The Elderly Novice Virtual Organist


This page describes aspects of playing and practicing the (virtual) pipe organ. The comments are the opinions of a self-taught 67-year-old novice organist, and are from the horse's mouth, rather than rehashed erudition. They do not cover all aspects of playing the organ, as I do not offer views on matters about which I have no experience.

1 Technique

On this page, I do not offer my opinions on how to sit on the bench, whether to wear shoes, and other matters that tend to depend on the makeup of the individual (we are all different). I take the view that it is the sound that comes out of the organ that counts. So instead, I concentrate on aspects of technique directly concerned with providing the best realization of one's interpretation.

1.1 Comparison with the Piano

Many people will (like me) approach the organ after having had some experience on the piano. However, there are three basic ways in which keyboard touch on the organ is quite different to that on the piano:

No Touch Dynamics
The degree of force applied to a key on the organ makes no difference to how loud the sound is (therefore, only the minimum force necessary should be applied). On the piano, variations in touch can produce a wide range of dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo, with corresponding changes in timbre (fortissimo notes are higher in harmonics).
No Sustaining Pedal
The sound from the organ always ends abruptly when the key/pedal is released (there may of course be reverberation, which can last for several seconds). On the piano, the sustaining pedal can be used to sustain notes whose keys are no longer held down.
Indefinite Sustain
The volume of a note played on the organ remains constant while the key/pedal is depressed (thus notes can be sustained indefinitely). On the piano, the sound always decays (rapidly for a note struck fortissimo, more slowly in pianissimo).

The third point is essentially beneficial, and enables the long held notes characteristic of organ music. The first two points are limitations that require changes in technique.

Also, organs with mechanical action require a different touch than those with electrical action:

1.2 Dealing with Fixed Dynamics

This section deals with dynamic changes that can be applied by touch (articulation), rather than longer-term changes in volume (which can be achieved by Registration and Expression Pedals).

1.2.1 Emulation of Dynamic Emphases

There is no means on the organ to adjust dynamics on a per-note basis, as would be done on the piano to provide proper rhythm and articulation. For example, a bar in 4/4 time of repeated sixteenth notes would tend to sound shapeless if each note were played exactly the same. Instead, there should typically be an emphasis on the first note in the bar, with lesser emphases on the first of each other group of four sixteenth notes.

On the piano, this would be achieved simply by using rather more force (dynamic emphasis) on notes that are to be stronger. As this is not applicable to the organ, one must emphasize a note by holding down the key rather longer, thus increasing the ratio between sound and the whitespace that follows. This does not involve changes in the time intervals between notes, which in the case above should normally be regular for good, even playing.

This fine control over the duration of each key press is more difficult than dynamic emphasis by variable pressure. It is also not applicable to a full legato, as there must be gaps between the notes that can be adjusted in length. This may go some way towards explaining why organ playing frequently lacks rhythm, which I find a particular issue in the music of J S Bach.

This type of rhythmic emphasis is an example of articulation, which is about providing the required shape to the music. On the organ, this can only be done by carefully controlling the time at which each note is released. The importance of appropriate articulation on the organ cannot be overemphasized; it is a fundamental property of interpretation. And the lack of a sustaining pedal means that accuracy is critical.

1.2.2 Agogic Accents

Agogics refers to the introduction of variations in the time intervals between notes of the same value (not to be confused with varying the ratio between sound and whitespace, while maintaining equal intervals, as described in the previous section). This is akin to rubato, which is likely to be inappropriate. In the previous example of running sixteenth notes, it would result in unevenness that would normally be undesirable.

Another type of agogic accent is the introduction of a whitespace before note (thus delaying it). This is typically used with chords, especially in a cadence, and may be used with all instruments. However, due to the lack of dynamic accents, these accents are likely to be used much more frequently on the organ. So one should take care to avoid a monotony of them; this is ultimately self-defeating, and serves only to rob the music of any rhythmic flow.

1.2.3 Chords on the Organ Compared with the Piano

There is another issue that arises from the fixed volume per note that applies on the organ. On the piano, one can apply much more force to a single note to be played fortissimo than to each note in a big chord involving a fistful of notes. Try playing a bunch of notes as hard as possible with one hand, then playing one of the notes with the other hand; you will be surprised at how little force you must apply to balance the multiple notes in the other hand. As the volume of each note is the same on the organ, the volume corresponds directly to the number of notes played at the same time. Where the music is made up of individual notes (such as in a fugue), it will frequently be necessary to use a stronger registration than in chordal music.

