Upcoming Performances

February 11, 4:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Casavant organ, Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.

February 23, 12:30 pm
Recitalist, Lenten series, Corinth Reformed Church, Hickory, N.C.

March 9, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 3:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Letourneau organ, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

September 23, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Schantz organ 40th anniversary, Culpeper Baptist Church, Culpeper, Va.


The perfect console, part 1

Those of us who play lots of consoles become console snobs, whether we mean to or not. On the other hand, WHY, OH WHY do some builders continue to do things on consoles that just aren't useful?? And in that same vein, why, oh why do churches and builders allow the incumbent organist to design a dream console (or dream instrument, for that matter) that the next organist won't appreciate as much or be able to use as well? One of these days, I'm going to dress up as Martin Luther and tack the following 25 theses to the doors of many organ builders:

1. General piston toe studs must match thumb layout. It is completely illogical to arrange those in different configurations or to have a different number of studs than thumbs. It is much more efficient to hit the “third piston on the top” with thumb or toe than it is to hunt for the correct number among two different configurations.

2. Five or so Generals on the right-hand side would be nice. They must be duplicated on toe studs, too, and also on the right-hand side – see above.

3. Memory level up/down controls needs to be on thumb pistons WITHIN REACH. It’s nice to have them on toe studs, as well.

4. Piston sequencers for the page turner need to be on both sides of the console and completely out of the organist’s way.

5. Thumb pistons should be round, not square. There is no such thing as a square thumb. And thumb pistons should have a diameter greater than that of a shirt button.

6. Ventils on electric consoles are absolutely useless and are usually laughably, distantly located.

7. LCD readouts are too slow to change and too hard to read at an angle.

8. Box position gauges are nice, so long as they are accurate.

9. Make sub-couplers create a real lower octave by wiring the appropriate stops to lower-pitched stops already installed. 8-foots could descend into 16; 4-foots could descend into 8', etc.

10. Make standard: I/II transfer, piston sequencer, detachable cables for movable consoles.

11. See. No. 1 again, just to refresh your memory.

12. Pedalboard and music rack lights should come on with the blower, but they should also have manual switches to achieve darkness during Holy Week services.

13. Manual keys, pedals, and expression shoes need to be weighted, not merely stiff. And none of them should ever be hair-triggery. And the weighted-ness of all these needs to be about the same. It is silly to have feather-light keys and pedals, only to have to throw hips out of joint to move an expression shoe.

14. Expression shoes should be located BEHIND pedal sharps, along the natural arc that the knee joint creates. It is absolutely ludicrous to have to twist one's leg sideways to get a foot up onto an expression shoe.

15. If there is only one expression shoe, it should be located in the center, not right of center. The right foot is not the only foot that is often required to move the box.

16. Boxes should have movement across the entire range of motion of expression shoes.

17. Allow some extra play in the Crescendo shoe before the first stage engages. Better for the shoe to have some “forgiveness” built in when it is accidentally grazed in performance.

18. Organists need spacious key cheeks to hang onto for dear life during pedal solos. Let’s not install drawknobs too close to the cheeks.

19. Install no locks requiring keys. Keychains will swing while hanging from a lock and scratch whatever they’re rubbing against.

20. Pencil troughs are nice to have below the coupler rail, above the top manual.

21. Every bench is too tall for some short person. And every bench is too short for some tall person. Solution: make it really short, and provide a crank AND bench blocks. If the crank doesn’t crank it up far enough, add the blocks. If the crank doesn’t lower it enough, remove the blocks.

22. AGO Standard is nice, but there is no such thing as an AGO standard body.

23. Low C and high G of the pedalboard must be unimpeded by stud mounts or console frame construction. It is not encouraging to go for low C with authority, only to hit General 26 or the console frame instead.

24. Include a large plate glass on top of the console cabinet. You’ll need it to protect the console from the inevitable choir folder, Kleenex box, Coke can, and CCTV equipment.

