Fin septembre et fin 1e mois, 2e partie

As I write this, I’m on a train travelling from Frankfurt to Paris Est, from one meeting (more of a “convention”) to another meeting (more of an “orientation”). I think it will always feel strange to be able to travel to another country in fewer than four hours.

This past weekend, I attended the European chapter of, perhaps ironically, the American Guild of Organists’ (AGO) Fall meeting in Ingelheim am Rhein, Germany. Indeed, my first trip to Germany was not only for an organ event, it was for an AGO event! (I will enter my own name into the drawing for the most “nerdy” 20-somethings of 2015.) Even more ironic, the instrument featured for the weekend was a 1930 Skinner (Op. 823) installed by Kleis in 2008!

Bakery in Frankfurt airport
Bakery in Frankfurt airport

What a way to visit Germany for the first time. I flew through Brussels, admiring the fantastic bakeries and cafés at all of these European airports and the lack of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts (although both of these may be found in Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnohf!). The first difficulties arose when I landed in Germany, discovering that I had absolutely no 3G and no maps. I had hoped to visit the early instrument museum in Frankfurt, since I had several hours before I was expected in Ingelheim. However, after successfully navigating my way into the city and discovering the Historische-Museum, I was unable to find this particular exhibit. Let me know if you’ve had better luck than I, as it sounds fascinating!


I did go to the Historisches-Museum and, along with the mere two other visitors I saw while there, explored some of the more unusual and seemingly random collections of items I have seen (although that château in the Midi-Pyrenées might rival it with the mammoth’s tooth!), which included porcelain pots, medieval armor, some paintings, and coins.

Through some broken English and even more broken German (on my part), I procured a map and wandered to the train station, successfully buying tickets, finding the right train, and arriving in Ingelheim am Rhine, which lies about an hour’s train ride west of Frankfurt.

1853 Dreymann organ in the Saalkirche
1930 Skinner, also in the Saalkirche and the star of the weekend’s convention!

Perhaps two-dozen people attended the meeting, hailing from places like the Finland, France, Germany (of course!), the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Poland. These are some of the kindest and most generous people I have met and I look forward to seeing all of them in the future! The two recitals, played by Johan Hermans (Belgium), Giorgio Parolini (Italy), Carston and Iris Lenz (Germany), Christa Rakich (USA), Fabrice Muller (France), Pawel Wróbel (Poland), and Agnes Goerke (Germany), really showed off the instrument in unusual ways. Coming from such diverse musical and cultural backgrounds, each player had unique ways of singing through the beautiful organ.

The organ pipes in the middle of the traffic circle near the organ museum

On Saturday, following an excellent lecture by composer and organist Bernard Sanders on the “Rise and Fall of E.M. Skinner” (unofficial title), we all packed up and went to a place that really could only be found in Germany: an Organ Museum. The Orgel-ART-Museum in Windesheim (20 minutes from Ingelheim) houses dozens of historical and copies of historical organs, pianos (fortepianos), and two harpsichords. All of these instruments can be played (although none were in very good tune). Needless to say, we made quite a lot of noise, both harmonious and not-quite-so harmonious, exploring the exhibitions!

After yet another astounding weekend full of meeting new friends, seeing and hearing beautiful instruments and musicians, and visiting a corner of Europe I have never before seen, I’m headed to the Fulbright orientation meeting at the Centre de conferences ministériel in Paris, which will occur tomorrow. Perhaps it’s time for another visit to the music store, La Flûte de Pan!

The Broadwood piano in the museum!
The Broadwood piano in the museum!


Based on the painting of the organ in Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, by Oberlinger Orgelbau

For my first trip outside of an airport in Germany, I definitely discovered a few things:

-knowing German chorale tune titles does not prepare one to try to travel through Germany and try to speak the language

-apologetically telling the very nice café waitress you don’t speak German will only result in her speaking more German, even more quickly

-the German word for “turkey” sounds exactly the same as a very strong French swearword

-train tickets are rarely checked and everybody seems to trust each other, even to the extent where they leave bags unattended while going up to get a cup of coffee!

