Aug. 19, 2015

Balance in organ playing, Part I

Many years ago a capable church organist, now deceased, who performed nothing but hymns and slow pieces, once said to me, proudly moreover, "I don't mess around with all those fancy toccatas."  He aspired to nothing else, was comfortable being stuck in this rut, in this hamster's wheel, and was content never to advance further.  I never observed him play, but I suspect all those fancy toccatas stood ready at any moment to force him to come to grips with certain habits of his which weren't good, such as playing with a locked wrist (See Touch, IV, Exercises, I) which was generating fatigue and maybe certain balance issues all traceable to his bench position.  All those fancy toccatas would have thrown any wrist or balance issues he had into high relief.  Thus, rather than reform his old habits, he avoided and downplayed the importance of certain repertoire.  The organist in this photo never came to grips with his own bad habits either, but he messed around with all those fancy toccatas anyway [see Widor 5 toccata, Part I].  It cost him a neckache, a backache, a numb right hand, charley horses in both legs, and almost a nasty fall into the pedals.

Seriously, take a close look at your bench position and analyze it.  The resistance to the right kind of change expressed by this deceased church organist caused him to spend his life hindering his own professional growth and development, thus being an impediment to the institution's growth and adaptation to change.  But he stood behind the argument that change can be bad when people try to fix something that's working, and when people stop doing things that are working they can make some of their own hurdles.  It's therefore important to understand the difference between improvement and change.  Improvement comes by finding what works best and making a habit of it; this kind of change comes by being careful.  The wrong kind of change comes by being careless.  It's so easy for the player to get careless, to adopt less than good habits, or to wrongfully accept the idea that things are beyond one's technical grasp when they aren't.

There should be nothing at all intimidating about introducing the right kind of change carefully, purposely, and thoughtfully in order to improve one's command of the organ.  Matters of attitude are not tied to a person's age. The adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" should have passed into oblivion long ago [See blog, It's Mortifying].  This saying only applies to people, both young and old, who fail to recognize what is valuable and lack the interest to dive deeply for it.  It does not, and never did, apply to the continuous student, who knows that pearls never float and must be gathered from the bottom of the sea [See blog, Pearl Diving]. 

All organ playing is a balance of ease and tension.  In a practical sense, this equlibrium should work out to about half and half, 50% ease and 50% tension.  It matters not if it's closer to 51% ease and 49% tension, or 52 and 48, but what does matter is for the player to get near the median and never permit their playing to drift from the middle of the road toward either extreme.  Anxiety is the mind killer, but too much relaxation isn't good, either.  No tension, no play, but it has to be kept in balance and close to half.  Organ playing requires no physical strain, but it can be extremely athletic just the same, in terms of deciding how much relaxation to blend in, and still stay focused.

How an organist sits on the bench is balance.  It's a too small word for a very great thing [See blog, What About Bench Position).  If we can agree that balance lies at the very foundation of the physical control from which all technical precision develops, and that whatever is correct with respect to sitting at the organ ought to permit maximum balance in order of the body to function at its very best, then it follows that balance should be given special study from the very beginning.  The player simply cannot afford to permit his or her ideas about how to sit on the bench to be formulated by past successes in performing repertoire no matter how wonderful they may have been, any habits of playing that have become second nature over the years, or observations made of other players that he or she admires.  For one of the finest studies in print on this subject we can recommend T. Ernest Nichols' spiral bound book Virgil Fox:  The Innermost Secrets.  In this one little book alone, there's a wealth of information about modern piano-based technique and other important concepts.

Everything with organ playing is balance.

Balance is involved with an organist's footwear.  The organ is never performed in public without wearing shoes, therefore shoes should always be worn during practice [See blog, The Ten Commandments Of Organ Practice, Commandment No. 8].  The shoes used should have a thin leather sole, be built on a straight last so the soles do not project, and have slightly elevated, leather heels [See blog, Shoes, Part I].  Beyond that, the claims of authorities on the subject differ widely, giving rise to a wide variety of styles and shapes in actual use.  Playing in "street shoes" is acceptable as long as they're clean, dry, made of material that will allow the foot to easily glide on the keys, have a decent heel, and are otherwise of the correct construct to allow for deft technique.  Specialty shoes may be obtained from many sources and can be ordered from a number of companies.  It' much handier, if it can be worked, to not have to switch into organ shoes and then back to street shoes when performing in public.  Many professional organists either wear a pair of shoes that will work for both, or keep their organ shoes at the building where the organ is, and switch into them when they arrive to perform.

Organmaster shoes, which are made by Capezio, come with a 1-1/4 inch elevated heel.  These, of course, need to be removed when the organist leaves the console.  The Capezio SD103 mens social dance shoe is made with a 1 inch elevated heel that will also work fine for playing the organ [See blog, Shoes, Part IV]; these can be worn as a street shoe as well, but the bottoms need to be carefully checked for dirt and grime before playing the pedals.  Tic-Tac-Toes is another dance shoe company which manufactures a good organist shoe with built-up heels.  These type of dance shoes are not necessarily better than anything else, and every organist will have his or her preference.

Virgil Fox, for example, preferred only a 3/4 inch heel; his organ shoes were simple black patent leather lace-up tuxedo style shoes with a standard 1/2 inch heel which he had built up another 1/4 inch (being the showman that he was, he also had the backs of his heels and the tops studded with rhinestones ... Hector Olivera, when performing in public, also wears rhinestones in the heels of his shoes).  Marie-Madeleine Durufle, for her part, preferred 4 inch stilettos.  Some organists even prefer all rubber heels which tend to grip the pedal keys and make sliding from one key to another more difficult.  Nonetheless, wearing an elevated heel is helpful because pedaling becomes more deft and requires a minimum of motion, permitting more accuracy in very rapid passages because moving from heel to toe there is less ankle movement.  This can be critical when playing certain historic organs, particularly in France where it takes a lost of pressure on the keys to get the pedals to play because of linkage and where the heels cannot be used as easily.  This has been alleviated to some extent with the construction of new consoles.  An elevated heel is also necessary to permit intervals of thirds or fourths to be played with a single foot (required in certain compositions), the note farthest from the center of the pedalboard being taken with the toe and the note closest to the center with the heel.  This is to miss any notes in between [See blog, A Third Hand].

Balance is involved with an organist's eyewear.  It's never a good idea to practice wearing bifocal or trifocal glasses.  This habit forces the player's head to tilt backward when the rack is in an elevated position to see clearly everything on the page.  The resulting imbalance, after a little while, can lead to neck strain and headaches.  Certain historic organs in Europe were built with a movable rack on a hinge mechanism which allowed the rack to be positioned to the side or closer to the eyes, but most often, on a large instrument, it's in a fixed position, centered over the coupler rail above the top manual, and at arm's reach.  Organists who wear trifocal glasses are advised to have a special pair of glasses made to whatever prescription is in the middle lens and with oversize, tall lenses which tend to close the space between the chassis that holds the lenses and the cheek bones so that everything on the page is in focus at arm's reach, which will allow the eyes to see everything on the page and on the lowest manual clearly without moving the head.  This will allow for better sight reading and eliminate neck strain.

(continued in Part II)