25. See. No. 1 one more time, just to be sure.

In closing, see No. 1.


It’s not creating something from nothing. It’s inspiration, stupid.

I'm inspired by beautiful mountain and/or ocean scenery. I'm inspired by striking architecture, warm acoustics, well-voiced and tuned organs, and congregations singing lustily. I’m inspired by organist conventions and reunions. I’m inspired by great playing. I’m even inspired by bad playing. I am inspired by a performance I heard, by yesterday’s progress on a new piece, by the mountain view out the windows, by the good news that came in, by the thawing of the ice storm, by breaking bread with friends and the needy, by a relaxing drive over unfamiliar land. It’s all potentially inspirational, and I choose to turn all inspiration toward my playing and teaching.

Recently, I subbed for David Arcus on a Sunday morning at the Duke Chapel. It isn’t often that a non-incumbent enjoys the inspiration of cubic footage such as that. The momentum to pursue excellence continues for months after such an experience. It’s times like those that I understand the phenomenon of inspiration drawn from outside stimuli. Many great composers’ greatest pieces were written while on vacation. But what about those composers who are inspired by their regular jobs, not just their vacations? I experienced flashes of understanding when I played the Widor Toccata at St-Sulpice, the Franck E Major Choral on the Cavaillé-Coll stops at Ste-Clotilde and the Duruflé Veni Créator at St-Étienne-du-mont. Surely Bach was inspired by the organs he played, but we have little evidence that his inspiration came from anywhere but a boundlessly fertile imagination to use the resources at hand. What an interesting study THAT would be.

It has slowly dawned on me that some corner of every house should be set up for creativity. The obvious corner in mine is where the organ console sits. But other corners of that same house can be used for exercise while watching movies or for repairing bicycles or for reading helpful books on everything from opera to local architecture to biographies to entrepreneurship. Living in a house is different from merely residing in it.

Getting stuck finding some inspiration? Go through Gerre Hancock’s book on improvisation. That is a great way to develop inspiration where none exists otherwise. In that respect, my most recent inspiration came from improvising at the organ at St. John the Divine in New York City. That is a room in which, as an organ builder friend of mine puts it, “a train wreck would sound good.” The momentum from that experience lasts, and the inspiration to continue carries on. And let’s not forget the inspiration drawn from hearing the genius of Bruce Neswick and his staff and choirs do their work in that space.

In this cash-poor time and in a society where mediocrity is consistently rewarded and celebrated, it’s time to look outside ourselves. There is plenty of beauty to absorb and to contribute to. There is plenty of excellence left to pursue. Find your way! If you need me, I’ll be practicing.


Someone ought to do a study of this!

How do students choose where to study the organ? Do they seek out the teacher or the institution? Do they want to study with Dr. Popular or Professor Gottastudywithher, not being concerned that s/he teaches at Awful Regional University located in Armpit, Greatstate? Or do they choose to go to Can’tResist State University because it’s located near great outdoor life and a big city, and they don’t care who the teacher is? Someone ought to do a study of this.

Honestly, I think it’s possible for the student to win either way. When it comes to pursuing excellence and self-improvement, if a student wants to learn the organ, we teachers ought to oblige to the best of our ability. A great teacher offers great teaching. A great institution offers great learning. If the student has either, s/he’s in good shape. The student’s responsibility lies in claiming the good stuff and ditching the rest. And there’s always graduate school, if the student needs more.

Even professionals go one way or the other in their familiarity with the field: some might be able to rattle off teachers’ names but might stumble over the institution at which each one teaches. And some folks can rattle off the big schools but have to think a moment about all resident teachers’ names. And in some places, there is a University Organist who does the public playing, but there is another Professor of Organ who does the teaching. Either of those names might get more press than the other. I feel all this is significant, and I think it would make a nice dissertation topic – for someone else, of course. I just ask questions and then go hide.

