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Category: Miditzer

  1. Using the swell pedal

    Posted on

    At first glance there isn't a great deal which can be said about using the swell pedal. Isn't it the most obvious, the most straightforward, and the most instinctive part of playing the organ?  Surely it requires no more skill than, say, using the accelerator of a car? Well no, that isn't quite true, especially if one aspires to perform pieces from the classical repertoire where a degree of ambipodiousness is called for.

    It's different for those who have home electronic instruments with just the one octave of pedals. In that situation, there's a clear division of labour between the feet - the left plays the bass notes and the right operates the expression pedal, and for either to encroach on the other's territory would be unthinkable.  The same is true to some extent when playing in a popular style with a full  pedalboard, as in the theatre organ tradition. Maybe the right foot helps out a little, but it's usually the left which does the lion's share of the note playing, leaving the right free for expression pedal duty.

    In the classical tradition of organ playing, the pedal part is likely to be more complex, more melodic and more legato - something which can only be realised by both feet working together in close co-operation. In this situation, the swell pedal needs to be operated by whichever foot can best be spared at the time. This means that a competent classical organist will be as happy using the left foot as the right, and able to swap them frequently when required. I must admit I don't find this at all easy. Somehow, it seems far more natural to have my right foot on the swell pedal. I have to concentrate quite hard to use the left one, otherwise my brain seems to lose track of which foot is which, with disastrous consequences!

    This ambipodious quality I've described is greatly assisted by good console design.  An obvious requirement is that expression pedal(s) should be mounted centrally. This can be taken for granted with modern consoles, but was not always the case. The Victorian pipe organ I learned on had the swell pedal tucked away in the RH corner making use of the left foot physically impossible. It should also be easy to find the swell pedal and to slide the foot on and off it. The common practice of putting the swell pedal in a little pocket surrounded by speaker grille is not good from this point of view. Many VPO setups are superior because they have the swell pedal bolted on top of a free-standing pedalboard with plenty of space all around it. One final ergonomic consideration is that there should be sufficient vertical space above the pedal. The knee is sure to rise higher when using the swell pedal than when playing notes on the pedalboard, so this should be the deciding factor when positioning the lowest manual. It should not be necessary to twist the leg sideways when the foot is on the pedal. Again, those of us who assemble our own VPO console have the advantage of being able to adjust this dimension to suit our leg length, unlike those buying an  organ "off-the-shelf".

    When it comes to the artistic aspects of swell pedal use, the best advice is probably to use the damn thing sparingly - incessant pumping is downright irritating! To create a truly impressive crescendo the opening of the swell box can be combined with the addition of stops. In this situation, I always think it's best to add stops to the swell department first, then open the swell box, as the effect is all the more dramatic with more stops drawn. The famous toccata from Boellman's' Gothic Suite is a good example of simple but effective swell pedal use. For a large part of the piece the swell box is firmly closed, then it is opened over the space of a few bars and remains open to the end. It couldn't possibly be simpler, but it makes a big impression, like lifting the lid off strongly felt emotions.

    An organist also needs to develop a sixth sense to know where in its travel the swell pedal is currently located. There's nothing more annoying than peaking too soon!  Theatre organs often provided a visual indicator of the current state of the expression pedals (a feature duplicated in Miditzer) and such an indicator would be a valuable addition to a classical organ's console, but I don't ever remember coming across one.  

  2. Music for Miditzer

    Posted on

    Although my main interest has always been classical organ music, I have a great affection for the theatre organ too, and I know I'm not alone in this. It was a long time before I had a chance to play one (a Compton) and it didn't go at all well. I felt lost because everything was so different from what I was used to. It was only when Miditzer came along that I was finally able to get to grips with the church organ's flamboyant cousin.

    One of the problems for people like me, who've approached the organ from a church/classical perspective, is how do you find suitable music to play on Miditzer. Of course, there's any amount of suitable middle-of-the-road stuff out there, from popular songs of yesteryear to light classics, but some of us need a little assistance in arranging it to re-create an authentic theatre organ style.

    Fortunately, help is at hand. One valuable source is a series of books entitled Vintage Theatre Styles for the Modern Organist by William McMains. Assuming little prior knowledge, he explains the basic components like Chicago style, changes of time signature and modulation, all illustrated by his own arrangements (on 3 staves) which just sound so "right" on Miditzer. There are also incomplete arrangements which are left as an exercise for the student, but so far I've been too busy (lazy) to attempt these. I can't find any examples of these books on Amazon or Ebay at present, but they're sure to come up from time to time.

    Another book I've found useful is Up with the Curtain by Robin Richmond. (Currently two used copies on Amazon and one on Ebay.) Although better known as presenter of Radio 2's The Organist Entertains, he also had a long career as a performer on both theatre and Hammond organs. Richmond arranges his music on two staves and demands slightly more technical ability than McMains. The left hand has to grapple with some awkward 6-note chords at times, but there's no doubt he's a skillful and effective arranger. It was worth getting the book for one piece alone: Lonely Ballerina by Michael Carr and P.Lambrecht. It really is one of the sweetest little tunes you're ever likely to come across, and Richmond arranges it with a sure touch. "Give it all the sweetest sounds you can find on your organ," he advises, "and all the emotion you have in your heart!" With that in mind, I start with a solitary Tibia 8 for the RH, accompanied by Flute 8 (with tremulants on, naturally!!) and later add Diapason 8 to right and Violin 8 to left. This sharpens up the LH part and brings out an element of counter-melody. After adding louder stops for the middle section, I return to the original registration at the end, but play alternate lines with Tibia 8 plus Bells. Gorgeous!

    One final piece in my current Miditzer repertoire is Maurizio Machella's organ arrangement of Joplin's The Entertainer which is available  for free download at free-scores.com (see our "Links" page). If you've got the 3-manual version of Miditzer you can incorporate plenty of piano into your registrations. It sounds great, and would also provide a useful pattern for anyone who wanted to make their own organ arrangements of other Joplin rags. The Entertainer always takes me straight back to my teenage years when the film The Sting prompted a Joplin revival. To my ears, the piece sounded totally fresh and contemporary. I assumed it had just been written, and was gobsmacked to discover Joplin died in 1917. I also remember hearing Ernest Broadbent playing it on the Blackpool Tower Wurlitzer. I must have been 14 or 15 at the time, when for some reason we took our annual family holiday in Blackpool instead of the more usual Great Yarmouth. It was the first time I'd heard a theatre organ live, though I did listen to The Organist Entertains every week (I wasn't exactly your typical teenager!) So while my younger brother (who was your typical teenager) headed off to ride the roller coaster at the pleasure beach at every opportunity, I was to be found leaning on the balcony at the Tower Ballroom, intently watching Ernest's every move with a big grin on my face.