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David Drinkell

Awkward Organs

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Prompted by the remarks on the Oxbridge thread about a lethal finial, I am wondering about examples of instruments with features that make them awkward to approach or play.

 

I remember Bromley Parish Church in Kent (geographically if not administratively speaking) having a very poky console area for someone who is just under six feet tall.

 

At the Fenland church of Stuntney, Cambridgeshire, there is a very small one manual Miller (Cambridge) organ of about 1880. When playing I could rest my forehead on the impost and there was only just room on the music desk for an organ copy of Hymns Ancient & Modern, Standard Version, which is ten inches high.

 

After eight years, I still occasionally bang my knee on the edge of the (Casavant) console at St. John's Cathedral, Newfoundland when jumping off quickly, e.g. Play Howells Coll Reg Agnus Dei, bang knee while going to conduct motet, try not to swear loudly, return to organ, play communion hymn, Howells Gloria, last hymn and Vierne Carillon (Big Chief Thunderfoot's War-Dance), cursing like mad. It's a tough life sometimes.....

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Prompted by the remarks on the Oxbridge thread about a lethal finial, I am wondering about examples of instruments with features that make them awkward to approach or play.

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Most of us know of some awkward instruments where the circumstances sometimes have meant that there were few better options. but some are just plain daft. I remember one village organ in a lovely west gallery position...well it was in the arch really with the organist sitting on the north side, back against the stone wall. The ladder to console level (9' up) stopped at the pedalboard and you levered yourself onto the stool from there. The organist I remembered played there into her late 70's and didn't find the precarious way to get on and off the stool daunting. Trying to play as I grew up was difficult but returning to play one sunday aged 18 I found that I had grown and my elbows were wedged against the tower wall to play on the great organ.

Being tall (6'6") makes for some interesting moments, like cramp in the middle of a Tu es Petrus at St Martin in the Bullring due to the curtain rail stopping any leaning back! Knee bruises on certain make of console because the wood under the choir manual is too low preventing any possibility of reaching the swell pedals and there's more.

But hang on a minute this will probably not be awkward organs but more awkward organist? :lol:

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St Giles Rowley Regis - north side of the chancel, facing northwards with your back resting against the back of the choir stalls. Only, there's kind of a stone ledge - maybe a plinth that the stalls rest on? - just behind the bench, and the back legs of the bench rest on this, with the front legs at ground level.

 

In other words, the back legs of the organ bench are 8" shorter than the front, which is fine unless you

 

1) are visiting for the first time and

2) like playing with the bench close in to the console, and so you

3) move the bench forwards, so that the back legs slide off the ledge altogether

 

 

Abiding memory of St Martins in the Bullring is that you have think about 4 moves ahead in order to get yourself onto the bench and the console doors open without becoming trapped

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Prompted by the remarks on the Oxbridge thread about a lethal finial, I am wondering about examples of instruments with features that make them awkward to approach or play.

 

I remember Bromley Parish Church in Kent (geographically if not administratively speaking) having a very poky console area for someone who is just under six feet tall.

 

At the Fenland church of Stuntney, Cambridgeshire, there is a very small one manual Miller (Cambridge) organ of about 1880. When playing I could rest my forehead on the impost and there was only just room on the music desk for an organ copy of Hymns Ancient & Modern, Standard Version, which is ten inches high.

 

After eight years, I still occasionally bang my knee on the edge of the (Casavant) console at St. John's Cathedral, Newfoundland when jumping off quickly, e.g. Play Howells Coll Reg Agnus Dei, bang knee while going to conduct motet, try not to swear loudly, return to organ, play communion hymn, Howells Gloria, last hymn and Vierne Carillon (Big Chief Thunderfoot's War-Dance), cursing like mad. It's a tough life sometimes.....

 

Allhallows Twickenham has to be up there with the 'dangerous' category! The famous Harris/Spurden Rutt instrument (sadly in need of major TLC) is reached by means of a very tight iron spiral stair, on which all attempts to ascend or descend quickly would place the player in grave peril!

 

CP

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Any trigger swell pedal that covers the top parts of the pedalboard... A pain in the backside!

 

 

There could probably be a separate thread on the iniquities of certain swell pedals, and not just triggers either. Balanced pedals that don't, balanced pedals that cause your heel to depress a sharp when closing, swell pedals that disappear into the bowels of the console when the pivotal bolt comes adrift, swell pedals that catch the pedal rollerboard and cause notes to sound when open, pedals that are in holes too small for big feet.....

