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!
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)
- 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
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!
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.).
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!