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Getting to know an unfamiliar instrument


Philip

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A purely hypothetical question here - and I'm hoping as always to draw on the experiences of members who have played much more extensively and on many more instruments than myself.

 

You turn up in an English cathedral with a visiting choir to play for an Evensong (for example). You have never played the organ before, although you know the music well, and the repertoire is a relatively substantial setting requiring numerous registration changes (a Stanford, Dyson or Howells, perhaps). You haven't had time to arrange a visit beforehand to practice or familiarise with the instrument, so you arrive with about half an hour to spare before the choir are due to rehearse. How do you spend that half-hour getting to know the instrument? Is it just a matter of looking at the pre-set registrations used by the incumbent organists and pushing some pistons or is there a more methodical way?

 

On the occasions I've been presented with an unfamiliar instrument (not in a Cathedral, I hasten to add) I've tended to dive straight in but is there a better way?

 

I suppose the question could equally well apply to giving recitals too.

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OK, I'll dive straight in myself. I've done this in a number of cathedrals and churches over the last ten years, usually with about twenty minutes of slightly self-conscious preparation while visitors potter around. I have a cursory look at what's set on the divisionals on the general purpose channel (or a standard accompaniment channel if the resident organist's thoughtful enough to leave a hint sheet on the music desk for visitors) then plunge in. Very often the divisionals do the trick, usually with a little judicious hand-registering in certain combinations. Some instruments seem to need more study - Gloucester is one that took quite a while to understand, for instance - and some seem to guide you along gently. I aim to get to the stage where, when the choir pitch up, I can work on the communication between conductor/choir and organ without having to worry too much about console management. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

 

Longest time spent familiarising: about two hours one evening before a visiting weekend at Gloucester (necessary). Shortest time was setting up for Finzi's 'God is gone up' at Wells in about four minutes. (The rest of evensong took care of itself as we went along :P )

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A purely hypothetical question here - and I'm hoping as always to draw on the experiences of members who have played much more extensively and on many more instruments than myself.

 

You turn up in an English cathedral with a visiting choir to play for an Evensong (for example). You have never played the organ before, although you know the music well, and the repertoire is a relatively substantial setting requiring numerous registration changes (a Stanford, Dyson or Howells, perhaps). You haven't had time to arrange a visit beforehand to practice or familiarise with the instrument, so you arrive with about half an hour to spare before the choir are due to rehearse. How do you spend that half-hour getting to know the instrument? Is it just a matter of looking at the pre-set registrations used by the incumbent organists and pushing some pistons or is there a more methodical way?

 

On the occasions I've been presented with an unfamiliar instrument (not in a Cathedral, I hasten to add) I've tended to dive straight in but is there a better way?

 

I suppose the question could equally well apply to giving recitals too.

 

 

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

 

 

I've played some large organs with huge consoles in America, and I've also spent quite a bit of time getting to grips with 300+ stop-tabs on a Wurlitzer theatre organ. In the UK, I suppose the biggest I've played is Liverpool, followed by Hull City Hall and downwards from there.

 

Leaving aside theatre-organs, which are set out totally differently, most organs follow a certain pattern in the way the departmental stops are set out. It's the differences which catch us out every time.

 

For instance, which swell-pedal controls what department? (Liverpool also has those peculiar "accelerator-pedal" swells, which do their own thing.....quite disconcerting at first).

 

The biggest problem I find, is the position of couplers. Most conventional instruments have the departmental couplers underneath the department to which they relate. (Sw-Gt under the Great stops, Swell -Choir under the Choir stops etc etc)

This is my preferred layout, but some builders had a separate coupler department, which really can throw an organist off balance. A few Willis consoles, (Westminster RC, Liverpool & Southwark) have the couplers operated by rocking tablets above the top keyboard. (I got used to that in America, and it's fine when you know the layout).

 

As for combination pistons, I just scribble them down shorthand on a [ieve of paper, reading something like:-

 

SWELL

 

1) 8ft pp

2) 8 + 4 p

3) 8,4,2 chorus mf

4) + Mixture mf

5) Minor full swell f

6) Full Sw ff

 

I don't know if any organs have double-touch pistons in the UK that aren't Compton, but they need to be watched. In America, they don't know what a "Gt & Ped.Combs coupled" stop is, I don't think. They use double touch pistons instead.

