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I happened across some interesting articles by David Bridgeman-Sutton, including one on the history of pistons, a series on console playing aids, even the dual console Rothwell system installed at St. George's Chapel, Windsor in 1930.

 

There do seem to be competing aesthetics regarding console aids, as with everything else related to the organ. On one hand there are instruments with intra- and inter-manual couplers at 16, 8 and 4, unisons off, crescendo pedal (with multiple programmable settings), multiple tuttis (perhaps also programmable), heaping handfuls of divisional and general pistons, reversibles, transposers, sequencers, steppers, external MIDI boxen, and so on... I even saw a "Pedal to Great 8' coupler on one instrument in Pennsylvania which would make short work of any pedal etude. On the other hand some instruments are very 'straight'; the Mander in St. Ignatius Loyola might fit this description.

 

Is there a definable point at which console aids cease to improve an instrument and instead obfuscate its design and intended use? The answer surely depends on the type of action, the purpose of the instrument, style, and other factors, but all things being equal, are there some console aids you find superfluous or even counterproductive? For example, I won't say anything against the German Rollschweller which so inspired Reger and others, but I have very little use for the modern crescendo pedal. As far as I can tell, its sole purpose is to make organists scratch their heads in consternation, wondering why their registration sounds off, before finding the culprit.

 

Some console aids are even more dangerous: I expect

appreciation for his organ's transposition feature disappeared in the middle of the syllable "Ha-".

 

Justin

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Not allowing for complete ineptitude, there's something almost deliberate about this. Think about the location and type of control for a transposer. Why would you be touching it ?

 

AJS

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I’ve played some big consoles.....not just those welter-weight cathedral consoles in the UK, which are only modestly large. (I’ve never played Norwich, and I’ve only enjoyed about 10 minutes at Liverpool).

 

I’ve given recitals at St.Bride’s, Fleet Street (140 or so stops), Hull City Hall, (a tad larger) and played a few seriously big consoles in America.

 

I have never used a stepper, sequencer or midi in my life. I don’t feel either deprived or compromised musically, but then, I don’t play much English romantic music by and large. I can usually manage Reger without a flurry of helping hands; though elbows are often useful.

.

The nearest I’ve got have been programmable setters, which are such a good idea. They prevent wars breaking out, but still allow people to be simultaneously territorial and individualistic.

 

I always like the reply given by a famous Italian racing-driver, when someone asked him, “Do you like automatics?”

 

“If I want automatic, I buy washing machine.”

 

On the other hand, I like sub and super-octave inter-departmental couplers with EP actions, because that extends the tone palette; using a romantic instrument as “a temple of tone.”

 

I quite like cancellers, which can be anything from tab-bars to No.0 thumb-pistons, because they can make very rapid solo registers a possibility. That can be important on a modest instrument with, say, a good Great Tromba or Trumpet not duplicated elsewhere.

 

I’m afraid I am very conservative, and find thumb and toe-pistons adequate for the most part, even on very big consoles. Once I know what is on the pistons, (I write a list down in shorthand and pop it on the music-desk), I can manage, thank-you very much. I don’t recall too many problems with 250+ stops of Aeolian Skinner, apart from having to turn my head side-to-side a bit more than normal. (American consoles can be so wide!)

 

Never liked those “suitable bass” double-touch pistons. Very dangerous when you’re playing on Celestes and need to prepare full Great. American consoles are bad for that, and I much prefer the “Great & Pedal pistons coupled” option.

 

If Peter Conte can hand-register at Wanamaker’s, and Simon Gledhill can play a 350 stop-tab Wurlitzer console similarly, I just think all these gadget things are largely “boys toys” to be honest, like playing “Nintendo” games during the sermon.....not strictly in the spirit of things.

 

Call me a Luddite if you will; I don’t care.

 

MM

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Not allowing for complete ineptitude, there's something almost deliberate about this. Think about the location and type of control for a transposer. Why would you be touching it ?

 

AJS

 

==========================

 

 

If it's possible to walk into a Police Phonebox and end up in 2210, I reckon a transposer can do the same, or would that be "Bach to the future?"