1.3 Dealing with the Lack of Sustaining Pedal

On the piano, the sustaining pedal allows a decent legato between two notes/chords to be produced, even if they are played non legato. On the organ, a complete legato requires an absolutely smooth transition. On the manuals, consecutive notes must usually be played with different fingers; with chords, this can be difficult, and often requires finger substitutions. On the pedals, a legato between two notes requires either a change of foot, or a transition from heel to toe. However, although it will not give a pure legato, sliding over the naturals is often satisfactory, and often more appropriate.

Also, as the end of each note is clearly defined, playing note lengths accurately is vital. The sustaining pedal on the piano gives the player considerable latitude, with additional control over the cutoff point. This makes articulation on the organ all the more difficult; this is based on note lengths, and even small discrepancies can spoil the result.

The sustaining pedal can in other ways be used on the piano to cloud details that on the organ are presented with absolute clarity. This may mean that greater accuracy in articulation is required on the organ.

1.4 Coping with the Pedalboard

I have only limited experience, as I have not seriously used the heel technique. I had expected it to be difficult to play pedal parts as fast as I heard on recordings, but in fact I have easily been able to play them much faster! However, accuracy and appropriate articulation (ratio of note to silence) are another matter.

But what has proved surprisingly difficult is coordination between manuals and pedals, even in certain passages that sound easy to play. Another problem, of course, is having to read and play a third stave, especially with parts that are totally independent.

1.5 Caveats when using Couplers

Organists must beware of two situations in which keys may appear to be dead, or not have the required effect, as the result of using couplers.

1.5.1 Multiple Key Activation

Couplers make it possible for the same pipe(s) to be activated by different keys. As each pipe can only be opened once, such multiple activation is the same as a single activation (a second activation will have no effect).

The three basic cases of multiple activation, with examples that assume that no other couplers are used, are:

Division Only
With a coupler from manual II to I active (II / I), pressing a key on II with the corresponding key on I held will have no effect.
Octave Only
With a super-octave coupler on the same manual (I:4' / I), pressing a note C2 while C1 is pressed will sound only C3 (C2 was already activated from C1)
Division & Octave
If a super-octave coupler from II to I is used (II:4' / I), playing C2 on II while C1 on I is held will have no effect.

1.5.2 Use of Sub- or Super-Octave Couplers

The ranks normally cover only the range of the keyboard. Therefore where use of couplers produces a note outside the range of the keyboard, it will probably not sound.

A sub-octave coupler will not operate with the lowest octave of the keyboard, as there will be no corresponding pipes (unless the ranks involved have been extended to support this). Similarly, a super-octave coupler will not operate with the top octave of the keyboard, without extended ranks.

The limitation is greater with sub-octave couplers, as the top notes of the keyboard are less commonly used than the bottom ones. Because of the limited compass, these couplers are unlikely to be useful with the pedalboard.

2 Interpretation

Any written music gives scope for different interpretations. This arises from two facts:

  1. No written score can completely describe the composer's intentions.
  2. There is normally more than one pleasing way to play the music (including perhaps ways that the composer did not conceive).

With organ music, there is the additional issue of a huge variety of organs and registrations, which can result in completely different sounds. These make a big difference to the result, and are likely to affect other aspects of interpretation, such as an appropriate tempo. In other types of music, the scope for differences is much less.

These issues apply to all music to some degree, but especially to the music of J S Bach:

  1. In nearly all of his organ music, Bach left us only the notes; not even a tempo indication.
  2. The richness of Bach's music lends it many different interpretations, often bringing out quite different aspects of the music.

So never let anyone tell you that your interpretation of Bach is wrong; that is only their opinion, and it is they who are wrong to express this as a fact.

An interpretation is like a political opinion; the facts can be viewed in many different ways. As long as a view has a basis in the facts, it can be considered a valid one.

In the case of music, the facts are the written notes. Nonetheless, some aspects such as note lengths cannot be interpreted literally; if all notes of a given value are played exactly the same given length, the result is likely to be unsatisfactory. For example, it is usually a good idea to give repeated short notes some rhythm and form; as indicated above, this involves varying the note lengths.

In my view, interpretation on the organ involves three basic components:

basic tempo, and any variations including rubato and agogic accents.
As indicated above, on the organ, this is about playing each note with an appropriate length.
creating an appropriate sound from the available stops (including any use of expression pedals).