 

There's no substitute to improvising for ten minutes or so. That takes off the pressure of worrying about exact notes, and performs the important task of "learning the layout and acoustic" which always takes time.

 

It may sound daft, but console control is the most important hurdle, followed by the actual sound of the instrument and its spatial aura.

 

I recall an organ association trip to Manchester TH, which has a five manual console. It was so logical and the sound so clean in close proximity, I was able to play accurately and musically almost immediately. That tends to suggest that if we know the notes, we understand the layout of the console and don't have to "learn the acoustic," the problems tend to go away very quickly.

 

All that said, it is probably good musical policy not to over-reach musically; either in the choice of choral music to be accompanied, or in the choice of voluntaries. Less demanding music allows more time to listen and comprehend what is happening, and only the regular organist of a large instrument really knows how to get the best out of it and throw caution to the wind.

 

Good luck.....you'll need it.

 

MM

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OK, I'll dive straight in myself. I've done this in a number of cathedrals and churches over the last ten years, usually with about twenty minutes of slightly self-conscious preparation while visitors potter around. I have a cursory look at what's set on the divisionals on the general purpose channel (or a standard accompaniment channel if the resident organist's thoughtful enough to leave a hint sheet on the music desk for visitors) then plunge in. Very often the divisionals do the trick, usually with a little judicious hand-registering in certain combinations. Some instruments seem to need more study - Gloucester is one that took quite a while to understand, for instance - and some seem to guide you along gently. I aim to get to the stage where, when the choir pitch up, I can work on the communication between conductor/choir and organ without having to worry too much about console management. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

 

Longest time spent familiarising: about two hours one evening before a visiting weekend at Gloucester (necessary). Shortest time was setting up for Finzi's 'God is gone up' at Wells in about four minutes. (The rest of evensong took care of itself as we went along :D )

 

All I can say is.... you're very brave!

 

I always try to avoid having to do without adequate practice time. I've seen several (otherwise competent) organists come really unstuck when the preparation time hasn't been made.

 

Of course, some very experienced organists have the ability to gain familiarity with a new organ very quickly. For a person not used to doing this I'd seriously advise booking plenty of practice time. Insist upon it!

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I would certainly hold out for as much practice time as you can get, but visiting choirs do tend to be in a weak bargaining position. In any case, however much practice time you get it will never be enough!

 

I can only echo what has been written above. My own approach is to negotiate being allocated a channel of pistons and to set up the divisionals with my stock combinations (more or less, depending on the instrument and the balance between the divisions) and accompany using mainly these, supplemented by hand registration. This has always worked satisfactorily in England and America, but it's more tricky in Germany where in all likelihood your only pistons wil be a set of generals. Never tried it in France, but ask me again in the autumn.

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Indeed - and worth asking beforehand on an organ with multiple memory channels if one is set aside for guests and if it can be adjusted.

 

I once had to give a recital on a well-known London organ with no preparation at all (part of a rolling recital day). I deliberately selected earlier, baroque music to begin with that didn't require any piston changes, and finished with the more complex registrations of Franck. After each piece I would frantically whizz through as many pistons as possible without there being too long a delay between pieces. Eventually I hit upon memory channel 37 (it felt like that!) where everything was quite logical, increasing in power from left to right, and that was how I ended the recital.

 

Even if the stops are logically placed there are other things that can throw you - distance to pedals, music stand too high etc. You just take a chance on those things.

 

And finally, make sure you remember to ask how to switch the thing on and off. One service I played at, the console was rather dark and I searched in vain for the blower switch as the vicar was standing at the front announcing the hymn. I must have pushed every button in sight of the console before I found the right one.

 

During the sermon a churchwarden wandered up to me. "You don't happen to know why the baptist pond pump has been turned on ?" he asked......

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During the sermon a churchwarden wandered up to me. "You don't happen to know why the baptist pond pump has been turned on ?" he asked......

 

 

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

 

 

That's wonderful....almost good enough for another "Jenny Setchell" book.