 

Swell pedals on electronic instruments that make you wonder if you've switched on when closed, or if Armageddon has come when open, and which are so sensitive that you can't get your foot on them without a crescendo.

 

Coalisland Parish Church in Northern Ireland has a swell pedal which closes the box when the toe depresses the top half and opens it when the heel depresses the bottom half.

 

There are three four-manual Casavants here in St. John's, Newfoundland. At the Cathedral, the swell pedals go Solo/Choir/Swell, at the Basilica Solo/Swell/Choir, and at Cochrane Street United Church Choir/Solo/Swell. Daft, or what?

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Knee bruises on certain make of console because the wood under the choir manual is too low preventing any possibility of reaching the swell pedals

The Rushworth & Dreaper at St Andrew's, Plymouth, which dates from 1957 when the church was reconstructed after the blitz, suffers from this. I can just get to them with the tops of my thighs rubbing the wood and I'm only 5'11".

 

At least the other major design fault was put right. When the console was delivered the assistant organist discovered that the stop jambs were too far away from the manuals for comfort. He duly complained to the vicar that "it would take a gorilla to play the organ!" The vicar promptly advised him to advertise for one. R&D apparently took some persuading to make the necessary alterations, but they eventually did so.

 

Originally the console was placed by the choir stalls, but the architect threw a wobbly at this unsightly blemish, so the console was tucked away in the south transept of an already rather wide church, the pipes being divided between two cases either side of the east end of the nave. Unfortunately the north case containing the Great and Swell was about 50' away and by all accounts coping with the time lag defeated quite a few of the great and good when they came to give recitals. Lucian Nethsinga summed it up by remarking that "You play with the Tuba in one ear and the rest of the organ in the next village", while Sir William McKie despaired, "I constantly tell my students that they must listen to what they are playing. Now, for the first time in my life I've got to avoid listening to myself". In 1993 the console was put on wheels and now mostly resides discreetly behind a pillar just in front of the south case, except for recitals when it is wheeled out into the middle of the church.

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http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi...ec_index=D02032

 

This is pretty awful - I'll get some photos up onto the NPOR soon. I'm still trying to find out who restored this, because the new console that was tacked onto the old case was so badly designed. I'm only 5' 10", yet I could only just fit my legs under the console to play the pedals, and the swell pedal I could just about reach with my big toe! The music desk was placed only three inches above the swell manual, for no obvious reason, and the base of the music desk is only about an inch deep. The wooden 'floor' below the pedalboard does not connect to the base of the choir stalls behind, leaving a gap of a few centimetres where the back feet of the organ bench can fall into, making even the elementary pedalling in hymn-playing fraught with danger!

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The Clifton Cathedral organ, at which you felt like you were going to go over backwards into the abyss. Its probably safer now......

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SS Nicholas & Peter ad Vinclua, Curdworth in the Diocese of Birmingham.

 

The organ and console are in a rood loft above the chancel arch. You reach them via a, none too safe, ladder from the nave of the church. Sitting at the console there used to be only a wooden rail between your back and the nave floor, some twenty feet below.

 

I don't have many bad dreams - but the nights I do usually involve the one time I played at Curdworth.

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Its a bit of an assault course up to the Marcussen in St Mary's, Nottingham. A neo-baroque organ with no pistons is somewhat awkward when accompanying some of the Anglican choral repertoire too...nice if you're playing Bach though!

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Its a bit of an assault course up to the Marcussen in St Mary's, Nottingham. A neo-baroque organ with no pistons is somewhat awkward when accompanying some of the Anglican choral repertoire too...nice if you're playing Bach though!

 

I banged my head a few years ago on the low stone arch leading to the console. Blood everywhere and mild concussion - and little recollection of what it was like to play.

 

JS

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I banged my head a few years ago on the low stone arch leading to the console. Blood everywhere and mild concussion - and little recollection of what it was like to play.

 

JS

Many years ago I, too, hit my head on the same stone arch, the flow of blood being too excessive to play without serious damage to the manuals and I am only 5ft 6ins!

Martin Owen

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Its a bit of an assault course up to the Marcussen in St Mary's, Nottingham. A neo-baroque organ with no pistons is somewhat awkward when accompanying some of the Anglican choral repertoire too...nice if you're playing Bach though!

