Helpful hints to improve your keyboard technique.
There are so many facets of organ playing that it is only too easy to lose sight of some of them. As the instrument is possibly the most versatile of all, the player can become an individualist and distinctive in style due to the wide choice of tone colours and methods of using them.
Pianists, on the other hand, playing the same score, will be difficult to differentiate between unless one happens to be an expert in that field. To a large degree the tonal quality of a piano is fixed in its manufacture, although some variation can be achieved by the piano and forte pedals and by the player's touch.
Organists tend to be recognised not only by their arrangement of the music but by their choice of registration - disregarding for a moment classical pieces scored on three staves.
Even the most modest of two manual instruments will offer a fair range of tonal variation. Synthesised voices aside, the individual stops are of three families - FLUTES, STRINGS and REEDS - with their hybrids and mutations. At this point we are interested in the permutations of these between the upper (solo) and lower (accompaniment) manuals.
Classical players will know the upper manual as the SWELL and the lower as the GREAT. Whether playing light or classical music there is, of course, no reason to adhere rigidly to one particular manual for the solo part, provided that a suitable accompaniment stop can be found on the other.
The best guideline that I can offer is to attempt to choose contrasting voices for the two hands. If the solo voice chosen has a stringy quality, the accompaniment best suited may well be something with very little upper harmonic content - such as a flute. Bearing in mind that instruments vary in their character and facilities, the examples in Table 1 may help to illustrate this principle. Drawbar registrations have been added for Hammond, Kawai and other owners of organs with this feature, especially as they help to illustrate harmonic content and differences (see Organ Talk, June 1981).
This list could be endless and never match the specification of any particular instrument, of course. However, it will pay to sit down and experiment with the voices available, noting down on paper the best accompaniment found for a given solo voice. It is worth reversing the roles of the two manuals from time to time as the lower manual can often incorporate useful and distinctive voices for solo work.
Where the strength (or loudness) of individual stops is fixed - as it is on most instruments - suitable combinations across the two manuals should also obey another simple rule: in addition to the tonal contrasts, the solo stop should be somewhat louder than its chosen accompaniment. Nothing sounds worse than the melody being lost in a welter of heavy left hand chords.
One manufacturer's idea of the loudness of a given voice (of the same name) will differ from another's; even instruments of the same make and model can vary according to how presets were positioned in the factory. Any self designed organ ought to provide presets to control individual stop levels for this very reason, but there is no doubt that considerations pf balance will rule out some of the possibilities found in comparing the quality of voices for tonal contrast. In this respect, drawbar instruments score heavily as it is necessary only to push each drawbar in by one notch to obtain a quieter version of the same registration - at least, in theory!
Summarising registration and balance, the melody should be heard clearly against its accompaniment. Reed and String solo registrations, simple or in chorus, will have more incisiveness. A solo stop which is mainly fundamental in nature will require a quiet backing richer in upper harmonics. The Yamaha Tone levers and drawbars found on some other organs are useful for arriving at correct balance, although left hand chords played staccato can disguise the fact that they are too heavy for the melody. 'Accent' tabs, if provided, help in solving problems of balance.
So far, the pedal department has not been mentioned. Given the average 13-note clavier, differences in tonal quality at 16' and 8' are less detectable than they are on the manuals. A full 32-note pedalboard is rather a different matter, but using the 13-note board will mainly involve finding stops of suitable volume. On the whole, flute tones tend to sound better than complex waveforms if there is a choice; an 'accent' tab may allow the same stop to be strengthened, if necessary. Attack, Decay and Percussion will help in ringing the changes but do try to avoid an overbearing pedal as it tends to be most objectionable. This point may be less obvious to the player than the listener - who is in the direct line of fire, whereas the organist often sits well above the sound source!
This column's readers will no doubt have a collection of discs and tapes of well-known organists. Whilst even the worst pop groups can be made to sound acceptable given all the trappings of a modern recording studio, the solo organist is very much out on a limb. Basically, you hear just what he plays - with very little embellishment.
May I suggest that, at the next hearing of those recordings, the registrations used are guessed and written down on paper so that an attempt to re-create them can be made later on. Knowing one's own instrument intimately also helps because it is quite often found that the stops indicated (and they are simply indications) on organ sheet music are rather unbalanced. Unavoidable possibly, in view of the plethora of instruments, but there should be no excuse for this if drawbar registrations are shown alongside. So, it will pay to experiment at length, even if it does seem like playing with Rubik's cube!
An objectionably loud pedal line has already been mentioned. Here are a few more points concerning things to avoid when playing.
Rhythmic piano players keep their right foot beating time on the forte pedal, which is really a sustain pedal. The organists right foot does control forte and the dynamic range of that pedal is often quite considerable. Beating time is hard going for the listener: it is better to develop the habit of using the swell pedal purely for expression - as it was intended - or for occasional accent. Another good reason for avoiding 'piano player's foot' is that a good tape recording will be made that much more difficult!
Be prepared if someone asks you to play for them. I don't mean cavilling at the very idea but simply avoiding playing a few notes to 'find' the registration, then running through all the permutations of the rhythm unit before actually getting on with the job. Be warned that this is a serious crime: I once heard a Colonel warn an army dance band after the trumpeter had gone through a few 'twiddles' between numbers. When the trumpet player forgot himself for the second time, the whole band was put on a charge! Those days have long passed, but a little musical discipline does no harm.
Take a good look at the registration if playing chords. Whilst 16' pitch is ideal for strengthening a melody line, chords played too far down the manual sound confused and muddy. The answer here is to play 8va (up one octave) as the addition of 16' pitch will effectively have shifted everything down by one octave. Similarly, chords played when mutation stops are in operation - or on drawbar organs when the odd harmonic drawbars are prominent - will indeed sound odd.
Turning to the physical aspects of playing, the most suitable playing position is not crouched over the keyboards. Playing like this for any length of time will result in backache of the first order. Sit upright with a straight back as in any case the music will be nearer to eye level. With a short pedal board it will be found better to sit towards the left hand end of the bench whose legs should be positioned so that the heel does not touch them when playing bottom C.
Quite a number of enthusiasts buy an organ at the same time as they first acquire bifocal spectacles. This can cause difficulty as the keys are in sharp focus and the music out of range. Either it is a case of reading glasses or preferably looking only at the music (with nose in the air) and playing by touch. It does not pay to have more than two manuals because the music gets progressively higher!
Someone reading this page might be considering a self-designed organ. The points made earlier would suggest preset level controls for every voice and unless a drawbar design, accent tabs for each department.
Finally, in connection with my notes in the May 1981 edition, I hear with regret that G.I.M. have decided to discontinue manufacture of the AY-1-0212A Top Octave Synthesiser. The AY-1-0212, which accepts a lower master oscillator frequency, will still be available.
Feature by Ken Lenton-Smith
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