-passports don’t seem to be needed while travelling by plane within the EU, although all airline carriers say that they require them

-“mit Musik” means “with onions,” with the implication being that the raw onions make music in your mouth… hours later. Thankfully, I did not try anything “mit Musik”IMG_1967

-pizza in Germany is very inexpensive and quite good

-Germans seem to eat a lot of cake

-I need to learn German.

If you think of somewhere I should try to visit, whether music-related or not, or some instruments that I should see, please leave a comment or send me a message:!


Fin septembre et fin 1e mois, 1e partie

I’m dividing the last two weekends into separate “journal entries,” one for each, since I have gotten behind on updating you, my wonderful family and friends both in the US and elsewhere, of my most recent travels.

One of the completely horrible views I have to see while biking to the conservatory…

During the first full week and a half that I spent in Toulouse, I found myself beginning to establish a daily routine and having to make a conscious effort to see the sights off of the “beaten path” of the commute to the conservatory, boulangerie, or grocery store. It’s amazing how quickly I can fall into a pattern in a new place—or even in a new country! I also successfully opened a bank account, auditioned for and was accepted into the conservatory on organ en perfectionnement, and had my first organ lessons (on Widor and Vierne) in St-Sernin—what a dream!

View atop Cordes-sur-Ciel

This newfound comfort within the city was broken up by an incredible trip of only three days (September 18-20) into the French countryside in the Midi-Pyrénées. I took a train from Toulouse to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a town constructed in a mere eight years by a Toulousian count in the early 13th century as a place to protect his Catalan people from the attacking French during the Albigensian Crusade. At the station, I was greeted by an Oberlin alumna and her husband who, amazingly, live a mere hour and a half outside of Toulouse. They were already showing yet another Oberlin alum around their favorite haunts. Where two or three Obies are gathered…

We explored this part of southwestern France, seeing places I never would have otherwise, including Nejac, yet anther medieval town, and Villefranche sur Rouergue, where I met the organ at the Collégiale Notre-Dame, which was first constructed 1506-1508, essentially replaced with a new instrument in 1626 by Claude Guillemin, and worked on later by both Pujol de Montauban and Théodore Puget in the 19th century and Maurice Puget in the 20th. It was such a thrill to play this stunning instrument between visiting these amazing places.


Châteaux, SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESwhether large or small, are as common as rolling hills in this part of France, since nearly every spot of high ground has one. They appear around every corner as you drive through the countryside, each featuring a unique history. We visited one where Queen Margot apparently stayed for a single night in September 1585. The whole château was filled with objects with unlikely stories behind them, including a mammoth tooth, dinosaur bone, and an early 16th-century Bible that was set out in the open air to be thumbed through as the visitor desired.


The marchés (markets) in France are truly something to be witnessed. In Toulouse, I have discovered a huge fruit and vegetable one that is completely overwhelming. I brought home the best mango and strawberries I think I have ever had. However, the marché at St-Antonin sur Val was another thing entirely. The center of this smaller French town bustled with tens of vendors selling meats, cheeses, wines, condiments, fruits, vegetables, coffees and teas, baskets, bonbons (candies), and even more. I left with three kinds of goat cheeses (from the vendor whose goat farm we visited only the day before!), a delectable mustard à l’ancienne (tastes like Dijon, but is not made in Dijon), and three kinds of saucisson (dried sausage, although if you ask three Frenchmen to tell you the difference between saucisse and saucisson, you will likely receive three different answers).

For a first trip to the French countryside, this was more than I had ever dreamed.

