As I was teaching a stake organ training last month, many in attendance had the same perception when it came to organ playing, "You try to hold every note down you can so that there aren't any breaks in your playing." Hopefully the readers of my blog know by now that this is not true. However, I thought it would be a good time to review some legato technique and the reasons behind it.
Accents on the Organ
Before continuing with this lesson, however, we need to understand how accents work on the organ.
How do you accent on the piano? Simply by hitting the keys harder. More force creates an accented note or notes.
Does this work on the organ?
No matter how hard you press the keys, you won't hear any accents on the organ, so don't try! How do we accent notes on the organ? Through silence, either before a note, after a note, or both.
With that understanding, let's continue on with this lesson.
Repeated Notes Should Generally Repeat
When a note repeats, it should usually have a moment (or more) of silence as the finger lifts before being repeated. Generally, the silence is equivalent to an eighth rest, but circumstances do vary.
What was that? How is that legato technique? Wouldn't it sound awfully "broken" with all of that fractured silence?
On the contrary: The silence provides accents and allows the congregation to follow the organist, stay on tempo, and sing with confidence.
I've played for stake conference on multiple occasions. I can remember one time in particular when I felt like I was fighting the huge congregation on tempo. I was trying to keep the tempo, and they were dragging, causing the tempo to continually slow.
Last month I again played for stake conference. In addition to using the techniques I'm sharing below, I followed the strong/weak beat accents as I played hymn 3, Now Let Us Rejoice, emphasizing the beat with the bass by tying the first two notes to make beat 2 very weak, instead of playing three repeated notes in each measure. Instead of playing an "OOM pah pah, OOM pah pah" it felt more like it was being sung and played in 1 instead of 3.
To my surprise and delight, the huge congregation stayed with me perfectly! They heard and responded to the strong and weak beats.
Strong and Weak Beats
So what if all of the voices repeat? Having complete silence when the text doesn't call for it can't be proper legato technique, right?
It can be proper technique! If all four voices repeat, we need to follow the strong beat/weak beat guideline.
If the time signature is in 4, do you know which beats are strong beats and which beats are not? What about in 3 or 6 or 2?
In four, the strong beats are beats 1 and 3, and the weak beats are 2 and 4. If you're familiar with poetry think trochee; "ONCE upON a MIDnight WEAry."
In two, beat 1 is strong and beat 2 is weak, as in the above textual example.
In three, beat 1 is strong and beats 2 and 3 are weak. If you're familiar with poetry think dactyl; "JUST for a HANDful of SILver he LEFT us."
In six, beats 1 and 4 are strong, and beats 2, 3, 5, and 6 are weak, as in the above textual example. Six is often felt and/or directed in 2 with a triplet feel.
How can we help the congregation feel the strong and weak beats? We do this through our treatment of repeated notes. In this example, all four notes repeat throughout the measure:
How would we preserve the strong beat/weak beat feel in this measure? By tying the alto, but where?
Beats one and three are strong, so let's lesson beat four by tying the alto:
In this measure we'll have a complete break before beat three, but not before beat four. It would be played like this, with red lines added to emphasize note length:
This technique allows the congregation to feel the beat and respond appropriately.
Non-Repeated Notes Should Generally Be Played Legato
This should make a lot of sense to everyone. If the notes don't repeat, they're played without breaking them apart.
There are some exceptions to this rule.
First, if the text breaks, so should the organ, as outlined in Breathing:
What if the note the soprano plays is immediately played in the alto? Or the note the alto plays is immediately played in the tenor? In examples such as these, a common tone is shared, and we need to follow these rules:
The soprano line reigns supreme. When the soprano line is ascending and common tones are involved, tie the common tones so the soprano line remains unbroken:
When the soprano line is descending and common tones are involved, break the common tones so that the soprano can play the note:
The soprano line is king and gets to be played properly, always.
For inner voices:
When a note changes from the tenor voice to the same note in the alto voice, tie the notes:
When a note changes from the alto voice to the same note in the tenor voice, break the notes:
Why hasn't the bass been included here? Because the bass is sovereign--it gets to be played as written by the feet without interference from any other parts.
Don't be afraid of silence!
In conclusion, to play the organ do you "try to hold every note down you can so that there aren't any breaks in your playing"? Absolutely not. As outlined above, it is very important to have breaks in your playing, provided they are used appropriately and according to these guidelines and rules.
Go out and grab a hymnbook and see what you can do, following these rules!