Sep. 28, 2015

Exercises, Part I

Can you relate to this photo?  Most new organists can.  All we're wanting to do is train our hands at a chromatic keyboard.  Instead we can feel crushed under the weight of prescribed finger exercises, technical studies, and advanced piano repertoire.  How many promising talents have had their interest destroyed this way by another person who plays a musical instrument well but was never cut out to be a teacher.  It almost happened to this author, not once but twice.  Fortunately a very dear friend and wonderful teacher with whom he had studied earlier had the wisdom to make him promise, before he left this world, that he would never give up playing.  This teacher was an enormously gifted pianist and church organist, and beautifully kind to his student.  That student learned much from him, and he never broke that promise in over 50 years.  If it's left up to him, he never will.   

Many aspects of piano playing do not transfer equally to the organ.  Despite that fact, the new organist nevertheless needs to work with a weighted keyboard [See blog, What About The Piano}.  This helps make possible the development and maintenance of finger strength and keeping the playing tools sharp with respect to the scales, arpeggios, and thumbs on sharps.  If you can't seem to find enough uninterrupted time for practice, you're not alone.  Even when you're a professional organist who works for a church, temple, or other institution, it just never lets down to allow you time for enough practice.  It pulls you away from things like this.

Learning is like laying sheets of paper, thousands of them, and they layer.  Knowledge is layering sheets of paper.  Developing a skill is layering sheets of paper.  It's not like putting a foot on the bottom rung of a ladder and then putting the other foot 2/3 of the way up on something new.  When we're first learning, or relearning, the piano we're back down to the bottom of the stack, it's going to be one layer of paper at first, but you can get a plan going and expand on that, shift it a little bit if you don't have a lot of time until, before long, those sheets of paper are going to stack from the floor of the organ loft to the ceiling.

Many famous pianists and organists have endorsed the Leon Conus exercises found in Fundamentals of Piano Technique, by Olga and Leon Conus, edited by James McKeever).  One of this author's teachers, a phenomenal talent who played the organ professionally in a wonderful French style, said that he owed his technique to the exercises found in this book and his own teacher's adaptations on them.

For study of pure polyphony working in all 24 keys there's nothing better than the Two and Three Part Inventions and Well Tempered Klavier, Books I and II by J.S. Bach.  These pieces are of particular value to organists, one reason being that they can be made quite effective when performed on the organ using suitable registrations.  These books are important to get.

We have to develop a mission.  We need to narrow our focus and concentrate on just a few things at a time.  If you're going back to relearn the piano after working at the organ for a while, which is a common occurence, there are some things that will need to be kept in mind with your technique.  It's going to be a transitional thing.  You don't want to get into the Chopin or Liszt etudes right off the bat, but for a while, it helps to just work easy, layering one thing upon another gradually, like sheets of paper.  For example, you can begin by working out of the Leon Conus book and any adaptations on the exercises found there, practicing the manual parts of organ pieces on the piano, and settling on maybe one Bach Invention and one Bach prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Klavier, and working on them, trying to keep the wrist from locking.  It helps to practice these raising and moving the wrist, trying to keep the hand relaxed and letting the wrist move.

As for practicing those all important scales in octaves, double thirds, and double sixths [See blog, Scales And Fingerings] and the arpeggios in their various combinations, Mastering the Scales and Arpeggios by James Francis Cooke is one of the finest references in print.  If you could have only one book on the subject, this is it.  This work was originally published in 1913, is in the public domain in most countries, and is now available as a complete PDF download (students should be wary of reprints of this work, which can be reduced in size and poorly scanned).  This will keep a student busy for a long time and can be worked on gradually.  You don't have to get everything into tight memory right away.  Don't measure the time you have for practice, just take what can be taken, and go from there (see A Clear Mind).  Your teacher did exercises, and his/her teacher before that, and you should do some too, but it's important to remember to enjoy.  As with all exercises, they should be stopped at the first sign of tension or fatigue.  NEVER FORCE BEYOND THAT [See blog, Small Hands, Parts I, II].

An important book for facilitating the playing of scales in octaves and getting them up to speed is Lightning Fast Piano Scales: A Proven Method To Get Fast Piano Scales in 5 Minutes a Day (Piano Lessons, Piano Exercises by Zach Evans, which is available in both kindle ebook and hard copy form.  This book has all the specific strategies and tactics to practice more efficiently and get the performing of scales up to speed.  This step-by-step reference is an effective tool to help with memorizing scales quickly, master the tricky "thumb under" move, and cut down on practice time.   

These days some teachers of the piano burden their students very little with finger exercises alone.  Since the time of pianist Karl Tausig much of the vast etude literature composed for the piano for no other reason than to train the hands has been mostly assigned to oblivion, for in the music itself may be studied the precise technical difficulties to be overcome.  But for those piano students who are, or who will shortly be, moving to the organ there are two notable exceptions:  1)  The Art of Finger Dexterity for the PIano Op. 740 by Carl Czerny offers the would-be organ student some excellent etudes for development of finger strength and independence, and 2) some consider the drills in The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises by C.L. Hanon to be more organ-like and therefore even more valuable to a would-be organ student than other works of its kind.

When I first began studying the organ with the enormously gifted teacher alluded to above, he wanted me to begin working at the piano on the first study [No. 1 in C major] from Czerny's Op. 740.  I can tell you that the perfecting of this one study took my hands to the next level in terms of developing strength and finger independence.  For further development of evenness in the fingers, maintaining dexterity, exposure to frequent note patterns for sight reading, and rendering the left hand equally skillful as the right, I worked in the Hanon book on my own and saw additional results right away.  

This author feels that the study of theatre organ arranging should be integrated at some point into the education of the new organist.  In this regard it will be helpful to find a copy, long out of print, of A Study in Theatre Organ Style by Don Baker.  This book is plastic comb bound to sit on the rack and contains, among other things, 11 big stylized arrangements.  If the new organist could have only one book on theatre organ playing, this would be it.  Probably the most widely read resource readily available on this subject is The Art Of Theatre Organ Arranging in 3 Vols., by Jelani Eddington.  These 3 volumes are spiral bound to sit flat on the rack and contain in-depth discussions on the essentials of theatre organ playing along with Second Touch exercises, modes and relative scales in all keys, basic and advanced minor scale harmonizations, a catalog of essential registrations for a unit theatre organ of 10 ranks, and a helpful glossary.

The time-honored method book The Technique and Art of Organ Playing by Clarence Dickinson contains, among other things, a helpful chapter on adapting piano accompaniments to the organ.  Gradually, over time, it might help to set a goal of obtaining copies of Method of Organ Playing by Harold Gleason and Methode d'Orgue by Marcel Dupre and studying all the things found in these two old references.  Dupre's Method book also has a school of legato section codifying the rules of part playing.

There are some other fine method books out there, and this is by no means an exhaustive list.  For example, the drills in The Leschetizsky Method, with slight adaptations related to the organ, happened to be the primary source to which Virgil Fox turned for keeping his hands in shape.  For studying and mastering early articulated legato technique for organ music composed before 1800, probably no finer work is in print than Organ Technique:  Modern and Early, by George H. Ritchie and George B. Stauffer.  This book is also spiral bound and offers useful information for accompanying anthems and solos and adapting piano and orchestral accompaniments to the organ.  This is probably the premiere book of its kind in general use today, and if you could have only one method book, this is it.  Works like this are all worth the time to consult and can be tremendously helpful.

(continued in Part II)