 

I have a dark sense of humour. I think I would like a stop marked "Shark mixture," which raises a metal grate in the pond.....like those in the Bond movies.

 

"So you expect me to renounce my sins?"

 

"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to meet your maker!"

 

MM

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Of course, some very experienced organists have the ability to gain familiarity with a new organ very quickly. For a person not used to doing this I'd seriously advise booking plenty of practice time. Insist upon it!

 

I would certainly hold out for as much practice time as you can get, but visiting choirs do tend to be in a weak bargaining position. In any case, however much practice time you get it will never be enough!

 

I would always take as much as I can get - bravery doesn't come into it. This is one point on which visiting choir destinations vary greatly. Some allocate you several hours on the night before, some begrudge you 30 minutes just before the first stalls rehearsal (of which 11 minutes is spent finding the right kind of verger to let you into the loft, 5 minutes is spent listening to said verger explaining how to play the organ from the viewpoint of one who has never actually played one before, and 4 minutes is spent trying to find the blower and light switches).

 

I once turned up to a cathedral to find the organ missing entirely. The main organ was out for a rebuild, and rather than rely on the necessary electronic substitute, we decided to make the most of their new chamber organ by doing Gibbons, Batten etc. in the quire. On arrival - no organ. Turned out they hadn't commissioned it yet.

 

I could go on for some time about the perils of 'visiting' but you've probably done it all yourselves, I don't want to bore you, and it's very off-topic! Moral of the story, though (bringing it back on-topic) is that Vox is absolutely right - no matter how much rehearsal time you get, it's never enough. And expect the unexpected!

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A purely hypothetical question here - and I'm hoping as always to draw on the experiences of members who have played much more extensively and on many more instruments than myself.

 

You turn up in an English cathedral with a visiting choir to play for an Evensong (for example). You have never played the organ before, although you know the music well, and the repertoire is a relatively substantial setting requiring numerous registration changes (a Stanford, Dyson or Howells, perhaps). You haven't had time to arrange a visit beforehand to practice or familiarise with the instrument, so you arrive with about half an hour to spare before the choir are due to rehearse. How do you spend that half-hour getting to know the instrument? Is it just a matter of looking at the pre-set registrations used by the incumbent organists and pushing some pistons or is there a more methodical way?

 

On the occasions I've been presented with an unfamiliar instrument (not in a Cathedral, I hasten to add) I've tended to dive straight in but is there a better way?

 

I suppose the question could equally well apply to giving recitals too.

 

 

I too simply run through the divisionals, try and remember what most of them are, and then set some generals (if available!) for some stock registrations. For more complicated stuff I try and find a couple of levels of generals and set up major registration changes.

 

I have almost stopped using the sequencer on instruments I dont know as I have been caught out too many times with over complicated systems I haven't had time to get my head round! I had to hunt for which general i required in the middle of the Cook Fanfare at St Albans a couple of years ago after I hit general cancel and the system turned off rather than just cancel and stay where it was in the sequence which is what I was used to on the 3 instruments I have played locally with sequencers. I also seem to remember giving up on the sequencer at CC Oxford a few years ago and doing it all on divisionals and my organ scholar & I doing a few bits of hand registration.

 

I had to play at St G's Windsor a couple of years ago and we arrived 15 minutes before the service due to the coach driver getting lost and the choir having to run from a coach park to the castle! I arrived at the console dripping with sweat and had to launch more or less straight into the pre-service music. I couldn't get the camera to the conductor to zoom in and relied on texts from one of the tenors to give me an idea of balances - I got messages like " we cant hear you" and "more, more, more". I quickly realised that the whole thing speaks into the nave and you can really go to town when they are all in the quire!! By the end of Eucharist and through Matins & evensong I ended up having a ball after a very off putting start.

 

I should mention that I had played at Windsor about 12 years before for a week but I had forgotten everything about balances etc that I had obviously discovered before. I had also forgotten what a superb instrument it really is - and coming straight from St Albans to it made St Albans seem a very poor cousin indeed!!!

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A good bit of advice for accompanying, especially when on an unfamiliar instrument, is: USE THE DIVISIONALS! ... And locate the all important Great to Pedal of course.

