1999 Region I AGO Convention
Worcester, Massachusetts    June 27-30, 1999


by Barclay Wood

Several years ago, I conducted a monthly Organ Class for my students on Sunday afternoons at 4 o'clock. The format would generally involve my lecturing for an hour and then, following a break the students performing for the critical comments of the class. (At 6 o'clock, we adjourned to the home of a class member for supper and socializing, a fact accounting in large part no doubt for the attendance records we regularly enjoyed.

From these classes, as from the master classes and workshops that I had done for the Guild, have come superb responses which probably have been as useful to me as they have to the students.

A case in point: At one session the class was asked to volunteer individual practice techniques which were listed on the blackboard, and then compared with my 1ist, prepared prior to the class. The result demonstrates the basic reliability of instinct and the value of such forums where there is good feedback from the class. Just a few thoughts now, drawn from the experience of a few years in teaching and practicing, for busy organists who must lake full advantage of every precious minute of practice time.

Plan the practice session. If there are only 15 minutes available, know before starting what the goal is. Something specific should be completed at the end of the session -- even if it is only a single measure of a difficult work. Something, however small, should move into the "learned" column -- not just "better than it was."

Make practice notes. Keep track of difficult measures in the learning process. Return to them repeatedly during the practice session and begin future sessions by attacking them first. Better not to beat them to death at any one session, however: cleanse the palote occasionally by moving to more familiar or less challenging material then returning to the awkward spots.

Have a broad overview of the piece. Before seriously working a piece at the keyboard, know what it contains. Recognize as themes, motifs, sequences, etc., and notate them by some comfortable code in your score if you feel they may otherwise elude you. This must be done before logical fingering and phrasing may emerge, not to mention any understanding of the musical message of the piece.

Resolve matters of phrasing and fingering. It is easier to learn than to unlearn. Take care to learn correctly and well. Phrase thematic material consistently, and use the same fingering for a given passage at all times. One passage played with two fingerings is perceived by the brain as two passages! Mark only the fingering that you fear you may forget. Usually hand patterns are reliable, but you may want to mark fingering for a note where the pattern changes.

Practice on simple registrations. Choose moderately quiet, clear registrations while learning scores. The ear fatigues of large, complex sounds, and you will be slower to recognize details that need attention if they are masked in full registrations.

Use one dead keyboard. Coordination is both kinetic and aural. If voices are easily separated between hands and feet (as in a trio), security will be strengthened by playing one (or two) voices on a silent keyboard. Also, in this way the ear hears only the live sound, and may well recognize a problem that was not clearly evident with all voices sounding.

Imitate pedal in manual. To be sure pedal technique is clear and even for a particular passage, engage a clear manual registration (such as 4' and 2' in the Great) and couple to the pedal. Play the pedal passage on the manual until it sounds precisely as you want to hear it; then alternate repeatedly between manual and pedal on the identical registration until the change between hands and feet is indistinguishable to the ear.

Listen; don't just hear. This is probably already too long for the space allocated in this article, but the 1ist goes on. And consider this: In the time it has taken for you to read this article, you might have learned --truly learned - an uncomfortable passage of music.

Barclay Wood
14th March 1986

Barclay Wood, the "dean of Worcester organists," is Minister of Music and the Arts
at the First Baptist Church, Worcester, Mass.

1997 Worcester Mass. Chapter, American Guild of Organists

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