Welcome to The Latter-day Saint Organist's Resource Blog

The purpose of this blog is to help pianists learn to become true organists. Many individuals believe that if you play the piano you can play the organ, but the instruments differ greatly. While this blog is specifically geared towards members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much of the information shared can be utilized by all. I hope that the information I share here will help you become an effective organist in your ward, stake, or other congregation.

Feel free to browse and search this blog. It was started in January 2010 and while new posts aren't added very often, this blog contains a wealth of information and is a wonderful resource for all organists. If you're a new reader, you can find the first lesson here: Before We Begin: Acquiring the Essentials. Also, please "like" the corresponding facebook page, which is updated more often. A link is provided on the right sidebar, or you can click here.

Thanks for visiting!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Cleaning and Disinfecting Organ Keyboards

With COVID-19 precautions being undertaken in many areas of the world, I thought it would be a timely topic to discuss disinfecting organ keyboards.

Picture © Jennifer Morgan

What products are safe to use, and which products will damage the keys of the organ? First of all, do not use a spray! A spray can get into the delicate electronic workings of the organ and could cause damage. While many sources advise against using chemicals on keys, the general consensus among organists is to use disinfecting wipes, squeezing out the excess liquid back into the container before wiping down the surfaces that you will be touching.

Start at the top of the keys, and move the wipe towards you, taking care to wipe each key without squeezing out liquid that can drip into the organ. Don't forget to wipe off the power button, as well as stops or piston you will be using.

According to the CDC, coronaviruses transmit most frequently among close contacts (within about 6 feet) via respiratory droplets. They transmit much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through surfaces that may carry infection. However, current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, which could include organ surfaces, such as keyboards, stops, and pistons.

Click here to access a document that includes antimicrobial products registered with the EPA to use against COVID-19.


Most of all--don't forget to wash your hands regularly, and avoid touching your face!

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Preparing for Stake Conference

In March, for the first time, I will be playing for all three sessions of my stake conference. As I've been spending hours in preparation, I thought I'd create a post that shares the steps I'm currently taking to prepare.


The most important part of my preparation is seeking the Spirit. With the Spirit, music is very powerful and can change lives. The Spirit extends our preparation, and makes up for what we lack. Without the Spirit, music can still be powerful and awe-inspiring, but that's all it is--it fails to reach deep inside the soul. This reach is necessary to bring healing and to strengthen testimonies.

As part of this pursuit, I asked for a blessing to aid me. This blessing helped me center my focus on my Savior, and provided much-needed guidance.


Postlude

First, I worked out my postlude. I made a list of pieces that I felt would be appropriate, then played through each, listening for promptings as to which pieces would be the best, and which session they should follow. A couple of my final decisions surprised me, as they weren't what I expected to end up with, but I'm excited for them. I think they'll be very appropriate and "extend the spirit of the meeting" beautifully. I chose one piece for after the leadership session, and two pieces each after the other sessions.


Prelude

Prelude is where I've spent most of my time preparing so far, and these steps take place over a number of weeks. First, I looked through my collection for pieces that jumped out at me, played through each of them, then made a list of pieces that I felt impressed to play. Often I even felt which session they should precede, which I noted next to the pieces in my notebook.

For this conference, the pieces I chose for the leadership session prelude mostly focus on the restoration (it's the 200th anniversary of the First Vision); the evening adult session prelude pieces are all of comfort and turning to the Savior; and the general session pieces include a number of Primary song arrangements. These themes aren't by my design, but emerged as I played through the pieces, listening for the promptings of the Spirit.

Next, I roughly sight-read through each piece, at the proper tempo, and made an initial timing of each one. This will guide me as to how many pieces I'll be able to play before each session: I have been allotted 15 minutes of prelude for the leadership session, 15 (but I'm requesting 20) for the adult session, and 30 for the general session.

Now that I have the estimated timings, I will make reduced copies of each piece, and tape them together to avoid page turns, then I'll practice and register each piece. Once the pieces are learned, I'll spend time on each organ to finalize my timings with registration changes. The final piece in each set will be one that can be extended or ended early if needed. This is especially important for the general session, as the choir will be singing a piece for prelude, and I may need to pad that time a little bit, to avoid an awkward silence after the choir finishes, but before it's time for the meeting to begin.

I also plan to provide the counselor over music in my stake presidency a copy of my prelude pieces along with the projected starting times of each piece, and a list of my postlude pieces. This is a courtesy and shows respect to the presiding authority over music for the meetings.


