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Common Sense at the Organ.


This article will not interest the organist who has specialized, studied with some eminent organist and holds one of the largest organs in his town or city, at a salary of $800 or $1,000 a year up. It is written for the all-round musician who has taken up the organ as supplementary work, who plays as well as he can, on, let us say, a two-manual organ in the “average” church, for the sum of probably $3 to $5 a service. Such a congregation cannot afford to listen to Bach fugues every Sunday, and has no right to expect marvelous things for the salary it pays. Indeed, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a congregation does not enjoy elaborate pedal technique, however wonderful, as it does simple, appealing things played with taste and a real musical feeling.

To an organist so placed, requisite practice is difficult to accomplish, as the church for six days in the week and seven months of the year is freezing cold. Often the organ has no motor and the blower has no telephone, or if he has, his business, social and school engagements are such that his services cannot be secured at “any old time” when the organist is at liberty.

Under such conditions, no organist however great, can advance and improve his work as he would wish. In fact, he can scarcely do himself justice at the services. How much less can the pianist hope to develop his organ playing along the lines of his best ideals. To an organist who is paid so little, the purchase price of sufficient new music to enable him—or her—to give varied selections, is a drain upon his purse that is not quite fair.


Now let us see how good results can be brought about under even these adverse, hampering conditions. In the first place, do not attempt to play anything so complex that it requires more practice than you can give it. It is far better to play, “Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber,” with deliberation, self-command, unhurried changes in registration and with musical effect, than to give an imperfect, monotonous version of some great work. For a church position demands not only good management of the fingers and keys, but also skilful manipulation of the manifold mechanical contrivances of the most complicated musical instrument in existence. When you have exhausted your organ repertoire, there are any number of pieces in your piano library that you can arrange effectively. Then there are a lot of things for piano that are thrown in your way, things often too simple for you to play upon that instrument, but which appeal strongly when developed for the organ, enriched by varied registration. You can often use the pieces purchased for your pupils in the lower grades in this way. It will dignify the piece and enhance its desirability immensely to the pupil if she is told that her teacher played it in church on Sunday.

Songs and simple violin solos can be used, one hand taking the air on one manual, the other hand playing the accompaniment on the other. Always be on the lookout, seizing upon any bit of real music, however unambitious, despising not small things.

As an example of extreme simplicity, I would cite an instance when On the Deep Sea, by Steinheimer, in The Etude of January, 1910. made an exceedingly attractive offertory. The bass notes, when picked out on the pedals against a background of sustained chords, give an effect of dignity to this brief, little composition which a novice might never imagine possible.

After all, the church people are your employers, and if you play as well as you can that which pleases them you are doing what you ought to do. Satisfy your taste for good music as far as possible, but exercise also your tact. Do not feel in honor bound to play only the severest classics when your people want to hear tunes. And there are good tunes and beautiful in infinite variety. The “classics” are full of them.

Reeds are usually better for soft accompaniments, as they carry far without being loud. Flutes should be added, however, in accompanying loud passages, as exclusive reeds are too strident in powerful tone for such use. For high, floating obligatos, flutes are ordinarily more desirable. For low pitched obligato passages, imitative of the ‘cello, reeds usually come out with greater effect. Make all you can out of the accompaniments. It greatly enhances the beauty of the singing. It is painful to hear the average organist kill time in more senses than one when he plays a hymn. The object of playing the hymn is to help the congregation to sing it, not to display the organ or your own accomplishments, nor is it an opportunity to take a rest from the mental alertness demanded by the conduct of a church service.

Play the hymn with precision and in strict time. Clip not one jot of the last count from the long note at the end of the line. If the congregation lags in the singing, mark the time by separating the chords. You cannot lead them by a lazy, slipshod, sloppy legato, which for some unknown reason is the most popular style in hymn playing—and I wish, after all, that the big organists would read this paragraph.

Don’t play the hymns all alike. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” demands different interpretations from “Knocking, Knocking, Who Is There?” And don’t play all the verses of any one hymn exactly alike. Make the music subservient to the words. Your own musical sense must prevail over the printed registration. Every organ has its good points and its defects. That which would be a good registration for one instrument might be a hideous combination on another one.

But just because a few of your stops excel the others in quality of tone, do not fall into the error of playing all your melodies on these few. Something not quite so good is better than monotony. Get all you can out of your organ, always remembering that all the people do not always enjoy the same things. Every stop in your organ will have at least one admirer. Once in awhile play for the minority.

Lastly—because your toes cannot do prodigious things, do not underestimate too far your ability. Ofttimes a fine organ technician lacks the more musical qualities. Go on doing the best you can, practicing as much as you can, improving your work in every way that you can, and you may get a bigger, better organ next time. Encourage yourself with the thought that if you can get good music out of an indifferent organ, you can surely get it out of a better one.

Remember, that if an organist is a first-class pianist, a superior drill master, a faultless accompanist, an unsurpassed sight-reader; if he has a fine musical taste, a quick wit for emergencies, a sweet temper for all the time, and an unfailing courtesy, he doesn’t need to be a good organist.

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