Many thanks to Ellen Johnston for kindly inviting me to share some suggestions on how to practice the organ efficiently and effectively. Most of the below is chiefly applicable to organ repertoire, but also to choral accompanying. (The greater the technical difficulty of a given piece, the more I would commend these suggestions.) I will conclude with some brief reflections on practicing and playing hymns.
The quality of one’s practice is more important than the quantity of practice. Mindlessly playing through pieces for a couple of hours is far less beneficial than a half hour of disciplined, careful practice.
* Perhaps most importantly, practice slowly and with a metronome. Begin practice on a new piece at a tempo at which one can play the notes accurately and in rhythm. The purpose of the metronome is not to render one’s performance metronomic, but to give one full control before liberties are taken (just as one should know proper grammar before embarking on creative writing). At some point, one must turn the metronome off, but often it is a good idea after doing so to finish the practice session back at a very slow tempo, again with the metronome. In an extended piece, I think this can be done by section; I’m not sure it’s always necessary to learn the entire piece at one tempo before trying a certain passage or section at a faster tempo.
* Have a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to mistakes during practice. Correct them and figure out why they keep happening. Often such problems are due to poor fingering or another technical issue (in which case it is all the more important to use a good and consistent fingering, one that lies most comfortably under the hand). Do not gloss over troublesome passages: often those passages need to be broken down before being put back together again. Generally, it is much more difficult to relearn a passage that was first learned incorrectly than it is to master it accurately the first time. Practice hands separately, hands alone, right hand and pedal, and so on. (When performing, though, remember that mistakes or dropped notes aren’t the end of the world. Several times before performance, one should have a “dry run,” without stopping, during a practice session. At those times don’t stop for every wrong or slipped note!)
Sometimes in a technically demanding work, I find that the longer I’ve been working on it, the more mistakes while practicing seem to creep in. I am not sure I have an explanation for this phenomenon, but I can only assume it is part of the learning process. If I have been disciplined in my practice habits, generally I find that at some point it all seems to “click.” Once a piece has been learned thoroughly and diligently, it’s not necessary to practice as often with the metronome; however, the metronome is still indispensable from time to time for long-term “maintenance” of a work. When I have not played a particular piece in a while and am preparing to perform it again, I go back to a slow tempo with the metronome. The first day or two can be frustrating, and sometimes I feel like I must not have learned the piece at all. Yet, assuming I did in fact put in the time and effort initially, it always will come back after a few days of slow practice.
* Counting aloud while practicing is a great tool to aid “accountability.” Subdivide whenever possible (“1 and 2 and …” or “1 ee and uh 2 ee and uh…”). I have had students believe they are practicing with the metronome, but only find later they weren’t with it at all! Counting aloud has generally solved that problem.
* Practice in different rhythms, almost as much as one practices with the metronome (ideally, do both at the same time). This introduces an additional challenge that in the end will give one greater control over the piece. Often, “short-long,” the so-called Lombard rhythm, is more useful than “long-short.” And there’s “long-long-short-short” and vice versa, and many other combinations. In contrapuntal works, practice one voice in the printed rhythm and another voice in a practice rhythm (especially the Lombard rhythm). This can help clean things up in short order. In rapid pedal passages of contrapuntal works (for instance, some of J. S. Bach’s Fugues), in addition to the above, play only every other note in the Pedal while playing all notes in one or more manual voices (in other words, leaving alternating Pedal notes silent). Next, reverse which notes are silent and which are played. This too will give one greater control and is conducive to clean playing.
* Practicing on full organ is rarely useful (in addition to endangering one’s hearing!). To learn notes, practice mostly on a clear 8’ and 4’ combination, without 16’ tone in the pedal. Especially for those who don’t play on tracker instruments, practice on the piano is helpful as well (not to mention scales and other technical exercises). When practicing with registration (whether repertoire or accompaniments), practice registration changes almost as much as the notes, until it is very comfortable. Practice registration changes alone. Sometimes it might help to practice at double time (or so) a passage with lots of registration changes, to hone your preparedness for piston pushing and stop pulling.
