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Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

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Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby Neumie » Fri Apr 29, 2016 11:10 pm

A couple of years ago, the man who went on to become my organ teacher invited me to attend a "hymn sing". He showed up to a church, sat down at a piano, opened a typical four-part hymnal, and asked anyone in the audience to call out favorite hymn numbers for him to play as everyone sang along. From the banter in between songs, I gathered that there were some hymns he had never played or even heard before. I was very impressed to see him nail each hymn PERFECTLY, even the ones he had never heard or played before.

I've spent the last year (okay, three) learning the basics on the piano and I'm now trying to get serious about the organ using Hauptwerk and an old (but MIDI) Rodgers organ. We just used the piano as a learning tool.

My teacher is thoroughly skilled on the organ, too, and has taught a few people to transition from the piano to the organ using the Flor Peeters books. The Peeters books heavily emphasize perfect legato using "rules" of when to lift off a note to create a gap and when to legato a note into the next note. I'm not using the Peeters books, but my teacher is trying to drum into me the rules of getting a perfect organ sound and not the sound of a pianist playing the organ. ie, You can't lift off the notes on the organ like you do on the piano. The organ is a completely different discipline.

So now I have some common four-part hymns on the music stand and I can sight-read them maybe 85% correctly on the piano. A few days work and I can play simple hymns without errors. Of course, the piano has the sustain pedal and allows me to lift my hands and reposition them however I want to hit the next four-note chord. The same obviously doesn't work on an organ. Meticulous fingering is necessary to have the fingers always available to legato into the next notes (unless there's a break or a repeated note or phrase ending).

I made the comment to my teacher, "I'm going to work my butt off until I can do on the organ what you did on the piano at that hymn sing." ie, I don't want to emphasize a limited "repertoire" of organ hymns. I want to be able to open a hymnal in any church and be able to play four-part hymns perfectly from sight.

He surprised me with the answer, "That will never happen. You can arrive at that point on the piano because of the sustain pedal, which will get you out of a lot of fingering dilemmas. But on the organ, you need to take each hymn and write in some fingering notes IN ADVANCE."

I said, "What about so-and-so ... (a locally famous lady at a big organ church who grew up on the organ, has her doctorate in organ studies, and has played organ professionally all her adult life and gives big concerts, etc.) ...?"

He said, "Even her. I'm willing to bet even she can't take a hymnal and play unfamiliar four-part hymns if she hasn't already learned them and fingered out the tricky spots in advance."

I wanted to ask this of the forum. Is that true in all cases? Do advanced organists - even organists who might be exceptional at sight-reading on the piano - still need to practice hymns and work out fingering in advance?

Or can an organist get to the point in his skills where the logic of fingering is so deeply conditioned into the subconscious that playing an unfamiliar four-part hymn at full tempo is do-able?
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby Opus1954 » Sat Apr 30, 2016 1:15 am

To answer the question in your subject line, I am saying 'yes'. I would like to add that this could also be possible for the average organist (I am not a professional myself).

My teacher had me analyze the harmony of hymns, bach chorales and other music (grieg was always interesting). When playing hymns he would stop me and ask what chord it was. Then he would ask me to memorize the chord progressions of a line, and then play it in a different key. Hard work, but it paid off. When playing I realize that I don't read four notes, rather I read chords and progressions from the bass up.

For fingering, I do not write down anything for hymns. I guess that practicing scales, triads, and all the other "boring stuff" had impact some years ago. As an organist I slide fingers and thumbs over the keys when legato playing is needed. I had to do that also when I was young: exercises to slide from thumb to pinkie on the same key, and back. Not to fun then... but thinking back... it was a good time!
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby engrssc » Sat Apr 30, 2016 1:55 am

What adds to the "learning curve" also is the timing. Getting that right the first time can sometimes be tricky esp with an unknown hymn.

For me, somehow I prefer flat keys and many times "translate" sharp keys into flat keys. Not sure if that's just me or if others do similar things.

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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby hovudverk » Sat Apr 30, 2016 4:30 am

The organ doesn't have a sustain pedal, but the organ pedals help a lot. Playing the base with your feet dramatically increases the range of possible legato fingerings for the three remaining parts. Even soloing out the soprano on a different manual isn't difficult once you get the hang of playing the alto and tenor with your left hand. Many schools of organ playing also expect advanced organists to be able to transpose a four part hymn, at sight, into any key (or at least the common ones).
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby mdyde » Sat Apr 30, 2016 4:44 am

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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby telemanr » Sat Apr 30, 2016 8:22 am

i don't have trouble playing unfamiliar hymns unless you insist that each and every note must be played with the absolute most perfect legato due to perfect choice of fingering. I've been asked to play a complete service with no advanced preparation due to an emergency. If I felt I had to practise unfamiliar hymns first I would have said no.
Besides which, absolute legato at all times is not always appropriate.
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby polikimre » Sat Apr 30, 2016 8:27 am

Also when sight-reading a sneaky trick is to leave out some notes. This helps with the fingering. You will never notice that some alto notes were missing, for example.
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby Andrew Grahame » Sat Apr 30, 2016 8:30 am

This thread rings a bell for me in more ways than one. As an untrained teenage organist pressed into converting my piano skills at the console in my local church back in the early 1970's I often heard parishioners and clergy refer to a "simple hymn tune". At times this phrase was levelled at my early efforts at service accompaniment in a negatively critical fashion, as if the task I was attempting - at that time without guidance or support - was elementary. They were wrong at several levels.

