But I only wanted to practice! Part 4: Musikhochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart, Germany

Musikhochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart, Germany
(Accurate to my understanding as of January 2019)

Practice facilities: 7 separate practice rooms / 9 practice organs
– mostly 3-manuals. two 2-manuals. one 1-manual
– all tracker/mechanical action
– mostly flat or concave and straight pedalboards
– four organs with swell shoes
– most instruments with 56 or 58 notes on manual and 28-30 notes on pedal; 1 organ with 61 notes in the manual and 32 in the pedal (fortunately!).
– one instrument with a short octave

Building hours: Exterior doors are open daily from approximately 7AM – 10:30PM BUT one can stay as late as they like or be let in by a security guard in “off hours.” (hours curtailed for holidays)

Number of students: approximately 40-45

Availability: every day beginning at 10AM, students may sign up for practice time on a sheet posted outside of the organ practice rooms for the following day: 2 hours on each weekday, 3 on each day of a weekend or holiday, with each hour in a different room.

The facilities of Stuttgart are extraordinary. Each of these practice organs are historically-inspired or are themselves historic, which allows students to take a lesson with these mechanical teachers every time they enter a practice room. In a single one of these rooms, you will find a 1997 Ahrend organ in the style of North Germany/Arp Schnitger, a Kern organ built in the French Classical style, and an anonymously-built Italian organ of the late-18th-century (complete with graffiti from long before its arrival in Stuttgart).
Walk next door to discover an instrument built in 1997 by Goll and inspired by 19th-century French organbuilder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll — but with some unique sonorities of the late German Baroque and Romantic eras. Next door to this is a nod to the geographic location of Stuttgart: a Schwäbish-inspired instrument built in 1998 by the organbuilder Mühleisen, whose shop is a half hour from Stuttgart. Up one floor is an organ from 1996 by Rohlf that teaches “perfection of playing”: it doesn’t hold back in letting an organist know s/he has incorrectly struck a note. Upstairs once again is a treasure: the so-called “Bach-Orgel,” a Central Germany/Silbermann-style instrument built by Wegscheider.
All the way downstairs in the bowels of the building are two “workhorse instruments”: the former main teaching organ of the previous conservatory’s building, built in 1972 by Weigle and a testament to organbuilding in the 1960s and 1970s, and a 1986 Wiedenmann instrument that has a special challenge to offer a student who wishes to practice. The pedalboard is offset by one note, making on feel as though they are always needing to shift to the right to accurately play the notes!

Brain flexibility is something we all should practice just as much as notes, history, or interpretation, since you never know what kind of new ergonomic (or not-so-ergonomic) positions we will have to deal with when meeting a new instrument. Switching between each of these vastly different mechanical/tracker-action organs, their uniquely-positioned pedalboards, and their varied consoles serves as practice for being able to readily change techniques in a very short amount of time – in fact, at the music school, one only has an hour before they switch both instruments and styles!


The above schedule is where we students sign up for practice times; Saturday – Sunday – Monday are on the left sheet and Tuesday – Wednesday – Thursday – Friday on the right. The leftmost column indicates the hours (8AM – 10AM as start times) and the topmost row indicates the practice rooms.

Despite a very high number of students here in comparison to the available number of practice organs (both in the organ performance and Kirchenmusik [sacred music] programs), the practice situation is not nearly as dire as could be imagined. Since the music school is basically accessible 24 hours a day (!), staying late or arriving early is a viable option if a student needs more than their 2 reserved hours of practice – if they’re willing to wake early or stay up late… This is also an excellent option for one who is jetlagged: I sometimes will stay and practice until the last few U-Bahn (aboveground tram/local public transportation) trains leave town, which is around 12:30AM. Staying later than this would be an option, but the trains don’t restart until around 4AM, when I preferably like to already have been asleep for an hour or two!

Additionally, if a student does not arrive for their practice time during the booked practice time hours, a room is fair game either for the student before to practice longer or for a wandering student to take the extra practice time. I could easily see this becoming a comical game of “claim the practice room” as students roam the hallways to see if practice rooms have become abandoned!

