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Does the Modern Organ Touch Interfere With the Piano Touch?


[This article, which appeared originally in the English Musical Opinion, is from the foremost English organist of our time. The distinctions he draws between the touch on the old and the new organs will be most interesting to our organ readers, and only that part of Mr. Lemare’s lengthy article is presented here.—Editor of The Etude.]

All springs when compressed tend to resume their original position. Their tension is proportionate with their degree of compression. In watches and clocks a compensating mechanism is necessary to overcome the difference in tension of the spring when fully wound and when nearly run down; and without this the watch or clock would run at different speeds, varying with the spring tension. It was this compensating action in clocks and watches which first directed my attention to a possible improvement in organ touch. There being no compensating mechanism in organ key springs, the tension of the spring, and consequently the resistance of the key, is proportionate to the depth of depression. For the first eighth of an inch, perhaps, the touch may feel light; but resistance increases with depth of depression until, at its lowest position, our “light grand piano touch” is no more. In fact there is no piano in the world that requires a quarter of such weight to keep its keys fully depressed.


The writer a short time ago made some careful tests and weighed the actual key tension on several of the best makes of organs, both here and in America. The average (with no wind resistance) worked out at from two to three ounces at the top and from six to eight ounces at the bottom, according to the size and pattern of the key and spring. Just think of it! Ten fingers, ten notes held down all at once; ten times eight are eighty, eighty ounces are five pounds! At a moderate estimate, as much again as the old clumsy tracker action when the keys were once down.

The piano touch is therefore as different from the above as light is from darkness. In the piano we have a “hopper” which jumps under the hammer and helps to relieve the player of its weight. Again, the resistance in the piano is at the top of the key; and, after the player his overcome the inertia of the hammer and set it in motion, the hammer continues forward by its own natural momentum and is again aided in its flight, and somewhat relieved of its weight, by the above-mentioned hopper. It will therefore be seen that the whole conditions in regard to the organ have been reversed and the modern “light spring organ touch” is nothing but a snare and a delusion.


There is a general opinion that organ practice is detrimental to a good pianoforte technic. I venture to state that it was not half as injurious with a good tracker action as it is in the present day with the old-fashioned “clinging” harmonium springs under the keys. Let me give one example, for which I can vouch from actual experience. One of the leading organists in New York requested me, some seven years ago, to give him some help in recital work. He was an excellent pianist and had a fine technic. At the time he had a somewhat old-fashioned organ (with a wind resistance touch) and played with a sharp and crisp blow from the fingers and with a perfectly “free arm”—the acme of a good organ touch. Two years ago he sought my assistance, when I found him in possession of a new electric organ, with the most awful “light” spring touch imaginable! My fears were instantly realized. The sharp and clean finger action had disappeared and the free arm and wrist had become rigid. Unconsciously he had by degrees been compelled to bring into play the weight of the arm for the purpose of holding down the keys; but he was aware of nothing but the fact that he experienced more fatigue than when playing on his old instrument. In these days, when so much is heard of tariff and of other kinds of reform, I ask my organist readers to interest themselves in a reform which to them must be of the greatest importance. Let me call it touch reform.


The following experiment will prove the statement: Play the Widor Toccata in F (or other rapid and continuous movement) through at a rapid tempo on a well-built tracker organ (without couplers), using a sharp and crisp finger movement; then try the same thing on a modern electric or tubular pneumatic organ. Note the ability to continue the finger movement throughout in the first instance and also the absence of fatigue; and then, in the second instance, note how quickly the finger staccato has to give place to a wrist staccato; and ere long the wrist is also tired and the good old-fashioned “organ arm touch” has to come to the rescue! Unless the player has abnormal strength and exceptional technic, it is impossible to play such a piece throughout from the fingers on a spring touch which is six or eight ounces at the bottom. Why should one’s powers of endurance be taxed to the utmost when there is a perfectly easy way out of the whole difficulty?

Years ago, when I was organist at the Parish Church, Sheffield, experiments were made at my request by the builders of the organ and the keys were weighted at the end to help to overcome the tension of the spring of the pneumatic valve. It was found, however, that the weights had their usual tendency of momentum, with the result that a sharp blow on the key made it rebound several times, and a “chattering” effect of the pipes was the result. The touch, however, was more uniform throughout the various positions of the key and the inertia of the weight gave a delightful resistance to the first blow.

Slight springs were then introduced to overcome the chattering and to prevent the key from rebounding when in its top position, the weights helping to give a more uniform touch.


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