 

Many organists these days are over reliant on general pistons. Here in North America many organists don't seem to get our concept of setting up divisionals as a crescendo - I really don't know why. Perhaps it's because they don't do as much accompanying as the British do. (No daily choral foundations...)

 

When you only have 30 mins prep time, there really is no time to set up generals, and without care it can lead to disaster. (It only takes the wrong general to be pushed and hey - you`ve got tuba to great when you really didn`t want it!) Making the most of divisionals is much safer when practice time is limited.

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Here in North America many organists don't seem to get our concept of setting up divisionals as a crescendo - I really don't know why. Perhaps it's because they don't do as much accompanying as the British do. (No daily choral foundations...)

I'd noticed this and wondered why. I've found apparently random registrations on the divisionals even in churches that do perform choral music, plus you'd think a crescendo on the divisionals would still be useful for playing Romantic organ music. I have wondered whether it has anything to do with the fact that crescendo pedals are so much more common in America than here.

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Some cathedrals are very good at providing a list of hints about balances and allocating certain piston levels to visiting organists.

 

If possible, get in the place early when it isn't full of tourists or guides, and extemporise yourself around the various combinations.

 

Muso mentions that North American organs don't have 'Great & Pedal combs coupled'. That's true, but in my experience one is more likely to have separate thumb pistons (under the Great, to the left of G/P) for the Pedal Organ than double touch pistons. This is quite handy once you get used to it. Clarion Doublette is right that much more use is made of the General Crescendo pedal. Diane Bish is reputed to have given a whole recital on the four manual Casavant in a United Church down the road from mine without touching a stop and hardly any pistons. I tend to regard them as a damn nuisance, although I use mine very occasionally (Nimrod).

 

There is, as has been mentioned, a lot of difference between the way organ-playing is regarded in various cathedrals. At St. John the Divine, New York, most of the adults of Belfast Cathedral Choir spent the time between Eucharist and Evensong wandering about the place and the vergers said, 'We hope you're going to play the organ - don't forget to try the State Trumpet'. I can't imagine that happening in St. Paul's....

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I'd noticed this and wondered why. I've found apparently random registrations on the divisionals even in churches that do perform choral music, plus you'd think a crescendo on the divisionals would still be useful for playing Romantic organ music. I have wondered whether it has anything to do with the fact that crescendo pedals are so much more common in America than here.

I have also found this to be the case. Christ Church, Oxford, was one example, two or three years ago. I got up to the organ on a Monday morning at the start of a week's services playing for a visiting choir. I switched on, pressed about two G.O. pistons and thought 'Hmm.... they had an American choir - or at least organist - yesterday.' They did. I think I once asked, and was told 'I just set the sounds I want on the most convenient piston to press at that particular moment in the music.'

 

Like nachthorn, I occasionally have to play for a visiting choir in a cathedral (or Saint George's, Windsor - at three days' notice, for a lunchtime concert....). I generally adopt the following system, which has always worked well for me - without exception. Allowing for the fact that my own church organ lacks a 16ft. reed on the G.O. and any kind of 32ft. rank on the Pedal Organ, I set divisionals (and some generals) in as similar manner as I can, with regard to differences in stoplist. Adjustments to volume are then made during the rehearsal (or, once, after the first service, prior to playing Mattins).

 

Last week, I happened to have to play at Wells for a visiting choir. Apart from about ten minutes on quieter stops twenty years ago, I had not played this organ. I was allowed to practise - quietly - for about half an hour (part of which I used to set pistons). In the end, I settled for the Solo Harmonic Flute (with the G.O. as a convenient coupling clavier), and the Swell Bourdon (coupled to the Pedals), since the Pedal Sub Bass was fairly big. Both boxes tightly closed. This at least enabled me to get the feel of this very cramped console - with its undersized stopheads (at least two of which were of a different size and shape; I also counted at least four styles of engraving - and was singularly unimpressed with the workmanship). Due to the 'careful attention' of the verger, I was unable to try anything louder until the full practice. I think only once was my chosen registration too loud - which I adjusted quickly .

 

There have been worse times.

