We don't find tap dancers performing in their bare feet.
We don't find them wearing combat boots, either.
In ANY performing art, the proper footwear has everything to do with the execution of coordinated moves made by the legs and feet and with holding one's balance [See blog, Balance In Organ Playing, Part I].
Organ playing, in principle, is really no different.
Playing the organ in street shoes is acceptable as long as they're absolutely clean, of the right construct, and made of the right materials [See blog, Balance in Organ Playing, Part I], but many teachers request that their students obtain special shoes for organ playing for good and sufficient reasons.
In areas of the world where special organ shoes may be difficult to obtain, other types of shoes can be bought and repurposed for organ playing.
Many dress shoes could be suited to playing the organ provided they have narrow toes and an elevated (preferably leather) heel that's not too narrow where it could slip off the pedal key.
The soles should be made of suede or thin leather; rubber or plastic heels and soles do not glide as well on the pedal keys.
Very few shoes are designed specifically for organ playing, but probably the best known product worldwide is Organmaster shoes.
These shoes (photo) are made by Capezio, a Connecticut based company, though they differ somewhat from the dance shoes this company also sells [See blog, Shoes, Part IV]'; they fit snugly but not too tight and are lightweight with a thin suede sole and thin narrow heel; they are not used for general purpose walking but for playing the pedals only; their specialized construction makes them very poor street shoes for general footwear.
This should come as no surprise -- the more specialized an item is, the better it will be to do that one thing extremely well at the sacrifice of doing other things well; this is instantly evident to any who study all the national and historic schools of organ building which have developed in Europe during the last 700 years.
It is not the purpose of this blog to promote any company's products, but the overwhelmingly favorable reaction Organmaster shoes have had on the organ playing world justifies the inclusion of some additional information on this type of shoe:
For the men's Oxford, there is a large size range up to size in 3 widths; for women buying the Oxford, the women's size is converted by going down 1 full size and 1 width (example: men's 7.5 medium equals women's 8.5 wide); the company cannot guarantee fit but gladly processes exchanges and returns.
In men's, there are whole and half sizes from 6-13.5; whole sizes in 14, 15, and 16 are also carried; the 3 widths available are narrow (B), medium (CD), and wide (EE).
Tip: when ordering it might be a good idea to request a half size larger than your usual size, to be sure your feet have sufficient room wearing thin dress socks without being too tight.
The suede sole provides both slide and traction and plays silently on the pedals.
As for the upper, the trim fit means less bulk on your foot; the steel shank give the support needed for the operating of the swell shoes, and the breathable leather conforms to the shape of your foot over time; the heel height of 1-1/4 inches (3 cms) is really fundamental for proper support, the legato playing of 3rds, and for minimizing ankle movement in rapid scale passages; it may also protect organists from pulling muscles when heeling down.
The typical features of an acceptable organ shoe are 1) a flexible, lightweight leather or synthetic upper held snugly to the foot by a lace, strap, or ribbon; the material should allow the player's feet to glide against each other without sticking together, 2) a soft, flexible leather or suede sole that allows the player to slip the foot easily both up and down a pedal and across pedals; the sole should be thin enough to feel the pedals easily, and it should not extend beyond the sole of the foot, and 3) a slight heel of about 1-1/4 inches or 3 cm in height and wide enough so that it cannot become wedged between 2 pedals.
Some organists prefer a dance shoe or modified tuxedo shoe with a slightly shorter heel that they can also wear into and out of the building (a standard tuxedo shoe, for example, with heel built up only 3/4 inch, was preferred by concert organist Virgil Fox); if the player can manage to keep dirt and grime off the soles by wearing only one pair of shoes like this, then this would be acceptable and provide a certain advantage.
Many types of footwear, however, are unsuitable for pedaling; these include sandals, sneakers and other rubber soled shoes, flip flops, clogs, and any other shoe that fails to hug the heel, platform shoes, any other "chunky shoes," boots, or any other heavy or inflexible shoes that would slow or decrease the agility of the feet [See blog, A Third Hand], and men's "wing tip" dress shoes which have soles that project.
The elevated heel allows pedaling to become more deft because in rapid scale passages there is less ankle movement, heel to toe, and permits the heel and toe of the same foot to step across an intervening pedal key when playing thirds.
It's also important to remember, with shoes, that if we invest in a pair of organ shoes and think, by so doing, that all of our pedaling problems will be solved -- that may be a nice thought, but it's just an illusion.
It fails to explain how some performers have been known to perform very complicated counterpoint written into the pedal line, such as the Trio Sonatas of J.S. Bach, and perform these pieces well, without wearing shoes at all.
Some teachers would disagree with this premise, but the bottom line with organ shoes, when we consider all the facts objectively, has to be this: having a pair of shoes specially made for organ playing points us in the right direction, as organists are expected to learn Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary repertoire which makes extensive use of the heels in pedalling -- but the necessity for such a pair of shoes is not universally mandatory at all times in every situation, particularly for those who perform on Renaissance- or Baroque-style instruments geared to play early (pre-1800) music almost exclusively, where the pedal keys are short, of limited compass, parallel, flat, non-radiating, and virtually demand toes-only pedaling.
(con't in Part II)