Learn To Play Church Organ From A Pianist’s Background
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 – as many beginners will testify!
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 music is read as a series of random notes – each one to be read individually, then a piece is much harder to play and sight-read than if seen in groups or blocks of notes – harmonic or linear.
Sight Reading Hymn Music – Harmonic In Style
The student should try to see vertical blocks of notes and be able to recognise them as chord progressions such as Ia, Ib, IV etc. leading from one harmony to another. Being able to read and quickly identify blocks of notes as chords, enables the information to be proccessed much more quickly and the player, to be able to read ahead!
Linear, Contrapuntal – Scale Or Arpeggio In Style
The same is true of music in a more linear, contrapuntal style, the texture that you would see in a Bach fugue.
Recognising scale and arpeggio movement, as harmony and keys are suggested, enables a view of the big picture.
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.
The Lowest Note
There is sometimes a sense of “the organ is a piano with bass pedals” approach, but of course, this is not true. The organ is very different from the piano, getting the LH to drop the lowest note for the pedals feels very strange at first – “from LH pinky to pedals!”
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 later on. If you can’t play hymns with pedals, the organ music of Bach (with pedals) will be far too difficult anyway.
The 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 work naturally 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.
Two Hands – Two Feet – One Chord!
There is of course pedal technique to be learned, but 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 pedals/feet involved with the hands.
As soon as the pedal notes become part of the same mental thought, playing hymns becomes much easier. However, the ability to play the pedals so there are no physical limitation is very important.
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.
Playing Scales On The Pedals
Here is a video by Vidas Pinkevicius on how to play the scale of D major on the pedalboard using the heel and toe technique.
Scale passages on the pedalboard are played more often in linear contrapuntal style organ music and an essential part of organ technique.
Being able to find your way around the bass pedals without looking is an obvious advantage!
Just Play The Pedals As Often As Possible!
Perhaps the most important thing, when you first begin, is to play the pedals regularly. Practising in your local church on a cold dark evening isn’t much fun, but playing simple pieces and exercises, without runnning before you can walk will help.
Being able to play the pedals as naturally as the piano is important – don’t play music that is too hard too soon!
When You Don’t Have Pedals On Which To Practise
There are ways to force the brain into thinking of the pedals notes as you play the manuals.
It won’t make you a great pedal player but it can help speed up your progress.
See Church Organ Pedal Breakthrough! simple exercises and tips for good steady progress incorporating the pedals.
More information about pedal playing and making the transition from piano to church organ can be found at the Reluctant Organist.