a musical journey, it will be on the right side of history.
History teaches that all of these are necessary conditions for a contemporary work to enter the standard organ repertoire.
It is not for any composer to say whether their own music, or even their own performing, is "good" or not; that is for others to decide.
What can be said, is that if their work has most, if not all, of the above characteristics, it is crafted on the same principles which have withstood the test of time for hundreds of years.
Bearing these things in mind, in order for succeeding generations of audiences to find a language of warmth and meaning in our music, in order for it to be embraced by posterity, each of us needs to take a fresh look at our scores from the listener's point of view and ask ourselves these same 6 questions:
1. Is its thematic material memorable and capable of elaboration? The listener seeks, whether consciously or subconsciously, to remember the thematic material and hear it developed in ways that bring out the most it has to offer.
2. Does it have a clear beat? The listener's mind seeks a clear beat -- something which, while it may be flexible and varied, has an inner propulsion and provides the listener with a sense of drive.
3. Is it in a key (or mode)? The listener's mind seeks a tonal center, a primal place or region of musical space to which all the other tones bear some kind of fixed relationship.
4. Is there cohesion in the harmonies? The listener's mind seeks connectedness, order, logic, and beauty in the way tones sound in combination and merge from one into the other.
5. Does it have form? The listener's mind seek to find a shape in the music, an architecture that provides a sense of a satisfying musical journey.
6. Above all, does it move? Let's face it: In exchange for trading his/her own time (and perhaps ticket money as well) to sit and listen to it, the listener expects a little something back, viz., music that's compelling, i.e., something which not only makes sense and reaches the heart but captivates and rivets the attention, stirs the emotions in places, and perhaps even thrills.
There is no reason to expect that the listener's mind was any different in the past than it is in the present, as just described, or that it will be any different in the future.
It's therefore more than likely that, from the listener's standpoint, any music being written today with a vague theme incapable of any serious development, having no clear beat, no identifiable key or form, and that sounds disconnected and dull, no matter how logical it may seem to the composer, no matter how admirable it may seem to academia, no matter how much sense it makes to other knowledgeable musicians and performers, is ultimately destined for oblivion and will stay there.