Jonathan Delbridge FRSM, LTCL, ALCM, DipMusTh(ICMA)
Jonathan has over 12 years experience teaching piano, organ and music theory to students of all ages and abilities. Students gain excellent results in graded and diploma exams with all the major exam boards and several have gone on to pursue music further at Chethams School of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire or University. Jonathan is based in Merriott near Yeovil but would also be willing to travel to give students organ lessons at their own church. For further information visit jonathandelbridge.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 07719 187508.
David R J A Dewar, BA(Hons), LRSCM, AdvDipRSCM, MISM
As Director of Music at the Dame Monica Wills Memorial Chapel in the University of Bristol, I teach organ, conducting (both orchestral and choral), and theory of music. ad: www.willschapelchoir.prof.org.uk
Tel: 07772 607 830
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Don’t Distort the Digits (Some Thoughts on Digital Electronics) by Ray Willis
We all know that a pipe organ is better than digital electronics. But can we say why in a specific way rather than just our “feeling”. With my experience of working in the industry, both pipe and electronic, I will try. With the great improvements in the quality of sound sampling available these days, it is the amplification and loudspeaker systems that are the problem, not the organ itself. It can be improved dramatically, but only at considerable cost. I will now explain. (Warning – this is quite technical and might damage your health!)
Intermodulatory Distortion and Phase Cancellation
When a single frequency (f1) is fed through a loudspeaker, harmonics of f1 are generated, i.e. 2f1, 3f1, 4f1, 5f1, etc (no electronic device is perfect and so harmonics are always generated even at low levels).
Now, if two separate frequencies exist in the same loudspeaker, sum and difference frequencies are also produced in addition to the harmonics. This can be shown mathematically to be the result of a multiplication process between the two original frequencies and hence the two new frequencies are called products. If the two original frequencies are f1 and f2, and the highest frequency is f2, then we can expect two other components (or products) of (f1+f2) and (f2-f1).
However, it doesn’t stop there. Since there are harmonics of f1 and f2, then there will be sum and difference products between all of the harmonics and the fundamentals and between each other. These are the intermodulation products which are frequency components distinct from the earlier harmonic components. Of course, if there are more than two fundamental frequencies, then the multitude of products is compounded further.
The existence of intermodulation components affects the performance of equipment in various ways. With audio amplifiers the presence of any component at the output of an amplifier, but not fed into it, degrades the quality of the signal being amplified. We call this distortion, which can be the result of non-linearity in the amplifier causing the generation of harmonics of the signal frequencies and, in turn, intermodulation components. So we have harmonic distortion and intermodulation distortion which can individually be defined. We often see intermodulation distortion abbreviated to IMD. If this distorted signal from the amplifier is then fed into a loudspeaker it becomes further distorted.
Separating bass and treble frequencies is desirable. Not only do larger diameter speakers handle low frequencies better, but the amount of intermodulatory distortion is also considerably reduced. Furthermore, because of the differing harmonic content of the many families of stops, it is also desirable to have separate amplification channels and loudspeakers for each family of stops within each department of the organ, otherwise the possibilities of intermodulatory distortion become very much greater. If we follow this through within the whole organ the need for very large amplification and loudspeaker systems becomes obvious. Not necessarily to produce greater volume, but to reduce distortion. Sadly, in order to reduce cost, it is in the amplification and loudspeaker systems that digital organs all too often (in fact almost always) fail.
A further issue, to do with loudspeaker siting, is what we call phase cancellation. Loudspeakers are very directional, whereas an organ pipe radiates sound omnidirectionally. If a sound wave at a particular frequency from one loudspeaker travels in exactly the opposite direction to the same frequency from another loudspeaker, then the two will cancel each other out. This results in a loss of sound (sometimes completely). This same effect is produced when sound is reflected from a surface such as a wall exactly back on itself. So it follows that loudspeakers need to be positioned to avoid phase cancellation both directly and by reflection.
Another problem, and here I am being really “picky”, is that all rooms have a frequency at which they will resonate (or amplify) that note. It is desirable to discover that frequency and then use what we call a notch filter to reduce the volume of that particular frequency. A pipe organ voicer will do this when voicing the organ on site. A digital organ should be voiced in the same way on site, but this is a rare occurrence.
From all this, you can now see, I hope, why the amplification and speaker systems in digital organs are so important. The larger the organ the more important it becomes. Small digital organs played softly are much easier to design and create than large ones needing to be played loudly.
All that said, there is a case for digital organs, particularly for chamber instruments and home practice. These are available on a DIY basis and require only a computer to run the software, with a MIDI equipped keyboard (or keyboards and pedalboard), a quality MIDI interface (don’t be tempted to go too cheap on this), and, most importantly, a quality amplifier/loudspeaker system with appropriate high quality connecting leads (as the internal speakers in laptops and iPads are not up to the job). The following merit investigation:-
Hauptwerk is the obvious top of the range. There is a free version which is limited in what it can do, but can prove satisfactory. The system does require a very high spec, and therefore expensive, computer. I recommend that you use that computer only for Hauptwerk. This system can get very expensive if you go to the top of the range version, but it has the advantage that there are many downloadable “soundsets” from small instruments to large cathedral instruments. Some soundsets are free and some are quite expensive. Of particular note is the soundset of the Willis/Harrison at Hereford Cathedral. I must say though, that it doesn’t compare to playing the real thing in the real building!