 

At Winchester, a few years ago, I was due to play Evensong for a visiting choir and got up to the console to find Harrisons' tuners (presumably) still there, but just finishing off. Since I had to play the canticles up a tone, and already knew that it was easy to drown a choir for listeners in the Quire, I needed to get on the organ. I recall quickly setting pistons, whilst attempting to field unwanted questions from one of the tuners about the choir and the repertoire. Fortunately, all went well.

 

So I would recommend this method. By all means look at the divisional settings for the incumbent players; but, if possible, set a scheme which resembles something with which you are familiar. This will help to guard against moments such as quickly turning a page of a canticle setting (whilst playing the service), and watching in dismay as two or three small 'Post-it' notes (inscribed variously 'Gen 3' or 'Sw. 6') flutter off to rest between the pedals.

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I have also found this to be the case. Christ Church, Oxford, was one example, two or three years ago. I got up to the organ on a Monday morning at the start of a week's services playing for a visiting choir. I switched on, pressed about two G.O. pistons and thought 'Hmm.... they had an American choir - or at least organist - yesterday.' They did. I think I once asked, and was told 'I just set the sounds I want on the most convenient piston to press at that particular moment in the music.'

 

Like nachthorn, I occasionally have to play for a visiting choir in a cathedral (or Saint George's, Windsor - at three days' notice, for a lunchtime concert....). I generally adopt the following system, which has always worked well for me - without exception. Allowing for the fact that my own church organ lacks a 16ft. reed on the G.O. and any kind of 32ft. rank on the Pedal Organ, I set divisionals (and some generals) in as similar manner as I can, with regard to differences in stoplist. Adjustments to volume are then made during the rehearsal (or, once, after the first service, prior to playing Mattins).

 

Last week, I happened to have to play at Wells for a visiting choir. Apart from about ten minutes on quieter stops twenty years ago, I had not played this organ. I was allowed to practise - quietly - for about half an hour (part of which I used to set pistons). In the end, I settled for the Solo Harmonic Flute (with the G.O. as a convenient coupling clavier), and the Swell Bourdon (coupled to the Pedals), since the Pedal Sub Bass was fairly big. Both boxes tightly closed. This at least enabled me to get the feel of this very cramped console - with its undersized stopheads (at least two of which were of a different size and shape; I also counted at least four styles of engraving - and was singularly unimpressed with the workmanship).

 

Due to the 'careful attention' of the verger, I was unable to try anything louder until the full practice. I think only once was my chosen registration too loud - which I quickly adjusted.

 

There have been worse times.

 

At Winchester, a few years ago, I was due to play Evensong for a visiting choir and got up to the console to find Harrisons' tuners (presumably) still there, but just finishing off. Since I had to play the canticles up a tone, and already knew that it was easy to drown a choir for listeners in the Quire, I needed to get on the organ. I recall quickly setting pistons, whilst attempting to field unwanted questions from one of the tuners about the choir and the repertoire. Fortunately, all went well.

 

So I would recommend this method. By all means look at the divisional settings for the incumbent players; but, if possible, set a scheme which resembles something with which you are familiar. This will help to guard against moments such as quickly turning a page of a canticle setting (whilst playing the service), and watching in dismay as two or three small 'Post-it' notes (inscribed variously 'Gen 3' or 'Sw. 6') flutter off to rest between the pedals.

 

 

'Good reading all this - I see another book of stories coming on somewhere! I do not tend to 'do' last minute cathedral playings although I was once offered one as a 'swap' at Salisbury with a visiting group. When I saw what they wanted me to play I opted to do the easier job and graciously allow another organist friend to enjoy the Willis. I did however (a while ago now) have to do something similar at St Albans and all I can say is that despite what has been written about this instrument taking no prisoners I found it a joy and everything worked. More importantly no one complained after!

 

A

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'Good reading all this - I see another book coming on somewhere. I do not tend to 'do' last minute cathedral playings although I was once offered one as a 'swap' at Salisbury. When I saw what they wanted me to play I opted to do the easier job to allow another organist friend to enjoy the Willis. I did however (a while ago now) have to do something similar at St Albans and all I can say is that despite what has been written about this instrument taking no prisoners I found it a joy and everything worked. More importantly no oone complained after!

 

A

Saint Alban's - this sounds fun, Alastair. This is also one instrument I would like to play very much....