Two other elements may apply in some cases:

In Bach, there are many rich details, but these must not blind one to the overall perspective. I think that many get bogged down with these details - in other words, they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Never copy the playing of another organist. The interpretation and feel for the music must come from within; one must find one's own rhythm and style. It is, of course, reasonable to listen to a number of interpretations; inevitably some will appeal more than others, and will form a basis for one's own view. Having a good idea of what to aim for is the basis for the practice needed to realize that goal.


As the Grove article on rhythm indicates, it would be strange to criticize music for being very rhythmic; yet rhythm in "classical" music appears to be viewed by some as an anomaly. It seems to me that good rhythm is frequently lacking on the organ, perhaps in part because it is more difficult to achieve than on other instruments.

My particular viewpoint is the organ music of J S Bach. Not only was he the ultimate master of counterpoint with rich implicit harmonies - he was also great rhythmically!

Rhythm is the most basic element of music, and one's rhythmic feel for the music (or the lack thereof) involves both the Tempo and Articulation components of interpretation.

Causes of poor rhythm on the organ include:

Of course, some variations in the meter are often quite appropriate; a completely "perfect" rendering in this regard may sound more like that of a robot than a human being. The Tempo component of interpretation will frequently include accelerando and ritardando; rarely would it be appropriate to play an entire piece in absolutely strict time throughout. But without proper rhythmic feel, a piece will be shapeless and unappealing.

3 Practicing

By practicing, one should get by degrees closer and closer to achieving one's interpretation. This means that one must first have a goal in mind to aim at. This initial interpretation may be modified as one becomes more familiar with the music. But, as they say, one plays not with the hands and feet, but with the mind.

The free organ works of J S Bach are likely to intimidate many people. Their irregularity and complexity make them difficult to read and play. But with a reasonable amount of aptitude, patience and persistence will pay off. However, the amount of practice required to bring these works to performance standard may be considerable. And some passages are likely to require much more practice than others.

One should try to achieve the right balance between:

The best use of one's time will probably achieved on things that are challenging, but not overwhelming.

Fundamental to good practicing is the ability to identify and correct errors. This requires careful listening while playing (and additionally recording). To facilitate identification of errors, it is a good idea to use a sample set and registration that is revealing of any defects. Added reverb should be saved for performance (where it may be useful in masking defects!).

With the organ, much of the difficulty lies with coordination of all the parts; especially the manuals and pedals. I have usually found it to be easy to play the individual parts (right hand, left hand, pedals) alone, and often manuals and pedals separately. However, combining them has been very difficult, even once a good level of familiarity has been obtained.

For this reason, I try to practice as much as possible with all three parts together, from the initial sight-reading of the piece. So to familiarize myself with a new piece, I first try to play with all parts together, dead slow, with hesitations as needed. If this can be done with a majority of right notes, I believe this approach serves its purpose. It is reasonable, of course, to go back and correct any errors. If the same errors are made repeatedly, one should go back and play several times to avoid getting into a bad habit.

In some cases, this approach will simply not be reasonable. I was never a great sight-reader on the piano, and being confronted with three independent staves of complicated music (as one frequently encounters in J S Bach) can be too much to get one's eyes, head, hands, and feet around. Then it will be necessary to omit one of the parts. The obvious way to simplify the task is to play manuals and pedals separately. However, I find better to spend more time practicing with one hand (right or (especially) left) with pedals. This way, one gets more practice both at playing the pedals, and coordinating with the manuals.

It will often be necessary to play parts individually in order to establish appropriate fingerings/pedalings. It would be very laborious indeed to mark these for each individual note, so I mark them only when it is non-obvious or particularly important. There are also many places in Bach where one needs to decide which hand plays what, and the interaction between the two hands defeats any ideas of playing with hands separately.

Once a good level of familiarity is obtained (one can play at a reasonable tempo with a good level of reliability with few incorrect notes), one can progress to the next stage, which is to practice with a metronome. Initially, it is reasonable to do this at half tempo, or even less. At first, it will be difficult to synchronize with the metronome, but once playing is solid once can gradually increase the tempo.

As soon as the piece is approaching performance standard, it is a good idea to do complete recordings (and perhaps partial ones well before then). Playing back at say half tempo may be a good way to identify deficiencies that are not apparent at full tempo.