Click here for Before We Begin: Acquiring the Essentials
Before we can delve too deeply with our lessons, it's important to know the different parts of the organ.
The Organ Console
The organ console consists of the keyboards, the pedals, and the associated stops of an organ. It is what most of us think of when we picture an organ.
Unlike pianos, organs will not work unless they are turned on.
The location of your power switch may vary, but it is very important to know where it is.
The organ may be best known to the average person for its multiple keyboards.
Generally, the organ in a chapel will be equipped with two keyboards, or manuals. The upper is called the Swell and the lower the Great. If a third manual is present, it is generally called the Choir and added at the bottom, below the Great.
The Pedal Board
The large keyboard along the bottom of the organ is called the pedal board, and is played with the feet.
Pedal boards in the United States generally conform to AGO specifications, consisting of 32 keys arranged in a concave/radiating pattern. This simply means that the outer pedals are slightly higher than the middle pedals (concave) and that the pedals are closer together at the far end than at the end closest to the organ console (radiating).
The lowest note on this pedal board is C two octaves below middle C, also known as C2, to distinguish it from the other Cs on the keyboard. The highest note is G above middle C, also called G4. (Some pedal board end with F4 and only have 30 keys.)
Expression, and Crescendo Pedals
Not to be confused with the pedals of the pedal board, organs also have one or more pedals classified as expression and/or crescendo pedals.
Expression pedals can control the volume of just the swell, individual divisions, or the organ as a whole.
The crescendo pedal incrementally activates stops as it is pressed forward and removes stops as it is depressed backward, starting with the softest stops and ending with the loudest.
When an organ has only one pedal, it generally controls the volume of the entire organ. However, on pipe organs this expression pedal opens and closes the swell box, allowing control over the dynamics of just the swell division.
When an electric organ has two pedals, they are usually expression pedals, with the one on the left controlling the volume of the swell manual and the one on the right the volume of the great and pedal. However, sometimes one pedal controls the volume of the entire organ and the other is a crescendo pedal. Generally speaking, when a third pedal is added, it is to the right of the expression pedals and is a crescendo pedal.
You may need to experiment on your organ to identify the function of your pedals.
Stops and Couplers
I discussed stops a bit in the Before We Begin: Acquiring the Essentials post. Stops are the tabs, rocker tabs, or drawknobs on the organ that have numbers and names on or above them. They are divided into sections that correspond with each keyboard, perhaps with an additional General section, and are located either above the manuals and/or in stop jambs on both sides of the manuals.
Each manual or pedal usually controls a separate division of the instrument with its own stops. Through couplers, keyboards can play stops from different divisions of the organ. The couplers you will most likely see on your organ are Swell to Great, Great to Pedal, Swell to Pedal, Bass Coupler, Melody Coupler, and possibly one or more Octave Couplers (such as Swell to Swell 4').
Couplers are fairly self-explanatory. If you select "Swell to Great," any stop that you have selected on the Swell will play on the Great. If you have both "Swell to Pedal" and "Great to Pedal" selected, all of the stops selected on the Swell and Great will also be played on the Pedal, in addition to any of the Pedal stops selected.
The Bass Coupler and Melody Coupler are related. The Bass Coupler adds the selected pedal stops to the lowest note currently being played on the Great. It's a "cheater's way" of achieving a full organ sound without use of the pedals. The Melody Coupler adds the selected Swell stops to the highest note being played on the Great, accentuating the melody of the piece being played. This can be a good way to help the congregation hear the melody when they're singing an unfamiliar hymn, or to help add interest to prelude or postlude music.
Octave couplers work within a manual to double the stops up or down one or more octaves. For example, if you have one 8' Swell stop selected, select "Swell to Swell 4'" or "Octave Coupler," and play middle C on the Swell, it will sound as though middle C and the C one octave up are being played at the same time. If you instead select "Swell to Swell 16'", if will sound as if middle C and the C one octave down are being played at the same time. (We'll explain 4', 8', and 16' in the next lesson.)
As I mentioned, stops will be explained in detail in the next two lessons, but here's a quick overview. In a pipe organ, a rank is a row of pipes in one tone color, with one pipe dedicated to each key. Each stop turns a rank of pipes on or off. In electric organs, each stop selects a certain sound based on a pipe organ's rank of pipes.
Pistons and Combination Action
Pistons are part of the combination action system, which allows the organist to capture certain registrations and recall them instantly through the thumb pistons or toe studs.
Some organs only have general pistons, which remember information for the entire organ. Others have general and divisional pistons, so that additionally a keyboard or division can be programmed independently of the others.
Most organs have both preset and programmable pistons, and some of the couplers are conveniently repeated as pistons or toe studs. Many even have a "Cancel" piston that removes every stop that has been selected on the organ, which allows for faster manual registration changes. A "Tutti" piston functions like a crescendo pedal that is all the way down--selecting every stop of the organ.
Newer organs have multiple levels of memory, which allow each piston to be programmed more than once so that each organist has access to his/her own unique memory.
The organ bench is an essential component of the organ. The best benches are adjustable. Some have a knob that turns to raise and lower the bench. Others have removable and flippable blocks that can be adjusted for three separate heights. There are other adjustable options as well.
Please take the time to familiarize yourself with your organ. If you have any questions about components that I haven't covered here, please let me know. After you are familiar with all of these components and how they relate to your organ, continue on to Lesson 2: Demystifying the Organ Stops, Part 1.