Blog/Archive

Jan. 16, 2019

(con't from Part II)
When we look at instrumentalists who play in an orchestra, years are spent learning, for example, the best way to position or hold a bow to artistically play a violin, viola, or cello, the best way to hold a flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, or [french] horn so that the player can form a proper embouchure and exercise artistic control of the instrument over its entire range, the best way to sit at a modern chromatic harp in order to play it with full control, the best way to hold and place the mallets when playing the tympani, or the best way to sit at the Queen of Instruments -- a concert grand piano -- to permit command of the entire keyboard.
It is EXTREMELY important how the pianist positions the body for the sake of technique, endurance, and agility on the piano keys.
The height of the piano bench, for example, must be adjusted so that, when the pianist is seated, the forearms are horizontal and at the level of the keyboard (this is made possible by means an adjustable "artists bench" having a crank mechanism, or cushions may be used); the pianist must also find the middle point of the keyboard and center the body there (middle C is NOT the center of the 88-key piano keyboard -- the center is at the middle E and F keys); the bench also has to be pulled out enough so that the elbows don't bump into the player's body when the arms move up and down the keys (this means NOT sitting with the front edge of the bench tight against the back of the knees); and when sitting erect with both arms held out straight, palms down, and the fingertips of both hands are bent down on a perpendicular, the backs of the hands should be even with the raised fallboard.
THIS is the proper bench position from which to play the piano with command.
Whether someone is playing the smallest harmonica or the biggest tuba, everything depends upon the correct positioning of the body.
The organ, as a musical instrument, is not somehow immune to all of this.
Finding someone sitting like this (photo) at a church or concert organ, or perhaps at a home practice instrument, seeming to be getting nowhere with their playing, is a more common occurrence than any of us care to admit.
This player is having problems; nothing seems to be working for him; he does not have command of the instrument; his playing, to be perfectly honest, if over with before it started.
And no wonder -- firstly, and most obviously, the bench is sitting way too close to the bottom manual; the organist in this photo found the bench this way when he came to practice and just sat on it and tried to start playing.
Actually, he did this deliberately for the photo value to make an important point, but look what this did to him; it forced him to sit too far back on the bench, causing him to lean backward with his spine curved in a slouched position; this leads to postural fatigue, restricts the movement of the legs, and leaves insufficient room for his feet to play the pedals.
Both his elbows are bumping into his body when he tries to move his arms up and down the keys; the legs also can't move freely with the edge of the bench so close to the backs of his knees; additionally, he's wearing street shoes with wide rubber soles that project -- exactly the wrong kind for organ playing [See blog, Shoes, Parts I-V].
NOTE: he also didn't bother to find the center position when he sat down to play -- he just sat down and began playing (the organ pedalboard is used to center the body; the left toe is placed on low F# and the right toe on high C#; the body is then shifted to the spot exactly between these 2 keys (directly over middle E) while the hands are bracing the weight of the body on the bench (the weight of the body is NEVER placed on the pedal keys).
Being impatient and not paying attention to any of this when we sit down to play is destructive to endurance, technique, agility on the bench, and the freedom needed to play.
The remedy here would be to move the bench out an inch or two, work with it a little to find the best spot, have this organist sit clear up on the edge of it, center himself, straighten his spine, and get the right shoes on his feet.
THEN he'll be able to play the organ.
COROLLARY: Freedom in organ playing comes by repetition and keeping good habits going.
Put another way -- freedom in organ playing DOES NOT mean we can sit on the bench "any old way we want" or wear "any old thing we want" on our feet; on the contrary, enslaving ourselves to good habits and keeping them going is what sets us free to play the instrument.
How we sit on the bench should NEVER be left to chance; it makes all the difference in the world in whether or not we can have command of the organ.
Which is why it's NEVER a good idea to permanently fasten down the bench merely for the convenience of the principal organist; the position of the bench isn't, and never was, about what's best for one person.
We have to remember that even though some organists tend to speak of the instrument over which they preside as "theirs," and they steward their responsibility over it with loving care, it nevertheless belongs to the institution; with proper care and maintenance it will far outlast the lifespan of the principal organist, whoever he or she may currently happen to be.
TIP: In the above situation (photo), if the bench were pulled out about 2 inches more to where the back of the foot rail under the bench were, let's say, about even with the pedal footboard, and if, after some experimentation, this bench position worked really well for this player, then he should make a mental note of it and make sure, each time he intends to play this instrument, that the back of the foot rail of the bench and the pedal footboard were always exactly in line with each other BEFORE he climbs on the bench.

