The church organ is an instrument that most people come to already having had some experience on the piano.
To begin to learn the church organ without any piano or keyboard experience would be a very difficult and long task.
However, many people struggle even if they can already play the piano, especially with learning to play the bass pedals – it’s almost as if you are playing two instruments at the same time instead of one!
It’s not that bass pedals are particularly difficult to play on their own, it’s just that when the manuals have to be played too, it becomes really very difficult for the brain to cope.
What’s Going On In The Student’s Mind?
It is often the case that too much attention is placed on technique (important though it is) and not enough thought given to what is going on in the students mind and how he or she can make natural connections between hands and feet, in a more harmonic way.
If the music is a series of notes – each one to be read individually, then they are much harder to play and sight-read than if they are groups of notes, either harmonic or linear.
The student should try to see vertical blocks of notes as chord progressions such as Ia, Ib, IV etc. This should help simplify the thought process and include the pedals as a natural part of the harmony rather than a keyboard part with bass notes attached.
There is unfortunately a sense of “the organ is a piano with bass pedals” approach – the pedals being the extra part that makes playing the organ so difficult.
This, of course, is not true, the organ is very different from the piano, and serves only to make it more difficult to play manuals and pedals together – am I a pianist playing the pedals or an organist?
The Importance Of Hymn Playing
The main function of a church organist is to play hymns so that the congregation can sing accompanied. This is where, I suggest, someone new to learning the church organ should spend their time, and put Bach to one side for a later day. If you can’t play hymns with pedals, the organ music of Bach will be far too difficult anyway.
A Harmonic Approach
The first step is making connections between hands and feet – I am not talking synchronization or technical know-how – I am talking harmony.
Harmony and chord knowledge put into practice (and practise) immediately as it is learnt, will make connections in the mind between the hand and feet. This will, in turn, make independence easier.
Because in chords and hymn playing, the bass pedal notes are part of the chord harmony, either as a root or inversion, rather than a separate independent part.
Do you consider the independence between your fingers when you play a hymn? probably not often. The fingers do it together because that’s the way they’ve been trained. The feet should also be trained in a similar way to respond to a chord as the fingers do … they should be an extension of the fingers.
There is of course pedal technique to be learned, but it is my viewpoint that just playing chords on the manuals and using the pedals at the same time to play root notes, will enable the student to get something connected in his or her mind.
Playing a simple slow chorus on the organ with just a few chords can also help get the feet and pedals involved.
As soon as the feet and pedals become part of the same mental thought, playing hymns becomes much easier.
It’s possible that guitarists have an advantage when learning to play hymns on the organ because they are usually “chord minded”. If the student organist is able to see blocks of notes in terms of chords, it could be very useful for getting off to a good start when learning to play the church organ, and in particular, when learning to play the bass pedals.
More information about pedal playing and making the transition from piano to church organ can be found at the Reluctant Organist.