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Improving Theatre Organ Skill and Performance in Retirement

Playing or learning the organ, hints, tips and tricks, registrations, techniques, fingerings, ...
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Improving Theatre Organ Skill and Performance in Retirement

PostSun Oct 10, 2021 6:37 pm

For the past six years or so, after my retirement, I have been trying to revive my much-neglected hobby of playing the Theatre Organ. Along the way I think I've developed some processes that might help someone else in my situation. If you are interested, please read on. I'll do a short background, a description of my current Hauptwerk setup, and then the processes I have developed to improve my skill and performance. I am still a 'rank amateur' (pun completely intended)!

Back in the 60's my parents bought a small two-manual Conn organ because they liked organ music. It came with six free lessons and it was decided that I would take them (about age 14). The instructor was a great guy who played in a local restaurant/bar. As you might expect my training was on 'popular' music, mostly focused on the treble staff and chords. I continued the lessons through high school, and then stopped when I went to college. That was the extent of my formal training.

My parents upgraded the organ once (the new one came with a Leslie speaker), and gifted me that organ when I got married. I upgraded twice, with my final purchase being a used Conn 652. I continued to 'tinker' with this but with work and other commitments it was haphazard at best.

I retired in 2015 and decided I would have two hobbies -- woodturning and the organ. I began doing a little experimentation with virtual theatre pipe organ, first with Miditzer, and later with Hauptwerk. When we decided to move into a 55+ community I had to decide between moving the big, heavy Conn (which was getting very hard to maintain), or expand the Hauptwerk setup. I decided on the latter.

This is still a work in progress, but I have a pretty functional unit. Here are the current components:

    Three M-Audio 61 Keyboards
    25-note Lowrey Pedalboard with six toe studs (for percussion)
    Two Behringer Launchpads
    Homemade Stepper Rail with 000, xx0 through xx9 and +/-
    Two 8" studio monitors, 8" subwoofer and headphones
    Hauptwerk 6.x
    Paramount 341

From my professional career I understood the steps to improving other processes, so I tried to apply those ideas to my organ playing. I knew that I had to learn to play a piece the same way each time. I could always improvise after that, but consistency was the starting point. I got a copy of MuseScore and learned how to use it and began the process of scoring a set of songs that I already knew somewhat. My goal was for a song to be one or two pages max, and since I was still not very good at reading both staffs, decided to stay with a treble staff and chords. I learned how to add occasional sub-harmonies and other techniques to the basic line and converted about 20 songs to this format. They are all printed on heavy paper and stored in one three-ring notebook.

To develop the arrangements I listened to various theatre organists, other organists/keyboardists, and instrumentals. I tried to make them interesting, a little challenging, but still playable with my skillset.

My next 'ah-ha' moment came as a result of a comment in this forum about 'Stepper' pistons -- something I was not familiar with. Changing registrations at various points throughout the arrangement consistently meant I needed some way to communicate on the score which combination to use. Trying to 'code' specific general or divisional combinations was a challenge. Programming a stepper sequence for each song was the better solution and easier to describe, so I made a second pass through my arrangements to create and add those. I simply enter the stepper 'code' at the appropriate point in the arrangement. I limit the number of codes to 10 (0-9) and occasionally will use a coupler to enhance a combination (i.e., second verse, etc).

So, that's my process. I'm enjoying the arranging part and increasing my understanding of music notation and theory. I'm playing more, but still more for my own amusement than entertaining others. And it's a complete change of pace from woodturning.

Hope you find this helpful. I am open to any suggestions or improvements.
David Muehlbauer
Mesa, Arizona USA

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Re: Improving Theatre Organ Skill and Performance in Retirem

PostWed Oct 13, 2021 12:22 am

Check out Tom Horton's book of original compositions in theatre organ style. ... vol-1.html




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Re: Improving Theatre Organ Skill and Performance in Retirem

PostWed Oct 13, 2021 6:50 am

As you live in America it’s possible that you’re unaware of the playing of some of the older British organists; their very individual styles might give you some ideas. Most remarkable was Reginald Porter-Brown (1910 – 1982), who developed a style making extensive use of second touch. By playing melody and accompaniment in the left hand he was able to extemporise an obbligato in his right hand; and thus produce unusually elaborate arrangements. He was known as “the organist with three hands”. He can be heard demonstrating this technique here:

Reg was also unusual in being equally at home in classical repertoire, such as the Fugue from the Reubke sonata:

For some reason the big commercial record companies took very little notice of Reg, and most of his recordings are for private producers such as Deroy. Recordings posted on youtube vary enormously in quality, and I’m afraid that one or two of them do his memory very little justice. He made one 78 rpm record for Decca, which is of interest in showing his earlier style, before he had developed second touch to such a high level. These two tracks have been “cleaned up” electronically. This is a Compton organ, fitted with that builder’s “Melotone” attachment – an electronic system using waveforms which were picked up electrostatically from rotating discs. You can have fun deciding which of the sounds are electronic: ... fA&index=3

This very effective arrangement shows what Reg could do on an organ of modest size – another Compton, 3 manuals, about 11 ranks:

Armsbee Bancroft died in 1989, and was never a full-time organist, but in my opinion his standard of playing equalled the best of his contemporaries:

Armsbee made seven recordings between 1978 and 1986; some of these come up occasionally on ebay. The most interesting are the two LPs recorded at Ossett Town Hall – if you’re able to play vinyl!

The American style of theatre organ playing is noticeably different from the British – most of our instruments were smaller, with 8 ranks over 3 manuals being quite common, whereas in the USA between twenty and thirty five ranks seems quite usual.

Of British organists who developed their careers on purely electronic instruments, Harry Stoneham was one of the most talented:
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Re: Improving Theatre Organ Skill and Performance in Retirem

PostMon Nov 01, 2021 10:18 pm

Hello David:

Sorry I didn't contribute to this thread earlier. Just a few comments. The M-Audio keyboards are a popular choice for off self or retail MIDI controllers. I purchased one along with a Behringer UMX-610 and tried them both out for a side-by-side comparison and felt the UMX had a better organ feel to it. At the time it was only about $20 more expensive.

I can see how you the stepper can benefit your setup, especially if you can auto-detect one of the M-Audio buttons on each keyboard to be a "Next" function, your registration changes should be quite fluid. Just know that the Stepper or Piston Sequencer is more common on Classical organs. That concept hasn't migrated over to the Modern theatre organ where General, Divisional, and hand registrations are still the norm. I mention this because if you get comfortable with a few arrangements it may be a little difficult to adjust to a traditional piston layout on another theatre organ which most likely lacks this feature. Many theatre pipe organs use an electronic relay. The ones I've seen have programming available for a piston sequencer but its never implemented. If you only plan on only playing your own rig, then ignore what I just said :lol:

Finally, you are spot on when it comes to learning the play the TO by listening and further listening to different organists as well as big bands, Youtube, Contrebombarde, and the ATOS radio streammakes that fairly easy. Here is a link to a PIpeDreams archive Everything Old is New Again. I actually heard this when it first aired 20 years ago . . yikes!

It shows a wide spectrum of what the theatre organ is capable of. Basically the program has only one "console riser" as you'd expect the rest are extremely varied, including the closing music played under the credits!


Danny B.

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