I believe there is no such thing as a "simple hymn tune", and I make that statement today as a trained organist and experienced professional music teacher.

SATB vocal harmony is, as its name suggests - vocal writing. It's not keyboard writing. If an SATB hymn tune is to be played on a keyboard instrument then the player must deal with a range of issues arising from the fact that this musical texture must be adapted to a performance medium other than that for which it was originally composed and/or arranged.

Basic rules of SATB harmony say that the interval between the alto and soprano voices should not exceed an octave - which by coincidence just happens to make those parts fall comfortably under the right hand. Musically it's a very good thing to have an interval greater than an octave between the bass and tenor, but this makes it difficult if not impossible to manage those parts solely with the left hand. If using manuals only, wide stretches can be managed if the right hand helps out with the high tenor notes, leaving the left hand free to move low down the keyboard to play only the bass part.

When transferring this texture to the organ, the pedals take the bass part and the left hand takes the tenor - and only the tenor. When using pedals for hymns, the left hand must not double the bass part. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that the nominal lowest note in SATB texture is F in the bottom octave of the pedalboard, rising up to and occasionally just above Middle C.

Separating the bass and tenor parts to the pedal and left hand eliminates the need for the right hand to help out, but this requires independence of the left hand and feet - a vital skill in organ technique which challenges any student organist. Many beginners and self-taught players - including myself more than 45 years ago - often get around this by making their own alterations to the texture - modifying the bass part so it can be picked out staccato in cinema organ fashion by the left foot only in the bottom octave of the pedalboard, then creating an ad-hoc mish-mash out of the remaining parts. It's inartistic at best, usually falling way short of the musical effect resulting from playing the notes as written.

To your initial question - yes, experienced players do sight-read SATB vocal harmony at the organ, but that skill doesn't just happen overnight. Everyone starts from scratch at some stage. When finally able to take formal organ lessons I was taught to work out pedalling for hymns, pencil it in if necessary and practise it. Normally when marking pedalling, indications for the right foot are placed above the pedal staff, but there's no space to do this in a typical hymnal. When writing pedalling for two staves, it's a good idea to rule a line just underneath the bass part. Pedal markings for the left foot are then placed below the line, and those for the right foot go above.

I suggest that you move away from the piano and use the organ for practising hymn tunes. To begin with, it's much easier when using pedals to deal with intervals wider than the octave between the bass and tenor parts. Second, practising left hand and pedal with the tenor and bass parts respectively will not only help you to learn hymn tunes securely as written, but will also support developing your LH/Ped independence in general.

Get hold of a hymn-playing tutor such as "The Organist's Hymnbook" by Anne Marsden Thomas. This will lead you steadily through the process of mastering hymn tunes at the organ.

Be patient, and expect to spend time practising hymn tunes just as you would anything else.

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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby macpianoman » Sat Apr 30, 2016 9:49 am

I actually started organ lessons at the age of 10. I started piano 6 months later and did both simultaneously for many years. I grew up Baptist so playing and improvising hymns started early and by the age of 12 I could take any hymn or song and either play the exact notes or improvise the song any way I wanted. So I guess playing legato was never an issue. It was all built into the early organ lessons. As some have said it's all about chord structure. I was also taught on the organ if I wanted to and still do sometimes to play the melody line in octaves and fill in the other harmony notes in between. This helped especially on unfamiliar hymns for the congregation. I never practiced hymns beforehand I always just show up and played what was there. I say practiced because now I actually will go through the song to see if I can enhance it.

I always add extra helper notes when I play congregation songs. Growing up at church the pianist always put the sharped songs into flats. I realized if I was going to do this for real I need to learn sharps so I worked on classical pieces in 4, 5, 6, and 7 sharps. Now I always play in what's written key wise or I can transpose it usually in my head. The organ has a transposer but the few times I used it I forgot to change it back. :D
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby RichardW » Sat Apr 30, 2016 10:03 am

My sight reading is poor and I have stopped buying any score with the name Liszt on it. Life is too short! So one of my favourite sight reading stories is this one:

On 26 May 1861, at a dinner party at the Halévys at which Franz Liszt was present. Liszt performed an unpublished work of his and claimed that it was so difficult that there were only two people in the world that could play it: himself and Hans von Bülow. Bizet promptly gave a faultless performance of it reading at sight from the unpublished manuscript.