If a student is 15 minutes late to their practice time, then the room is free to whoever arrives first, or the previous student can stay for the rest of the hour. I’ve had several instances of reserving one room after another and preferring the first room (and hoping to stay there for two hours). When the next student has shown up 13 or 14 minutes after the hour, I’ve gotten in my daily run by sprinting to my next reserved room to make sure I’m there before the clock strikes 15 past! This is probably the best possible way to make sure the next 45 minutes of practice is very efficient: having gotten up and moved around, there is far more attention and energy for the remainder of one’s practice time.

If one prefers daytime practice sessions, the most challenging aspect of this system comes into play: these practice rooms are also the teaching instruments for lessons. Teachers and classes have priority, so, when a student arrives for their lesson saying that they want to play Bach today, anybody who has reserved practice time on the Bach-Orgel at that time has to move their practice time elsewhere or forfeit that time. All the warning the practicing student has is a teacher walking in and saying “Wir haben einen Unterricht” (“We have a lesson”). This is why, on the above room reservation sheet, you see open slots in the three leftmost columns (the most common teaching instruments) on weekdays from 9AM – 5PM. Most students don’t reserve times that they will most likely lose! Even more “fun” are the teachers who teach on Saturday and Sundays without warning… here, they keep us on our toes for practice time!

Fortunately, organ students may also reserve pianos for practice, an essential part of practicing, especially for French music.


Performance/practice facilities on campus and in town:
– Rieger organ IV/P/81 in Konzertsaal in the music school
– an English organ II/P/13 in Kirche St. Katharina

Very few churches in the city of Stuttgart are directly connected to the Musikhochschule, but I’ve discovered that meeting the organs in town is quite simply done by contacting the organists of said churches. They are often thrilled to have somebody visit and get to know the organ, and sometimes will offer assistance in finding additional practice spaces — or suggest other extraordinary historic organs in the area(, the region, or the country) to visit! Living in the heart of Europe has distinct advantages: Strasbourg is a mere 1.5 hours by train, Paris only 3, London, Zurich, and Copenhagen are each an hour flight away, and there’s a direct train to Hamburg every few hours (although it does take 5 hours to get there). I have moments of sitting back in shock upon realizing how amazing it is to be here – and how grateful I am to be able to be here.

Sharing the 1997 Ahrend organ with visiting                      organists and organ-lovers!              Photo credit: Dee and Andrew Prior




But I only wanted to practice! Part 3: Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Toulouse, France

Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Toulouse, France
(Accurate as of May 2016)

Most cities and towns in France have a Conservatoire de [insert town name here], which is essentially a community music school with the addition of dance and theater as focuses. These regional conservatories often have age restrictions (depending on the degree level, but typically under 30 years old) and accept students of all levels after an audition. Private lessons are the primary focus, but other parts of music study (solfègeécriture, etc) are available. Students pursue a sort of diploma program with 3 levels of cycles that precede the final two diplomas: cycle spécialisé and en perfectionnement. I pursued the latter diploma, which is an equivalent to the American Artist Diploma. Only the two national conservatories in Lyon and Paris have adopted the American degree monikers of Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate, and a student typically attends either of these after studies in the more local conservatories.

Toulouse has been called the Capitale mondiale de l’orgue (world capital of the organ) because of its proliferation of truly extraordinary historical instruments, primarily in the French style. Paris-based instruments often changed with the prevailing fashions while instruments outside of the French capital more frequently remained in their original conditions, whether because they were loved as they were or, more practically, because there were no funds to “update” these historical monuments. This fortunately leaves us with hundreds of organs throughout France — hundreds of musical windows through time. Southwest France, including Toulouse, being far from the destruction zones of both world wars, has an especially high number of these, making the Toulouse-centered corner of France a veritable organists’ playground.

Because of these historic instruments, practicing in the environs of Toulouse is the goal, rather than practicing at the conservatory itself. However, when there for a year of studies, one still must learn repertoire and prepare for concerts and competitions — and I, for one, didn’t want to drill notes on a 200+-year-old instrument. A practice session of repeating one measure ad-infinitum doesn’t teach nearly enough about the organ and the space!