Consider the fame and attraction of these teachers, and ponder what makes it so: Langlais, Dupré, Alain, Leonhardt, Hakim, Marchal, Litaize, Heiller, Wunderlich, Robilliard, Latry, Roth, Cauchefer-Choplin, Chaisemartin, Higgs, Holloway, Keiser, Murray, Jean, Labounsky, Davidsson, Eschbach, Fishell, Smith, Young, Jacobs, Weaver, Cowan, Belcher, Christie, Mitchener, Mueller, Jones, Mason, Coci, Andrews, Gleason, Crozier, Saunders, Craighead. Yes, familiar names. Now, where does/did each one teach?

Who might have been the first teacher to be sought out for WHO he was, regardless of WHERE he was? Paumann? Sweelinck? Virgil Fox? What brought the students to him? How did they get the word before email or telephone?

Most importantly, what attracted YOU to your teacher or school? What got you there? And has the teacher or the school bothered to ask you that, in the name of enhanced future recruiting? And did you get what you expected there? Perhaps that quick dialogue between students, teachers, and institutions might be informative for all. I have started the ball rolling at my university to find out what attracts a given student to us. Seems awfully important, wouldn't you say?


Getting into character

Does the music begin with the first piston? The first note? On your way to the console? Does the music end with the final release? With General Cancel? With the applause?

When should we get into character for a given piece? Perhaps pistons for a rocket launcher of a piece should be hit with more insistence than those for a quiet or slushy piece. I often sense a disconnect between what I see and what I hear. Consider a hypothetical performance of the fiery piece of your choice. The organist:

-- slides onto the bench slowly and carefully;
-- gets situated on the bench, rocking back and forth slowly to set the derrière in place just so;
-- gives the score a friendly pat to make sure it doesn’t fall off the rack;
-- sits a moment in meditation with hands in lap and head bowed;
-- straightens up, gives the score one more pat; shifts hiney one more time;
-- presses the first piston gingerly and/or elegantly (Note: if this is a gutbuster of a piece, then the console will go THOK while it draws all those stops. It’s almost as if the console knows something exciting is about to happen, and it makes an appropriate noise in preparation.);
-- checks boxes open;
-- places hands;
-- places feet (or not, unfortunately);
-- plays the piece with all manner of fiery attack OR plays with a dainty touch, relying on the registration to produce the excitement;
-- lifts the final chord slowly and delicately (and unevenly);
-- moves right hand immediately to Cancel and left hand to music rack to clear the score away;
-- OR moves both hands to lap;
-- OR stares at score, waits for applause;
-- slides off slowly.

A blazing fire of a piece suggests to me a completely different, “in-character” approach, where the organist:
-- glides onto the bench in character;
-- punches the first piston in character (perhaps even in tempo!);
-- sets hands and feet;
-- releases final chord with great energy;
-- breaks (or maintains) character with applause, hits Cancel, and slides off.

On the other end of the energy spectrum: I once ended a Lenten recital with the Langlais Kyrie from the Hommage à Frescobaldi. The piece was apparently unfamiliar to the audience, as was the notion of ending an organ recital quietly. After the release of the last chord:
-- nothing happened;
-- I lingered over the keys;
-- nothing;
-- I slowly came away from the keys;
-- nothing;
-- I sat;
-- nothing;
-- I very slowly approached and pressed Cancel;
-- nothing;
-- I sat again;
-- nothing;
-- I slowly began to slide off;
-- the applause finally began and grew, now that character was finally broken.

That was completely unplanned, but it turned out to be a wonderful moment. All of us lingered in that moment: it was Lent; it was quiet; the piece was meditative and beautiful. Only then was it over. All that might very well have been marred by breaking character too early or too quickly. There is merit in awareness of character and when it should be established and broken. It's fun to play with!


Virgin ears

One year at Bible camp, the missionary told of new converts coming to him in a panic, saying, “I’m sinning more than ever, and it’s discouraging.” He told them that they were NOT sinning more than ever – they were just MORE AWARE of sin.