Jan. 8, 2019

(con't from Part III)
When performing Romantic and post-Romantic compositions it very often happens that a rise or fall of volume is specified in the score which demands that the right foot be occupied with the swell shoe (photo); sometimes also the composer may specify the rapid and sequential addition or subtraction of stops and couplers at the same time while both hands, thumbs, and left foot are occupied, which will require either a console assistant or, more commonly, use of the crescendo shoe by the right foot.
If a phrase in the pedal ordinarily played by both feet (to keep connected the notes inside the slur) is written into such a passage, then the performer is faced with deciding whether to play that phrase using the right foot and temporarily ignore the dynamic indications -- OR -- to play the phrase entirely with the left foot so the right foot may remain planted on the swell shoe.
Here the performer may have to arrive at a compromise which tries to preserve the best of both worlds, i.e. to provide dynamic nuance while at the same time keeping the pedal line intact without audible breaks.
This will require a very flexible left ankle to negotiate the numerous substitutions of left toe for left heel on the same white key and leaps of 3rds, 4ths, and even 5ths the performer is likely to encounter in playing such phrases, as written.
It may also require changing the manuscript mentally [See blog, Listening For The Listener] -- by either eliminating short rests written into the pedal line between adjacent notes in the score, thus connecting these notes ... or perhaps by inserting little breaks between awkward melodic intervals, at the ends of slurs, or even under slurs ... in order to get the notes in the left hand part more clear, or to free the left foot to move more smoothly and to free the right foot to remain on the swell or crescendo shoe, thus achieving greater control and making possible a more seamless crescendo or diminuendo.
While flexible ankles are needful to an organist, we should never ever, repeat NEVER, practice or over-practice any exercise if it leads to pain or stiffness; everyone's ankles, just like their hands, have limits to what they can do, it's different for different individuals, and, once we begin to feel a little fatigue, we should never push beyond that.
If however, through gradual methodical training, we should become adept at working our left foot this way, we will have done something that few organists have ever done -- we will have gotten beyond the mechanics of working the machine and have developed one of the most important faculties involved in reaching the hearts of our listeners.
The way one develops this facility is by taking a composition that has these elements in it and experimenting with it, marking the heel and toe pedal indications in the score, practicing it that way, using our ear, and learning from the results; J. Stuart Archer's familiar arrangement of Londonderry Air is an example of a composition, among many others, which could be used for this purpose [See menu bar, Videos, Londonderry Air subpage].
For improving the general flexibility of the ankles there are many self-help books available [See blog, Exercises, Part II], and they're all good; the pedal exercises in the Nilson book were recommended by this author's teachers.