Practice facilities: 3 separate practice rooms / 3 practice organs
– two 3-manual. one 2-manual
– all tracker/mechanical action
– all flat pedalboards
– one organ with swell shoe
– all instruments with 56 notes on manuals and 27 notes in pedal

Building hours: Monday – Friday from 8AM – 10PM (closed on holidays and vacations – or without warning in case of a strike!)

Number of students: approximately 20-25

Availability: at the start of the academic year, we signed up for regular practice slots. Mine were Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday from 8AM – 10AM, with a 1.5 hour slot on Wednesday afternoon. We could swap with other students if out of town or unavailable for our particular time.

(A thousand thanks to Celina Kobetitsch for photographs of practice organs at the Conservatoire de Toulouse!)

At the conservatory, organ students do not have the droit (“right”) to practice on pianos unless they are in the piano program. One of the organ practice rooms also has an upright piano – but of course, practicing on that would be during the reserved time, not in addition to.

In order to access a practice room, one has to leave their student card at the entrance desk in exchange for the room’s key. If, at the end of one’s practice time, the next student does not come, one can stay until the student after them arrives. I quickly learned to bring snacks to my morning practices (although I’m still not sure if that was permissible), since the “gift” of someone not arriving might mean double the amount of practicing that day… although this made it a tad difficult to plan the day, and the day’s meals! Also, the entrance desk (with the keys) closed for lunch from 12PM – 2PM, so one had to be sure to arrive before the guardien/ne/s took their lunch breaks (beginning anywhere from, on one occasion, 11:37AM onwards) or you’d be left without a key and without a practice room.

Since my scheduled practice time was from 8AM – 10AM, I often finished my schedule work mid-morning, allowing for endless exploration of beautiful Toulouse – both its cityscape and culinary offerings!

Performance and practice facilities (in the city of Toulouse):
– 1889 Cavaillé-Coll III/P/54 in Basilique St-Sernin
– 1981 Ahrend III/P/33 in Musée des Augustins
– 1848 Cavaillé-Coll/1970 Kern III/P/47 in Cathédrale St-Etienne
– Pleyel pedal piano in Église du Gésu
– 1888 Puget III/P/47 Église Notre-Dame de la Dalbade
– 1677 Delaunay/1750 Isnard/1982 Grenzing IV/P/51 in Église Saint-Pierre des Chartreux
– 2005 Daldosso II/P/28 in Temple du Salin
– 1885 Puget III/P/25 in Église Saint-Exupère

Most churches in France are open to the public for touring, visits, and meditation throughout the day. Unlike many American churches (although exceptions certainly exist on both sides of the Atlantic), these churches prefer that the organ not be played for most of the day, especially since administration offices often abut or are in the churches themselves. Even French organ music on beautiful, historic instruments gets old, it seems?

Because of this, the available practice times for most churches were from 12PM – 2PM (when administrative workers have lunch) or overnight, if a key could be procured. This was the case for St-Sernin, the Cathédrale St-Étienne, and Église Notre-Dame de la Dalbade. Practice sessions for these spaces were reserved in advance, in a kind of rotation system with other students. One might have a single two-hour session in a local church in two weeks, or be lucky enough to be locked into St-Sernin (with the bats) for the whole night.

For other instruments, the situations varied: the Musée des Augustins was available from 8AM until the museum opened at 10AM, the Église du Gesu was closed to the public so mostly available for practice if one knew who had the key, Église St-Pierre des Chartreux was open all afternoon if you got there first, Temple du Salin could be reserved, and Église St-Exupère was a good option if you could sweet talk the priest and play softly.

(As an aside; arriving at the Cathédrale St-Étienne’s swallow’s nest organ, which clings to the wall almost 60 feet above the church’s floor, is an astounding experience. One first climbs the most interminable set of stairs in Toulouse — a stairway so long that Renée Darasse-Laroyenne, titulare at the Cathédrale from 1946-1986 [Xavier Darasse‘s mother], insisted that a second light switch be installed halfway because the timer on the one at the bottom of the stairs would expire before she reached the top — to arrive at a landing where the only option is to cross the roof. Finally, one proceeds down a harrowing catwalk from which one is on display for all tourists visiting the cathedral at that moment. “No photos, please!”)

