Aug. 21, 2015

What About Bench Position, Part I

A correct bench position is necessary for a correct hand and foot position to control tension and to develop accuracy and endurance in organ playing.  Notice carefully this artist's depiction of J. S. Bach at the organ (photo).  What's right about it is, he's not sitting too far back on the bench, and he's centered.  One way to determine this on modern instruments is to center one's self over the pedalboard with the left foot on low F#1 and the right foot on high C#3, shifting the weight so that it feels like the body is exactly half way between these 2 black pedal sharps, then move forward just enough so that the weight is completely distributed to the buttocks without any involvement of the thighs, the legs can be turned easily, and the toes can reach the pedals without interference from the bench.  Notice also that, although he's only posing for a portrait here and not actually playing any music at the time, he's on a tall enough bench and prepared to transfer the weight of the lower arm to the fingers as if playing the clavichord, which had the effect of leaning into the keys for counterbalance.

Notice in this portrait that Bach is not slouching and is keeping his back straight.  We need to cultivate the habit, right from the start, to avoid slouching and make a conscious effort to straighten our back whenever we sit at the organ.  In time this will become automatic and we won't even think about it any more.  Presuming that all the rest of the proportions of the instrument in this artist's depiction are correct, what's wrong with this picture is that it's posed for the artist and doesn't really reflect Bach's playing position.  The bench is a little too far away from the case for the sake of the portrait, Bach is leaning a little too much forward on the bench (he's doing it in order to face the artist, not play), and he's sitting clear up on the edge of it.  We find that if we're on a little taller bench and we're sitting somewhere near the edge of it we have the mobility to play the pedals better than if we're seated further back.  We can however sit too close to the edge.  Somewhere between the two extremes is the balanced place where we should sit, which can be located with a little experimentation.

Keeping our back straight, if we center ourselves on the bench, scootch forward just a bit on it, and locate the spot clear up on the edge of it where we begin to feel like, if we were any further forward we'd fall off, then sit just a little back of this, from there we should be able to play passages for both hands and a pedal part without leaning backward.  This is the correct bench position.  Sitting near the edge of the bench like this we don't lean backward as much and we can move our feet better and easier on the pedalboard.  If we sit too far forward however, we can fall down.  It's a sensitive balance -- balance is everything in organ playing [See blog, Balance in Organ Playing, Part I] -- and we experiment with certain distances to find the ideal spot.  After a time our body gets so accustomed to the "feel" of this bench position that we automatically find it every time we sit down to play.  NOTE:  the pedalboard in this photo is diminutive [See blog, Diminutive Pedalboard] and the bench is too far away from the case, which causes Bach to lean forward to strike the pose; but the principles are still the same.  The same counterbalance pushing him back on the keys in this picture can be obtained on modern instruments by placing the right foot on a swell shoe or hooking the left foot around the bar under the bench.

Something else:  the legs don't hang perfectly straight down but fall a little back from the perpendicular, more on a very slight diagonal than hanging straight down.  When the hands are idle during pedal solos they're either placed on the bench or the key cheeks of the lowest manual for counterbalance [see Balance in Organ Playing, Parts I-III].  The fulcrum between the hands and feet should be right around the waistline.  One of this writer's teachers, and his teacher before him, spoke of an imaginary black line about 1 to 1-1/2 inches away from the fronts of the pedal sharps where the toes needed to fall when at rest.  If the bench is the correct height, then no effort should be required to lift the feet off the pedal natural keys to keep them from sounding.

Curiously, there are some organists who like to place their bench a little off center, with the left side of the bench a little further away from the keyboards.  They face a little bit to the left when they play, they always sit this way, they're very particular about it, and even mark the floor with a marker where they want their bench to sit.  The idea behind this reflects the fact that their right foot is almost always on the swell pedal and they play all of their pieces extensively with the left foot.  When we consider that much legitimate organ music, including all of Bach, was written for an instrument that did not have a swell pedal, that both feet, not just the left foot, need to be equally skilled at carrying a melodic line in this music, both feet need equal room to move to be able to do this, and neither ankle should have to work harder than the other, those who get used to playing off center like this often have real problems when trying to play the pedals on a bench that's straight.  Some of them can't play on a straight bench at all.

While you're at it, take a close look at the shoes in this photo:  both shoes have an elevated heel, and the soles do not project.  While it's true that early (pre-1800) pedal technique employed the toes almost to the complete exclusion of the heels, examination of early historic instruments, such as the Wender organ at the Neukirche (now Bachkirche) at Arnstadt where the young J.S. Bach worked his first organist job from 1703-1707, reveals that the heels could be used on this pedalboard if the player wished.  Shoes with elevated heels enables pedal playing to be more deft, especially in rapid passages, because there is less ankle movement, heel to toe [See blog, Shoes, Parts I-V]. 

