copyright 2000
Cleveland Chapter
American Guild of Organists

Dean's Message May 2001

Occasionally after an organ recital, comments will be heard about the program being dry, academic, or boring. Although perhaps technically proficient, the musician failed to engage the listener. Perhaps this is the fault of the listener. Yet there is something that is communicated by performers that we call expression, passion, or soulfulness. String players have an easier time of this. Their instrument is cradled next to their body and responds to the slight differences of pressure they make. With the organ, expressive playing is more difficult. The pipes are often some distance from the performer, the impulse on the keys often travels electronically to the pipe, and except on some trackers, the way you play the key has little effect on the sound produced. Expressiveness is often communicated through body language. Here again the organist encounters difficulties. The organ may be in a loft or entirely hidden. On any instrument expressive body language may result in physical problems and hinder technique.

I think there are a number of things we can keep in mind to obtain expressiveness in our music. Mindfulness is one thing. Paying attention to what we are playing is an ongoing challenge. The mind races on to the next part of the service, what's happening later, or replaying a piece before church conversation. It wanders incessantly. Centering your mind before playing and then sticking with a melody, singing it in your head, helps keep you in the now of that performance.

As a practice technique, imagine how a string player would play a particular passage. If a melody is very familiar to you, take the time to play that melody very carefully. Do something different with it than you usually do. Put in more space between phrases. Often the silences in organ music (or any music) are more notable than the music. Sing the melody out loud with or without playing.

My last suggestion is to play the piano--not just to practice the organ pieces you are learning (always a good idea.) But play expressive music: Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy. This will remind you of the connection between your fingers and the keys. This will aid you in translating some of those ideas to the organ. No, you can't play the keys louder or softer, but you can shape a phrase, put a little break before the note, hold that note just an instant longer.

Save us from being boring, O Lord. If we err may it be on the side of passion. Blessed is the work of our hands and holy is our calling. Amen.

Fern Jennings

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