Those who have a playback system on their organs are fortunate: recording oneself is a wonderful pedagogical tool, even if occasionally painful to hear! Those without such a system might still find recording with a phone or other device to be useful. I learn a great amount from listening to myself play; I don’t always like what I hear, but it tells me exactly what I need to work on.
One can use many of the above methods to practice hymns as well. Some suggestions for hymn playing follow, and I hope they may be helpful.
It is best not to double the bass voice in the manuals. (Accordingly, one can practice pedal alone, and then hands alone on the upper voices only.) Hymns for congregational singing should be steady but not metronomic – there is an important but subtle difference. Steady hymn playing is solid and reliable – but it should “stretch” very slightly at important points (between phrases, where the congregation needs a little additional time to breathe, or at grammatically important punctuation). (I do not recommend lifting at every comma, something that easily can become tedious.) The issue of time between verses can be thorny, but it is best kept metrical, chiefly preserving the pattern of weak and strong beats. A couple of examples: if the final note is four beats (assuming four beats per measure), and the succeeding verse begins on a strong beat either with two quarters or a half note, hold the final chord the full value and add two beats of rest. (In especially dry acoustics, one could hold the final chord five beats and have only one beat of rest.) In triple meter, if the final chord is three beats and the succeeding verse begins on the downbeat, one might hold the final choral four beats and add two beats of rest between verses (if the succeeding verse begins on a pickup, the final chord would be held for three beats, with two beats of rest, or four beats, with one beat of rest). I suggest counting aloud while practicing (even under one’s breath during a liturgy) to make sure this is done accurately. Congregations may not be consciously aware of what the organist is doing, but subconsciously, they will come to appreciate the reliability.
Hymn playing should be mostly legato, with detached articulation only for special emphasis. The registration can and should be varied to try to reflect the sense of the text, but it is best to avoid extreme dynamic changes, anything more than two dynamic levels. (Going from p to ff can be jarring, and vice versa). A good rule of thumb is for the first verse to be slightly louder than the introduction; this helps increase the congregation’s confidence. 16’ tone in the manuals can give a wonderful, rich sound, but it must not be used on every verse, or it becomes tiring. Sometimes it can be refreshing to have a verse with manuals only, or only 8’ tone in the pedal, to “cleanse the palate.” Soloing the melody out is especially useful when playing a hymn that is less familiar to the congregation; if the solo is in the top voice, play only the alto and tenor voices in the left hand on an accompanying manual, with the bass in the Pedal as usual. The general dynamic level should be loud enough to encourage the congregation to sing out, but not so loud as to obliterate them.
A range of tempi is appropriate for most any hymn. The precise tempo depends very much on the acoustics, the size of the building, and the affect the organist wishes to convey. Yet the hymn must always “dance.” There is a such a thing as a slow dance, and broad tempi can be tremendously effective, but there must always be forward motion and a sense of momentum. On the other hand, tempi that are too fast will leave many in the dust. The organist should establish the desired tempo and adhere to it, but giving the congregation adequate time to breathe between phrases if they seem to be lagging. If a congregation continues to lag, that may be an instance in which slightly detached articulation is appropriate and helpful. (And perhaps reflection afterwards to determine if the tempo may have been too brisk.)
Finally, it is important to master the “basics” before trying one’s hand at “creativity” in hymn playing; in any event, any elaboration to the hymn as printed should enhance the congregation’s singing, not detract from it. If the organ is interfering with the congregation’s ability to sing, then the organist has gone too far!
I am grateful to all my previous teachers from whom I learned so many of the techniques above. Additionally, credit is due to my friend and colleague Bruce Neswick, from whom I first heard hymn playing characterized as “dancing.”
Robert McCormick is Organist and Choirmaster of Saint Mark’s Church, Locust Street, Philadelphia, and concertizes as an organist under the exclusive management of Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Arists, LLC.