Dec. 25, 2018

(con't from Part XXXVIII)
The term bridge (photo) in music is understood to mean a musical passage linking 2 sections of a song or composition.
In the score for the spacious Op. 10 Praeludium, Chorale, & Fugue in d minor we find such a bridge inserted in the central part of the work, after the Chorale finishes; it functions not just as a link but, by being built upon the Fugue's 3 countersubjects, it also relates the Chorale to the ensuing Fugue; it also closes on a half cadence with its feeling of incompleteness and something to follow, and it lends a very strong sense of unity to the entire work.
While the codettas found in fugue expositions and the episodes separating entries might also, technically, fit the dictionary definition of a bridge, when we speak of a bridge, by name, in organ fugue writing we generally understand it to mean a short passage, often constructed upon a sequence, linking the exposition with the first subsequent entry -- one that continues in all voices until the beginning of the 1st episode at which time the pedal line comes to a stop.
The Op. 22 Postlude in d minor is an example of a piece which contains this type of construction.
This is a stand alone 4 voice fugue written in triple counterpoint with 2 countersubjects maintained throughout; the final entry in the exposition is connected with the ensuing entry in the relative key by means of a bridge passage which continues in 4 voice polyphony until the next entry [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXVII].
In this example the bridge is 6 bars long and built upon a sequence which brings about a return to the home key before modulating to the relative key for the ensuing entry.
This type of construction may also be successfully inserted into pieces written in quadruple counterpoint, as seen in the score for the Op. 31 Postlude in G Major -- another 4 voice stand alone fugue, only with 3 countersubjects maintained throughout.
This work has a subject which begins on scale degree 1 and is supplied with a real answer in the dominant.
Here again, a 6 bar bridge passage in 4 voice polyphony employing a sequence then links the exposition with the ensuing entry in the relative key; in this instance the bridge modulates directly to the relative without returning to the home key.
As the remaining entries in this G Major Postlude proceed through all related keys in similar fashion to that described in previous postings, plus one unrelated key (A Major), the subject and countersubjects enter in the bass at least once.
Episodes separating the various entries are in 2 voices (alto and tenor) and, save for one instance which employs another ascending sequence in the same rhythm as the 1st bar of the subject, are constructed using inversions of the subject and countersubjects.
In this work a stretto section in 3 voice trio texture links the penultimate entry with the final entry and undergoes a crescendo with the addition of stops and couplers.
A short coda employing the melodic curves of the subject and countersubjects and the addition of a 5th and then a 6th voice rounds out the work which also ends with great finality using the full power of the instrument.
(con't in Part XL)

Dec. 24, 2018

The Op. 30 Postlude in A Major is a stand alone 4 voice fugue written in quadruple counterpoint with 3 countersubjects maintained throughout.
In this work the subject begins boldly on scale degree 3 and includes a trilled tail which points strongly to the dominant key, thus a real answer in the dominant is supplied.
As the entries proceed through all related keys in a similar manner to all the other fugues described on this blog, plus one unrelated key (G Major), the subject and each countersubject take turns entering in the bass in chronological order.
The trill was written into the notation to facilitate the intended execution but is omitted when the subject enters in the bass, as the pedal is not concerned with it.
During the episodes separating the entries the outer voices (soprano and bass) are silent as the inner voices (alto and tenor) carry the music forward; these episodes are all of uniform length and constructed using fragments of the subject, countersubjects, their inversions, or by means of sequences.
The final entry in the home key, following many examples left to us by J.S. Bach, places the subject in the bottom octave of the pedals.
A short coda rounds out the piece during which an additional voice (low tenor, or baritone) enters on the middle staff.
This music ends in 9 voices on a big tonic chord with a held 2nd and double pedal.
Ornaments and trills (photo) are like salt and pepper -- they add some zip to the musical recipe at times, but their overuse can ruin a piece; they must be used sparingly and wisely.
Ornaments, when present in the score, are a part of the music -- important thematic elements put there by the composer for good and sufficient reasons, to be observed in performance just as much as any other notes written into the score whenever that score is a faithful copy of the autograph.
We should be very careful therefore, when the autograph is missing, about performing ornaments appearing in parentheses inserted by various editors based upon a single copy, or copies of copies, or maybe adorning the work ourselves with whatever additional ornamentation suits our fancy; the performance of a well known and famous work adorned this way with a liberal sprinkling of ornaments foreign to the score turns the work into something else.
When most, if not all, extant copies of an early work are traceable to and agree with a single copy, then the ornaments appearing in that single copy are to be regarded as the most correct, if not definitive, reading.
It's entirely possible for an otherwise outstanding recording of a well-known organ work on a period instrument to be spoiled by the well-meaning additions of ornaments or prolonged, florid cadenzas inserted under the smug guise of increasing its stylistic authenticity.
Someone may want to put me in the pillory for saying so, but no matter how exciting, unique, or impressive the results may sound or how flamboyant the mannerisms, if any, an organist engages in when exercising such liberties, this kind of tampering still places the performer, whether they are oblivious to it or not, on a very slippery slope.
We notice something of the same thing in writing or improvising codas; if the choice is between the longer or shorter of 2 versions, the shorter one is generally preferable.
It's a case of less being more [See blog, Less Is More].
(con't in Part XXXIX)