The Cathédrale is also where I developed a bit of a practice “twitch.” There was a signal used there (and elsewhere, of course) if somebody in the building wanted the organist to stop playing. This person would clap; a far better method than shouting at the organist – there is always ambient noise (talking) in these public spaces, so a shout isn’t distinguishable from the hum of voices. Whenever I was practicing in the Cathédrale, if somebody clapped their hands, that nearly always meant to stop practicing immediately — even if one had just arrived for the two-hour session. A group of pilgrims may have arrived for prayer, there might be a noontime funeral service, or somebody may have forgotten to communicate that there was no practice time that day. Even today, when somebody claps during my practice sessions, I can’t help myself: I stop playing.

Despite being comfortable in the French language, my status as an expatriate caused challenges in finding practice spaces, since I simply didn’t have an initial social foundation to open doors and access spaces. The sheer number of hours needed to adequately prepare a competition, especially coupled with wishing to learn new music (shocking!) made 2 hours, or even 4 hours, per day on a practice organ seem too short, no matter the level of mental preparation and planning I put into such sessions (SUCH a “first-world problem,” I admit!). The key? I discovered the incredible kindness of friends and fellow organ-lovers, creating this social foundation and finding people with whom I now stay in contact years later. I often traveled for a weekend away practicing, or practiced on a piano and electronic organ in the home of a friend.

Practicing in Toulouse required creativity, strategy, and thought to adequately prepare to play varied instruments elsewhere, especially those not of the French Romantic or German Baroque styles. It was in Toulouse that I discovered pretending to hit pistons on an organ without any combination action so as to not be shocked when having to do so on an instrument that had it. When playing a concave/radiating AGO/RCO pedalboard once again (mostly standard in the USA, Canada, and England), I had several instances of overshooting when leaping in the pedal, before I reminded myself that the lowest and highest notes of the pedal were closer once again!

International organists coming to France for study typically have a different expectation to that of a standard degree program: they study in France to add depth to their understanding of French organ music. The unparalleled access to historic French instruments in Toulouse and its environs fulfills this need to play and learn from the original instruments and, furthermore, allows students to study both the instruments and the culture, adding breadth to their studies. Beyond this, the student can be as creative as s/he likes to be sure they are prepared for instruments in other styles, traveling to play other instruments or pretending that an instrument has something it does not. This Capitale de l’orgue is indeed the modern capital of French organ study, with a wealth of both instruments and beautiful views to boot!

Église St-Exupère

But I only wanted to practice! Part 2: Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, USA

Oberlin Conservatory, Oberlin OH, USA
(Accurate as of May 2015)

Nestled between cornfields is the first institution that I’ll explore this week: Oberlin College and Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, USA. For a town with a population of 8,000, the 3,000 students cause quite a stir when they add more than a third to that population upon arriving in September and take it away again when they depart in May — quite a lot of people arriving and departing twice a year! I always quip that “there is little to do in Oberlin besides practice and study” and while this is a (slight) exaggeration, the organ practicing facilities make it easy to do just that.

Practice facilities : 14 separate practice rooms / 14 practice organs
– mostly 2-manuals. one 1-manual.
– mostly tracker/mechanical action, but a few instruments with electro-pneumatic action
– mostly concave and radiating (AGO/RCO) or flat pedalboards
– one organ with swell shoe
– mostly full compass instruments (61 notes on manuals and 32 notes in pedal)
– two instruments with short octaves in the manual and pedal

Building hours: daily 7:30AM – 12:00AM (curtailed on holidays or vacations)

Number of students: approximately 15-20

Availability: always available, no sign-up needed for practice spaces

Piano practice rooms freely available, although sometimes one had to do a few “rounds” to find a free one as an instrumentalist or vocalist was leaving!