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'Good reading all this - I see another book coming on somewhere. I do not tend to 'do' last minute cathedral playings although I was once offered one as a 'swap' at Salisbury. When I saw what they wanted me to play I opted to do the easier job to allow another organist friend to enjoy the Willis. I did however (a while ago now) have to do something similar at St Albans and all I can say is that despite what has been written about this instrument taking no prisoners I found it a joy and everything worked. More importantly no one complained after!

 

A

 

St Albans is indeed loverly, even more so now than a couple of years ago. We're there in August and I can't wait!

 

I'm afraid I tend to adopt the viewpoint that the resident organists know the instrument far better than I ever will, and simply borrow their 'general crescendo' channel and use common sense in its application. The three things I look for are; 1) in the Sw buildup, what comes first - Trumpet or Mixture - 2) which one brings on the Sw Oboe - 3) which one is the Solo/Choir Clarinet on. The rest I do by hand.

 

(Easier said than done at Salisbury where there is a veritable sea of interdivisional super and duper octave couplers, which usually get me in a tizzy. Where every option is provided like that, I find myself wishing they'd stuck with the row of tabs above the Solo...)

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(Easier said than done at Salisbury where there is a veritable sea of interdivisional super and duper octave couplers, which usually get me in a tizzy. Where every option is provided like that, I find myself wishing they'd stuck with the row of tabs above the Solo...)

 

 

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

 

 

Yes, I can understand that, I remember playing Riverside NY, (the Virgil Fox organ), and thinking that the couplers were best where they were. Apart from anything else, they probably ran out of space on the stop-jambs!!

 

That is a BIG console........... http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/img/River...Nave1948Con.jpg

 

(Could you possibly give me directions to the Choir Erzahler, Mr Fox?)

 

MM

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Divisionals for accompanying a choir, with just the odd general. There isn't enough time to reset too many generals between practice and service.

 

I always copy a set of divisionals from the assistant organist's accompaniment channel to a free one. Then I can use these but make any changes I want. Time-consuming, I find it's time well spent.

 

Steppers are far too dangerous for me - great for voluntaries if there is time to set them up, but for accompanying, if you have to make any changes after the practice it's far too easy (for me, anyway!) to muck it up.

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I'm afraid I tend to adopt the viewpoint that the resident organists know the instrument far better than I ever will, and simply borrow their 'general crescendo' channel and use common sense in its application. The three things I look for are; 1) in the Sw buildup, what comes first - Trumpet or Mixture - 2) which one brings on the Sw Oboe - 3) which one is the Solo/Choir Clarinet on. The rest I do by hand.

 

If this works for you, then all well and good. Whilst I would not dispute for a moment that the incumbent organists know their instruments far better than I could on casual acquaintance, nevertheless my method has never let me down. In addition, it does have the advantage of avoiding problems such as the time I had to play at a cathedral where there were few divisional channels and the assistant had changed the 'home' channel to allow convenient performance of a particular work the day before. The settings as found would have made accompanying Evensong most inconvenient. Instead, I re-set the 'visitors' channel in the way I described above, and all went perfectly well.

 

 

(Easier said than done at Salisbury where there is a veritable sea of interdivisional super and duper octave couplers, which usually get me in a tizzy. Where every option is provided like that, I find myself wishing they'd stuck with the row of tabs above the Solo...)

 

I would disagree with this. Every time I have had the pleasure of playing at Salisbury Cathedral, I have found the console to be entirely comfortable. I have never been confused by the many couplers. In any case, the non-unison inter-pedal and -clavier couplers are engraved in black, not red, so they are easily distinguishable - even at a cursory glance. I have never liked the Willis habit of grouping them in one long row above the top clavier. For a start, this raises the level of the music desk higher than I would wish and I find it much more inconvenient to locate the couplers I want to use with this layout. For the record, I have met Willis organs with even more 'secondary' octave couplers than Salisbury.

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The three things I look for are; 1) in the Sw buildup, what comes first - Trumpet or Mixture - 2) which one brings on the Sw Oboe - 3) which one is the Solo/Choir Clarinet on. The rest I do by hand.