Signing the guestbook at Villefranche sur Rouergne (photo credit: Andrea Rothman)

And the dust begins to settle…

The famed Toulouse sausage

This has been a week of “figuring things out” and settling into life here. I am very glad that the weekend has arrived, although it has come simultaneously too quickly and too slowly. The time here flies, especially since the majority of one’s time seems to be spent eating: wake up around 7 or 8am, eat breakfast about 9am, start lunch around noon or 1, continue enjoying one’s meal until 3 or 4pm and, of course, have an espresso. Drinks start flowing by 11am, at the latest, and continue through dinner, which begins around 8pm. The question of why the French are not overweight is truly a valid one. It seems like there is always time to simply sit, eat/drink, and watch people. However, it does seem as though about 80% of them still do smoke so perhaps that as something to do with…

This has also been a week of my discovering that I have more than enough French to get me into plenty of trouble but not always enough to get me out of it. Sometimes, I have a “joli accent” and other times, I have almost no accent. In either case, I typically end up receiving far more information in a short period of time that I can fully process!

Thanks to all of your positive thoughts and encouragement, I am about 99% sure that I have a bank account! I have signed a contract and am awaiting my account information and debit card, which will both come in the mail. Until then, it is just as though I do not have a bank account. French literature courses certainly didn’t prepare me for the speed at which the bank employee would tell me my account information, especially since this monologue was complete with a strong Toulousain accent. Asking for everything to be repeated simply tries the patience of somebody who is kind enough to help this poor international establish herself in a new country!

Funnily enough, my supposed bank account is with La Poste. This is just as it sound: La Poste is, in fact, the national post office. One of the stranger French cultural experiences I have had is entering that large, almost gymnasium-like room full of people trying to mail large packages, order cell phones, deposit and withdraw money, and open bank accounts. Who knew the French liked to multitask so much?

I have rented a charming vélo de ville, a bike on which I can easily cut down the 25-minute walk to the conservatory to under 10 minutes. However, riding a bike in Toulouse, especially downtown during the afternoon, is borderline suicidal. Not only do cars seem to go out of their way to try to push you off of the road, pedestrians have no problem at all walking out right in front of you. Now that I have had two days of riding back and forth across the city, I am feeling much more comfortable but I probably gave a few pedestrians and drivers miniature heart attacks during my first ride from the Maison de vélo!

Don’t mind me, just waiting to have my hair cut!

I deliberately waited to get a haircut until after my arrival in France, forcing myself
to learn the necessary vocabulary and get over my natural fear of not being able to explain what I want to such a specific extent in a foreign language! I am so glad I did. For just 30€, I got 15 minutes in a massage chair with a head massage, an espresso and all sorts of chocolates (none of which I ate, unfortunately because it was 9:30 in the morning!), a consult on how my hair should look and how I should style it (apparently my face is square and my previous cut had been too square, leading to far too manyIMG_1757 squares…etc), a cut, a brushing (blow-dry), and tons of advice on where to visit in southern France during my time here. The two hairdressers in the shop, each of whom had their own charming yet difficult-to-understand Toulousain accents, absolutely loved comparing French and American ways of life and describing their favorite places to travel in both countries. I ended up giving advice of where to have brunch on Sundays in New York City! The name of the salon, Pourquoi ailleurs, is absolutely perfect, as it means “why anywhere else?” Indeed: pourquoi ailleurs!

Giving up my “no selfie” rule for this posting. New haircut… en France!

Finally, I passed the harpsichord audition the Conservatoire yesterday and have been accepted into the deuxième cycle, troisième année, which seems to be about the equivalent of the final year of a Master’s degree…in harpsichord. After only one semester of private study five years ago and after learning two pieces in a week for the audition that I didn’t know about until I arrived in France, that doesn’t feel too shabby! I do look forward to trying to live up to the level and have already ordered a whole stack of repertoire I can’t wait to learn. Even better, there seems to be no lack of harpsichords on which to practice at the conservatory, I will be able to continue fortepiano studies with the same professor through that audition, and I have been exempted from solfège classes. The audition for the organ class en perfectionnement take place next Thursday on the stunning organ of St-Sernin so wish me luck–  I can’t wait to dive right into lessons in the coming weeks!

