Upcoming Performances

December 1
3:00 pm Eastern

Messiah organist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

December 3
8:00 pm Eastern

Haydn Creation organist, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

December 13
12:15 pm Eastern

Music at Midday, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2020
3:00 pm Eastern

Inaugural recitalist, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C..

February 16, 2020
5:00 pm Eastern

Evensong recitalist, Church of the Ascension, Hickory, N.C..

March 6, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

April 5, 2020
2:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Ga.

April 18, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Concerto organist, Milligan College

May 12, 2020
12:35 pm Central

Tuesday Series recitalist, Church of St. Louis, King of France, Minneapolis, Minn.

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

Entries in Console technique (3)


Don't slobber

An organist is sometimes given too many notes to play. British composers, particularly of the Victorian persuasion, will write full chord progressions in each hand, octaves and all, and then put a slur above it, as if legato were possible. Modern composers, particularly those who have received bad advice when composing their first piece for organ, will do the same thing. And far too many accompaniment transcriptions will say "for piano (or organ)," but there is no way the organ nor organist could play the same notes that the piano score has in it. Case in point this week is the Persichetti tone poem for trumpet and strings, "The Hollow Men." Persichetti prepared the piano reduction and marked it "Piano (or Organ)." Fail. Could never work.

At the end of the outer movements of his first organ Sonata, Hindemith writes full chords in each hand, then marks it all pianissimo. Fail. The appearance of all those notes makes everything suddenly louder. On a large instrument, that's not such a big deal -- just hit (yet another) piston, close the box(es), and play away. But on the instruments we were building in this country when Hindemith was composing the Sonatas... [I shudder to go on].

These days, there is a more subtle form of too many notes going on in organ playing. Many organists will smear attacks and releases, as if they were playing the piano. There is no cleanliness to the end of one note and the beginning of another. Organists who do that are apparently trying to play expressively, slushing attacks and releases rather than manipulating rhythm (which is ultimately the organ's only means of expression). With unclear attacks and releases, each note eventually becomes TWO, and that makes everything suddenly louder. The sound goes in and out, loud and soft, lurch and brake. The piece lunges and lurches in sound intensity. Phrases are lost, and the listener is exhausted afterwards, even if subconsciously. I call that kind of playing 'slobbering.'

But it's an easy fix. Just listen to every note. And with all the notes we are given to play sometimes, that ought to keep us off the streets for a while.


Olympic form?

The more organ recitals I attend, the more sensitive I become to a perceived apathy from performers. Picture, say, any Bach trio Sonata or the Duruflé Toccata. Wild rides. Fingers and feet flying everywhere. And yet an organist finds the time in the heat of battle to hang his/her feet on the bar across the bottom of the bench. Several thoughts fly through my head at that point: 1) Do those feet really have nowhere else to go? Do they not have some notes over which they might hover, instead? 2) Is this organist bored? With a trio Sonata????!! 3) Is this organist prepared? 4) You know, in some cultures, it would be considered rude to show the soles of your feet in public...

Regardless the questions that go through my head or the answers to them, when that happens I have become distracted from the music, and that's not good. No Olympian is allowed to stop and rest during the race. Singers are not allowed to break character during an aria to drink water or rest their backs. Why, then, should it be permissible for an organist to allow hands or feet to "check out" of the proceedings and go to a neutral corner during a very non-neutral musical activity? To this writer, that sends a subtle message of apathy or maybe even "OMG" to the listener.

I am one of the fussiest organists I know. After you have something sounding good, go one more step and make sure it LOOKS good, too. Sit up tall. Sit more or less still. Punch pistons in character. Keep hands out of lap. Keep feet off the bench bar. Don't lunge for notes and pistons and the box -- be there; plan ahead.

Fun activity: compare the most popular performing organists. Which ones physically stay in the game during a piece, and which ones check out here and there? It might be instructive to notice that at the next recital you attend or even play. Constantly assess why the popular organists are so popular.

Overly fussy? Not at today's tuition rates! Offer students the sort of attention to detail they might not get everywhere. A great organist needs to be able to do much more than just play pretty.


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!