 

:ph34r:

 

MM

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I suppose it's possible if the console was appallingly built and had enough flex in the key bench to cause the switch to contact (before you laugh, yes, I have known this happen), or the electrics took a quick trip into the ether and Handel came back stoned. A Bach remedy (google this if you're not familiar with it) would definitely be required.

 

AJS

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Is there a definable point at which console aids cease to improve an instrument and instead obfuscate its design and intended use? The answer surely depends on the type of action, the purpose of the instrument, style, and other factors, but all things being equal, are there some console aids you find superfluous or even counterproductive? For example, I won't say anything against the German Rollschweller which so inspired Reger and others, but I have very little use for the modern crescendo pedal. As far as I can tell, its sole purpose is to make organists scratch their heads in consternation, wondering why their registration sounds off, before finding the culprit.

 

 

Justin

 

I think you're pretty much answered your own question here: the style and nature of an organ leads the expectations of the console and its playing aids. So you'd expect your French Classical instrument to have mechanical stop action, an absence of octave couplers or registration aids and a certain console design and layout. Equally, you'd expect your 1950s 4 manual H&H to have a plethora of pistons on a very different design of console and your 1890s Sauer to have a rollschweller and free combination system.

 

The converse is also true - arriving at a console of an unknown organ, an experienced organist can glean a lot about the nature of the organ from the console and set expectations and playing habits accordingly. When the console has been replaced at a rebuild, an important piece of information has been lost to the musician.

 

Where there is a problem is when the style of the console isn't consonant with the style of the organ. I find this is most common on organs that have been rebuilt and altered several times so that the organ has strayed away from its roots - and frequently a new console has been provided as a cornerstone for a daring scheme of expansion and "improvement". It is on these types of organ that I find console aids are least satisfactory and less useful.

 

Of course, we can argue about the minutae of whether a General Crescendo pedal is less useful than a Rollschweller but the overarching principle ought to be whether the registration aid is appropriate for the style of instrument.

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A few weeks after encountering a "Swell Unison Off" stop on an organ which has no octave or sub octave couplers, I'm still scratching my head as to a use for it... :ph34r:

 

 

The organ was of the bread-cooking variety I hasten to add... :blink:

 

 

It did have a very useful switch on the side marked 'off'. (Unfortunately that did have its usual partner!)

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A few weeks after encountering a "Swell Unison Off" stop on an organ which has no octave or sub octave couplers, I'm still scratching my head as to a use for it... :ph34r:

 

 

The organ was of the bread-cooking variety I hasten to add... :blink:

 

 

It did have a very useful switch on the side marked 'off'. (Unfortunately that did have its usual partner!)

Paul it sends a signal to the pub ordering a red wine!!!!!

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Not allowing for complete ineptitude, there's something almost deliberate about this. Think about the location and type of control for a transposer. Why would you be touching it ?

 

AJS

 

Is it possible that the transposer state is stored by the capture system on that instrument? Seems daft but I've encountered worse, especially on toasters. Press one piston and suddenly you've switched from a Silbermann registration in sixth-comma meantone to an equal-tempered Cavaillé-Coll registration in a different key: Now that's progress!

 

I have no quarrel with sensible registration aids or the odd electronic 32' flue, but some consoles make the organist less a musician than a technician. For example, I once played the GTB Elegy on an instrument with some external MIDI stops, including a reasonable solo Cello. At first it sounded just fine, but sometimes the Cello would be unaccountably loud, other times practically inaudible. After much frustration, I found that while the Cello was not directly under expression, the MIDI device was adjusting some internal volume setting periodically based on the position of the Swell shoe. In order to cope with it I had to couple the Cello to the Swell, adjust the Swell shades, wait for a bit, then uncouple and recouple it to the Great. All for one MIDI stop!

