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OrganistOnTheHill

Good Practicing Regime

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Dear everyone,

I am a believer of quality over quantity (although quantity matters but I think you know what I am trying to say).

What things can I do to improve my practicing regime?

What should I include in my daily practices?

With thanks,

Organistonthehill 

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Manual scales and arpeggios - but at the piano, not the organ  - it's better for the fingers and the wider compass encourages greater agility; furthermore, only on the piano can you tell if your touch (and therefore your finger control) is smoothly even throughout. In my teens I was wholly self-taught on the organ and made the mistake of assuming that playing the piano would damage my organ technique. Because I had no one cracking a whip I totally ignored exercises of any kind. This was incredibly stupid and utterly wrong. When I got to the RCM it was, initially, compulsory for organists to take the piano as their second study instrument and my piano teacher (the lovely Dorothea Aspinall RIP) was utterly horrified to learn that I had never learnt my scales and arpeggios. So I spent the whole of my first term learning them all until I could whizz up and down the keyboard with ease. I can't begin to describe how much it improved my organ technique. Apart from Debussy, which I adore, I never did enjoy the piano repertoire, so I gave up the instrument as soon as I could - but I know for sure that my technique is very much the poorer for that. (This said, I have known players whose organ technique has been spoilt by bad habits acquired at the piano: i.e. lazy finger raising and an inability to play legato without a sustaining pedal.)

Pedal scales, arpeggios and exercises ditto and for the same reasons - agility and fluency.  You might find your own solutions for achieving this, but agility and an accurate aim are essential requirements for good pedalling.

When practising pieces, be very, very hard on yourself. Be focused and determined. Sloppiness won't do. We all like to play through our pieces, enjoying the music as we go. After all, that's why we play, isn't it? We do need to enjoy ourselves so I wouldn't ban this entirely, but in general avoid it like the plague because it's not actually helping you to progress. The moment you make a mistake, stop and deal with it. Practise the passage until you have played it five times in succession without error. Try to understand exactly why it went wrong and what your weakness is at that point. E.g. is it a particular finger that's the problem? Do you need to practise a particular finger or hand movement? Is there a better fingering? Similarly with your feet. Don't feel that you have to play through the whole of each piece at every sitting. It is far more productive to set yourself specific goals: e.g. today I am going to sort out bars X -- Y until they are totally secure.

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If you have diplomas in sight, practice the keyboard tests diligently, taking a lot of time over them.  If you can't play them accurately before you go into the exam, you won't play them well enough to pass when you're in there.  In any case, competence at this sort of thing will stand you in good stead in so many ways for the rest of your life.

Learning pieces, start at the end and learn the last few bars, starting at a speed slow enough to be able to play the notes.  Speed it up gradually and add a few more bars, and so on until you get to the beginning.  A lot of people can play the first page or so of a piece, but get progressively more rocky thereafter.  On top of that, there's nothing worse than starting a piece and knowing that you're going to have trouble later on.  Playing towards something that you know is a great help to confidence.

As Vox says, you should be confident when it comes to scales.  I had a pupil once who was learning the Bach/Prince Johann Ernst Concerto in G BWV 592.  She was a mature and experienced pianist and a piano teacher, and was conscientious at the organ, but she had no end of trouble with the G major scales.  One should never take these things for granted!

Take pains over registration.  Don't use more stops than you need, and listen to them.  Maybe, for example, a 4' flute is more suitable for a specific need than the 8'.  I get very depressed at the number of organists, especially in North America (where the General Crescendo Pedal is a major curse), who register with their eyes rather than their ears.

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Some incredibly good advice here from both Vox and David! Possibly two of the most useful posts I have read on here! 

So! Never accept second best from yourself, practice diligently every day, concentrate on minutiae as well as the overall picture, practice your scales over and over again so that you are completely fluent and use your ears! If you can, practice at the same time every day - but that is not always possible! - Set yourself daily tasks to be completed - begin the next day by going over the previous days task! 

Don't ignore keeping yourself fit and in good health. I began my life as a 'cellist and playing a performance of the Elgar or Dvorak concertos is physically incredibly demanding. Giving an Organ Recital is just the same!

All the best!

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1 hour ago, S_L said:

 

Some incredibly good advice here from both Vox and David! Possibly two of the most useful posts I have read on here! 

So! Never accept second best from yourself, practice diligently every day, concentrate on minutiae as well as the overall picture, practice your scales over and over again so that you are completely fluent and use your ears! If you can, practice at the same time every day - but that is not always possible! - Set yourself daily tasks to be completed - begin the next day by going over the previous days task! 