 

This reminds me... when I started as organ scholar as St. Mary's Edinburgh (truly gorgeous, if rather subtle sounding Willis Harrison... lovely!) I was strictly forbidden to draw a 2' or mixture before the swell trumpet. At least that was the case in any Stanford, Howells or Dyson etc. even Sumsion. I was told - 'always reeds before mixtures' and rightly so I think. Exactly the opposite of what I'd been encouraged to do earlier in my education.

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I'm pleased to see that the general consensus is to rely on divisionals (I clearly haven't been going too wrong!) and I agree with the rationale that says that the resident organist should know the beast better than any visitor. Pcnd's experience at Wells was very similar to mine, right down the verger's attentions.

 

At risk of reminiscing, a couple of interesting moments. At Winchester some years ago, last evensong of the visit, everything had gone pretty well. Then came a verse anthem by Gibbons (Bless the Lord O my soul, I think), and I drew a modest 8' flute, coupled to the pedals to help in a couple of page-turns. I placed my fingers on the keys, the director raised an arm, and then entirely without warning, but with a very heavy THUMP, every stop on the console shot out: Tuba, 32' pedal reed, the lot. I had no choice but to hit general cancel, re-select the flute and start, but I played that anthem like there was a gun to my head. Afterwards, ready to put a shaky note in the tuning book, I found that they'd already reported the problem with sticky and sensitive contacts on the general 10 piston or whatever - a shame they hadn't thought to zero the selections on that piston, as I was within a heartbeat of bringing the house down...

 

On the same visit, the Sunday morning eucharist coincided with some festival of morris dancing. It's hard to forget the sound of Victoria's Missa O quam punctuated by the ching ching ching of morris dancers' shoes walking up and down to do readings and so on. The last hymn was - predictably - Lord of the Dance. The sheer volume of sound coming from the packed nave was spine-tingling, even hidden at the console above the quire. Nothing that organ could do matched the enthusiasm of the singing - singularly un-Anglican!

 

We once covered an ordination service at Gloucester while the choir was away on tour. The arrangements were in the hands of diocesan, rather than cathedral, staff, so naturally there was something which had to be played on the piano, followed shortly after by a hymn. Those who've played at Gloucester will know that the latch on the organ loft door is lifted by manipulating what looks like a bolt-head, one of many in the door. I finished the song on the piano and hared round to the organ loft door. If there had been anyone round there, they would have been treated to the sight of me scrabbling vainly at the door-fittings in blind panic as the PA system cheerfully announced the next hymn, but in the rather full nave, there was no obvious explanation for the lengthy and uncomfortable silence until eventually a head was seen moving across the loft at speed.

 

Another church we sometimes visited did ultra-High churchmanship, the sort that makes St. Peter's Rome look 'prayer-book'. With the liturgy being something of a moving target, the clergy mostly visiting and therefore slightly unfamiliar, and with a huge rolling acoustic that rendered most things incomprehensible at the console, the resident organist used to hover around the console to provide guidance, moral support and a critical commentary on the standard of genuflection, but it was always something of a matter of the blind leading the blind. One memorable procession during a service of Benediction started unexpectedly early, and I quickly launched into the hymn. "No no no!" exclaimed my guide, "the other one!" I stopped, found the new number, and started again. The distant wallowy singing didn't seem to stop. "Hmm," he considered, listening intently, "no, you were right first time" and burst into a unexpected and piercing male soprano in an effort to guide the singing, but which was mere inches from my left ear and only succeeded in making me jump and play unusual notes.

 

A friend of mine who used to play at Exeter from time to time while at university told me he used to delight in waiting in the loft until a visitor, preferably with a large hat, took too close an interest in the mouths of 32' violone pipes in the south transept. A quick count from the left to find which pipe was the subject of attention, and - woof - off came the hat, followed by a startled and bemused visitor scuttling away. (I haven't tried this myself and can't verify the accuracy of this story, mind.)

 

The console at Birmingham is conveniently close to the stalls, so I have conducted from the console when short of an organist in the past, but the time that I also had to be the cantor for the responses was a step too far - I have many more singers now, fortunately, and can stick to one task at a time.