Realizing that everything in organ playing depends upon having a bench that's centered, high enough, and just the right distance away from the keys to suit the player, the American Guild of Organists (AGO), back in 1933, outlined a number of recommendations to organ builders for the construction of a variety of consoles to accomodate the largest numbers of players [See blog, American Guild of Organists (AGO), Part II].  The AGO standards for bench height explain that the normal height of the bench should be 20-1/2 in. above the middle E2 pedal key, adjustable up or down from this height by as much as 2 in. in either direction by means of a crank.  There are many options available to assist the organist in finding the optimal bench height.  Sometimes using adjustable height blocks will be sufficient.  A standard 2 X 4" piece of lumber, after it goes through the planer, measures 1-5/8 X 3-5/8".  Cut to appropriate length and placed under the legs of the organ bench on each side, this simple piece of lumber will raise the bench 1-5/8."  Precision made wooden blocks also may be purchased from several organ companies (Allen, Johannus, Rodgers, are among them) to raise the bench to varying heights, thus accommodating a wide range of organists.  An adjustable organ bench with a crank mechanism, although much more expensive, is another option and may be purchased from one of these organ companies as well.  Every organ is different, with slight variances between pedal and bench heights, thus each situation, for each organist, will require a unique solution.  The bench height should be adjusted so that the feet hover just over the pedal natural keys.  The organist will need to work with this a little and position the bench straight with the keyboards but further in or out depending on what makes things easiest.

Someone 6 feet tall or taller may require the bench to be higher than the AGO standard by as much as 2 inches (maybe more).  This should come as no surprise and has to do with the average adult height for men in America being 5'-10" and for women 5'-4" with a median of 5'-7" to which the AGO standard is suited.  Conversely, someone 5'-2" is 5 inches shorter than the median and would find the standard bench height too tall.  Organists come in all shapes and sizes.  Organists are all wired differently, but it would be better to switch out and use a different bench the right height, even if it doesn't match the shade or design of the main console, than to struggle on the original bench if it's built to standard height and still too low or too high for that person.

The practice of anchoring the bench to the floor or platform on which the console sits to suit the principal organist when they're 5'-2" in height is not a good one, as it makes the bench impossible to adjust when other organists must use it to perform.  For a principal organist of short height like this to maintain a low non-adjustable bench, fasten it down for their own convenience, forbid anyone to move it, and then stubbornly insist, when using it to teach a student 6 feet tall, that the bench is fine where it is, cannot be called teaching.  This ranks about as bad as an acclaimed organist prescribing remedial piano work to someone wanting to study with them and then, to suit their own convenience, assign some other organ student of theirs who also knows nothing about teaching as the piano teacher, thus providing a financial incentive for the piano teacher to keep the would-be organ student in keyboard kindergarten forever.  An unwitting organist like this never bothers to consider that this move puts that would-be organ student's dream of theirs light years out of reach and has him feeling like he's trying to construct the Taj Majal out of toothpicks.  Sadly, such things have actually happened [See blog, What About The Piano, Part IV].  They should never have happened.  It doesn't matter who the principal organist is, how well they've made a name for themselves, or how respected they happen to be inside the profession and in the organ world:  anything like this permitted to happen that comes so dangerously close to sowing doubt in a would-be student's mind, destroying their interest, and pulverizing their dream to suit the convenience of a "teacher," cannot be viewed as anything except a major, grievous mistake in teaching.  No one should never let any doubt merchant posing as a teacher sell them his/her wares if it means mortgaging away their dream in order to pay for it.

This author hasn't seen anything that couldn't be played on a well-thought-out 3 manual instrument; thus, even though there may be additional manuals, we don't necessarily have to feel obliged to use them.  There are some organists whose height, even with a high enough bench and correct bench position, will not permit them to reach above a 3rd manual at all.  By not having a tall enough bench and embracing the habit of sitting too far back on it (because we have to lean backwards to maintain balance on a shorter bench) the hands of a taller organist also cannot be maintained on a 4th or 5th manual without tension developing in the shoulders, neck, and back [See blog, Mortified].  The solution seems obvious but will vary with each player.