Hymns

When I began to prepare the hymns, I first read the hymn text, marked textual breaks, and decided how I wanted to treat each verse. Then I looked for reharmonizations/free accompaniments for final verses or introductions, and played through them to see if I felt they would be appropriate. Since several of the hymns were less familiar hymns about the restoration without any reharmonizations readily available, I reached out to a friend of mine, Mike Carson, who graciously arranged "hymnbellishments" of each of them.

(For ideas on hymn preparation, feel free to read my article here, entitled, "Let the People Sing!")


Practice

Now, I just need to practice, practice, and practice! I can do a lot of this on my home organ, but I'll also be spending a fair amount of time on the organs I'll be playing for conference. The first two sessions will be at my ward building. Since we're a new stake without a stake center, our general session will be held at a larger venue with an unfamiliar pipe organ.

Additionally, one of the choir pieces, which will be performed as the closing hymn, is written for choir and organ accompaniment, so trying to get that balance in just one rehearsal Sunday morning on a pipe organ will be very tricky. I'll register and practice several options, then have someone listening to the run through who can give me immediate feedback. Hopefully the balance will be okay!


Conclusion

While preparing to play for three sessions of stake conference over two days is intense and very time-consuming, I also use these methods to prepare for every service for which I play the organ. I'm currently employed as an organist for a United Church of Christ congregation, and every week I prepare in a similar manner. Now, typically my weekly focus is less on prelude and more on the hymns, offertory, and postlude, as well as the piece I play during monthly Communion, but the concepts are the same. This preparation can also be followed for funeral services, and even weddings.

How do you prepare to play for worship services? Do you have any suggestions to share that I haven't mentioned?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Choosing Effective Fingerings in Hymn Playing

When your feet play the bass line, your hands are freed to split the soprano, alto and tenor notes. This article will help you learn the steps to choosing efficient fingerings that will simplify your hymn playing.


I apologize! This post is long overdue. In April I taught a class on this topic at the Super Saturday event sponsored by the Utah Valley Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. It's a subject I've always wanted to create a handout for, as I feel this topic isn't taught or focused on enough, and I finally did! Please note that this post will read differently from my other posts, as this information accompanied the class I taught. Please feel free to comment with any questions.


Choosing Effective Fingerings: Guidelines

Fingering is deciding which combination of fingers to use to play a group of notes. The goal of choosing fingerings is to utilize natural finger combinations, while minimizing awkward stretches and finger crossings. When you use good fingering, your hand will be balanced and in control. Taking the time to find a way to play each passage as efficiently as possible will greatly aid your hymn playing.

In some passages of music, notes are arranged conveniently for the fingers, moving within a narrow range with the same number of notes as there are fingers to play them. These passages can be played with direct fingering, without using complicated finger combinations or shifting of the hands.

Other passages are much more difficult to play, requiring finger acrobatics and many hand shifts. In these passages, there aren’t enough fingers to play all the notes, so other fingering techniques must be utilized. You may have to cross your thumb under your fingers or cross your fingers over your thumb. You might play a key with one finger and, while holding it down, switch to another finger. These techniques are covered on the next page of the handout. Whether a passage is easy or difficult to play, good fingering is always important.

Following are some general rules for good fingering:

1. Mark breaks in the hymn text first, to show where complete breaks (hand shifts) will naturally fall.

2. Place the fifth finger of your right hand on the highest note in the passage, and the fifth finger of your left hand on the lowest, then use the most convenient finger on each key as you play the notes leading to and leading away from that note, compressing and extending as needed.

3. If you run out of fingers, go back and try stretching your hands to distribute them over a wider area of keys. If you still cannot make direct fingering work, incorporate different techniques.

4. Never use your fifth finger before you arrive at the highest note in the right hand or the lowest note in the left hand, without planning for effective finger crossing, glissando, or finger substitution.

5. Try several different fingerings for complicated passages, keeping in mind efficiency and economy of motion. Choose the one that feels most natural to your hands. Sometimes you will need to work backwards, knowing how you need to land on a certain chord then figuring out how to get there.

6. Once you have chosen the best fingering for a passage, pencil the finger numbers above or below the notes on the page, also marking where redistribution of the inner part occurs.

7. Use the same fingering patterns for similar passages to facilitate muscle memory.

8. Always use the same fingering when practicing a hymn or a song, to build muscle memory. Good fingering will improve the smoothness of your playing, help you learn a song more quickly, and give you confidence against slipping or playing a wrong note.