While that illustration is one I no longer buy in that context, I do think it can be used to illustrate the fact that students can reach a point of discouragement in their training, where they don’t like ANY of their playing. Nothing sounds right; everything sounds out of control, poorly phrased, and poorly executed. They have arrived at a point where they are aware of old (bad) habits in their practice and performance, while they have also been shown “the New Way.” But the New has not yet taken up as much space in their practice as the old, and so they feel “empty” and directionless.

As it turns out, that is GOOD news. The pursuit of excellence involves a “repentance” of sorts, just like those new converts experience. Not only does one develop new techniques, but one also forsakes old ones. Those are two separate actions, and when they converge, the student doesn’t have a whole lot left to hang on to. They are learning to pick their playing apart (and that of what they hear others play!) note by note. They are learning to listen with critical ears, and often, they don’t like what they hear! At that point, I ask them to recall the last organ recital they actually enjoyed and WHY. It is verrrrrry telling to see them go back farther and farther in their memories to pull one out. It’s sort of like having virgin ears all over again. And that’s not a bad place to be, when we are pursuing excellence. Saying a performance is great or terrible is one thing. Being able to explain WHY is something else and the loftier goal.


I'm not making this up, you know

Have any of these ever happened to you?

1. The preacher of the day asks you to push hymn tempos along, using vague words such as “upbeat,” “fast,” “energetic,” “peppy,” or “lively.”

2. A hymn is cut from a Sunday service because the preacher of the day doesn’t recognize it.

3. A hymn in a minor key is cut because the preacher of the day deems minor a downer.

4. The preacher of the day wants to insert a hymn into the service (the very same one he inserted the last four times he preached).

5. The preacher of the day insists that the solo or anthem after the first hymn never be slow or in a minor key.

6. The preacher of the day refuses to walk in the procession because it distracts him from his preaching duties that day.

7. Someone makes announcements while you are playing: “Jill and Brantley would like to invite you to the reception in the fellowship hall…” “License plate SYC5483 has left lights on…” “Will the parents of…”

8. The preacher of the day fills up time at the next service just because the previous service ended early.

9. The congregation can’t get enough of you or the organ, but the pastor asks you to pull back on the volume.

10. The preacher of the day turns up his mic and sings at the top of his lungs – in a tempo at the other end of the spectrum from your introduction to the hymn.

11. The associate pastor is already into the first words of welcome and announcements while the final chord of the prelude is still reverberating in the rafters.

I’m not making any of this up! All this and more has happened to me and surely to other Readers. As evidenced in my list of complaints above, I tend to complain most about liturgical clumsiness and lack of professional respect. Bumbling, haphazard approaches to liturgy, music, and worship are unacceptable to me. And preachers do things during our music that they would never tolerate during their sermons.

It is tempting to complain and stop there, as witnessed by blogs and listservs that have longer lists of complaints than solutions. But what might be some solutions to achieving professional deference in both directions (not to mention helping that preacher overcome being victimized in the past by minor keys and slow tempos)?

It helps me to define the balance in my approach between the ministerial and the professional. Am I a minister of music, or am I a professional musician that day, that conversation? That balance moves back and forth, depending on the situation. Once I have defined the parameters for a conversation, then I can find a compassionate solution, which does exist. Trouble is, these things often come up so fast that there is no time to talk them all through with the perpetrators. Often, I must live with a certain baseline level of continuing snafus.

Clergy don’t know as much as we do about liturgy and music, but we don’t know how many people have complained to the clergy about the organist. Everyone hang in there and keep searching for solutions. The solution is a two-way street. Drive on the correct side, and don’t park in the No Parking zones.


A fond memorial: Richard Forrest Woods (July 26, 1929 – May 15, 1993)

Dick Woods never tired of the beautiful and the excellent. He worked and worked to get a sound just so, and it paid off. He ended up with the finest church choir in Texas (thank you very much), for which I was privileged to serve as Assistant Organist for four years. Dick was a musico-liturgical conservative, but he was progressive in knowing that there is room for everyone in church music. He found a way to maintain excellence and still avoid being classified as snobbish, surely the most delicate balance a church musician can strike, and a particularly difficult task for Dick’s generation.