Those who are built smaller, who are short in height and have short arms, may be faced with deciding whether or not to use a 4th manual at all when one is available ... just like, since their hands are also on the small side, they will need to select repertoire which does not place unreasonable demands on the ability of their hands to stretch in order to avoid injury [See blog, Small Hands, Parts I, II].  They may encounter a rough and rugged road at first, playing even on the 3rd manual until they get used to it.  Some say they would never play above a 3rd manual as it's practically impossible for them.  Others claim to not have any trouble at all reaching a 4th or even a 5th manual with both hands (provided they're sitting on a tall enough bench and they're keeping their balance by resting a foot on a swell shoe or hooking it on the rack under the bench at the same time).  Fortunately, using couplers, there are ways to register such a large instrument to make the resources of any manual above the 3rd one "talk" through the lower manuals or the pedals.

In the end, progress depends upon the kinds of habits being practiced and doing what best accommodates the player's size and physical limitations, if any.  A habit is good when it enables someone to keep advancing to a higher level of skill.  These kinds of good habits are generally difficult to develop but easy to live with.  A habit is bad when it holds someone on a plateau from which they cannot advance.  Bad habits like this are just the opposite:  generally easy to develop but hard to live with.  The player has to decide what's better for them, and go from there.     

Notice also the relatively high position of the wrists in this photo.  This was a by-product of Bach's peculiar manner of touch, which he learned on the clavichord (see Touch, Part II).  This touch involved keeping his wrists higher than the middle knuckles of the fingers and relatively immovable in order to make continuous use of arm weight.  If he had been forced to wander through the 19th century, Bach the organist would have been exposed to the modern piano, modern piano technique, pneumatically assisted actions, electricity, and all other developments in organ building that are taken for granted today.  Even more importantly, his touch would have developed on the piano, not the clavichord, and would have taken an utterly different turn altogether.

If the wrists are tight and stay locked in one position, a tension sets in, which doesn't free the muscles on either side of the wrist.  That tension goes up the arm, shoulders, and neck, and creates fatigue.  The wrists therefore should move in all types of touch and should be so free that, if weights could be applied to them while playing, they would drop.  The wrists are a very important part of the playing and should never stay in one place but enter into repeated chords as well as finger motion.

This business of posture when seated at the keys of an organ is a critically important one, and every organist needs to work with that.  With the piano it's a different story.  Pianists all want to play a Steinway, and everyone knows it has just one keyboard always positioned on the same plane as the player's elbows and a fixed action that's always "feels" the same.  Pianists aren't subject to the same back trouble that plagues organists because the piano, in comparison with the organ, makes only minor demands on their neck, spine, and legs.  But with organists 4 out of 5 usually have back problems because pipe organs, unlike Steinway pianos, are all different; they have either a light or heavy action, they have multiple keyboards stacked on top of each other at different distances with the highest one farthest away (often at arm's reach on a level line with the shoulders), and they have different pedalboards and benches.  On certain historic organs the player has to turn a lot, and know how to turn, to play them.  When playing high on the pedals with both feet, for example, the body has to first turn a bit to the right.  This is accomplished by pushing off with the left foot, the right leg moves first, then the left leg follows, never together.  Conversely, when both feet are needed to play low on the pedals, the body has to first turn a bit to the left, which is done by pushing off with the right foot, the left leg moves first, then the right leg follows, never together.  None of this turning is ever expected or required of a pianist.

A specialized padded bench known as a Howard Seat was developed in the early 20th century to give the theatre organist, who back in the day had to be perched on the bench for long periods of time accompanying a silent movie [See blog, The Howard Seat].  The height of this bench was adjustable and allowed a free range of motion for the torso to turn a bit to reach the highest or lowest parts of the pedalboard and any controls positioned above the footboard.  The famous theatre organist Jesse Crawford favored this type of bench so much that he actually refused to perform anywhere if the instrument didn't have one.

Bottom line:  organists can expect to play using their feet as much as with their hands.  In organ playing the feet in fact represent a "third hand."  The person who says they're learning how to play the organ and isn't learning how to play the pedals with both feet isn't learning how to play the organ just yet.  One of the best pieces of advice a pianist moving to the organ can receive is "Start learning the pedals right away."  

One particular electronic organ manufacturer who knows its buyers and specializes in separating them from their life savings builds its home instruments with a thick padded bench and backrest cushions as a standard.  These are also built so that, at the touch of a button or two, the instrument works like a juke box and plays itself.  These push buttons become a necessary feature when the bench and backrest are heavily cusioned like this so that the owner and operator is less likely to encounter difficulties and remain a satisfied customer. These types of benches are very comfortable, and it's extremely easy and effortless to work the mechanism on an instrument like this so that music comes out of it.  In the process, however, the person on the bench is learning how to work electrical switches and have a good time doing it; as for learning how to play the organ, that will have to wait.

(con't in Part II)