(The above information is borrowed from Keyboard Course, pg. 133, published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with additions and changes by Jennifer Morgan)

Additional Guidelines:

The best approach for hymn playing is a legato touch, while preserving independence of line. This means that the released repeated notes in one voice, such as the alto voice, cannot effect the legato of changing notes in another voice, such as the soprano voice. The ability to play one part legato while playing another part detached is one of the great challenges of organ playing.

• Lift repeated notes with precise releases (give them a consistent eighth or sixteenth rest)

• Connect non-repeating notes in each voice part

• The soprano line is king, and must be protected, even if the first two rules must be broken

• A repeating bass line can be connected, judiciously, as long as strong beats are accented

• Playing the bass line with the feet frees up the hands to play just soprano, alto, and tenor lines

Become very comfortable with independent movement, where one finger sustains notes while another lifts. Remember that different horizontal lines (soprano and alto, for example) operate independently, while being played by the same hand. Since the organ has no decay, the timing of a note’s release is as important as the timing of its attack. Repeated notes are a great place to shift fingering!

Legato organ fingering techniques to utilize:

Regular, or Direct Fingering
Placing fingers on adjoining keys, the fingers play and stretch or compress to play the notes without crossing or utilizing any other techniques—the notes fall naturally under the fingers.

Redistribution of the Inner Part (combines well with Direct Fingering)
Since the bass line is played with the pedals, the left hand only needs to play the tenor part. Many times the soprano and alto parts are difficult to finger with the right hand alone, so the left hand can grab the alto part, redistributing it to the left hand. As needed, the left hand can grab the soprano note as well, or the right hand can play the tenor note.

Finger Crossing
Finger crossing is utilized in scale exercises. Generally, a longer finger crosses over a shorter one, or a shorter finger crosses under a longer one, but exceptions can be made in different circumstances. A very common application is for ascending or descending thirds to be played by fingers 4/2, then 5/1, then 4/2, etc.

Finger Glissando
A finger glissando is when the finger or thumb slides from a black key to the adjoining white key.

Finger Substitution
In finger substitution, one finger is replaced by another during the same note so that finger is freed to play another note.

Thumb Glissando
This technique occurs from white key to white key, or white key to black key, and utilizes the thumb as if it were two fingers, one being the base of the thumb and the other the tip. While it’s a tricky technique to master, thumb glissando is an essential way to play certain passages of organ music.

Here are exercises illustrating these techniques from The New LDS Organist:




In the class I handed out paper keyboards and had those in attendance come up with some fingerings. Here are a few examples of effective hymn fingerings that I shared with the class:


In Conclusion

By placing the fifth finger of your right hand on the highest note in the passage, and the fifth finger of your left hand on the lowest, then redistributing the inner part as necessary and writing in the fingerings, you can make playing many of the hymns so much easier! It's amazing how much simpler the hymns become when your hands aren't trying to move all over the keyboard. Of course, learning to play the bass line in the pedals simplifies what your hands need to play.

I recommend playing through several hymns, then choosing one to work out fingerings according to these guidelines. See how this process works for you.

Thanks for reading!


Friday, November 9, 2018

In memorium: Dr. Parley L. Belnap


I regret to announce that Dr. Parley L. Belnap passed away Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 7, 2018, in the company of his family.

Dr. Belnap studied with many notable organists, including Marcel Dupré and Flor Peeters, and taught many notable organists including tabernacle organists Clay Christiansen, Linda Margetts, and Andrew Unsworth, as well as Ryan T. Murphy, the associate music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Michael Ohman, another notable organist and former student shared an interview he had with Parley, which is a wonderful life history that I recommend reading.

In the words of Dr. Don Cook, "The BYU Organ Program is now enjoying the benefits of Dr. Belnap’s vision. For example, the group organ program with its organ lab and the Independent Study organ courses were his brain children. The wonderfully varied practice organs were designed and installed under his leadership. His Hymn Studies for Organists is still an excellent resource for hymn playing."

The Utah Valley Chapter of the American Guild of Organists is presenting a recital in his honor this Saturday, November 10, at 6:00 p.m. in the American Fork East Stake Center, 825 East 500 North, American Fork, UT. As part of this event, tributes from Dr. Belnap's former students have been gathered and will be shared. These tributes will also be made available on the UVAGO website in the near future.