Dick’s funeral was beautiful. I will never forget that hour with so many current and former choir members in attendance, vested and singing the Vaughan Williams O how amiable, the Tallis If ye love me, and the Mendelssohn He that shall endure, among others. I still see some of the choir members each year; we celebrate Dick’s birthday with Mexican food. (He still draws a crowd!)

Richard Forrest Woods was of “Pennsylvania Dutch” heritage. He studied with Marshall Bidwell at the Carnegie Institute before serving in the Navy band and attending Tulane University. From 1962-1964, he studied in Paris with Boulanger, Langlais and Marchal, and was among the first four Americans to receive the Diplôme Schola Cantorum. Dick served as parish musician at St. James (Wichita), the Cathedral of Holy Angels (Gary), and St. John the Divine (Houston). Prior to Houston, he served as Professor of Music at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.

[Update: On September 30, 2014, I discovered some of Dick's notations in his copy of the 1945 Prayer Book, which indicated the date he acquired the book (1949), plus some additional church positions he held: Trinity Chapel (Sharpsburg, PA), Grace (New Orleans), St. David's (Austin), and St. Matthew's (Austin). Obviously, the church positions were added as he served. He was only 20 years old when he acquired the book. There is also the signature of The Rt. Rev. Girault M. Jones, Bishop of Louisiana, dated April 7, 1957.]

Dick’s death left the choir with me – a 25-year-old whippersnapper with 1) a Baptist background, 2) no idea how to deal with a death like this, and sometimes 3) little more than the knowledge that the show must go on. The choir turned their full support to me, and we managed just fine in the interim, making beautiful music each week. I recently dug out a Nunc dimittis tribute I wrote in the church newsletter soon after Dick died. I have brought it out of the dusty archives of my 20s and posted some excerpts below:

"Dick woods taught me a lot, whether he knew it or not. I learned how to use a computer; I learned what a good choir sounds like…

"I learned that if one was with Dick, one could march directly to the front of the line at Ninfa’s Navigation on a Saturday night and be seated immediately. (Incidentally, Dick was perhaps the only person in the world who drank Margaritas straight up with no salt.)...

"The most valuable knowledge I gleaned from Dick was that of the Episcopal tradition. As I began work at [this parish], I found that there was more to being an Episcopalian than many people know. But Dick knew. There is a certain amount that one may know and retain simply through lifelong practice, but there is something more to be said for the person who studies, practices, and teaches what goes on in our great faith. Such a person was Dick Woods. I will always be in awe of his vast knowledge of and intimacy with the liturgy. It was somewhat frustrating at times to learn from him; his humility and general quietness made it necessary for me to ask questions. Dick never volunteered much information, but if one would ask, the wisdom that poured forth was generous, awesome, and inspiring…

"He knew precisely what was Episcopal and what was not, and if he didn’t know something, he knew where to look for answers. Dick was not a fundamentalist but a traditionalist. No one was more open-minded toward the current trends in the Church than was Dick. Through that open-mindedness, he provided this parish with a greatly diverse music program that was without equal in its day. From Evensong to Eucharist to Morning Prayers to concerts and tours, somehow he managed the difficult task of incorporating all of the various changing preferences into an unchanging, age-old liturgy – always in good taste and always well prepared...

"Richard Woods was one of the last of an amazingly fertile and prosperous generation of true liturgists … The Choir of [this parish] is most fortunate to have achieved musical and liturgical perfection; the people of this church are a most fortunate people to have had such expertise available to them. And I am most fortunate to have worked with Dick, even if just for a short while …"

Rest in peace, dear peaceful one.