Nov. 22, 2018

Musicians run into stepwise notes at every turn.
Every stepwise melody in tonal music is a segment of a scale.
Every voice in a fugue will contain notes which proceed in stepwise fashion.
These stepwise notes, these voices and melodies, need to be fingered in a way which allows the player to execute them with the hands in a smooth and coordinated manner.
Knowing the scales is a tremendous help with that.
Students have been led to believe, and have been told over and over again, by the most talented teachers and performers many of whom we admire greatly, that scale practice is important, but THIS (photo) is the usual scenario when interested learners face the prospect of scale practice; for them, it's about as exciting as watching concrete dry.
When we're trying to teach, explaining the importance of scale practice to parents and students can sometimes be tedious; the student wants to get started right away playing music, and learning scales, for some of them, becomes an annoying obstacle; it hasn't fully registered in their minds yet that they need to be armed with this learning to tackle the music they love, and the time and effort needed to learn the scales is actually time saved.
Most young pianists therefore don't like scales or scale practice and would much rather be playing something else; some even ask if they're really necessary, and those who seem to particularly relish watching their own hands running scales up and down the keyboard also seem to realize that they're in the minority.
"I don't see the point in continuing along these lines" can be a dreaded comment from piano students, and it's a flat admission that it hasn't registered with them yet why they need to follow this path; but a teacher's abbreviated reply, "Trust me, you need this," is just poor and inadequate; we live in The Information Age, and knowing WHY we need to learn something is just as important as the material itself; without seeing the connection, the relevance, of what the teacher is trying to impart, the objective, for the student, remains vague.
Fugues, for example, present significant complexity with fingering; the fact is, all we need are the right tools to come at them, and any anxiety associated with performing them will begin to recede into the background.
Scales are one of those tools [See blog, Exercises, Parts I, II], a very important one, and when we can play them well we're on the way to developing a secure technique; they teach just about everything we need to know about the playing of fast passagework and provide us with the opportunity to develop our hands and learn every key.
We know that being able to play all the scales is important for many reasons, among which are these:
1) they develop absolute hand coordination to where both hands can play together with precision;
2) as stated, they're a tremendous help with fingering; for piano playing and for performing organ music composed after 1800 the standard fingerings we learn with scales need to be adhered to rigidly so they become a habit that we repeat every octave as we move up and down the keyboard; whether or not we adopt early fingerings for pre-1800 organ music, we still need to know how to work at the piano and finger the remaining Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary repertoire in authentic style;
3) they help to develop finger strength, as every finger is utilized which forces every finger to work properly;
4) they help improve our sense of keyboard geography in that, in order to play them up to speed, large amounts of keyboard need to be covered quickly; this helps build keyboard awareness which is necessary for good playing;
5) they help us learn all 24 keys -- 12 major and 12 minor -- which is no mean feat ... an extremely useful and important feature;
6) they also help us develop a strong sense of rhythm, articulation, and speed, which are all important to good playing and tone production at the piano.
7) they help us to become very "sure-fingered" on the keys, which helps us build the kind of confidence we need when performing before audiences, when the "heat is on."
The more we do them, the better chance we have of enjoying them and realizing just how important this type of practice is.
Once we learn them, it feels like we're in possession of a key to a door we've been trying to open for a long time.
And in many ways, we are.