Don't ignore keeping yourself fit and in good health. I began my life as a 'cellist and playing a performance of the Elgar or Dvorak concertos is physically incredibly demanding. Giving an Organ Recital is just the same!

All the best!

I am a cellist myself. I can thoroughly agree on that.

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Yes very wise words, indeed. I have endeavoured to keep them firmly in mind during my morning practice of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba - appalling how much I used to leave to chance in this! - Fauré Requiem accompaniment, BWV 651, and Howells' Paean, all of which I have coming up shortly. I quite agree re the 4' flute - practising Bach (eg 651) on such a light stop with an 8' in the pedal is very helpful and revealing - and delightful, actually. I must stop now to go and watch a steam train come past!

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One absolutely crucial area to get right before you start practising a piece is that of writing into the score the fingering and pedalling. There is a very useful little book called “Organ Practice” by Ann Marsden Thomas that explains how it is vital not to practise “wrong” fingering, because your brain can never completely unlearn what it has already learnt, and so changing fingering already imprinted in your brain requires a great deal of time and effort. 

 

Practising using the same fingering and pedalling is obviously many times more efficient than simply hoping that the right fingers and feet will eventually hit the right keys. You will simply get into bad habits, many of which you won’t even realise. On the organ, it is probably even more important than on the piano, firstly because on the piano you can cheat with the sustaining pedal, and secondly because the whole business of articulation on the organ is very closely related to fingering. 

 

Few organ scores have the fingering and pedalling already worked out for you. In any case, you need to work out your own, because the articulation is also related to your interpretation of the piece. Also, fingering is dependent on the size of your hand and the length of your fingers. Some organ composers, like Franck, notoriously had very large hands, and his works reflect this. You therefore have to find ways of solving the problems this throws up. The bass part of the manuals only opening section of his Chorale No. 1, for example, can be played with the feet, with the pedals simply coupled to the manuals.

 

To begin with, you will be guided by your organ teacher, who should be informed about different articulations and even fingering systems according to the era in which the piece was written. When Bach began his career, it is likely that he only used the old system, which made little use of the thumb, and often played runs or scales using only two fingers which crossed over each other. Heels were used sparingly, if at all in pedalling. This was possible because generally speaking keyboard pieces were played detaché, rather than legato. By the time he died, however, it appears that he had adopted a fingering system more akin to what we are used to today, although he probably combined the two methods in practice. 

 

You don’t need to play with old fingering systems, but you need to be aware of them, because you then understand that it can be perfectly acceptable in a Baroque piece to play two consecutive notes with the same finger or foot, or simply lift your hand and quickly move it along the keyboard. This can actually make playing Bach easier than it was forty or fifty years ago when legato playing was de rigeur.

 

When playing the post Baroque repertoire, which does require a legato touch, your fingering and pedalling will need to reflect this, which requires use of the heel, and finger and foot substitution, as well as other techniques such bridging pedals to play an interval of a third legato, or sliding a finger or foot from a black to a white note to create the impression of legato, or using both sides of your foot. Sometimes you need to be quite inventive, as when playing a legato passage with one foot whilst operating the swell pedal with the other! 

 

Sorting out the fingering on the organ can be quite laborious, sometimes involving redistributing the notes as printed from one hand to the other. But the time invested soon pays off if you stick to what you have written and practise it meticulously. In spite of what I have written above, however, don’t be afraid to change the fingering and pedalling you have worked out it you find a better solution. With experience your fingers sometimes find a better solution subconsciously. You need to be aware of this, because your mind can play tricks on you. Sometimes when you think you know a piece, you find your fingers have changed the fingering by themselves without you being conscious of it. In this case you need to ask yourself which is the better fingering. By all means change it, but then stick to your decision.

 

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Excellent advice from Zimbelstern.  I have a feeling that not everyone will agree with me, but, since it is important to learn the right notes and fingering/footing from the very start, I think it pays to begin by playing the music slowly, at a speed where you can guarantee accuracy and then gradually increase the speed to where it should be wile maintaining that accuracy. Bearing this in mind, there is one further consideration when fingering fast music. Often a passage will allow more than one perfectly viable fingering. Bearing in mind the difficulty in unlearning a wrong fingering, always make sure that the fingering you choose is one that is still going to work when you are playing the piece up to speed. I speak from experience!

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