 

Sadly, it seems to be de rigeur in my country to finish organ renovations by adding digital stops, sometimes entire digital divisions, making existing ranks available at new pitches, if necessary with digital extension, making stops from each division available on all the others and nearly everything separately available on the pedal, and adding new sub- and super-octave couplers where none existed. I can think of one nice Skinner of about fifty ranks which was "improved" in this fashion: Amongst other depredations, the Choir Gemshorn was extended to 16', 8', 4', 2 2/3', 2', 1 3/5' and 1'; no less than five digital 32' stops were added to the Pedal and extended up through 4'; new digital orchestral reeds were added to the Great, Choir and Antiphonal divisions, and the console was increased to four manuals. The instrument is absolutely unrecognizable and retains none of its former character.

 

By comparison, a smaller church nearby has an Aeolian-Skinner of less than thirty ranks which was designed and built under the supervision of G. Donald Harrison. Apart from cleaning and releathering it has remained almost unchanged, and its warmth and charm are immediately apparent. The organ has no artifice; It pretends to be nothing more than it is, which is lovely. I would rather spend my days at that instrument, or one

(thanks Pierre!), than an organ which has been tarted up by the "more is better" crowd.

 

Sorry for the rant, but it is terribly depressing to see so many good instruments cheapened by unsympathetic additions. Maybe the current economic downturn will do us some good!

 

Justin

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... On the other hand, I like sub and super-octave inter-departmental couplers with EP actions, because that extends the tone palette; using a romantic instrument as “a temple of tone.”

 

I quite like cancellers, which can be anything from tab-bars to No.0 thumb-pistons, because they can make very rapid solo registers a possibility. That can be important on a modest instrument with, say, a good Great Tromba or Trumpet not duplicated elsewhere. ...

 

 

MM

 

I also like sub octave and octave couplers - but I am not particularly keen on the Willis idea (or did HW III get it from America?) of having separate sub octave and octave couplers with each inter-clavier coupler, particularly when they appear as rocking tablets below the music desk. For a start, this is impractical - it takes much longer to locate each coupler. Neither do I like the idea (occasionally used on larger organs by Hill) of grouping all of the unison couplers on one jamb - I much prefer couplers grouped with the departments they augment, as realised on most (if not all) consoles produced by Harrison & Harrison.

 

I must admit that I do not like cancellers - either the Willis style '0' pistons or the H&H style 'Cancel' pistons (to each department). On larger instruments, they either alter the spacing of the reversible clavier to pedal pistons, or they place the '8' piston too far to the treble.

 

However, I have noticed an occasional problem with certain transfer couplers (which is usually the cheapest method of making G.O. reeds available on another clavier); depending on how the transfer is wired, there can be a split second when the reeds sound on their own clavier, before they are transferred to another. On one onstrument, it was necessary to set up a general piston first, which drew the transfer, then either to set a further general piston to draw the G.O. reeds - or, if available, to press the 'Great Reeds on Choir' piston.

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Me neither, after pressing '0' instead of Gt/Ped.

Indeed - the propensity for mistakes is just too high; this piston is almost always sited where one would expect to find the relevant clavier to pedal reversible piston.

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Sadly, it seems to be de rigeur in my country to finish organ renovations by adding digital stops, sometimes entire digital divisions, making existing ranks available at new pitches, if necessary with digital extension, making stops from each division available on all the others and nearly everything separately available on the pedal, and adding new sub- and super-octave couplers where none existed. I can think of one nice Skinner of about fifty ranks which was "improved" in this fashion: Amongst other depredations, the Choir Gemshorn was extended to 16', 8', 4', 2 2/3', 2', 1 3/5' and 1'; no less than five digital 32' stops were added to the Pedal and extended up through 4'; new digital orchestral reeds were added to the Great, Choir and Antiphonal divisions, and the console was increased to four manuals. The instrument is absolutely unrecognizable and retains none of its former character.

The really sad thing is that there are plenty of organists who fondly imagine this sort of travesty to be artistic.

 

I also like sub octave and octave couplers - but I am not particularly keen on the Willis idea (or did HW III get it from America?) of having separate sub octave and octave couplers with each inter-clavier coupler, particularly when they appear as rocking tablets below the music desk. For a start, this is impractical - it takes much longer to locate each coupler. Neither do I like the idea (occasionally used on larger organs by Hill) of grouping all of the unison couplers on one jamb - I much prefer couplers grouped with the departments they augment, as realised on most (if not all) consoles produced by Harrison & Harrison.