If you think that kind of thing is not possible with organ music the read this:

But it was while still at the Royal College that George Thalben Ball first came to the attention of Walford Davies, who wanted a good sight-reader to assist with a choir-training course. A short time later, one morning, after Matins at Paddington, two boys came up to the organ and said "Would you mind, please, coming down to Temple to play for the afternoon service. Dr Davies has been taken ill, and he cannot play." It was Cantata Sunday and the Cantata was ten movements from the Mass in B minor by Bach. Mr Ball was informed by the boys that Walford had left a full orchestral score on the organ and that "he required it putting down one semi-tone" in order to compensate for the sharpness of the organ.

The performance must have been more than satisfactory, for soon afterwards, Mr Ball was asked to attend a practice at Temple. George Dixon, who was then head boy, described how Walford had suddenly announced that Mr Ball was going to play some Chopin. "Ball, play to the boys", he directed. Dixon remarked: "we loved him from that moment."

Now I just accept that there are people with the most amazing abilities in all walks of life.

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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby Marc Cerisier » Sat Apr 30, 2016 7:56 pm

Depending on your training, I would suggest that playing Bach from an orchestral score is quite easy--as long as you can read figured bass, you just read the continuo line, and make it up as you go. Pulling the main themes for the right hand from the violin 1 part, and occasionally the winds, you get the bass from the continuo (cello) line, and then fill in the chords from the figures.

As to the original question, my answer would be yes. I couldn't consider a player of any instrument a true professional if they can't even sightread basic hymns. I am certainly aware of some with prestigious titles and degrees that can't, and I really don't regard them highly at all. All of the organists I personally know and trust to sub for me can sightread anything we do--from four part hymns thru choral anthems. Whenever I'm teaching organ lessons, I put something random in front of the student every week, to help build sightreading skills.
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby Mike 353 » Sat Apr 30, 2016 9:27 pm

I was amazed that in college (I attended a conservatory of music) there were piano performance majors who could not sightread a hymn. Although basically self taught as an organist, I have always just considered it part of the job to be able to play any hymn that might be asked for by the congregation, and in several of my churches, before the evening service, I would ask for favorites that I would play for the offertory. If I hadn't heard a request before, I still played it, period. In the church of which that we are presently members, and attend on Sunday night and Wednesday evening prayer service, I do not get the hymn list until I sit down at the piano, and often the hymns for the evening will be by congregational request. Occasionally, there are some surprises!
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby ConnMan » Mon May 02, 2016 10:34 am

I am not even a good organist let alone an advanced organist. I have never had a piano lesson, but started directly with organ when I was in elementary school, I found myself in an unpaid position at a small church after leaving college. (I was not a music major.) Before the service, there was a gathering where people requested hymns. I played the organ for the regular service, but there was only a piano in the assembly hall for the hymn singing. I was initially on edge, worried about someone calling out something that I had never seen before. I do believe that most people can sightread hymns. We may not play every note as written. We may omit a note here and there. We may add or subtract some notes. I agree that it is primarily a matter of chords and cord progressions. No one will notice the deviations as long as they are not glaring mistakes. I feel that sometimes it is beneficial to make some changes. A friend once told me that he considered the pedal part to be improvisation so he takes wide liberties. What I learned from that job was that any given group of people will tend to enjoy a narrow range of hymns. Each week it was likely that the same handful of hymns were requested, and that over several weeks, you could count on about twenty or thirty hymns to be the extent of the range. Once you learn those, you have it made.

I recently acquired the new Presbyterian hymnal, "Glory to God." I have been working my way through the 800+ hymns. Some are old standards in new keys to adapt to a lower voice range in the congregation. Some have new harmonizations. There are many pieces that are completely new to me. I find that the more that I sightread, the better I get. I have the most trouble when I try to overthink instead of just reading the music. Working my way through this hymnal has renewed my interest in hymns. I would highly recommend this new hymnal, especially the accompaniment edition. The pew edition has a substantial number of hymns in unision only with chord notation while the accompaniment edition has full SABT notation. It comes in a two volume, spiral-bound set with a MSRP of $85 but can be found for less. ... egory=phym
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Re: Can advanced organists sight-read four-part organ music?

Postby claireklein » Wed May 04, 2016 2:58 pm

Once you are able to use the pedals to play the bass part, playing the upper three voices on the manuals in a legato style becomes much easier. The left hand usually takes the tenor, and the right hand takes the soprano, but the alto can be played by whichever hand is in a better position to reach it and this really smooths things out. I've been playing for years now, and can play most hymns at sight. If there's anything I will pencil in, it might be a few pedal markings and alto notes that will be taken by the left hand. It takes a minute to do and then ready for Sunday.
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