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OrganistOnTheHill

Beginner Organist Tip

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Hello everyone,

I recently started organ lessons and want to work up to CAM exams by RCO, Grade exams from ABRSM and hopefully achieve FRCO in the future. I also putting my goal as doing my gap year at a cathedral as an organ scholar.

Are there any tips on improving as an organist? Practice tips and also may I ask some tips on pedalling technique.

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Good for you! I think one of the most important things is to make sure you are being taught properly because good pedal technique is so important as you work up through the repertoire. You can get 'away with' all sorts of solecisms at the beginning, but it really is important to be self-disciplined from the start so you don't pick up bad habits from the start. I know... I picked up all those habits, and now, aged 61, I get confounded by them all the time! The next bit of advice I would offer is to find out about things like the St Giles Organ School in London,  and Oundle for Organists and then try to attend some of their events if you can so that you mix with other young aspiring organists. You may know all about them already. You mention the RCO. The RCO has completely revolutionised itself in the last ten years or so and they are doing some very exciting things for new young players from which you will undoubtedly benefit if you are able to participate. All of these things will help with your goal of improving as an organist. If you are already familiar with cathedral music, as I suspect you might be, it could do you now harm to get involved in the Eton Choral courses where you will pick up or build upon top-most choir training techniques ready for that organ scholar post... and beyond. Eton also take on a number of organists on their courses each year - not sure of exact details but you can check out their website. I hope that's a help. You need a good primer - perhaps you already have something by CH Trevor or David Sanger of Chris Tambling - I'm no longer sure what to suggest about these sorts of things but other forum members will...

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If you want to be an organ scholar, and if you are aiming for RCO diplomas, you must build keyboard skills into your routine every day, right from the start. The three skills I would especially  recommend you practising are:

1. Transposition

2. Figured bass

3. Four part score reading (FRCO requires 5 parts, but you can’t try for FRCO until you have ARCO).

If you start practising these skills now, and spend an hour on them every day BEFORE you start practising your pieces, you will not only be able to actually do them after three or four years, but they will help you with all sorts of other skills that you will also need, for example improvisation, harmonising melodies at the keyboard or Bach chorales on paper (figured bass makes you feel the harmony automatically in your fingers). The foundation of transposition technique is transposing hymns, which are also extremely good for developing a good pedal technique. Good hymn playing is much, much harder than many people think. The pedal lines of many hymns are quite hard. Once you have learnt the basics of hymn playing and transposition, I would start every day by practising a hymn tune thoroughly, marking the fingering and pedalling and sticking to it. Then practise transposing it down and up a semitone and a tone (don’t bother with e.g. A flat if it’s already in A, or E if it’s already in E flat). Make sure you choose a different key every day (up to four flats or sharps).

Good hymn playing and transposition also lead on to improvisation techniques. 

Learn the basics of figured bass using R.O. Morris’s “Figured Harmony at the Keyboard” - worth its weight in gold.

You can download masses (and motets) of material for figured bass and score reading practice from the internet free of charge on IMSLP and ChoralWiki. If you have a tablet you can play them from that, rather than printing them out.

Recently, Oxford University Press has published two volumes which will help you enormously from the start with these skills: they are called “Graded Keyboard Musicianship”. 

Progress in these skills comes only gradually to most people and sometimes they seem like a real drudge. But one day you sit at the keyboard and discover that you can actually transpose a hymn or play from figured bass or a four part score at sight, and it all starts to become rather enjoyable. 

Practising these tests requires great concentration, focus and self-discipline. That’s why it’s best to do them every day before practising your pieces. Remember: KEYBOARD SKILLS FIRST!

 

 

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I agree with what’s already been said. If you want to stretch yourself try playing hymns as four part pieces. The basic way is soprano in the right hand, alto and tenor in the left, and bass in the pedals. Once you’re secure on that start mixing it up. Soprano in the pedal, bass and tenor in the LH, alto in the RH. Etc.

One common fault in organists is a weak sense of rhythm. Take any chance you can of playing in situations where it’s vital that you keep good time. Don’t just play the organ, play piano in theatre shows, play percussion in orchestras. 

And sing. Even if you have no training as a singer sing in choirs, choral societies, barbershop quartets, Gilbert & Sullivan choruses.

Best of luck!

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