Never having to wait or sign up for a practice room is a blessing that I never appreciated until I had to do both. Oberlin’s resources are pretty incredible: not only are there nearly as many instruments as students, these instruments are themselves excellent teachers. Carefully maintained by the university’s organ curator, the practice organs are used and used well.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Oberlin played host to approximately 60 organ students, for which this quantity of instruments was essential! Stories abound of having to wait in the hallways with hopes that somebody might abandon a practice so another student can have a few hours of practice, as I believe there was no sign-up process to reserve rooms (correct me if I’m wrong!). Since many organists these days are, like me, Double Degree students (where they pursue both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music degree simultaneously), the proliferation of instruments makes a seemingly impossible situation possible: it allows us to practice when we have a few spare seconds, instead of having to spend the entire day doing homework in the hallway while waiting for a free room!



In addition to the practice facilities, the performance facilities on campus can be reserved in advance for an hour or two per day by signing up at the conservatory.

(A thousand thanks to Matthew Dion for the photos of Oberlin’s practice rooms!)


Performance/practice facilities (on campus):
– 1974 Flentrop III/P/44 in Warner Concert Hall (North German Baroque-inspired)
– 2001 Fisk, Op. 116 III/P/57 in Finney Chapel (French Cavaillé-Coll-inspired)
– 1981 Brombaugh II/P/15 in Fairchild Chapel (17th-century German/Dutch style, meantone)
– 1984 Bozeman & Gibson, Op. 24 II/P/23 in Peace Community Church (Bach/Silbermann-inspired)

Performance/practice facilities (in town):
– Brombaugh organ in the First United Methodist Church (North German Baroque)
– Gober organ in First Church of Oberlin (tracker, German-inspired)

Spaces like Finney Chapel and Warner Concert Hall are busy with numerous performances by a myriad of instrumentalists and vocalists throughout the semester, especially in November/December and April/May, but Fairchild Chapel (with the Brombaugh organ) is very often available, and arrangements can be made to practice in the local churches – or, if one is desperate, they can practice on the instrument at their church, since most students work at churches throughout Lorain County.


Even ideal situations have some omissions or drawbacks, and Oberlin is not an exception in this. What the campus does rather obviously lack are instruments in both the English and American styles – rather striking for an English-speaking school! Through the mid- and late 20th century, when most of Oberlin’s instruments were installed, the fashion was to look towards northern Europe for instrumental inspiration. This is evidenced by the fact that 3/4ths of the performance organs give obvious nods to Dutch and German organbuilding styles. When a student graduates, they have had limited exposure to instruments with divisional pistons or electro-pneumatic action (at least on performance instruments in the case of the latter). When thrown “into the deep end” of Anglican choral accompaniment, English organ repertoire, or perhaps given a bit of Leo Sowerby, a student with a solid basis of Bach, Sweelinck, Weckmann, and Mendelssohn may have to do a bit of research before settling in comfortably.

The Fisk in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel gives an opportunity to use divisional pistons, but since it is built “in the French style” (where one can use the pedal ventils* to play a Widor or Vierne Symphony), there are no toe studs. The only option for changing stops with the feet in “American mode” was to use the sequencer. Some students did take advantage of the “French mode,” but many of us simply used the sequencer in the pedal and manual for everything, not necessarily knowing that there were important techniques to learn for work after graduation!

What Oberlin does give is a solid foundation of learning from instruments in this northern Europe style, as well as nearly unlimited practice time. The majority of the students are undergraduates, so in the “prime time” for creating a solid foundation of technique and style.


*Ventils are a method for quickly changing sounds while playing the organ, primarily found in 19th-century French organs. Before technology allowed organists to save their personal registrations and quickly change stops/sounds with merely the touch of a button, organbuilders would place some pipes (the louder and higher ones, such as trompettes, mixtures, etc.) on a separate wind chest, the wind of which was controlled by a foot lever above the organist’s pedals. When the organist wanted to add some of these stops in the middle of a piece, he would draw the stops for theses sounds, then engage the foot lever at the opportune moment, causing air to rush into the windchest of the other stops, allowing them to speak and thus adding extra sound without lifting a hand from the keys! Many French instruments still have this system as the only option for stop additions.

But I only wanted to practice! Part 1: Introduction

Despite what a Belgian immigration officer thought when I told him I was there to play an organ recital, most organists don’t travel with an instrument. It probably shouldn’t have taken three immigration officers to remember what an organ was, to confirm that it is not easily brought with a single musician via aircraft, and then to finally (begrudgingly) allow me into the country, but that just goes to show that more people need to attend organ concerts!

