Saturday, 25 July 2009

The joys of learning the organ

Over the last year or so I have been busy learning to be an organist (of sorts), which means doing about an hour to an hour and a half of practice daily. I usually do this either on the organs in the Birmingham Oratory, or my ramshackle electric organ I have at home:

I am taking lessons in the Birmingham Conservatoire (sometimes unkindly nicknamed the "abattoir", where music is slaughtered!) Due to my short squat feet, I have to wear special organ shoes which are narrow and pointed, and have high heels for using the heel on the pedals. The result is that they look rather camp.

One of the pieces I'm learning at the moment is 'Le Banquet Celeste' by Olivier Messiaen, one of the great classics of 20th century repertoire. It is a wonderful piece that is usually played during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, but as you may see from this extract and the fact it is in six sharps and must be played absolutely legato, it is rather hard.

One of the most difficult tasks for an organist to manage is hymn playing, which often comes as a surprise to many people. The reason why is that you have to play the bass line in the pedals quite rapidly, and try to maintain a steady pace for the congregation to follow. So to practice this, I plod through the Bach chorales daily in the pedals and the manuals, which is not the easiest thing in the world to play.

So most of the time, learning the organ is an hour going over and over again through pieces, and then half an hour of sight reading grind through chorales. It isn't much fun, but it's worth doing. However, should anyone ask me to play for church services, they may find themselves very disappointed....

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