Jun. 6, 2017

Mannerisms

Some performers at the organ, because they know at times their audiences will be large and watching what they do, slip into the habit of adopting unnecessary movements as they play.
This is, in some cases, a carry-over from enthusiastic playing of the piano, an instrument which changes its volume and tone depending upon how hard the keys are struck.
In organ playing however, there's an old dictum which says "all unnecessary movement is harmful because it's a waste of time and effort;" this holds true with and can be applied to a wide variety of applications in life, not just organ playing (photo).
Organ playing demands energy, concentration, a brain that can multi-task, a quick mind, razor-sharp timing, the ability to think ahead, and an analytical ear; it requires no physical strain or a litany of mannerisms to communicate a language of warmth and meaning to an audience.
When we watch performers do things like:
1) sway on the bench as they play, shaking their heads as if they were trying to paint a fence with a brush between their teeth ...
2) arch their backs and lift their elbows on every strong beat ...
3) rhythmically crunch their whole body over the keys with every measure of music, then quickly straighten their spine for the next measure ...
4) open and close their lips as they give their heads a sharp shake with every note of a fugue subject and every beat between entries ...
5) rapidly expand both arms over the head after the final chord as if some sort of wild bird is being released from captivity to fly away ...
6) release final spread chords as if they've just cut a live 220V line with a metal snips in their right hand while holding on to a wet water pipe with the left,
6) rotate the elbows rhythmically out to the sides like they're trying to "air out" their armpits ...
7) jiggle their head and grimace as if they were in the throes of an apoplectic fit ...
8) stall out the tempo in the coda until all sense of rhythm is destroyed as if being in the throes of ecstasy loving every additional second that can be squeezed out of the music before it must end in sweet sorrow ... and the like ...
let's face it ... IT'S MORE FUN THAN A MOVIE !!
NONE of these visual mannerisms have ANY effect whatsoever on tone production -- some players may cultivate them to draw off some the energy they feel as the music unfolds, but, if that's the case, then they certainly must know that, in the process, they're expending it simply to put on a show [See blog, Bach d minor, Part III].
Other players engage in these kinds of antics thinking that if they're consistent with a certain mannerism, it tends to set them apart from the general crowd of players and give them their own signature identity.
Stagy gyrations are not a new concept; the distinguished organist of the Chicago Symphony Wilhelm Middelshulte (1863-1943) who came from a long line of musicians from the Berlin school, was a master of contrapuntal composition, and was on the direct teacher/pupil succession back to J.S. Bach himself, even suggested to his students, among whom were Mario Salvador and Virgil Fox, that they should make some kind of movement to entertain the audience, otherwise onlookers would think the performer was doing nothing.
Thus it would be a rather serious error to think that these kinds of theatrics are the sole property of the theatre/cinema organist; anyone today who attends a concert in a big church when the cameras are rolling is very apt to see it there.
As long as nothing foreign and destructive to the composer's music is inserted which takes a wrecking ball to it -- such as by interrupting the majestic counterpoint at the final cadence of a fugue with a home-made cadenza, a meaningless commentary which changes what the composer wrote into a personalized improvisation -- all of these "harmless" mannerisms aren't the worst that can happen in organ playing.
Bottom line: Mannerisms in organ playing impress those who are listening with their eyes; the grandmother listening in the back row and the little boy listening in the front row who can't see the organist upstairs don't give a flying flip if that organist is sitting up straight, bobbing the head, making faces, chewing gum, rolling the eyes, slobbering at the mouth, wearing a dew rag, or swaying on the bench like a drunken sailor; all they expect is to hear some organ music, to hear it clearly, to be moved by it, and, in case they've heard it before, to hear it played the same way [See blog, Touch, Part V].