Aug. 21, 2015

What About Bench Position, Part I

A correct bench position for the individual player is critically important to accuracy in pedal playing, minimizing tension, and developing endurance.

Note 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.  Notice also that, although it's a pose for the artist, 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.

In this portrait the subject is keeping his back fairly straight and not slouching.  We need to cultivate the same habit, right from the start, to pay heed to our posture when seated on the bench.  At the same time we should never stiffen our back.  A rigidly straight back is very tiring.  Neither extreme is good for us.

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.  The bench is a little too far away from the case for the sake of the portrait, the subject is leaning 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 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.

Bench placement and an optimum bench height are both major contributing factors in proper pedalling technique.  In addition, for every performer there is a "sweet spot" on that bench where they have to sit for everything to become easier.  These things are all discovered by trial-and-error experimentation.

To find the "sweet spot" that works for us, we keep our back straight, center ourselves, place the left foot in the space between A# and C# and the right foot in the space between D# and F#, then adjust the bench forward or backwards until there is a 45 degree angle between the upper and lower leg parts.  This foot placement also aligns the body up correctly for playing at the console.  If we then scootch forward just a bit, then find the place clear up on the edge of it where we begin to feel like, if we were any further forward we'd fall off, then if we sit just a little back of this, this would be the optimum position.  Tip:  Don't sit on the bench in the same fashion that you would in a living room chair ... being closer to the edge affords lots more mobility (and less friction) in the upper leg parts.

Height adjustment should allow us to play comfortably without having to raise the upper legs off the bench in order to pedal the notes.  All the pivoting of note playing should be done with the ankles as much as possible.  We should also try as much as we can to keep the knees together, as this helps both feet work more closely as a unit and will lead to better and faster pedalling, particularly with those oh-so-typical Bach 16th note parts.  Teachers sometimes speak 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 resting.  If the bench is the correct height, then no conscious 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 never employed for pedal playing.  When we consider that much legitimate organ music, including all of Bach, was written for an instrument that did not have a swell pedal, and 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 -- neither ankle should have to work harder than the other, and 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 seem to play at all, when the bench is straightened).

NOTE:  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]. 

It cannot be overemphasized that the height of the bench, for each individual, is critically important to accuracy in pedal playing.  Its a common belief that the only "rule" about bench height is what really works best for the player.  This is true, but only in a general sense.  The bench height should be adjusted so that when we assume the proper bench position and are wearing our shoes the heels are even with the pedals and gently touch them as the feet glides above them -- it should be so we have to lift the toes off the pedalboard, using the ankles, to move the feet around.  We therefore find that the bench height that's right for us has something to do with how much the heels of our shoes are built up.  Shoes with elevated heels could mean raising the bench a little bit higher to get the heels even with the pedals, but, then again, if the bench is too high, the heels will be too high to play the pedals easily -- a situation that would force us into a balancing act which is not only tiring but destructive of pedal technique.  The same thing occurs if we were to try to play without wearing our shoes.  The pedals are played "as we walk" -- i.e., the knee follows the foot and is directly above the ankle at all times.  When we've got our shoes on and the bench height is right, we should be able to play with both heels without stretching the Achilles tendons.

Which is why wearing shoes of the right construct for playing the organ is a non-negotiable point.  No shoes, no play [See blog, Shoes, Parts I-VI].

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" above the tenor E2 pedal key in the center of the pedalboard, adjustable up or down from this height by as much as 2" in either direction.  There are many options available to assist the organist with this.  It's probably best to avoid using hymn books to lift the bench because these make a very unstable perch; books are somewhat flexible and as such do not give the player a solid foundation on which to sit.  Some organists carry with them varying sizes of wood blocks (in pairs) because they are used to encountering many benches which have been "altered" and/or tailored to suit specific organists.  We need to beware however, of getting the bench too high, as this also will be detrimental to manual playing technique, and/or being able to see couplers and other controls on the vertical stop rail.

A standard 2" X 4" piece of pine 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, 2 of these will raise the bench 1-5/8."  If only 1-1/2" of a bench raise is needed, they may also be routed 1/8" deep for the bench legs to fit in them.  Precision made wooden blocks also may be purchased from several companies to raise the bench to varying heights.  An adjustable organ bench with a crank mechanism, although much more expensive, is another option.  The bench height should be adjusted so that the feet hover just over the pedal natural keys.

Someone 6 feet tall or taller may require the bench to be higher than the AGO standard by 2 inches or more.  This should come as no surprise and has to do with the average adult height for men in America being 5'-10" (5 foot 10 inches) 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, regardless of their height, should be discouraged as it makes the bench impossible to adjust when other organists use it to perform.

NOTE:  It's an interesting bit of trivia, but the monumental Aeolian-Skinner organ of the Riverside Church in New York City where Virgil Fox played has no provision for bench height adjustment and never did.  The pedalboard is on a little elevator instead and can be adjusted by each organist.  The main reason for this probably was taking into consideration that the console has 5 manuals.  If the bench height got too high, the organist's knees would constantly hit the bottom of the Choir manual.  

There are some organists whose smaller physical stature will not permit them to reach above a 3rd manual.  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 or 5th manual at all.  When the hands are on the small side, repertoire needs to be selected and/or adapted to suit the stretch of the hands in order to avoid injury [See blog, Small Hands, Parts I, II].  Some may encounter a rough and rugged road at first, just to play 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).  

Returning to the portrait, note also the relatively high position of the wrists.  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 today are taken for granted.  Perhaps 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 little different.  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 pivot their torso a fair amount 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 accomodate the theatre organist who, back in the day, had to be perched on the bench for long periods of time entertaining theatre patrons and accompanying silent movies [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; it is said that he in fact 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 represents a special kind of "third hand" -- one that can even split in half and play notes over 2 octaves apart, simultaneously.  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.  What sets the sound of the organ apart from a box of whistles is its tremendous bass provided by its Pedal division -- which is why one of the best pieces of advice the new organist 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)