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Should Organists Play The Piano?


Guest Andrew Butler
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Guest Andrew Butler

I once read an interview with David Sanger, in which (I think) he said words to the effect that playing the piano is bad for organ technique. One often hears the opposote viewpoint. What do others think please?

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I once read an interview with David Sanger, in which (I think) he said words to the effect that playing the piano is bad for organ technique.  One often hears the opposote viewpoint. What do others think please?

 

 

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An interesting question, which I've always wondered about, being definitely a "non-pianist" to all intents and purposes.

 

Broadly speaking, German organ-music doesn't require an especialy pianistic technique, with the notable exception of Reger and Reubke, plus a few other things I can't remember off-hand.

 

French music, on the contrary, often calls for a tremendously pianist technique; especially in works by such as Vierne and Dupre, to name but two.

 

It could also be argued that Liszt was a fairly competent pianist!

 

In playing contrapuntal music, the techniques of finger-substitution assist the absolute accuracy required of such music, and it is for this exact reason that skilled pianists often cannot easily play Bach on the piano.

 

In fact, the techniques required in playing the piano and the harpsichord are completely different; the harpsichord being much nearer to the technique required of organ-playing.

 

David Sanger certainly has a point, I feel, but I wonder if there isn't a greater truth. Perhaps a really competent organist must explore piano-technique, but also learn finger-substitution technique thoroughly at the organ or harpsichord, and then combine them and modify them as the music demands.

 

Other than Feranc Liszt and Julius Reubke, the most obvious candidate in the dual, (rather than duel) virtuosity stakes, just had to have been Saint-Saens.

 

It didn't seem to harm them!

 

MM

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Playing the piano doesn't seem to have done much harm either to Jane Parker-Smith, Wayne Marshall, Jeremy Filsell, Francis Grier...

 

Let's say you're a pupil just learning the organ. If you play a tracker action instrument you may be OK, but if you only ever play an electro- or tubular-pneumatic one, how are you going to ensure you develop proper finger control and strength if you [a] can't feel the point at which the key sounds and have no aural means of telling whether your fingers are producing an even touch?

 

Does it matter? Personally, I think it does. After all, it's your fingers that are at the business end of producing the music.* They need to be developed so they can translate the player's every whim instantly and accurately - and that means they must have the utmost control. I just don't believe you can achieve that if you only play the organ to the exclusion of all else.

 

Also, I'd venture to suggest that the piano repertoire is more technically challenging than the organ one. If you have a superlative piano technique you can probably play anything the organ repertoire throws at you. It's certainly not true the other way round.

 

Of course, it goes without saying that you don't play the organ like you play the piano. Ignoring the super-humans mentioned above, I think that in practice most organists would find it difficult to develop fingers sensitive enough to be a thoroughly first-rate pianist. But competent pianists need have no difficulty in learning the articulation and fingering techniques necessary to be first-rate organists.

 

These days I play the piano much less than I used to. My technique is also much less than it used to be. I'm sure the lousy keyboards on my Wyvern are largely to blame, but I'm equally sure it's not just down to that.

 

I really must take up the piano again...

 

* Yes, I know the feet are too, but I don't know too many pianists who play the piano with their feet.

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Guest Andrew Butler

Interesting points - thank you both.

 

I'm sure the lousy keyboards on my Wyvern are largely to blame

 

This surprises me - I play a Wyvern 3-decker at a church not far from me for the odd funeral, and I find the touch to be excellent

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As someone who classes themselves as a half decent organist and pianist, I feel that it is perfectly acceptable to be able to play both so long as:

 

1) You realise and make adjustments for the differences between the instruments

 

2) You don't attempt to play similar repertoire on both

 

3) You enjoy and work at different instrument-specific techniques.

 

 

I play jazz piano with a little romantic on the side; whilst on the organ I play Baroque with a little French stuff to keep me on my toes... but I never attempt to play organ music on the piano or vice versa.

 

Does anyone else work like this?

 

MB :D

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Interesting points - thank you both.