 

I must admit that I do not like cancellers - either the Willis style '0' pistons or the H&H style 'Cancel' pistons (to each department). On larger instruments, they either alter the spacing of the reversible clavier to pedal pistons, or they place the '8' piston too far to the treble.

I totally agree.

 

Indeed - the propensity for mistakes is just too high; this piston is almost always sited where one would expect to find the relevant clavier to pedal reversible piston.

Or just to the right of the last divisional thumb piston. Doh! :blink:

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Pcnd5584 makes an interesting point about the placement of couplers; I agree with his suggestion that they should be placed with the department which they augment. I have my own special bee which buzzes through my capacious bonnet in respect of general pistons. Is there anyone who has thoughts on where they should, ideally, be placed? My own feeling is that they should be found, wherever possible, on the left of the keyboards - Chichester Cathedral organ being an admirable example.

 

Where this is not practicable, placing them in the centre, above the top keyboard works well enough; Willis, among others, seems to adopt this approach. However, I do find general pistons on the right very awkward to manage and I wonder whether there is anyone out there who can convince me that this is a good idea.

 

I accept that for recital work it may not matter all that much, but in service accompaniment the left hand is almost always more available than the right. They were placed on the right of the solo keyslip on the old console at Worcester and I found the operation of them to be nothing short of a major nuisance; it didn’t help that there were only six! The new console has them over manual 4, a la Willis; I imagine that this is more comfortable than before, but I can’t speak from practical experience as I have never played the thing. I really must try and make every effort to effect an introduction to the Master of the Choristers. . . .

 

David Harrison

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General crescendo pedals I find are a mixed blessing. The first one I encountered was on the Tambourini (I think) in the chapel of the Venerable English College in Rome. It was enormous fun for this then 19-year-old student to play about with it, and as I was there on holiday from my own college in Spain I didn't have to play for liturgies.

 

There is one on the organ in St David's Hall in Cardiff. I played it for a Mass a couple of years back and as I had only half an hour on the instrument before the Mass, and had not time to set pistons, I did find it quite useful. It has a lip to the left side so that if you are opening the swell there is little danger of your foot accidentally engaging the general crescendo too.

 

Somebody - possibly Gordon Reynolds - wrote an hilarious account of a vicar who knew nothing about the organ but thought he did. It seems that the outgoing organist had requested - and got - a "Great to Pedal Pistons combined" and the vicar, interviewing a potential new organist, said how much it had improved the organ's tone - "wonderful to hear those Great Pistons thumping away" or something.

 

Loved the Halleluia Chorus by the way! Reminds me of that famous account of the opening passage of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathushtra when it would seem that the organ was tuned - why nobody knows - a semitone above concert pitch, which nobody had bothered to check on before the concert....

 

Peter

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Guest Patrick Coleman

The crescendo pedal on the VEC Tamburini is a vile and unnecessary creation on an organ of only ten ranks plus pedal (if I remember correctly). The sounds it draws from the organ are vague and muddy, and no reflection of the fine variety of sound this instrument can produce.

 

It should have been disconnected... :blink:

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The crescendo pedal on the VEC Tamburini is a vile and unnecessary creation on an organ of only ten ranks plus pedal (if I remember correctly). The sounds it draws from the organ are vague and muddy, and no reflection of the fine variety of sound this instrument can produce.

 

It should have been disconnected... :blink:

 

 

I agree, Patrick - It fooled me when I played for a liturgy there a couple of years ago!

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Pcnd5584 makes an interesting point about the placement of couplers; I agree with his suggestion that they should be placed with the department which th

 

My preference is for the inter-manual & pedal couplers to be placed on the left jamb, along with the swell & pedal departments., as an earlier contributer pointed out, it is more likely that the left hand can be freed to select stops. If the swell to great, choir to great & solo to great couplers are placed under the great stops it is quite a stretch for the left hand, particularly if like me, you are not blessed with long arms! There is also the question of balance, if a 4 manual console has the couplers placed with the relevant department then it is likely that the great department jamb is going to be much larger than any other department, perhaps not a problem with an 'attached' console but certainly a consideration where console height is concerned. My personal preference is for the swell, pedal & couplers on the left jamb & great, choir & solo on the right,- perhaps this is because my own church console has this arrangement & I have got used to it.

