Apr. 16, 2021

What About Bench Position, Part III

(con't from Part II)
Those who instruct and coach people at the keys may one day encounter an organ student working a bit too hard at it when (s)he plays for them at a lesson.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the trouble with overworking at playing is that muscular tension tends to develop; an observant teacher will notice it at the student's mouth, and, if left unchecked it will work its way down the neck, shoulders, and arms to the hands and wrists, maybe not so obviously at first, but it's there -- it's heading that way -- and it leads to fatigue, which isn't good.
Such a student is usually surprised to be told they're doing this -- sometimes they're even shocked to find out from their instructor that if there were a print-out on their shoulders it would say "tense."
This is why having the right kind of teacher is so important -- not just helpful books, videos, and web sites -- someone more than a proficient performer who simply offers lessons and assigns repertoire making only markings of fingerings and phrasings along the way.
The "right kind" of teacher means someone who understands the teaching process and what never to say or do which would risk destroying a student's interest -- someone who can analyze each student's physicality as an individual and develop their awareness of it -- someone who can mentor and watch their students carefully one-on-one, who can tell them how to move their hands and feet and set the bench to accommodate the natural facility they were given -- someone who can provide constructive advice about balancing ease and tension, how to make corrections to play the building as well as the instrument, see to it that the foundations of playing are firmly in place, and then get the student to hone that around, do some different things, and add in new concepts all the while being mindful of what habits to establish to counteract one that must be eliminated in order to progress to the next level and explain why such a correction is important.
Sometimes overworking can be the result of anxiety about a tricky passage coming up on the next page.
In this case, it may help to look at it this way: that tricky passage up ahead isn't a rapids poised to capsize our canoe the moment we get there -- it isn't a rapids at all -- it's just a pasture -- with a bunch of little sheep lying down and snoozing.
We just need the right tools, and, after that, it's just a pasture.
Part of the overworking problem also could be related to the student's habit of playing from a bench that's too low for them, which will automatically make them work harder to play.
While a willingness to perform on any bench and try to adapt to it is commendable, it adds to the work of playing just to pursue accuracy.
We play for accuracy, of course, but not primarily; organ playing is many more things than that.
It may come as a surprise, but accuracy in organ playing does not have to be actively pursued -- instead, it will come to us.
It's like a cat -- if we call our cat, it disappears -- when we don't call it, it's right there -- it comes and visits us if we leave it alone -- when we reach for it, it's harder to attain, and it hides from us.
It's freedom which leads us to that, and freedom is gotten by repetition, i.e. practice, and keeping good habits going.
Part of those good habits is working from a bench that exactly suits the length of our legs -- it's really critical to freedom and ease of pedal playing, more so than it may seem on its surface.
Some benches are equipped with a crank mechanism built into the bench which can be adjusted up or down plus or minus 2 inches to suit the performer -- which would be ideal; it's also possible to retrofit an older bench with the same, the only drawback being cost; a bench with this feature is not cheap.
More commonly however the console bench at hand lacks this feature, and it's height is fixed by the builder; the organist is thus faced with a one-size-fits-all seat which will need to be tested [See blog, What About Bench Position, Parts I-II].
For those performers of medium to small stature the bench as it comes from the builder may work fine, but it compels the taller player to examine it carefully to see if and by how much it may need to be raised.
NOTE: If we're subbing for the regular organist who happens to be a large man a good bit taller than we are, we can expect to be exposed to the opposite situation with the bench too high in the air; in this case we need to check this out in advance and see what can be done to lower it, if that were possible; when we're still forced to play the pedals from a bench that's too high and there's nothing that can be done about it we can expect our toes to be doing just about all of the work.
When wooden boards measuring 2 by 4 inches are placed flat on the floor as shims to raise the bench, the center of each board can be routed, i.e. ground out with a special drill bit to create a recess in each one about 1/8 inch deep to accept the bench legs and keep them from slipping off; these wooden shims may then be sanded, stained to match the bench color, and finished with a coat of spray lacquer.
NOTE: When the rough-cut board measuring 2 by 4 inches goes through the planer, the planer removes 3/8 inch, resulting in a finished board measuring 1-5/8 by 3-5/8 inches; this is the "standard two by four" builders purchase from the lumber yard; when a pair of these are laid flat as organ bench shims and are rounted 1/8th inch deep to accept the bottom of the bench legs the bench height will be raised by 1-1/2 inches (1-5/8 inches take away another 1/8 = 1-4/8, or 1-1/2 inches).
A word about books: Alternatively, in a pinch, some older or little used editions of certain sturdy-bound hardback books can be retrieved from storage and used as temporary shims.
NOTE: The photo shows copies of the Gather Comprehensive hymnal (hardbound green cover) being used this way; this alternative of sitting the bench on top of books is being mentioned to underscore the importance of securing the right bench height, that it overrides whatever has to be done to achieve that objective, and that books are one more temporary option that might be considered to remove the obstacle of the bench being too low for the organist; any book used for this purpose is still organist-friendly and "raises" the level of playing [See blog, Improvisation, Part IV].
Bottom line: Better to prop up the bench with two-by-fours or even books than to watch (and listen to) a taller organist struggling to play from a bench that doesn't suit him/her.