The amazing organ of St-Sernin
The amazing organ of St-Sernin

TANGENT #1: French Classical Organ Touch

I interrupt this journal-like programming to bring you some personal musings on the effect of playing French Classical music on a rebuilt French organ from the 18th century. Please feel free to leave anytime you feel a trance-like state coming on, although that may be welcome since finally going to sleep is always a good part of the day.

First of all, let’s remind ourselves that all we have remaining from most of the 17th century are testimonials about instruments, descriptions, and stoplists. Thus, all we know about those instruments and how they sounded comes from conjecture. So, when I’m talking about French Classical organs/music, I’m talking about organs we know from the 18th century.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 10.14.13 PM
Douglass, Fenner. The Language of the Classical French Organ: A Musical Tradition before 1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 134.

Specifically, I’m talking about the 1752 Lépine organ in Sarlat, on which I was fortunate to spend some time last week. When first playing an organ like this, much of the instinct of how to play comes from the touch. French classical organs, like this one, have suspended action.  Thanks to this handy-dandy drawing in Fenner Douglass’ fantastic book on this subject, you can see how the keyboards are actually suspended, with the pivot point falling on the back of the key instead of in the middle, as would occur with balanced key action. Technical lecture mostly over.

The resulting extremely sensitive response from an organ’s suspended action, which very strongly reflecting harpsichord touch, especially that of instruments from France at this time, really forces you to listen to how each note strike and releases. The point at which the pipe actually begins to sound is very high in the key, so one does not have to fully depress the key in order to have the full sound of the pipe, unless most stops are drawn or when keyboards are coupled. Not only can one play “near the top of the key,” these keys are also exceptionally light (perhaps inviting one to inadvertently add more “trills” than intended). Although the organ does not have the harpsichord’s added challenge of notes occasionally refusing to sound when a key is struck somewhat wrong, achieving the level of clarity and sparkle between notes that makes this music come to life requires an elegant ear and quick fingers. A player really needs to be subtle, which is certainly something for me to work on!

However,, when the positif and grand orgue are coupled, they are heavy. I had to re-finger several movements to take more advantage of arm weight and make up for the resistance of the keys since, for the loudest movements, I had to dig all the way into the bottom of the keys for those brilliant plein jeu and grand jeu colors. Unlike the feather-light touch of the uncoupled manuals, these louder works seem to require an entirely different technique of simply keeping the keys down.

Another challenge when working with the Lépine organ was the flexible wind. Playing on the plein jeu on the grand orgue resulted in automatically playing the lowest notes of the left hand nearly completely legato. When there was a reason to lift the lowest most notes, some other voice had to tie between the space, unless one wanted the aurally “bouncy” effect of wind readjusting to more pipes demanding air. It was a fascinating study in listening to what the organ needed at any given time, instead of simply forging ahead to do what I thought would work. While the score may seem to want a phrase break, giving a “break” through tempo flexibility was the wiser choice upon listening. As Michel Bouvard said: “the pedal’s cantus firmus on the reeds should come like a ray of light through the sea of the plein jeu.” The sea does not have breaks so neither should one’s playing!

Of course, let’s all remember that, although organs like this one seems utterly stunning no matter who plays the keys, style does not come from the pipes! Le bon goût must be practiced and developed in order to truly bring French classical music to life, even on the spectacular instruments that we are fortunate to have so readily available. More than listening to our fingers, we organists really have to listen to the sounds of the instrument. When playing French Classical music, we frequently find ourselves with one hand on the recit’s cornet séparé and the other on the positif’s cromorne. Unfortunately, both call for different touch because of how these very different pipes speak, no matter what the manual may feel like. Really, all that’s left is to spend a few weeks camped out beside the console of some 18th century French organ.

Just another reason to come visit me in France!

Do you have some thoughts about playing this kind of music? Let me know!