Learn To Play Church Organ
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.
Learning to play the church organ without any prior piano or keyboard experience would be a long task. However, if that’s you, and your situation, don’t be put off because there are a few fast-track methods that can get you up and running with the minimum knowledge.
Learning The Organ Bass Pedals
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those coming from the piano to the church organ is 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 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 a lot of attention is placed on technique (important though it is) and not enough thought given to what is going on in the student’s mind and how he or she can make natural connections between hands and feet, in a more harmonic way.
Overloading the brain with difficult pieces won’t help very much – it becomes exhausting. However, learning to use the hands and feet together by playing simple exercises and pieces will help a lot!
For example, if hymn music is read as a series of random notes – each one to be read individually, then the music is much harder to sight-read than if the notes are seen in groups of chords.
Just as groups of letters make words, groups of notes make chords.
It’s the same with the hands and feet. If you see a vertical group of notes, try reading them from the bottom up.
A chord on the organ is played with a foot, a left and and a right hand – not two hands with a foot added as an afterthought.
This helps improve the recognition and the inclusion of the pedal notes, which helps to establish the RH, LH and pedals as three equal parts playing one chord.
It’s difficult trying to change the way we think as a pianist and begin to think like an organist!
However, the idea is to simplify the thought process where possible.
Sight Reading Hymn Music – Harmonic In Style
The student should try to see vertical blocks of notes and be able to recognize 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 us to process the information much more quickly and be able to read ahead more easily.
If there is one tip for good sight reading – it’s being able to read ahead!
Try starting with RH and pedals – think of the chord harmony as below.
A good reason for reading from the bottom note up, is because the feet will usually take longer to reach the next pedal note, than the fingers take to reach the next keys. In other words, the keys are closer than the pedals.
Try to think pedals first, rather than pedals stuck on the bottom of a piano part.
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 for example.
Recognizing scale and arpeggio movement, as harmony (where possible), enables a view of the big picture.
Seeing the big picture helps simplify the thought process.
Remember that the pedals also play scales and arpeggios – the ability to identify what’s going on, by good observation, will make music easier to sight read, remember and play.
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!”
Your feet now play the lowest notes!
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 most of their study time – working on playing hymns with pedals.
It would be wonderful to play Bach preludes and fugues but if you can’t play hymns with pedals, the organ music of Bach (with pedals) will be far too difficult anyway.
More About 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 learned, will make connections in the mind between the hand and feet. This will, in turn, make independence easier.
Try playing RH and Pedals – the advantage of the number system is that chords can be transferred into other keys.
Next step … RH, LH and pedals
Next step: as above but without the help of chord symbols – still think in chord harmony (reading the notes as chords) with your feet as the lowest notes!
Why is this a good exercise?
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 we consider the independence between our fingers when we 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, with the feet now playing the lowest notes.
Here’s another example of an easy exercise for getting the brain used to thinking in chords…
Holy, Holy, Holy (Nicaea) using just the RH and pedals.
Once you become familiar with the RH harmony and pedals, it is much easier to include the left hand part.
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, that has just a few chords, can also help get the pedals/feet involved with the hands, especially if you are struggling!
Father We Love You (by Donna Adkins).
Not exactly a Prelude and Fuge but you have to start somewhere. It is my view that it doesn’t matter how easy or difficult a piece is, it’s the sincerity with which it is played that counts!
As soon as the pedal notes become part of the same mental thought process, playing becomes much easier.
A little technique goes a long way…
Beginners tend to land heavily on the pedals and use excess movement, rather than resting their feet, relaxing the leg muscles and using their ankles to press down the pedal notes.
Being able to feel your way around the pedalboard with your feet, finding the gaps between Bb and C#, also Eb and F# is essential.
Also, being able to turn the lower body so that feet can reach down or up to the high pedal notes is important too.
Chord Minded Guitarists
It’s possible that guitarists have an advantage when learning to play hymns on the organ because they are usually “chord minded”.
As already mentioned above, 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 flying 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 (below) from the American Guild of Organists and Frederick Hohman explaining the two main types of pedalboard. Also, on how to play the scale of E major on the pedalboard using the legato, heel and toe technique.
Scale passages on the pedalboard are often played in the Baroque, contrapuntal style of 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!
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, when you first begin, will produce the best results.
Choose an easy hymn or chorus and prepare it (with pedals) for playing at a service as soon as possible.
There is no instant overnight solution, but gradual progress will be made with a little courage and perseverance. However – don’t play music that is too hard, too soon!
Playing easy music well is better than playing difficult music badly – for you and the congregation!
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 – even if you are at home on the piano.
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.