Owning a practice organ

Being able to practice at home changes everything. I heartily recommend it to all who can afford it, and I recommend it just as heartily to all who can’t. In the particular home in question (mine), the organ sits in a corner with large plate glass windows in both walls. I witness all four seasons passing by as I work in natural daylight. In the summertime, I can get away with wearing pajamas, but when the leaves are off the trees and the neighbors have a better view, I have to dress more conservatively.

My practice organ is digital. Pipes would have been nice, and they would have been stunning in the cathedral ceiling of my living room. But time and money said, “Get a practice organ NOW, not later.” So I did. There are four outboard speakers up on a second-floor landing, and the wooden ceiling and floor are friendly to the sound. The many rugs covering the floors are not acoustic-friendly; enter digital reverb, and all is well.

As it turns out, this particular model has proven very effective as a pedagogical tool. I can bring students over and demonstrate various sounds from various countries, and I can demonstrate various tunings, which gives the students a fresh perspective on early music.

I always knew that owning a practice organ would make things more convenient. (I suppose people who buy exercise equipment for their homes think the same thing. The difference is that a practice organ stands a better chance of actually getting used.) Well, anyway, I did not realize until much later just how much this practice organ has revolutionized my work like nothing else has:

  1. It gets me out of the students’ practice room at school.
  2. It keeps school time in perspective. I don’t go to campus now unless I’m teaching.
  3. It keeps me away from the office during otherwise prime practice time. While I’m on campus, the desk and office beckon, and I must heed their call. But when I leave campus, my life and practice time are mine again.
  4. I can practice any day, any time.
  5. Even in the middle of the night, I can plug in headphones so as not to wake Sleeping Beauty.
  6. Since it’s a practice organ, I’m not tempted to perform for myself. I get more done when I can listen to my playing and not have too much fun listening to the organ.
  7. The playback sequencer is at the core of productive practice. The organ plays back to me everything I just played, and I can then hear myself through the absolutely impartial ears of a sequencer. Very telling, some things!


With perks like that, it’s worth the money. So everyone go get a practice organ. Three simple rules I’ve learned from experience:

  1. Doesn’t matter if it’s pipe or digital. All you need for basic practice are two manuals and pedal. Everything else is gravy or can wait until you get to the performance site.
  2. If presented with the choice between two or four speakers, get four. It ain’t about loudness; it’s about blend and quality of sound.
  3. If you buy digital, do NOT buy from ANYONE other than your designated regional representative.


Now go practice.


You can't get there from here

One evening I was driving a car full of friends and students to an organ recital. We were discussing getting old and fat. I was waxing nostalgic over how skinny I used to be. One of my students said, “Dr. Bell, I can’t picture you skinny.” The whole car erupted into laughter, except the student, who was horrified at how that had sounded. I didn’t mind, because at that time, I did need to shed a few. And you know what? When I lost a few, I discovered that organ playing is much easier without so much weight to throw around on the bench! And it’s embarrassing when a large belly plays extra notes on the Positif.

Speaking of Positives, the pipes of the Positif on the organ on which I teach are virtually inaccessible to anyone with a waistline greater than about thirty inches. When I was a (skinny) student on this same organ, I was able to gain access to said Positif. I simply slid between the Récit shades behind the Positif and stepped out onto the walkboard, right next to that recalcitrant Cromorne that always needed touching up. Well, those days are long past, not only in terms of my size but also in terms of the necessity for anyone to access this Positif in that fashion at all. Since my student days, a trap door has been cut into the Positif walkboard to allow access from below, so long as the swell shades are closed to allow the trap door to open. The maximum allowable waist measurement for access in this dramatically new, improved fashion is now a whopping thirty-five inches, and one can count on activating a Positif primary or two with one’s belly or belt buckle in the process. Yeah, so it’s still not the greatest design for access. (On the other hand, one could lose a half-inch or so just by removing one’s belt.) But if you don’t go that way or through the swell shades, then you have to set up a really tall ladder and step over seven ranks of pedal pipes to get to the Positif walkboard. In other words, you can’t get there from here unless you’re skinny.