This surprises me - I play a Wyvern 3-decker at a church not far from me for the odd funeral, and I find the touch to be excellent

 

I suspect most recent digital organs use the same type of keyboard, which use plastic keys but have a simulated "tracker" touch (ie a bit of top resistance). I have a 3m Phoenix, and had to make the difficult decision of whether to spend more (a lot more) on wooden keys, or accept the standard plastic. I went with the standard ones, but I sometimes regret it. I think maybe the difference is in the weight of the key - somehow a spring-loaded plastic key doesn't give the same effect as the inertia of a heavier material.

 

But then the wood-cored plastic keys on the electric action pipe organ I play in Church are no better, and rather spongy in feel, although the plastic looks classier (ie less white!).

 

Anyway, returning to the thread subject, I find that playing the piano is little direct help in developing organ technique. I am not even sure that playing a good, light tracker action really helps - I've always found such instruments much easier to play, particularly in coordinating the pedal and manual parts and in phrasing. But then it seems more difficult to return to an electric action organ.

 

Maybe the answer is that where possible we should practice mainly on a similar type of instrument to that used for the "performance" - in line with most other musicians!

 

JJK

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Maybe the answer is that where possible we should practice mainly on a similar type of instrument to that used for the "performance" - in line with most other musicians!
I'm not sure this would really do the player any favours. I recently attended a joint recital by student members of our organists' associtaion. Most - in fact I think all - of those playing normally play electro-pneumatic action instruments. This recital, however, was on a IIP tracker and there were several comments afterwards about how off-putting they found the action.
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Also, I'd venture to suggest that the piano repertoire is more technically challenging than the organ one. If you have a superlative piano technique you can probably play anything the organ repertoire throws at you. It's certainly not true the other way round.

 

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Presumably this is immediately true of anything for manuals only but surely a little conversion will be required for anything with a moderately demanding pedal part, especially if the hands are also fully occupied ?

 

I think I basically agree with VH's views, but I want to ask a different question of those who play both. What are the limits, if any, to the ability of the piano to accompany effectively large gatherings of untrained singers ? I ask this because at the church I attend at least one hymn per week has to be modern and is invariably accompanied on the piano - well I think it is actually a digital piano to be accurate. The DoM invariably manages to extract far more decibels from this than he does when playing the organ (which I thought was the most pusillanimous thing I had ever encountered until I heard it in the hands of a stand-in: for reasons I shall not go into I have been at pains not to let anyone here know I might have some familiarity with what the various buttons and switches are for). I find the sound excruciating even before we start considering the tune because ff seems to be the lowest dynamic marking ever employed. I like the piano but I am seriously tempted to vandalise this specimen. Is this an abnormal reaction on my part or is it the case that the piano is not necessarily as good as the organ at accompanying and leading untrained singers in unfamiliar and unrehearsed music ?

 

Brian Childs

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Guest Andrew Butler

Playing regularly as I do on 6 different organs (4 churches, 2 crems) not to mention occasional funerals at at least as many again, the furthest being nearly 50 miles from home (well, someone has to make up for those without a church appointment!! :lol::D ) it is not always feasible to practice on the instrument upon which I am due to perform next, I tend to practice at my main church, which has a not particularly good Viscount, and perforce ahve to "note bash" at home on the piano. I do not have room for an organ and a piano (would love a 3 man Phoenix-houses must be bigger in Surrey!! ;) )

 

Would ditching the piano in favour of an organ make me a 2nd-class musical citizen? (A private teaching colleague once asked me to accompany a flute student of hers in a Grade 3 AB exam - until she discovered I was an organist! She asked me to stand down in favour of a "real pianist", never having heard me play!!!!!! :D )

