Piano to Organ: Two Technical Challenges
I was trained as a pianist, but came to organ playing in my early twenties (FYI I'm now early thirties, so have been playing regularly for over a decade). At first, the crossover wasn't so challenging, but as time progressed, organ playing caused me to descend into increasingly bad habits. After spending my first few years at the organ largely unsupervised, experimenting and delving into organ tutors, I found myself increasingly frustrated by technical shortcomings (shortcomings that I had not encountered as a pianist), and I became determined to figure out a more satisfying way of playing the organ. Looking back, I can now see that there were two main challenges of organ technique which caused these technical difficulties...
Challenge 1: Silent Finger-Substitution
The first challenge was silent finger-substitution. This technique – at the core of so many 19th and 20th century organ tutors – is directed towards the musical objective of a pure, unbroken legato. It was one of the first and most significant technical demands that I came across in transferring my skills from piano to organ, and it also required a shift in musical thinking. I'm talking about this kind of exercise:
In exercise form, it is reasonably harmless. But if the technique is not managed correctly, it can cause untold mischief both musically and physically. The way these exercises are framed means that achieving a legato supersedes the concern for mechanical efficiency i.e. the exercises are not delivered with a concern for ergonomic efficiency. The old organ tutors, with their countless exercises of this kind, give the impression that the technique is to be used as bread-and-butter in the technical arsenal, which leads to its application in playing without due consideration as to where it might be helpful. In most cases, when efficient and well-thought-out fingering is used, we need only call on this technique occasionally, such as moments in which a hand position will not allow for legato, given the range or distribution of the notes.
Musically speaking, the technique can also undermine phrasing. An unconscious use of this technique will cause the player to overlook important moments of relief (muscularly and musically) in the musical line, ploughing through them because the hands and mind have learnt the habit of constant substitution. The act of phrasing is both musical and physical i.e. there is a physical connection to the keyboard during the phrase and a muscular relief at the end of the phrase (corresponding to the musical relief), and this substitution technique can easily undermine the ability to do this.
Solving the problem
Having become habitual about my finger-substitution, I had to re-train myself to avoid the technique unless it was absolutely necessary. So I'd finger a piece completely without finger-substitution at first; then, in instances where no other technical device would suffice and a legato was necessary, I'd allow myself the use of a change of finger on the same key.
The other aspect of the problem was how to execute substitutions with a relaxed technique. This fell into two parts:
1. A detail of the manner of executing substitution that is often overlooked but necessary for the avoidance of tension: viz. with outward (i.e. away from the centre of the keyboard) substitutions, the lowest note must substitute first; with inward substitutions, the highest note substitutes first e.g. in outward passages:
2. In the study of these exercises, at the moment marked 'Test', it's helpful to check for freedom, and excess pressure or force that may have resulted from the substitution process. The Test is essentially: to check that the holding, which keeps the keys depressed, is as light as possible. The keys should be held down with only as much force as is necessary to keep the note sounding.
Challenge 2: Working too hard to make the sound
The second problem is one encountered in silent finger-substitution, but which is more broadly a danger for the pianist transferring their skills to the organ; It is the problem of applying excessive down pressure to the organ keyboard, which translates to working too hard to make the sound. The problem is rooted in the fact that at the organ, unlike the piano, the keys do not respond in such an explicit way to the level of pressure that we apply (they do respond in very subtle ways, particularly with regard to how the pipes 'speak', but we are discussing the elementary level here). In response to this demand for a touch which would ward-off excessive pressure and stop me working too hard, I decided to develop a Mono-Touch at the organ.
Broadly speaking, in the organ literature – as in the piano literature – there are both finger-passages and chord passages i.e. passages in which we use single fingers successively in scales and five-finger positions, or multiple fingers used to sound intervals, double-notes, and chords. There is then the added element of substitution (explored above), which forms its own category of technique, with the objective of enhancing the potential to make finger-passages and chord passages legato piú possibile.
So what would define an organ Mono-Touch on an instrument which, broadly speaking, requires a light touch? For me, a successful Mono-Touch was based on three pivotal conditions:
The lightest form of resting upon the keys – as a general rule, no arm-weight on the keyboard;
Observing the momentary nature of tone production – the force applied to the key in sounding the note is extremely short-lived;
Lightest-holding – all held notes should be depressed with the smallest degree of exertion necessary to keep them sustained.
In sum, the act of touch at the organ is a bit like this:
My hands rest upon the keys without causing them to sound. At a given moment, I use a momentary exertion of finger, hand, or arm in order cause the key to go down and speak. For the subsequent duration of the tone, I press as lightly as possible (I use just enough force to continue overbalancing the resistance of the key).
In a later blog, I'll share some of the exercises I've devised to keep my organ Mono-Touch in check. But by using these three principles, I've found it possible to culture a relaxed technique at the organ, with efficiency and economy at the heart of the playing.
Everyone has their own journey
Every player comes across technical challenges peculiar to their own mental and physiological experiences at the keyboard. What works for one may not work for the other. I think my own challenges came from a desire to find expression at the organ in the same way as I'd found expression at the piano – by asking the instrument to respond to me when I gave it something. I was talking to it in a different language. But slowly, as I learned to understand the physical gestures and elements of touch to which the organ did respond, I was able to begin playing with more ease and relaxation, and thus enjoy my playing.
My journey is far from over, but I feel I've moved past a landmark in my organ technique. It has positively fed back into my piano technique as well. Ultimately, playing should be both a physically and mentally rewarding experience. In the case of playing keyboard instruments, if it feels healthy and you're achieving the sound that you imagine when you look at the page, then the rest will fall into place.