Organists are kind of like the middle children of the musical world, you probably are vaguely aware that they exist, will occasionally see them at the dinner table, but you’re not really sure who they are or what exactly they are up to.
In a similar fashion, the organ as an instrument itself is also currently suffering from a lack of exposure; and most people, even classical musicians, aren’t aware of how it works or its capabilities. Like many people, some of you reading this will ask, or will have asked the question “so is the organ like the piano?”. And every time I hear that question, I usually mumble something along the lines of “Um… sort of… not really…” and try to think of an explanation that doesn’t take me half an hour or more to finish.
Much like the majority of organists, I began my musical journey learning the piano, as a slightly hyperactive four year old. My mum signed me up for piano lessons and being only four at the time, I didn’t really know what to expect out of it. Perhaps in a way this foreshadows my venturing into the wonderful world of the pipe organ, as I jumped into it without really knowing a whole lot about the instrument either! I auditioned for the organ scholarship programme at high school on a whim, and was fortunate enough to have been selected out of a large pool of very talented candidates.
It is, without doubt, always a humbling experience for anyone who decides to learn the organ. The reason why I say that is because unlike any other instrument, the organ requires the player to be fairly proficient on the piano before they can proceed to learning the organ. And it was humbling, and certainly at times extremely disheartening, to practically go back to square one in my musical journey. I was a decent pianist when I first started learning the organ in Year 9, as I was working towards my A.Mus diploma, but as soon as I had my first organ lesson, I felt much more like an uncoordinated sloth than a competent musician.
The first immediate hurdle for anyone beginning to learn the organ is, of course, to work out how to instruct their brain to coordinate the hands and the feet simultaneously. As the pedals are essentially another keyboard for the feet, it’s often a case of “anything you can do, I can do better” when composers write for the organ with intricate pedal parts which sometimes outshine the parts for the hands. For example, in Marcel Dupré’s charming, yet difficult Prelude in G minor, not only is part of the melody assigned to the feet, but the composer also calls for double-pedalling (playing two notes with one foot) for both the left and right foot. Or in the opening variation of the arrangement of the spiritual, Go Tell It On The Mountain, by the Mormon Tabernacle principal organist Richard Elliott, the left foot plays the bass line, and the right foot plays the melody at the same time.
Yet it is not only a matter of gaining coordination for a pianist transitioning to become an organist. On the surface, the organ of course looks quite similar to a piano, and it is not entirely surprising that many people think they are mostly alike. However, the way that one makes music on an organ is vastly different – you can think of an organ as a giant binary machine. For every key and every stop on an organ, there is either a 0, or a 1, either on, or off. And it is purely through learning complicated combinations and permutations of these 0s and 1s that an organist can finally create music out of the instrument. Organ playing is hence both an incredibly emotional, yet entirely logical exercise at the very same time.
A large pipe organ can more often resemble a pilot’s cockpit than a musical instrument, and learning how to pilot such a machine is made even more complicated by the fact that no two organ in the world are exactly the same. For pianists, they can comfortably assume that they can travel to a venue in a country half a world away, and the instrument will still most likely be a Steinway concert grand. But for organists, we must learn to not only adapt to each instrument with its particular individualities and potential shortcomings, but also to adapt to the environment in which the instrument is located. The acoustics of the building in which the organ is situated always influences how an organist has to shape and phrase the music.
For me, I have been fortunate enough to travel to quite a few different places to play the organ, including the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Auckland Town Hall, and also St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, just to name a few. Perhaps one of the greatest privileges as an organist is that we often gain access to places where most people would never have the chance to see. From looking upon the throng of tourists from the organ loft at Westminster Abbey, to standing on top of King Henry VIII’s tomb at Windsor Castle, to walking through a pitch black St Mary’s Cathedral after hours with no one around.
These experiences of mine are symbolic, I think, of what playing the organ is like. It is a lonely affair – even more so than a solo pianist, as often we are relegated to organ lofts hanging metres in the air, or hidden out of sight behind the instrument. It is also isolating – organists are often forced to practise late at night, when the venue is not in use, or when the church or cathedral has closed for the day. But it also brings a uniquely rewarding experience. To quote the international concert organist, Cameron Carpenter, playing the organ is a transmission of the human mind, which is more penetrating than any other instruments, including the human voice. For me, the pipe organ is a unique instrument, capable of evoking some of the most profound human emotions, partially through its constant supply of energy, in the form of pressurised air – a phenomenon unmatched until the Industrial Revolution – which led the French composer Charles-Marie Widor to comment that “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity”.
Whilst the organ is closely linked with the Christian church in today’s world, and it certainly derives some of its spiritual associations through this relationship, it is also very much a secular instrument, duly capable of both light entertainment as well as evoking potent spiritual emotions. One of the most significant reasons for the pipe organ’s lack of exposure today is because it is still heavily linked to the Christian church, and sometimes struggles to make its presence known as a secular concert instrument. However, with the advent of more and more concert organists these days, such as Cameron Carpenter, Felix Hell, or Thomas Heywood, who often perform at town halls, concert halls, and other secular venues, I am confident that the organ will be recognised as a legitimate concert instrument, which is more than capable of existing without the church.
I do hope that in time, more and more people will want to learn about this wonderful instrument, which I adore with all my heart. The pipe organ is one of the world’s oldest and most versatile instruments, and I am certain that it will continue to evolve and adapt as its heritage grows, and it will undoubtedly be seen as a shining gem once more in the ever-changing world of classical music in the near future.