Italian Baroque organ from the late 18th century by an anonymous organ builder, Stuttgart Musikhochschule

Pianists also fall into the category of musicians who play instruments that are imprudent for travel. However, with an organological history that stretches back to the 3rd century BC, the pipe organ has just about 2,000 more years of history — and of building variety — than its string-and-hammer cousin.

To organists’ amusement and frustration, there is a seemingly limitless number of variables that can cause “making friends” with a new organ to be less-than-easy:

  • variable number of manuals
  • variable number of keys on the manual (keyboard)
  • variable number of keys on the pedal
  • variable number of stops
  • variable style(s) of stops
  • differences between the names of the stops and how they actually sound (some have identity crises where the stop’s name might be French and yet it sounds German)
  • non-standardized placement and height of the organ bench (or the inability to adjust the placement or height of the organ bench – especially grievous for those of us who are vertically challenged)

    Wanamaker organ, 1904 (with additions), Philadelphia, PA, USA Source: Wikipedia
  • sometimes unreliable placement of the pedals (there’s nothing like realizing you have to re-orient yourself so that “center” is slightly more to the left than usual when you play a “D” in lieu of the expected “C”. Imagine the center of the piano being offset by a note, or even by a few notes)
  • odd placement of the manuals (despite my short stature, I have encountered organs where my knees hit the lowest manual. What do my taller colleagues do?!)
  • varying depth of manual and pedal key beds
  • drastically differing weight of keys (nothing like a little weightlifting during practice time)
  • differing point in key depression where the pipe begins to speak
  • differing point in key depression at which the pipe is fully speaking
  • sometimes audible mechanical noise of the keys (a little extra unintended percussion only works in certain repertoire)
  • how the key weight, depth, noise, and pipe opening changes when manuals are coupled (when manuals play together)
  • if, when manuals are coupled, some pipes open earlier than others
  • how easily and quickly one can repeat the same note
  • how and how quickly the pipes close when a key is released
  • the fickle church’s acoustic, that can also change without warning when an audience is present
1691-2 Arp Schnitger organ  St. Martinikerk, Groningen, The Netherlands Source: arpschnitger.nl

These are only a few of the variables that can affect solely the act of playing notes – I’ll spare the disinterested from jargon-filled explanations of swell shoe existence, placement, or smoothness, stop placement, combination action (or lack thereof), piston placement, lack of pistons, lack of divisional pistons, placement or existence of sequencer, necessity of stop assistants if no pistons are there… I could go on, but suffice to say that the organ is the instrument of the insatiably curious, the easily distracted, and, arguably, the mildly masochistic.

With all these variables, it’s extremely helpful to practice on a variety of instruments, because the more experience in rapidly changing technique and approach to an organ one has, the more easily one can adjust while traveling!

console-schantz siesta key chapel
2017 Schantz organ, Siesta Key Chapel, Sarasota, FL, USA Source: siestakeychapel.org

To give a sampling of how some schools have tackled the “organ practicing challenge,” each day this week I’ll post a description of the practice possibilities and accessibility of the three universities (in three countries) I have attended, since these are the solutions I know best. Each school has used their unique resources to respond to the needs of students by purchasing and maintaining instruments, providing facilities to house the instruments, and ensuring availability of these facilities (hours the practice building is open, whether or not a practice/performance space is shared with other instrumentalists, etc.).

1435 organ by an anonymous organ builder, Basilica of Valère, Sion, Switzerland Source: peter-fasler.magix.net

The descriptions that follow aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but they are meant to be thorough, so please don’t hesitate to write if something is blatantly missing. They are also descriptions of what I had when I attended each school. Resources change, instruments are added, and sometimes instruments are, unfortunately, no longer able to be used. The solutions described are only three among countless. Surely, there are as many solutions as there are institutions that teach organ, so I’d love to hear about yours; my hope is that these posts might prompt others to share their universities’ answers to the “organ practicing challenge,” and help us all to find some pretty spectacular solutions to a unique situation!

2010 Blancafort organ, Santa Maria de Montserrat, Spain