Weekend Chops Builder: Pop Organ Workshop - Touch, Tone, Rhythm Tips

August 13, 2016

[This article first appeared in the January 1978 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

ONE OF OUR WORKSHOP regulars, Walter Derthick of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suggested a number of good subjects for a session, and they add up to a talky kind of get-together this time.

First of all, if you too are having trouble getting the organ publications you want, that is study books, arrangements, etc., if your local sheet music dealer doesn't have the materials and won't accommodate you by ordering them (most will, by the way), then either check the publisher's address in any available publications and write to the publisher directly asking for a catalogue/list of their publications, or write to me and I'll do my best to get your request to the publishers. Publishers prefer that you purchase their publications from local dealers, but they will usually supply you directly when the local dealers refuse to special-order for you.

I agree that reading the bass clef is extremely valuable, if not absolutely necessary. In recent years, there has been so much emphasis placed on the keyboard harmony (chord) approach to performing, using a single-note melody and chord symbols, and the next step, improvisation, that some of the traditional values and approaches have been overlooked. Of course the ability to create an arrangement is extremely desirable, but the development of that ability, the sources of knowledge of the various harmonic and performing techniques involved, can be found in the study books and arrangements written by more knowledgeable musicians and is usually notated in both the treble and bass clefs.

Information, note reading, and exercises for ease in reading the bass clef can be found in theory studies and in any basic book/primer in a traditional study series. Traditional/legitimate music teachers are able and eager to teach reading the bass clef.

Regarding "touch," the three basic touches are as follows: 1. Legato—smooth and connected. Legato is considered the most important touch, and on the organ the technique is more demanding than on the piano. Physically, in moving from one key to another, think of a see-saw. As a finger depresses one key, start to release the other key. There should be no cessation of sound in moving from note to note; also you should not hear two notes overlapping, or sounding at the same time.

2. Staccato—short, quick, and disconnected. Staccato is indicated by a dot over or under the head of the note. The action can be described as "touching a hot iron." Lower-level players should be careful not to speed up the tempo with the rapid hand movement required for this touch.

3. Non-legato—full note value, but disconnected. Played as described, this touch is desirable for percussive registrations and to emphasize certain passages and is useful for performance on pipe organs as well as electronic organs played in acoustically live auditoriums. The non-legato touch adds clarity to flowing musical passages performed in a room that has excessive reverberation.

General registration advice would include mention of the four families of tone. (Timbre, pronounced "tam-bruh" is tone quality, a distinguishing feature of the organ as compared to the piano, which only offers dynamics, loud and soft volume, for musical expression.) Diapason, Flute, Reed, and String are the four families. Diapason is a typical organ sound. Only the organ makes the sound of the Diapason. When strings are emphasized in the Diapason, it is called a String Diapason. When Flutes are emphasized, it's called a Flute Diapason. Flutes have the pure round sound. Tibia is a form of flute with a bit of woodwind added. The Reed family includes trumpet/brass, oboe, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, etc., and String includes violin, 'cello, etc. Some simple guidelines would be to use contrast and be aware of balance. If the melody is played with a "round" setting, use strings and reeds in addition to flutes in the accompaniment, and vice-versa. Be sure the accompaniment setting isn't too loud for the melody, but loud enough to balance and provide enough support so that the melody doesn't sound too thin.

The bass should provide just enough support for the left hand chord when it is sustained, with emphasis on the 16', with perhaps some 8' added. Regarding bass pedal settings; I speak of the 16' as "depth" and the 8' as "clarity." For sustained bass notes, emphasize depth with a little clarity. For rhythm pedaling, accent the 8' clarity and use a little depth if you wish. The volume of the bass pedals should be greater for rhythm playing with the 8' accented. Use a light touch on the pedals and add Pedal Sustain to the degree that will simulate the string bass.

Automatic rhythm units differ from one brand to another and have to be used and heard before you can determine just how, when, and where to use the particular unit on your instrument. Names of the various rhythms differ, such as Swing, Foxtrot, Ballad, etc. Sometimes different units with the same rhythm names will produce drastically different sounds. Some of the functions to be aware of and put to use include the Tempo regulator—the knob, sliding lever, or whatever that adjusts the rate of speed of the rhythms. These regulators differ in range and sensitivity and must be tested before use, even between the same models of the same brand of instrument. Use the calibrated scale, if one is provided, to remember tempos. You can make notes of the calibrated numbered settings on your music for quick reference. If a round knob is used, you may wish to think of the face of a clock and remember the "time" of your rhythm speed setting. When playing one piece with different rhythmic and non-rhythmic sections, try changing the tempo setting of the various rhythms used during the performance. Tip: Make the tempo selection change as soon as possible after turning off the unit in order to be ready for the next rhythmic section. Another professional effect is to "ride" the tempo selector as you ritard or speed up the tempo. Keep the free hand on the tempo regulator as the other hand slows down or speeds up either the melody or the accompaniment.

If the automatic rhythm unit has a delayed start feature, use it to initiate the unit immediately after pickups without chord accompaniment and other stop-and-start situations. Check the stopping and starting of the rhythm unit with a foot control switch built into or on the Expression/Swell pedal (volume control) for ease of use and any hesitation in starting the unit with the foot movement. Also check the ability of the rhythm unit to accentuate the highs and lows of the percussive sounds for variation of the basic sounds and whether the unit offers the ability to add and delete different portions of the complete rhythm. Experiment with adding and subtracting rhythm "instruments" for variety and special effects.

Be aware of the volume of the automatic rhythm unit. Too soft is ineffective. Too loud can be annoying.

Finally, turn on the unit and compare all the rhythms and any variations of those rhythms to find out which ones play at the same tempo, and which will permit you to change rhythms for special effects without disturbing the tempo, when you are maintaining a steady beat.

If you have an automatic arpeggio unit on your instrument, check the various controls for the number of octaves the arpeggios will play, the speed at which they will be played, whether you wish the arpeggios to be played up or down or both up and down, etc. Again, the sophistication of the different units available will vary considerably, and the merits and limits of each unit should be examined carefully. Use the automatic arpeggios as you would in fingered accompaniments, harp effects, piano and harpsichord backgrounds, etc. For additional animation, try playing flowing melodic passages with the right hand using a sustained setting (vibes, etc.) against the movement of the arpeggios.

Other special effects would include a synthesizer built into the organ. However, that's a lengthy subject in itself, and I am not able to cover that in this session. Read the manufacturer's instructions in the owner's manual. (Too many people just don't bother.) In using the orchestral voices, play in a manner that will best simulate the sound of the actual instrument, using the appropriate technique in the instrument's normal range. Be careful of the far-out voices possible. Be creative in choosing which sounds to use where in your arrangements.

Well, Walt, I guess we could keep going, but space is limited. Hope you and the others in the group have found the material helpful.

If there are enough pipe organ fans in the group that would like to know where who is playing what organ, we might be able to get that info for you. But since the organists do move around, the info might not always be up to date. In answer to questions about two well-known pipe organists, the last I heard, Don Thompson was playing at the Spaghetti Factory in Toronto, Ontario, and Don Baker is playing a 3/22 Wurlitzer in Scooby's Fun Factory Pizza at Greenspointe Mall in Houston, Texas.

Finally, a word of advice to young guys and gals who want a career. Never stop studying/learning, go where the action is, and give 105% effort and dedication.
'Til the next session, may your settings be harmonious and each day preset for happiness. ‘Bye now.
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