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  1. Needless to say, I'm an enormous fan of Hauptwerk, and one of the many things I like about it is how easy it is to make a recording of yourself playing the organ. No additional equipment is required, not even a microphone, everything takes place inside the computer. Recording can literally be done at the touch of a button, or - if you're a bit cleverer about it - at the touch of a piston. 

    But what if you've never recorded yourself playing before? If, like me, you're a totally unqualified amateur organist, then maybe you should think carefully before proceeding. The sad truth is that we're inclined to con ourselves into believing we're a lot more competent than we really are. The first time we hear ourselves recorded it can come as a very unpleasant shock - and I'm speaking from personal experience here! I suppose the root of the problem is that we don't really hear what we're playing, our mind is too pre-occupied with hitting all the rights notes in the right order. Maybe that's one of the qualities which distinguishes a professional musician - an ability to play and truly listen at the same time.

    In spite of the danger to our self-esteem, I'm convinced recording is actually very worthwhile. Once we've bitten the bullet and made a more realistic assessment of our abilities, recording can be a very useful tool in improving them. It gives us the chance to analyse the sound we are producing and do what is necessary to improve it. This is particularly valuable for anyone who is learning to play the organ on their own, without the aid of a teacher.

    Of course, a tendency to self-delusion isn't limited to amateur organists. I'm sure it applies equally to other instrumentalists, as well as to singers. Listening to the early rounds of the X-Factor provides ample evidence of that! (And there's a great deal more that could be said on that particular subject, but I'll save it for another day.) But to return to the organ world, a friend once related an incident he witnessed while attending a workshop event organised by the makers of his home electronic organ. The organisers employed a professional organist to offer help and advice to the attendees, and to help solve any problems they were experiencing. One of the attendees complained that he couldn't use the built-in metronome on his home organ - instead of providing a regular beat it varied erratically. The professional invited him to play with the metronome on his instrument. My friend listened while the metronome produced its unwavering beat. The hapless amateur hadn't got the foggiest notion of rhythm, and his playing went all over the place. When he'd finished, he turned to the professional. "You see what I mean?" he said. "Yours is doing it too!"  

  2. Since I've been buying and selling keyboards and pedalboards and other bits of organalia (and if there isn't such a word, there should be) on a regular basis, I've met some very interesting people. One such was Robert McKenzie, a volunteer at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. I met him there to collect a pair of organ keyboards I'd bought from him on Ebay. Having noticed that his Ebay screenname was boathorse, I guessed correctly that he had an interest in horse-drawn canal boats, and I hoped if he might be able to answer a question which had been bugging me for some time.

    In an earlier age, when a lot of freight was transported on the canal system, a horse and a rope was the usual means of propulsion. That's where the word "towpath" comes from, of course.  My question was this: what happened when a horse-drawn boat going in one direction met another one going in the opposite direction? Apart from avoiding collisions between the boats themselves, how did they prevent the one horse and its rope from getting horribly tangled up with the other?

    I knew exactly how I would have solved this problem, if I'd been designing the canal system. I would have provided towpaths on both sides of the canal, and had a clear understanding - just like on the roads - that boats going in one direction kept to one side, and boats going the other way kept to the other. But I also knew for a fact that this was not how it was done at the time. Near to where I live there are canal bridges which cantilever out from each side and have a gap in the middle. The idea was to allow the rope to pass through the gap when the towpath (singular) crossed from one side of the canal to the other.

    No, there was clear evidence that only one towpath was provided, so the problem remained. Boats must have needed to pass each other on a very regular basis, so how on earth did they manage it? Did they hold one rope up in the air with poles so the other boat and its horse could pass underneath? Or was it necessary to unhitch one horse from its boat completely, and only reconnect the rope when the other boat had gone past? Either way, it must have been a right pain in the butt!

    When Robert told me the correct answer to my question, it was surprisingly elegant and simple. The rope they used was quite a long one, and it was made of cotton, which happens to be denser than water. When two boats met, the one crew allowed their rope to go slack, causing it to sink to the bottom of the canal. The second horse stepped over the slack rope, the second boat floated over it, and then both boats continued on their way. Simples!