 "I felt I wanted to bring scholarship, spirituality, expertise and excellence to BYU because it’s such a wonderful place. I wanted to share with good students what I’d learned from all my experiences...It’s an honor to serve in this great church, to train the talented people whom I’ve been privileged to train....I have a firm testimony of the restoration of the gospel, that God lives, and that Jesus is the Christ. I’m thankful for my wonderful years at BYU, and the wonderful students and faculty associates. I have much to thank the Lord for."  -- Dr. Parley Belnap

Friday, October 26, 2018

White Organ Shoes for Men

Max Walker, the sub-dean of the Salt Lake Chapter of the American Guild of Organists has shared information on how to obtain white organ shoes for men. I wanted to pass this information on to you, as I know many men end up playing in their stocking feet because they're unable to find white organ shoes.

Photo composite by Jennifer Morgan
 Hi folks. This is for those gentlemen who may be playing chapel organ in LDS temples and wish to have white organ shoes. The same info can be applied to any color organ shoe. Many, many colors are available as noted below. Similar options exist for the women's style shoes, in case you ladies are having trouble finding white (colored) shoes.

Organmasters, the go-to source for many organists, doesn't sell the men's Oxford shoe in white and doesn't make it to order.

My new friend, Bill Hesterman, pointed me to TicTacToes.com. They sell dance shoes, and have a category of organ shoes. They are the factory, so they will make a shoe in white even if it is not offered on the web site in white; one simply needs to call to ask for what one needs. 

There are two shoes at TicTacToes that would be attractive you gentlemen in that case: 
  1. "Applause." The Applause is like Organmaster's Oxford. It is listed only in black on the web site, but can be made in white (or any of the many colors they offer). Note that the heel will be black regardless. If one finds that unsuitable, but wants that style, one can paint that heel or have the cobbler do it. The toe is slightly more pointed than the Oxford, but not unnaturally so. It's just a nice looking shoe. The heel is the same as the Organmaster Oxford: 1.25".
  2. "Cameron." The Cameron is listed under Specialty Organ Shoes. Its heel is made to match, wrapped in the same color leather. This shoe has no shank. Its advantage is the white heel. It looks normal enough viewed straight on. I have a pair on order, but haven't received it yet, so I cannot comment yet on the shankless fit. The Cameron comes with a taller heel than the Applause: a 1.75" "Latin" heel. It can be ordered with a 1.25" heel if you prefer that; simply specify upon ordering. 
Artist's rendering by Jennifer Morgan of white "Applause" organ shoe

 A couple more things to note: 
  • TicTacToes' shoes run true to US sizing. If you're accustomed to Organmaster shoes, do not trust that sizing will match; it will not. Organmasters run short to size, and are more snug.
  • The white shoe is made to order and cannot be returned. If you are skittish about sizing, TicTacToes suggests that you order the shoe in black, which is returnable, confirm sizing, then return the black and order the confirmed size in white. Obviously, you will confirm all of that when you order and won't rely on my account of their policies. 
  • Pay attention to heel length. These vary. You can specify what you are accustomed to.
  • Finally, these are not kept in stock and are usually made to order. Plan on extra time to receive your shoes; they suggest 4-6 weeks, but my first pair came at about 3 weeks.
Happy Organing!

Friday, June 29, 2018

2018 BYU Organ Workshop


It's that time again! I've spoken many times on this wonderful workshop. If there's any way you can go, I highly recommend attending. It's a life-changing experience! Visit https://organworkshop.byu.edu/ for more information.




Thursday, June 28, 2018

New Hymnal Announced. Can we get one marked for the organ?

I'm sure most, if not all, of my readers are aware that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced that they will be producing a new hymnal and children's songbook. I linked to the article on my facebook page.

The church has asked for input via a survey link.

Many of you are aware that Carol Dean created a trial version of the hymnal, meticulously marked for organ, that she worked on perfecting and tweaking until she passed away earlier this month. I have been tasked with furthering her work. With this announcement, can you think how wonderful it would be if the Church would publish an organ version of the hymnal? I can't believe how many members of the church contact me every week requesting Carol's markings, and most of you found out about it through word of mouth! There appears to be a huge need for a hymnal of this type.

I think a hymnal marked for organ, and a simplified hymnal for organists would be a very much needed addition to the church's publications.

If you agree please fill out the above survey and either under the "general difficulties experienced" or "other feedback" fields, state how difficult it is as a pianist to play the organ without markings, or request a hymnal with organ markings.

If enough survey takers request a version of the hymnal with organ markings, the church might make one available!