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This surprises me - I play a Wyvern 3-decker at a church not far from me for the odd funeral, and I find the touch to be excellent
It's because I went for a cheap model where all the expense had gone into the spec rather than the hardware. Always a mistake and I should have known better. This was 10 years ago and even in those days the keyboards of Wyverns more expensive models were better than those on their bottom end models. These keyboards were sourced from Italy and used a small plastic nipple under the key to lift the key when the finger pressure is released. The nipples were prone to splitting or collapsing and the keys would then start making a clicking sound when depressed. After I had had about three replacement sets of keyboards Wyvern persuaded the Italian firm to redesign the nipples to make them more resilient. That solved the clicking problem, but the nipples have clearly become very worn (which, with the heavy use they've had would be understandable) and the keys no longer have any "feel" about them. Money was tight and you get what you pay for so I'm not moaning, but if ever I get a new organ I'll be trying not to make that mistake a second time.
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Guest Lee Blick

Wyvern organs in the 80's and 90's were pretty poor in my opinion. The latest models are very good indeed. Recently I went to have a look at them at their showroom in Chobham, Surrey. For a home organ I would recommend them.

 

As to the technique vs organ technique discussion. I would have thought organ playing particularly on heavy tracker action could have a bad influence on piano playing. At University, my first post was on a Father Willis with a heavy heavy action and for a while my piano-playing was affected but after a while my stamina at the piano improved a lot and it helped me in the end.

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Wyvern organs in the 80's and 90's were pretty poor in my opinion.  The latest models are very good indeed.  Recently I went to have a look at them at their showroom in Chobham, Surrey.  For a home organ I would recommend them.

 

 

....... but one needs to be careful to distinguish between the two types of Wyvern model. The cheaper ones are imported (from Content, I think), possibly with modified samples, and seem to offer value in terms of the number of stops per £. The more expensive models use Phoenix technology which is in a different league*. Wyvern no longer have their own in-house technology, and the consoles are either imported or made by Renatus in Devon.

 

*But not up there with a good pipe organ, of course. And anyway, let's not hi-jack this thread, which is on a different subject!

 

JJK

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....... but one needs to be careful to distinguish between the two types of Wyvern model. The cheaper ones are imported (from Content, I think), possibly with modified samples, and seem to offer value in terms of the number of stops per £. The more expensive models use Phoenix technology which is in a different league*. Wyvern no longer have their own in-house technology, and the consoles are either imported or made by Renatus in Devon.

 

*But not up there with a good pipe organ, of course. And anyway, let's not hi-jack this thread, which is on a different subject!

 

JJK

Yes, the 'less expensive' ones are made in the same factory as Content, the voicing and disposition are different though. When I went to Chobham in february, they had a 2nd hand Content which was almost identical to the Sonata (which I ordered) except the voicing was 'european' and there was a noticable difference in the action. (Most actions for most mass produced toasters are made by Fatar). I found the level of 'pluck' very comfortable and enjoyable to play. I hope this extra resistance and positivity will help me improve my technique.

(I am really rotten piano player!)

Regards,

Oliver.

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I once read an interview with David Sanger, in which (I think) he said words to the effect that playing the piano is bad for organ technique.  One often hears the opposote viewpoint. What do others think please?

 

I don't know about being bad for technique - mine couldn't get any worse - but I find a harpsichord very useful for practicing organ music on. The piano's ok at a push, but the harpsichord has that difference of touch and technique that is similarish to a mechanical action organ, and if you have a 2 manual version, is great for doing things like trios, etc. (minus the pedal, of course!).

 

I was lucky enough to get a harpsichord for nowt a couple of months ago. :( It was legless and has taken a long time to settle down pitch wise, but I wouldn't part with it, especially now a friend has made me some legs for it.

 

Next challenge is to renew the plectra on the 8' stop...

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I once read an interview with David Sanger, in which (I think) he said words to the effect that playing the piano is bad for organ technique.  One often hears the opposote viewpoint. What do others think please?

I recall one day during a piano lesson, my piano teacher sighed and said he wished I didn't play the piano as if it were an organ! On the way out afterwards, we bumped into my organ teacher who, upon hearing this, scowled and muttered that it was all very well, but he wished I would stop playing the organ as if it were a piano. Oh dear!

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