Accessing the Grand-Orgue is not quite as challenging but still no less annoying. One must climb a short ladder on one interior wall of the Récit, duck under the Tremblant and some dangling wires for the Clochettes, and shimmy along a board to the other side of the Récit, being careful neither to hit your head on the ceiling nor kick the Récit pipes under the shimmy board. Upon reaching the other side, you climb a few more ladder rungs through a trap door to the Grand-Orgue. The dramatic view of the concert hall from up there is spectacular, of course – always worth the climb. If only I could just stay up there for the next time.

Access to the Grand-Orgue primaries is tricky, too. It involves some gravity- and death-defying maneuvering over a Récit chest full of temperamental pipes that will change their pitch if you look at them wrong.

Access to any part of the organ requires a 20-some-foot climb up an extension ladder from the stage floor. There are no doors from behind into the organ, and even if there were, they would be blocked by air handlers and furnaces. So we’re stuck with the ladder method.

I can only imagine how organ technicians get to some parts of some organs. Someone could make a fortune designing short-haul, lightweight jetpacks. I have visited more than one organ whose incumbent player has informed me that the technician is so fat he just doesn’t bother with tuning or repairing some of it. (Although tragic for the organ and organist, does that earn a tuning discount?) Granted, many organs are crammed into spaces that are too small, but good access must be thought out in the design.

Three conclusions: 1) Don’t get fat; 2) Don’t hire fat organ technicians; 3) Encourage builders to build organs whose every division and components are actually accessible. (Imagine that.)


Memorization, Part 1: Why memorize?

Three simple reasons why I memorize my recitals:

1) I sound better when I play from memory.
2) I know a memorized piece better.
3) I was taught how to memorize.

Let’s take those in order:

1. Yes, nerves aside, one sounds better if playing from memory. Fewer distractions for organist, fewer for audience. No page turner to screw things up. No music to spread out incorrectly and screw up. No large mass of white paper paste-ups reflecting into the audience’s eyes. No leaning from left to right as your body follows your eyes across a paste-up board. Playing from memory also lends an extra bit of excitement, an “edge,” much like watching trapeze antics without a net. Of course that is impressive. But I sense that audiences seem to be moving away from being impressed by memorized performances to appreciating them for their artistic merit and heightened musical excitement. Check back with me in a few months or years on that one.

2. With memorizing, I get deeper into the music; I learn much more about the ins and outs of a piece. Most exciting of all, I get into the mind of the composer – I get a glimpse of the organization behind every note. Memorizing brings to my attention any patterns in the notes – especially where those patterns don’t match up from statement to statement. (I’m convinced there is a wrong note in the Duruflé Toccata. And I suspect there are quite a few in the Vierne Sixth. Another day.) From there, I get a chance to dig deeper and try to determine why the composer did it that way (assuming it’s not a misprint). Hey, maybe memorization would land me a job as a proofreader for publishers! (And then maybe music prices would actually reflect the reliability of the printing – maybe.) But I digress.

3. Memorization of organ music used to be more a matter of course than it is now. As it has made its comeback in recent years among younger performers, it tends to be treated as a gimmick. But it began as a sort of gimmick when Marcel Dupré became the first person ever to memorize the complete organ works of Bach. However, Dupré quickly realized how much more musical a memorized performance could be, and he certainly discovered how much easier it would be to plan multiple programs on the road when all the music to be played was memorized. But as I say above, I think audiences are now beginning (merely beginning, mind you) to get used to memory as customary rather than exceptional.

But how do people memorize? There is a difference between memorizing and just repeating until automatic. And there is a difference between being told to memorize and being taught how. I am convinced that having discrete methods to the madness makes all the difference. Knowing how to memorize, as opposed to hoping for the best, removes the mystique from it. With solid methods in place, one need not fear memorization nor wonder when a piece will “take.” I’ll not go into the O/C methods I use and was taught for memorizing music. I’ll just say that whenever I am asked, “How do you memorize all those notes?” the answer is, in all truthfulness, “One note at a time.” :)

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