Sep. 23, 2015

Balance in Organ Playing, Part III

(continued from Part II)

How we learn is balance.  We can overwork trying to "get" something, and that's just as hard on us as under working, or not working enough at it.  We can think too much.  We can not think enough.  Sometimes when things seem difficult, we're working too hard.  Many times in the learning process things will take care of themselves if the student stops fussing with them and leaves them alone for a while.  Organ music is so beautiful, and the desire to play it so overwhelming, that students sometimes can work themselves too hard.  The tendency to overwork details and learn things as rapidly as possible require something to balance them at times, viz., the opposite tendency, the impulse to let go and not work so hard.  One of my teachers admitted, when he was trying to learn something new, he did his best work only after he first wore himself out, then sort of "let go," and kept working, and stopped overworking.  Often, just like the body, some issue will take care of itself when we back off a little and leave it alone for a while.  Then again, if we don't try hard enough, we might not get it into our playing.  So, for him, there was this period of toughness at first, a period of overworking, followed by a period of throttling down a few notches, and letting go, and working less hard, and just enjoying.

This happened to me, after one of my lessons.  My teacher had made some suggestions for the purpose of making things easier and keeping me from working harder than I needed to, technically.  I came home eager to incorporate all these new changes (the revolutionary new system of touch, fingering, and hand division, new way of sitting on the bench, new shoes, new glasses, listening for the listener) into my playing.  After three hours of hard work on my instrument at home nothing seemed to be coming together.  I finally got tired and too discouraged to continue.  I decided to leave the instrument alone for an entire week.  When I went back to it, from the moment I sat down on the bench, everything new was falling into place automatically and working right from the start.  Everything "clicked," just like magic.  But it wasn't magic.  It was equilibrium kicking in.  It was balance [See blog, The Hardest Thing].

It almost goes without saying that it's necessary to strike a balance with our limited practice time.  We need to do a little bit of everything regularly -- sight reading, hymn playing, learning the repertoire, and improvising a little bit.  

A large pipe organ possesses more range, decibel gain, and sheer thrilling power than a military band or grand symphony orchestra.  That being said, it's incumbent upon the organist to adjust the volume of the instrument so that its long, drawn out sounds and more assertive voices don't swamp the other instrumentalists in an ensemble.  The player's ear, in consultation with the director, should be the final judge on the selection of stops and overall volume level [See blog, Listening For The Listener].  In accompanying a soloist the same principles of equilibrium apply.  Singers require sufficient support from the organist, but it's extremely easy to overdo a crescendo at the organ and sweep a lone singing voice, or even a small choir, away in a flood of pipe tone.  The idea is to provide enough organ so the singer's voice is supported but also keep it in proportion to the singer's volume.

If we're expected to lead a congregation in hymn singing, the organ must lead.  Obviously, if the hymn is Abide With Me, we accompany it differently than we do A Mighty Fortress.  For a ringing, triumphant hymn, usually the secondary chorus and reeds of the Swell coupled to the Great chorus provides ample support.  For a quiet, meditative hymn much lighter combinations on the secondary manual are often all that's needed, or maybe even a single stop or two, depending on the situation.  In any case, sufficient support needs to be provided at all times, even with quiet playing.  If we introduce a sudden decrescendo while the congregation is singing, many will take alarm at hearing their own voices and stop singing.  The organ is also expected to lead with the tempo.  When the congregation is dragging, as they sometimes do, the remedy is to play a little more detached, which usually brings them up to speed.  If we slow down to get them with us, then the organ starts dragging, and before long noboby can tell where the beat is supposed to fall.  A steady pulse is also the way to keep your listener's attention.  It's a fine balance however, between listening to where they are, giving them time for a bit of a breath, and keeping the tempo moving.  Afterwards, if people rave about how good your hymn playing was, it's possible you may have fallen short of the mark.  But if they continue to rave about how good the singing was, you know you had the right balance.  You know you've done your job.