Jun. 3, 2019

Looking Down

When we first sit on the organ bench the toes of both shoes are placed in the spaces in the middle of the pedalboard between the sharps (photo); from this initial position of orientation, centered directly above the pedal D key in the middle, the feet then learn to "feel" for any pedal key adjacent to these 2 spaces and, from there outward, are taught to find all the rest of the pedal keys the same way, i.e., by blind feel.
This means that, in the case of a 32-note pedalboard (low C to high G), the high pedal F, F#, and G keys will seem further away than the low pedal C key.
These 3 very high pedal keys are very difficult to locate merely by feel; anyone who has ever missed the pedal high F in the opening of the Widor 5 Toccata has been made painfully aware of this fact and has learned that it's better to take a quick glance downward at the pedals than to play a wrong pedal note.
In addition, the pedal keys are not all that an organist's feed need to find -- there may be one or more swell shoes, a crescendo shoe, and/or perhaps one or more rows of toe studs positioned above the toeboard (photo); on some of the largest instruments in fact, additional banks of toe studs may be supplied outside both ends of the pedalboard.
The positioning and configuration of these various accessories varies from instrument to instrument -- thus, with no two instruments being precisely alike in this respect, the "feel" employed in one application does not work in another.
So, do concert organists with virtuosic feet -- who possess footwork including trills, arpeggios, and four- and five-note chords -- who routinely perform pedal-heavy pieces in public on all styles and sizes of pedalboards besides the Guild standard -- ever look down at their feet? ... oh yes.
And it is NOT cheating.
We should, of course, strive to master that kinesthetic sense of being able to find pedals without ever looking down, but -- especially when we're playing at the extreme ends of the pedalboard on an unfamiliar instrument -- as long a taking a quick glance at the feet does not interfere with the rhythm of the music and the eyes can be brought back quickly -- either to the manuals or to the place on the page where they need to be -- looking down for a brief moment is perfectly all right.
Many professional musicians who have achieved considerable excellence in organ playing have done so by adopting the habit of looking at their feet during performance -- some for a good bit of the time [See menu bar, Videos, Bach Passacaglia].
Lighting to illuminate the pedal keys is very often introduced by organ builders for this very reason -- for those situations where the player desires a glance downward for a moment.
Bottom line: unless we're extraordinarily gifted, we can't do well what we can't see well -- and this applies to playing the entire pedal keyboard from top to bottom.