 

Off topic - but maybe not - I have often wondered how things work here with a relatively small organ in a very large church - there is the thought of a single note on a quiet 8' having the presence of something quite big elsewhere etc. What happens with a full congregation and if they are doing Howells etc.? (It would be nice to go and hear - we used to live nearer - but are unlikely to get there in the forseeable future.)

 

A

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Off topic - but maybe not - I have often wondered how things work here with a relatively small organ in a very large church - there is the thought of a single note on a quiet 8' having the presence of something quite big elsewhere etc. What happens with a full congregation and if they are doing Howells etc.? (It would be nice to go and hear - we used to live nearer - but are unlikely to get there in the forseeable future.)

 

A

 

Spec for reference: http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi...ec_index=N08469

 

As with many major institutions, there are two aspects to the organ's use - choral services in the choir and big services in the nave.

 

For the former, there aren't really any issues in terms of projection - the sound is travelling round a corner (with the console facing the south aisle of the nave next to the screen) but there is enough to accompany. Its not a balance - you will hear predominantly choir and not much organ (especially with the sheer volume of sound St Mary's choir can create in the louder moments) so if you enjoy hearing the organ and choir balanced well and both loud then it won't be for you. Co-ordination isn't always easy - there is a video at the console but the organ does need to be that bit ahead of the choir for it to sync in.

 

For services in the nave, it isn't as bad as one might expect, although I've never sat at the back of the nave when it's been full (which is about 700) and tried to listen (in fact, I don't think I've been in when the nave has been full). To try to compensate for the small size of the organ they made the mixtures quite strong in order to try and fill the church - with the result that the Scharf on the swell (or its equivalent, anyway) with the box open is absolutely piercing from the console and almost obliterates everything else. It will give the player a headache if you use it a lot. The Great mixture is much less forceful, so on the occasions I've accompanied there I've usually added that first (which on a standard English organ is not what I'd expect to be doing). I wouldn't say that there is a sense of a big 8' or something like that having a major presence to fill the building though.

 

I'm guessing the organ was installed in the days before they did/do the variety of choral repertoire they do now (with three sung services a week - two on a Sunday and a Wednesday evensong). I know there are certain things that are simply impractical given the organ, although part of that is probably down to the lack of registration aids, as all the stop pulling is by hand. I find most of all that it cries out for some good English reeds - the baroque ones on there simply don't sit right (I find the manual ones a bit ugly, although the pedal reeds are good for Bach etc.) and you can't create that lovely full swell sound that is so characteristic of much English choral music. A look at the music list will reveal a full range of Howells, Elgar, Parry, Stanford, Dyson etc as well as masses by Vierne and Widor - more of a case of getting by than of it excelling I guess. Likewise with voluntaries - I've heard English and French stuff on there too - it is manageable - but not perhaps what you would call totally successful.

 

There is much to be commend it as an instrument - it is visually pleasing (to my eye at least), the visible swell shutters on the front are a nice touch and it has its place for the baroque repertoire for which this sort of instrument was intended. It just doesn't quite fit the setting (it's not in a great place to fill the nave, never mind the size) and isn't helpful for the sort of things that are demanded of it. I would still commend visiting St Mary's though, to hear the excellent choir and enjoy the vast and magnificent building.

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Many years ago I, too, hit my head on the same stone arch, the flow of blood being too excessive to play without serious damage to the manuals and I am only 5ft 6ins!

Martin Owen

 

Not the organ's fault, but about twenty years ago I took six Belfast Cathedral choristers to sing with the choir at Worcester Cathedral for a week. I played for a number of services, including Sunday Evensong (Donald Hunt was away and they were between assistants). Minutes before the service, I caught my thumb in a bolt and it bled like a stuck pig. I got through the psalms without using it, but the setting was Stanford in A. At the end, the console looked like an abbatoir - blood over all four manuals as well as the stops. After the service, I asked the verger for a wet cloth, but what it really needed was a hose-down.

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Prompted by the remarks on the Oxbridge thread about a lethal finial, I am wondering about examples of instruments with features that make them awkward to approach or play.

 

I remember Bromley Parish Church in Kent (geographically if not administratively speaking) having a very poky console area for someone who is just under six feet tall.

 

At the Fenland church of Stuntney, Cambridgeshire, there is a very small one manual Miller (Cambridge) organ of about 1880. When playing I could rest my forehead on the impost and there was only just room on the music desk for an organ copy of Hymns Ancient & Modern, Standard Version, which is ten inches high.

