The subject of "organ shoes" resonates with different players in different ways, and almost everyone has a different take and a different story to relate, leading to preferences which vary widely among teachers.
When they work well it is not unheard of, even for professional organists, to use the same pair for decades long past their life, even with a hole in the sole and the sides glued together with evostik contact adhesive.
There is money in selling "special shoes" for organ playing, but any well-fitting pair with a decent heel and leather sole, while they may lack fashion, do the job well enough as long as they're built a certain way and are used only for organ playing.
When we see and hear excellent performers always playing the pedals of the organ, in public as well as in private, wearing nothing on their feet but socks, it becomes evident that PRACTICE is what really makes good pedal technique; in another idiom, owning a Rolls-Royce will not make a better driver -- it's how we use it (owning a Rolls could indeed make someone a worse driver-- they're not great in chicanes, apparently).
Teachers need to be careful about advising a new organist that "the organ is NEVER played without wearing shoes."
Never is a long time -- and this statement, while the premise may be good, doesn't hold 100 per cent of the time.
We may occasionally notice someone who plays an important organ professionally in a large worship center making skillful videos at this instrument completely barefoot; we also sometimes meet with videos of theatrical organ music being performed with great skill by someone playing in their socks minus any shoes; we might also find some type of footwear on the right foot which is kept permanently planted on the swell shoe, and the left foot shoe-less doing all the work of playing the pedals in the bottom half of the pedalboard.
Being a good theatre or cinema organist involves musicianship, a fluent technique, energy, a quick mind, the ability to multi-task, and a solid understanding of arranging, orchestration, organ registration and harmony in addition to being a good sight-reader who can handle new music quickly, have a good ear, and be able to improvise and play from memory; this type of playing is most definitely a legitimate art form which takes many years to perfect, and those who coach it usually recommend round-toed, medium-heeled shoes with flexible soles, not too thin ... not barefoot playing.
And then ... there's Bach.
As emerging organists wade into this study and enlarge their experience with different kinds of music they inevitably bump into something big -- and Bach is as big as it gets; after more than 300 years his music still forms the kernel of the standard repertoire.
For the serious organist the allurement of counterpoint in general, and Bach's music in particular, is incapable of being evaded; this man put music on a plateau that no one else has ever reached, thus every serious musician who comes after him, to some extent, has to be Bach's disciple.
The musician in every organist is destined to sense the enormous gravitational pull of Bach's music, come under its spell, be drawn to it, and yes, want to interrogate it, study it, and play it [See blog, He's Got You].
Bach's organ music is made up of a number of independent moving lines which make demands on both feet in performing his animated basses, thus the thinking among the generality of teachers is that organ shoes are needed to get precision with these basses, especially with rhythmic playing, and to avoid any possible unwanted effects.
These, in general, are important to get; the inference is that since organ music is typically performed in public wearing some kind of shoes it should be practiced the same way.
Some organists like not to wear shoes to play the pedals on old mechanical action organs so they can "feel the action" of the pedalboard; many who have tried this often reach the conclusion that, long term, it's a sure way to foot problems, irrespective of the type of action.
It IS easier to feel the pedals through just socks, but practicing without shoes is sometimes due to not being able to find any suitable ones and having to spend time getting used to them as opposed to any actual performance practice reason.
Organists with wide feet find them being wider with shoes on, and these people claim to be unable to play with shoes, admitting that it's not totally satisfactory but they can at least play that way.
Many teachers advise that not wearing shoes is asking for trouble, but the more we talk with other organists the plainer it becomes that we're all different, we're all dealing with our own hurdles, that no rule in organ playing is ever "absolute," that there's no such rule in the glossary of organ playing, and it applies to every aspect of organ playing, including how our feet are covered.
A case in point is the late world class organist Carlo Curley, who played in socks.
Another case is the world class Swiss organist, composer, music professor, and recording artist Benjamin Righetti, titular organist at the Cathedral of St. Francois in Lausanne; he's succeeded in training his feet to play the major organ works of Bach barefoot save for wearing one very thin pair of minimal ankle-length socks; much more ankle movement is involved this way which makes rapid scalar passages difficult, and how this works in a cold, unheated stone cathedral in the Swiss Alps in winter is anybody's guess.
For the rest of us mortals, especially those of us who are fortunate enough not to be struggling with medical issues involving the feet or ankles, wearing organ shoes is never a bad idea.
Playing the organ in street shoes is acceptable as long as they're clean, of the right construct, and made of the right materials, but many teachers rightly request that their students obtain a special pair of shoes for organ playing for a number of reasons, all good and sufficient.
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 styles of dance shoes, for example, could be used quite well for playing the organ provided they are of the proper construct and permit the feet to glide over the pedal keys.
Probably the best known footwear specifically made with the needs of the organist in mind 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 strictly for playing the pedals of an organ; their specialized construction makes them very poor street shoes for general footwear.
This should come as no surprise -- the more specialized something is, the better it will do one thing and the less well it will do everything else; this is instantly evident to anyone who has made a comprehensive study of all the many and varied national and historic schools of organ building which have come and gone in the Western world during the last 700 years.
These come in different styles for men and women; the men's version are considered unisex and are sometimes worn by women, if they prefer.
A special pair of shoes that we use exclusively to play the organ are therefore important to get.
The typical features of an acceptable organ shoe are 1) it's narrower than a regular shoe and has 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 suede sole, or a thin, flexible leather sole with a smooth bottom, which creates very little friction between shoe and pedal, allowing the feet to glide across the pedals, and built on a straight last so that the soles do not project (less material means the organist can hold the feet close together when playing adjacent notes, a feature which allows the feet to operate as one unit with the heels together when playing scales), and 3) a slightly elevated heel -- 3/4-inch (1.5 cm) minimum -- which means more deft pedalling, less ankle movement in rapid passages, heel to toe, and the ability to step across a key to play 3rds with one foot.
The shoes should be a close fit but comfortable when a single pair of thin, lightweight cotton dress socks are worn with them -- a single pair of thin dress socks should in fact be worn on the feet when testing any pair of shoes at the console; lightweight cotton dress socks seem to work best for everyday use because they're durable, don't take up a lot of room inside the shoes, and are easy to find on the market at an affordable price.
Some organists find that a ballroom type dance shoe with a 1-inch heel, or perhaps a modified tuxedo shoe with a heel built-up only 3/4-inch, may work better than the men's Oxford Organmaster shoes, which have 1-1/4 inch heels.
For a certain type of player who already sits on a high bench, that 1-1/4 inch heel may be too high and not permit the heels to rest on the pedals when assuming the proper bench position (and it may not be possible to get away with raising the bench any further); a difference of only 1/4-inch in the height of the heels may very well mean the difference between one pair of shoes working and the other pair not working.
We find some organists these days wearing various types of lightweight dance shoes or tuxedo shoes for playing the organ and succeeding very well with them [See blog, Shoes, Part II].
Standard black patent leather tuxedo shoes, for example, with heels built up only 3/4-inch, were preferred by Virgil Fox; he carved out a reputation for virtuosity by wearing this type of shoe, and today's generation of new organists are continuing to remember him as a 20th century innovator, a powerhouse of technique, a consummate technician, and an undisputed master of pedal playing.
If the player can manage to keep dirt and grime off the soles by wearing only one pair of shoes like this, it has the advantage of being able to be worn into and out of the building.
Many types of footwear, however, are unsuitable for pedalling; these include sandals, tennis shoes, 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.
Many of these types of shoes are too wide and have tread on their soles; the purpose of the tread is to give traction and prevent slipping, exactly the opposite of what the organist needs.
(con't in Part II)