 

As for the placement of general thumb pistons,- before our recent console rebuild the generals were all on the left,- 4 under the solo key slip & 4 under the swell. As we were having new keyboards the opportunity was taken to review the position of these & I decided to have the 4 under the swell slip placed instead under the far right of the solo manual. I now regret that decision as it is a long stretch to No.8, with a 61 note compass! I tend to use only 1 - 4 & then change channels, it's less hassle!

 

Fortunately this console is not fitted with a stepper/sequencer toe piston, however I consider the worst place to fit one is where the great to pedal toe piston is usually found and I speak from experience, unfortunately! Is there some way in which these things can be temporarily disabled? I suppose one solution is not to use any generals & set every one to alternately pull & push the great to pedal!!

 

No mention has been made yet of the order the swell pedals are placed, my own preference is for the swell to be in the middle if there are 3 swell boxes or on the right if there are two, but I have met every permutation possible! What do other members think?

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No mention has been made yet of the order the swell pedals are placed, my own preference is for the swell to be in the middle if there are 3 swell boxes or on the right if there are two, but I have met every permutation possible! What do other members think?

I think St Andrew's, Plymouth has the ideal solution with nine switches (three for each swell pedal) so that you can assign the enclosed departments to whichever pedals you wish.

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As for the placement of general thumb pistons,- before our recent console rebuild the generals were all on the left,- 4 under the solo key slip & 4 under the swell. As we were having new keyboards the opportunity was taken to review the position of these & I decided to have the 4 under the swell slip placed instead under the far right of the solo manual. I now regret that decision as it is a long stretch to No.8, with a 61 note compass! I tend to use only 1 - 4 & then change channels, it's less hassle!

 

Fortunately this console is not fitted with a stepper/sequencer toe piston, however I consider the worst place to fit one is where the great to pedal toe piston is usually found and I speak from experience, unfortunately! Is there some way in which these things can be temporarily disabled? I suppose one solution is not to use any generals & set every one to alternately pull & push the great to pedal!!

 

No mention has been made yet of the order the swell pedals are placed, my own preference is for the swell to be in the middle if there are 3 swell boxes or on the right if there are two, but I have met every permutation possible! What do other members think?

 

Thanks for the post - very interesting and especially useful experience about general pistons at the treble end of the keyboards.

 

I prefer the swell pedal to be directly above middle e & f of the pedal board and not mounted too high. That way, you can always find the swell pedal very easily and navigate left and right as needed until they become familiar. I prefer Solo to the right, choir to the left of this (and the GC to the extreme right) but placement of the main swell pedal is very important. I've seen several modern organs where the swell pedal is hovering uncomfortably highly over middle A# - something I found peverse and difficult to use. Thankfully none of these swell pedals have ever actually been connected to an effective swell box so it didn't really matter if you never touched the swell pedal...

 

I've seen a few organs where you can assign what box you like to what pedal, which is handy if you want one pedal to control several enclosures, which I've occasionally found to be useful luxury...

 

I like the thumb pistons on the latest H&Hs. These buttons are larger than normal and are slightly convex (they bulge outwards slightly). I like these pistons because

i) being bigger they're easier to hit and read

ii) being convex, they're easier and more comfortable to hit at an angle and

iii) being convex there's no edge to them so there's no edge if you hit them at an uncomfortable angle.

 

I can't understand the current fashion for smaller pistons and personally, I don't like the current fashion for buttons where the shank of the piston is just as wide as the head - to my eyes they look too much like any normal button on your TV, front door bell or toaster - but this is just a personal thing.

