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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

February 24, 2010

Pianists: when you’ve finally been hooked …

evelyn @ 3:34 pm

(Experienced organists, this is yet another boring blog post which you may wish to skip)

Once priestly persuasion has been successful, and you have agreed with many misgivings to have a go at playing the organ, next comes the fateful moment when pianist and organ meet face to face for the first time. This should always happen in an empty church. If an organist is there to advise, well and good. Otherwise, priests, relatives and church hangers-on should be banished while you very carefully examine the tabs, stops, couplers, pistons, pedals and other bits and pieces. The main question is of course ‘How do I know which of these things to push, pull or press, and when?’  Have a notebook ready to write down the answers.

Here is a quick start guide:

First, check out which items are STOPS and which are COUPLERS, and PARK THE PEDALS.

    Stops will have a pitch number – 8’, 4’ etc (some electronics have each tab consecutively numbered as well; try to ignore this.). Stops will be grouped according to their location (Swell, Great, Pedal – on some electronics, unhelpfully, I and II).

    Coupler tabs or knobs will name the bits of the organ which they join up (e.g. ‘Swell to Great’, ‘Swell Octave’, ‘Great to Pedal’, or the less easy to spot ‘II/I’). They won’t have pitch numbers, and their lettering is sometimes a different colour from the real or ‘sounding’ stops.

    Best to leave the pedal keyboard alone for now. You can stop it sounding by pushing in or switching off all stops in the Pedal group, and any couplers with ‘Pedal’ written on them. That way, if you kick one accidentally it won’t make a noise. Later, when you’re confident, you’ll enjoy getting to know the pedals. Volume pedals are a different matter (see below).

Then, explore the STOPS.

    Look for diapasons. Diapason is the basic organ hymn-playing sound. They come as 8’, 4’ and possibly 2’ (remember 8’ is in the middle of the pitch range, 4’ an octave up, and so on). Apart from Stopped Diapason, which is a flute sound, everything else called ‘diapason’ is a diapason. Other names for diapasons are Octave, Principal and Fifteenth (a 2’ stop). Sometimes their spellings are foreign, like Prinzipal, Oktave. Try playing a hymn on an 8’ diapason, then add a 4’ for the next verse. If there’s a 2’, add it to the next again verse. Try out the couplers. Listen carefully to the results.

    Now check out the flutes. Again, there will be an 8’ and a 4’, and possibly a 2’. You can get a 16’ flute (usually called Bourdon), which can be a bit growly. Their names vary more than the diapasons. Look for anything with ‘flute’ or ‘flöte’ in the name, like Rohrflöte or Wald Flute. Other flute sounds are Stopped Diapason, Bourdon, Clarabella or similar, and anything that looks like or includes Gedackt. Try playing voluntaries on the different flute sounds. Some flutes are strong enough to include in hymn playing. Again, listen carefully. Your ear will tell you what sounds good and what doesn’t.

    With flutes and diapasons a pianist can get going on hymns and voluntaries right away. The other kinds of stops – string, mutations, mixtures and reeds – can be explored in a more leisurely way once confidence is established and the organ touch is comfortable. A great help in identifying peculiar-looking or sounding stops is a website called Encyclopaedia of Organ Stops. Here you can find just about every stop in the world, and you can listen to some of them, too.

Finally, examine PRESETS and VOLUME PEDALS

    Presets will reveal what stop combinations the previous organist decided to keep handy. You may find some useful, but don’t rely on them, as other people may have been messing around in the interim. Eventually you’ll create your own.

    Volume or Swell pedal(s) If there is only one, you are lucky. It should apply to the upper or Swell manual. If there is more than one, find out which does what, and practise locating them without looking down. The dreadful ‘Crescendo’ pedal is usually on the extreme right. This will take the organ to its loudest whatever stops you are using, with a resulting shock both to you and to the congregation. Identify it, then see if there isn’t a switch to disable it.

By this time, you should have a notebook full of useful information, to be used when you practise. On the Sunday itself, when the church is full of people, you will almost certainly find that you’ll need more stops or volume, so it’s worth planning for that, too.

Good luck!

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