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 On the Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
A Few Words about Organ Actions
Some Basics of Notation
>Extended Techniques
A Few Final Truths

Extended Techniques

Extended techniques can be separated into two categories: general techniques and wind techniques.

General Techniques

There are three extended techniques that are readily usable on almost all organs: the use of key weights, the use of key wedges, and "thumbing." While the end result of using wedges or weights is the same, the two techniques are quite different. Key wedges are typically made of wood and are inserted between the key and some immovable part of the console to hold the key down. One "prepares" key wedges by placing them on or very near the keys they will be used on before they are engaged. Key weights, by contrast, are made of lead or occasionally brass or steel and hold a key down by their own weight; they cannot be prepared in the way that wedges can.

Thumbing is the act of playing with one or both thumbs on the keyboard below the keyboard on which the rest of fingers are playing. This technique was developed in the late 19th century, and fell out of use after 1930. While at first an organist not used to this technique will only be able to use it to play isolated sustained pitches, organists accustomed to this technique are capable of playing moving lines, although the speed possible is less than that of using all five fingers. A composer who wants to use this technique would be wise to spend some time at an organ console to find out what is physically possible as far as the reach of a hand. Failing that, a composer should refer to a piano keyboard to verify that the requested hand positions are comfortably possible. When notating a passage using this technique, one should place the notes to be thumbed on a separate staff between the "right hand" and "left hand" staves. One should also mark the notes to be thumbed with a "+" symbol.

Wind Techniques

Most of the frequently encountered extended techniques found in contemporary organ music fit in the category of wind techniques, which make many effective sounds possible. The problem, however, is that one really needs an organ with both a mechanical stop action and a mechanical key action to successfully perform these effects, as electrical and pneumatic actions are generally designed to prevent the situations that make these sounds from happening.

The most typical of these effects involves either turning the blower off while playing or turning the blower on while keys are depressed. While the resulting sounds can be quite effective as the beginning or end of a piece, they have become a cliché in some circles; moreover, the "hang time" of the effect will be different from one organ to another and will be highly dependent on the number and size of pipes speaking. I do not recommend the use of these techniques because modern blowers tend to require repairs or replacement if they are turned on and off repeatedly in a short period of time.

Another technique that is requested on occasion is for the organist to hold keys in a partially depressed position. Like the blower effects, some very effective sounds are possible. The only problem with this technique is that the portion of the key travel that provides the "best" results is roughly the top 1/8 inch, and the resistance the key provides in that area is frequently higher than when the key is fully depressed, which makes its position much harder to control.

A final technique is to partially draw stops so that the pipes do not receive all the air they should. Once again, many effective sounds are possible, but unlike the previously described techniques the problems involved with utilizing this technique are minor and easily handled. Like the blower effects, adjustments to the exact position of the stop will have to be made according to the number and size of the pipes speaking. Further, the slider can only be adjusted to provide the best results within a fairly small range of the keyboard at any one time, so if you want a consistent result it is best to limit the range used to roughly an octave or octave and a half at any one time.

As mentioned above, most of these techniques require mechanical key and (except for partially depressed keys) stop action, and any piece making use of these techniques will be limited to these instruments for performance. In addition, many of the details of properly performing these pieces will be different on each instrument, requiring additional rehearsal each time the work is to be played on a different instrument. As a result, works that require the "playing of the wind" in any of the manners described above will generally receive fewer performances. Do not say you weren't warned.

Playing the Interior of the Organ and Similar Techniques

Don't even think about it. This is such a Pandora's box that I won't even consider any works requiring these techniques, and I'm not in the minority on this subject. There are simply too many variables that the composer can't account for to make anything of this sort worthwhile.

Tuning/Retuning the Organ

While there are a great variety of unequal tuning systems (or temperaments) in use in the organ world, a composer should not expect to to be able to define a specific temperament for their piece without severely curtailing its performances. Tuning or retuning the organ is a very involved project sometimes taking a few days, and just isn't practical for performance of a single piece. Even retuning one stop will generally take an hour and will leave that stop useless for the rest of the concert.

Console Assistants

Given the complex nature of organ performance, few organists perform from memory, and as a result many organists will have one or occasionally two assistants present for performances. The role of the assistant in organ performance is more than being a page turner, however, in that the assistant will also serve to cover registration changes that whatever combination system is present cannot. Some composers have written additional parts to be performed by these assistants, but this should be discouraged, as it clearly steps over the already blurry line between solo and ensemble works. Moreover, many organists do not have specific individuals they call upon as assistants, and so when performing as guest recitalists they rely upon local people to act as their assistants for the performance. A fair portion of the on-site preparation for a concert will involve rehearsing these assistants, and it is my opinion that asking the assistant to play an independent part is a dangerous undertaking.

On The Nature of the Beast That Does Not Breathe
[Introduction] [A Few Words about Organ Actions] [Some Basics of Notation]
[Registrations] [Extended Techniques] [A Few Final Truths] [Appendixes]

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Copyright © 2000 David Bohn. All rights reserved.
Last updated 12 November 2000. Contact information.