 

After eight years, I still occasionally bang my knee on the edge of the (Casavant) console at St. John's Cathedral, Newfoundland when jumping off quickly, e.g. Play Howells Coll Reg Agnus Dei, bang knee while going to conduct motet, try not to swear loudly, return to organ, play communion hymn, Howells Gloria, last hymn and Vierne Carillon (Big Chief Thunderfoot's War-Dance), cursing like mad. It's a tough life sometimes.....

 

The organ at St. James Icklingham in Suffolk (builder - Bedwell I think) is awful to play and quite unrewarding soundwise. The manual to pedalboard distance is far too great and the pedalboard is too far back. This makes it quite uncomfortable to play regardless of one's height and if or not the blocks for the stall are in place.

 

John

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I believe the situation has improved at one particular village church in West Yorkshire, but I had the misfortune to play the organ for my cousin's wedding many years ago, when people still got married in churches.

 

Firstly, the organ console was situated in a dank pit of sorts, (presumably causing the regular organist to scrape the mould from his skin after practise sessions). I slipped on the way down and sprained my ankle quite badly on the edge of the pedal-board. Fortunately, once the agony subsided a little, I realised that it was my right ankle, and I could play "cinema fashion" for the wedding, with just my left-foot.

 

This dreadful instrument had a hitch-down swell, and getting a swollen ankle up there was painful but not impossible.

 

The "Fanfare" was an absolute travesty when my cousin arrived, and even she burst out laughing at the back of the church. Someone might have warned me that the pipes of the Swell Cornopean were collapsing upon themselves, and leaning drunkenly to one side. No-one had tuned it for years; there being no point, as only about half the notes worked.

 

Some of the pneumatic coupling worked, other notes took their time and a few notes had gone AWOL. There were huge stops which were actually a health and safety issue for anyone wanting to turn the pages. I often wonder if anyone was blinded by them when an organist pressed the combination pistons, or at the very least, stunned momentarily.

 

The music desk was held on with Gaffatape, and anything heavier than Ancient & Modern was taking a risk.

 

The console was frightfully draughty: I suspect from leaking touch-boxes and bellows, but the organist had a heater, which was propped up between the pedal board and the side of the console, with a battered old cable which trailed over a choir-stall to somewhere or other.

 

After attempting to play what was the most unmusical instrument I had ever touched, and suffered a painful injury to boot, at least we still have something to laugh about at family gatherings.

 

My cousin's opening line is always, "Have you forgiven us yet?" :angry:

 

MM

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... After eight years, I still occasionally bang my knee on the edge of the (Casavant) console at St. John's Cathedral, Newfoundland when jumping off quickly, e.g. Play Howells Coll Reg Agnus Dei, bang knee while going to conduct motet, try not to swear loudly, return to organ, play communion hymn, Howells Gloria, last hymn and Vierne Carillon (Big Chief Thunderfoot's War-Dance), cursing like mad. It's a tough life sometimes..... ...

 

Gloucester Cathedral. There is a structural piece of timber below the key bench on the treble end and, in getting on and off the bench, I frequently banged my knee (as did DJB on a few occasions).

 

I also dislike the square piston-heads, not simply for aesthetic reasons, but because, if one stabbed at them quickly (particularly if there was no time to look at them directly), the corner of a piston under a thumbnail could be a little painful.

 

 

I did once agree to play Transports de Joie on this instrument:

 

http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi...ec_index=N15066

 

In my defence, I was new to the area at the time, and trusted the judgement of the person who hired me for the concert (himself a good player and a local conductor of a semi-professional chorus of some reknown).

 

When I arrived, I spent about thirty seconds staring in disbelief at the console - followed by another two minutes praying fervently that the Second Coming was, in fact, imminent.

 

Everything about it was awkward. The console dimensions, stop control, specification. Still I simply had to go through with it. Obviously, the Messiaen was little better than a caricature - even if it was largely accurate.

 

Subsequently, I always ask about the instrument on which I am to play - even before enquiring about a fee.

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On the subject of the Gloucester console - can anyone tell me why in pictures at least it looks as if an extra key cheek has been added at the treble end?

 

A

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On the subject of the Gloucester console - can anyone tell me why in pictures at least it looks as if an extra key cheek has been added at the treble end?

 

A

 

I think in 1971 they wanted to prepare for the eventuality of taking it up to C4.

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