 

I find myself mostly directing now, and hardly get the chance to play, visiting or otherwise. I don't generally miss the churches with unfriendly and unhelpful vergers and admin staff, but most of my experiences have been of kind and helpful people who are pleased to have us there to play and sing. Despite these sorts of events (which I can laugh about happily now) I've always found playing for visiting choirs in cathedrals and like to be a great privilege.

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... A friend of mine who used to play at Exeter from time to time while at university told me he used to delight in waiting in the loft until a visitor, preferably with a large hat, took too close an interest in the mouths of 32' violone pipes in the south transept. A quick count from the left to find which pipe was the subject of attention, and - woof - off came the hat, followed by a startled and bemused visitor scuttling away. (I haven't tried this myself and can't verify the accuracy of this story, mind.) ...

 

I would not want to spoil a good story - but I suspect it is no more than that. These pipes (according to H&H, some time around the previous restoration/cleaning) speak on about 35 - 40mm pressure. They are very gentle, and unlikely to blow off anything.

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... I'm afraid I tend to adopt the viewpoint that the resident organists know the instrument far better than I ever will, and simply borrow their 'general crescendo' channel and use common sense in its application. The three things I look for are; 1) in the Sw buildup, what comes first - Trumpet or Mixture - 2) which one brings on the Sw Oboe - 3) which one is the Solo/Choir Clarinet on. The rest I do by hand. ...

 

I have thought about your comment above for a few hours, David. It seems to me to be ever so slightly pompous - or at least judgmental on my original comment.

 

Yes, of course the incumbent organists will know their own instruments (and the effect in various parts of the buildings) well - better than can be gleaned from a brief visit, certainly.

 

Yet, it also seems to me that there is no particular 'mystery' regarding registration - within a few rules of common sense and experience.

 

Please do not think for a moment that I am putting myself forward as an 'authority' on registering other organists' instruments, but I am fortunate enough to play various cathedral organs from time to time. When I do have a moment to check, my piston settings are not dissimilar to those of the resident musicians. Occasionally, it has also happened that I have 'discovered' a few combinations which were pleasant and which the incumbent organists had not yet 'found', if you like. Of course this would be true of my own instrument, too - of this I am well aware.

 

However, it does seem to me (and, I hope, without being unduly paranoid) that your comment was intended to 'put me straight', as it were.

 

Furthermore, having played many types of cathedral organ in this country (and a few others), there are certain recognisable trends - particularly if, like me, you have read and researched widely, listened to many good recordings and actually played many different instruments. After a while (as I am sure you are aware), it is possible to predict, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what a particular organ will sound like. Yes, of course there will always be surprises and many things which may be gleaned from a helpful resident musician. Nevertheless, I have a fairly good idea what to expect when I see an older Harrison organ, for example - albeit one which has been altered subsequent to its original state. I was fortunate with Gloucester. I had already read all that I could find on this instrument (including many years ago, pestering HN&B, and receiving a most full and courteous reply to my enquiries). In addition, I was fortunate to meet Ralph Downes, who kindly gave up some time to meet me at the RFH at about the time I was completing my degree thesis, and who generously shared much of his own rationale behind this controversial rebuild. It was thus that I discovered (for example) that one side of the Swell sounds louder than the other at the console - in addition to other practical snippets of advice.

 

I think that what I am saying is, whilst the incumbent musicians may know many things about their own instruments from regular contact, it is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that visiting experienced (and carefully researched) musicians may also be able to produce creditable performances on unfamiliar instruments, too*. This was certainly the case at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on the first occasion when I had the privilege of playing for a visiting choir.

 

 

 

* I am thinking here in purely terms of registering repertoire - not the mechanics of just getting the notes right.

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I have thought about your comment above for a few hours. It seems to me to be ever so slightly pompous - or at least judgmental on my original comment.

 

 

Oh, I'm sorry - there was nothing further from my mind. I was confessing, apologetically, my own deliberate shortcoming that I tend not to bother with it too much any more. I used to, and spent so much time worrying about hitting the right button at the right time that I was far too tense and wound up to enjoy the experience and help others enjoy it too - which is why people organise cathedral visits, on the whole. So now, I make quite sure there are no surprises in store, and then go for a pint with everyone else B)

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