 

On toe pistons, I much prefer those that have a machined finished to them (like concentric rings) rather than smooth, shiny and slippery polished metal toe studs. I think the machined finished is easier and more reliable to hit without your foot sliding off. It also ages better - shiny toe pistons don't look so great after 15 years of being kicked about while machined pistons pick up a bit of a patina. Again, the bigger the better...

 

Personally, I prefer toe pistons to be in a single row for departmentals or generals, rather than a criss-cross pattern that are often set too close together (as many electronic organs' pistons are).

 

Getting the angle of the toe piston sweeps is important too - those pistons that are just screwed onto the front edge of the pedal board are pretty horrible to use, but if the toe piston sweeps are angled too vertically, the toe studs uncomfortable and impractical to use - it's more of a horizontal movement to kick the pistons with the tip of your toe (which is pretty uncomfortable - the sensation is a bit like stubbing your toe) and the highest row of pistons is almost always too high so the poor organist has to lift his entire leg to hit them - again, not very friendly at all. Unfortunately, too many builders are building them like this today and this practical point really needs to be taken on board. Again, I've found H&H are usually the best for getting these ergonomic design features just right (and I'm trying hard not to appear as if I have a favourite)...

 

I've come across one or two organs that get electric pedal levers just right - pcnd knows one example - and I know one other organ with pnematic toe levers that still works perfectly after 103 years that are surprisingly easy and comfortable to use.

 

What are people's preferances for the location of the stepper buttons (+ and -)?

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I prefer the minimum amount of clutter possible. Cheapness of computing systems and electrical components makes it easy and attractive to add lots of pistons, switches etc. For normal service accompaniment, divisionals, and the occasional general do the job just fine, along with hand registration. Some pieces though, are very hard to play without a good set of general pistons; smoother and with fewer compromises. I was taught on one instrument that only had reversibles to the couplers, and have played on many other instruments with a minimum of registration aids, and so have become adept at hand registration, and the subtlety that it can bring.

 

I am perfectly happy with the old ISOB console layout in terms of position of Swell pedals, pistons etc. I play an organ now with 6 divisionals and 8 generals, and find that 1-4 over 5-8 in the bass key slips is fine. Courtesy of the previous organist I also have 1-4 over 5-8 in the treble. I hardly ever use them, although there have been times with both hands near the top of the keyboard that they have been essential. I have a preference for vertical kneeboards and toe levers. They are much nicer for maintenance, and I suppose I just like the look and feel of them. My preference for thumb pistons is the P&S St Chad type, and I admit to really disliking the silly little buttons provided by some continental builders, and the horrid little short draw drawstop solenoids, however reliable they may be. The nicest feel to me is a t/pn Harrison drawstop. One day, all solenoids will feel as good as this.

 

AJS

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  • 3 weeks later...
Indeed - the propensity for mistakes is just too high; this piston is almost always sited where one would expect to find the relevant clavier to pedal reversible piston.

 

Or just to the right of the last divisional thumb piston. Doh! :o

 

Where mine are. Sudden deafening silence in the Psalm this morning instead of Full Swell... :angry:

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Having played for evensong in Hereford yesterday so many of the details in this thread seem strikingly relevant. I have said before, and stand by the fact, that I find the Willis III console in Hereford very comfortable and always feel at home there very quickly. Having said that I do agree that the plethora of rocker tab couplers in a single horizontal row beneath the music desk is not the most user friendly feature. I can never find the coupler that I want (despite the fact that the more usual ones are coloured red) and tend to use the reversible thumb pistons rather than trying to track down the rocker tabs. I've also been caught out by the general crescendo pedal on this instrument before now, but it does have an on/off switch which I now know always to check on arrival. In the past I've been dubious as to the value of the 0 pistons but yesterday I found the 0 piston on the great quite useful as at times it was easier to press this piston and keep playing on the great clavier rather than switching to the swell clavier and knocking off great-pedal.

 

Stepper systems I love for service accompaniment. Yes we managed without them in the past, but that doesnt change the fact that we can manage better with them now. I tend to mix and match, and use individual departmental thumb pistons where appropriate and use the stepper toe piston for multi-division changes, or for special registrations not available on the departmentals, or for those occasions when both hands are busy but the right foot is free.

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