Upcoming Performances

November 18, 2018
4:00 pm Central

Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Miss.

December 4, 2018
8:00 pm Eastern

Organist, Appalachian Chorale, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

February 12, 2019
8:00 pm Eastern

Organ-plus-one concert with ASU faculty, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

April 28, 2019
3:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsport, Tenn.

May 5, 2019
Guest recitalist, St. Paul's Cathedral, Des Moines, Iowa

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.


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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