May. 18, 2016

Fraternal Organ Playing, Part IV

(con't from Part III)
To the pianist, the flight deck of a large pipe organ looks worrying, to say the least.
Here are a few tips for the newcomer, to get the most out of the instrument at hand:
Firstly, you're not using this moment to begin your study of the organ, therefore you don't need to worry about all the pedals, for now, save for one.
The one that matters is the swell shoe; this is situated near the right foot, it's full foot size, rocks gently back and forth like a treadle, and is useful for getting louder and softer.
It doesn't matter how hard you hit the keyboard; the organ volume stays the same; impact does not change the volume, but this big shoe does the trick.
All the stops with an "8" on them sound at piano pitch; the 8 refers to the length of the pipe on the lowest "C" key with any such stop drawn, which is around 8 feet long; these are your basic sounds and come in different flavors such as flutes, strings, solo reeds, chorus reeds, and a few stops of special tonality.
If you can see one called "diapason," or "principal," start with this, as it's the basic organ sound.
Flutes are a bit more mellow, and reeds quite a lot more strident and tiring on the ears; try them separately, and try mixing them together.
Stops come in families and by selecting similar names from those bearing a "4," then a "2," you add a sound an octave higher, then 2 octaves higher, respectively.
The more stops, the more sound ... roughly; it's important to change the sound from time to time, as too much of the same becomes tedious.
You see more than one keyboard in front of you; this is to enable you to, among other things, have a loud and a soft selection prepared in advance, and change keyboard (or manual, as they are known) when you want a change of tone color.
More advanced players may pick out a tune on the louder manual and accompany on the softer, but this is not a trick for beginners to try for the first time in front of a live audience.
As for couplers, there will be a tab or drawknob marked "Sw to Gt," or "Sw-Gt"; using this connects the 2 manuals together so that they can both "talk" through one of them; this is useful for doubling the sound or mixing differing sounds; you may want this "off" to get the greatest contrast between loud and soft that you've set on each manual.
The pedals themselves are set out like a keyboard and are played with the toes and heels of both feet.
If you can pat your head with one hand and make a circular motion with the other on your stomach, you have the sort of talent that may enable you to play with your feet as well as with your hands; but there's no need to do so, just yet.
A word about electronic organs ...
A few of these are replicas of pipe organs, but even the cheapest have far more sounds and gadgets than are good for your health; the danger here is that you'll sound more like a jazz player unless you curb your passions, the excess of which, when carried to their furthest limits, deforms the very soul.
So, the first step is to ignore any buttons that hint of dance rhythms and electronic sounds; keep to the church organ effects for Masonic and other fraternal meetings and ceremonies; on digital stage pianos and keyboards these are often given names like Church Org 1, Church Org 2, Church Org 3, Mid Pipe Org, Grand Pipes, Massive Pipe, Nason Flute, etc., and it's best to stick with these.
The big difference with electronic organs is that the swell shoe gives a very wide range of volume; this might sound like a good idea, but the problem is that an inexperienced player will make excessive use of this, and a sudden increase in volume tends to frighten the natives.
Try to perfect the knack of moving this shoe very gently.
There's one more thing ... and it may not be what some prefer to hear ... but it should be touched upon:
The idea of there now being a one-to-one equivalence between the latest hi-tech software and a live musician, and that the former can be used as a semi-permanent substitute for the latter, is based upon the flawed premise that it's just as easy for a non-musician to create a seamless flow of suitable music in different venues, at all times, than a real live organist.
As much as we'd like to buy into this idea, the truth is, it just isn't so.
The use of prerecorded music for fraternal meetings and ceremonies traditionally has been looked upon as attractive only as a last resort and one step short of having no music at all.
This seems to be no longer the case; nowadays technology is being advertised to replicate a lodge organist, promoted to be as versatile, reliable, equivalent, in every respect to a live musician.
In addition, the younger and newer, more computer savvy ranks in the membership can sometimes try to "improve" the fraternity by introducing additional hi-tech devices in the absence of a real live organist; you might as well just avoid this, too, and send them home.
In principle, it's all been tried before, and there's many a fraternal building with a mat black box with multiple knobs and a pile of floppy disks inside, with smudged labels.
The problem with all of this technology is, it's geared to being operated by non-musicians when in fact it's more difficult to create a seamless flow of suitable music when you're not a musician.
If it were simply a matter of providing support for the singing of the National Anthem, an Ode, or a consecration hymn, for example, at the appropriate cue, that's one thing; even then, getting prerecorded music to begin at just the right moment at just the right volume can be tricky.
There are times also (and it happens all the time) when the presiding officer deviates from the agenda and either forgets or deliberately preempts something musical; prerecorded numbers then get out of sequence, and, here again, making the necessary adjustment smoothly can be tricky.
The rest of the time the music has to be adapted to fit a time requirement; sometimes it finishes just at the right moment, but more typically it has to be extended slightly or cut short; sometimes also, it has to be improvised on the spot because, once you begin, you typically don't know exactly how many seconds you're going to be playing.
Just because it took 20 seconds to perform it in the building where we played it last time does not mean it will take 20 seconds to perform it in the building where we are this time.
Its awkward to say the least, when prerecorded music runs out while an officer or cast member is still moving around the floor; it's equally awkward when it has to be cut off in half phrase when an officer reaches his chair, the gavel comes down, or an officer of cast member starts reciting his part.
It's a real stretch to look upon this as some kind of permanent or semi-permanent fix.
An empty bench gathers no musicians when the instrument at hand is suffering from inadequate regular maintenance and is only partially playable; far better results can be expected therefore in the long term when 1) pipe organs that will attract good organists are kept in good repair and fully playable, 2) the younger and newer members who have a modicum of interest in starting from scratch (or maybe already have some entry level keyboard skills) are given the kind of guidance they need to facilitate their interest and help them grow in that direction, and 3) an awareness of the need for Masonic keyboard musicians is made a priority by and communicated regularly through the publications of the State and Provincial Grand jurisdictions [See blog, Fraternal Organ Playing, Part VII].
In terms of guidance, nothing should be considered off limits, including this link, starting with the 7 blog postings in this series [See blog, Fraternal Organ Playing, Parts I-VII].
Of course, there's no substitute for an inspiring teacher who can work with a brother right at the keys, and not everything about organ playing that's valuable to a fraternal organist can be self-taught; but much of it can.
This way, the fraternity has a chance of growing its own organist who might then serve at the local, State, national, or even international levels and who, when compared with CDs, virtual organist software, and other replacement technology, will contribute enormously to the musical accompaniment of fraternal ceremonies.
(con't in Part V)