There are now some commercial companies coming on the scene who are building complete organs using the Hauptwerk system for professional installation. The advantage of this is that you can have your own custom designed organ, and can change the organ quite easily, or even have several different organs saved on the hard drive of the computer. Again though, it gets to be difficult to satisfactorily have a large instrument to play loudly in a large building. But for your lounge or studio where high volume is not required it can be quite exhilarating.
Much more economical are the organs from the Virtual Organ Company. These will run on any PC including quite low spec laptops. These virtual organs cost around £40 each. I use the Positief III myself on a laptop. However, they also offer two “freebies”. The Portatief I Freeware Organ which has Flutes at 8′ and 4′, and the Blokwerk Freeware Organ which is a Dutch late medieval organ with Doof and Scherp registrations.
There are also a couple of very good harpsichords (no organs though) modelled on an instrument by Grimaldi (1697 Italian) and Blanchet (1733 French) on the entry level version of Pianoteq (Pianoteq Stage). This also features historic pianos which are interesting if you want to feel for yourself how works by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven (and other composers of that time) would have sounded on the fortepianos for which they were writing. This costs under £100 and runs on any PC including quite low spec laptops. I use this one myself on my laptop.
Another software, which I have no experience of at the moment, is “jOrgan”. You can find out more here.
For those of you who run iPads there is a good selection of organs created by Marcus Sigg. If you do a search in the App Store for “sigg” they will come up. Prices range from free to around £25. You will need one of the specialist iPad MIDI interfaces. I think the smaller organs are better than the large ones. I myself use the “Jeux d’orgue Mini ” which is free. Many of these have the facility to have the pedals on “auto bass” but you need to switch this on.
If you have a problem in any of these with a delay in response (we call it “latency”), you will need to experiment with changing the sample rates and/or “buffering” settings. If you need help with this please get in touch with me.
If you have some time to while away it is interesting to do a Google search on “Virtual Organ Pics”. If you then click on the pics you can access the web pages concerned. There is an awful lot out there.
Guidelines for Hymn-choice and Performance
(From a SOCA workshop given by John Bodiley at Creech St Michael on 1 September 2014)
These guidelines are entirely mine, and clearly, you are free to ignore them all, or to take only some on board, as you see fit. You may like to bring points 1 and 2 to the attention of your clergy.
1 Hymn choice. Whether clergy or organists choose the hymns, there are important issues to bear in mind. The four hymns for a regular service should be contrasting, to lend variety: that is to say, they should vary in terms of the number of verses, verse lengths, keys, and overall mood, where possible. If a particular hymn is requested, because of its great relevance, but is overlong and hard to sing, it is sensible to sing only certain verses: you do not have to sing the entire hymn. Remember that many hymns in our current books, especially Victorian hymns, often had many more verses than are printed these days. “The God of Abraham Praise”, for instance, had at least 10 verses originally! We usually only sing four or five now. It is also good for the priest taking the service sometimes to point out the relevance of a hymn; to explain why it has been chosen. Make sure that the hymns chosen reflect the singing prowess of the congregation. Choosing 3 or 4 big hymns for a group of a dozen or so elderly people is not sensible. What about the occasional hymn practice? How about playing over a new or unfamiliar tune a few times as a voluntary before a service?
2 Disposition of congregation. Singing is usually stronger and more convincing if the singers are standing in a group. Try getting members of your congregation to sit and stand together, rather than to be scattered throughout the building. Remember that some hymns, especially those of a contemplative nature, may be sung whilst seated. This all helps to add variety, and to make people think about what they are singing.
3 Playover. Work out beforehand how much, and which section of a verse, you are going to play. Set the speed of the hymn, and don’t slow down at the end of the playover. Are you going to use unison playing for any of it? Feel the pulse of the music, and try to train your singers to sense that pulse, and to begin singing unanimously. Make sure you are in the best key, and are playing the most suitable tune, if there are alternatives. Decide whether detached articulation or a legato style is best for the particular hymn you are playing.
4 Playing the hymn. Try to learn the tune and harmony, so that you can scan the words of each verse as you play. Then you can accentuate the punctuation to make sense of the words, and vary the volume and articulation to underline the meaning of each line. Take special care with those hymns that have an irregular metre. Don’t slow down until the last line of the final verse.
5 Unison and harmony verses. There are no completely hard and fast rules, but trends are observable. Most cathedral and major church choirs sing the first and last verses of a hymn in unison, but may not do so if the hymn is short, or if it is a very gentle and contemplative one. Most congregations sing in unison, though you do get individual members of the congregation who sing parts. If you have a choir, you should rehearse the hymns with the detail about such things as unison, trebles only, lower voices only and so on worked out. If you re-harmonize the last verse of a hymn, make sure it is done convincingly. Don’t overwork descants. They should be used sparingly, on very special occasions, and led by a convincing group of singers.
6 Modern Worship Songs. A whole subject in its own right. You often have to adapt accompaniments to an organ, since they do not suit the instrument as written. Generally, congregations automatically smooth out the excesses of jerky rhythms, which composers imagine make their songs sound modern. It is best to follow this practice, and not to play the music exactly as written. Interludes between the verses often seem to me peculiarly pointless, but if a congregation has learnt them, it is best to go along with it.
Practice makes Perfect….. or does it?
A SOCA Workshop lead by Hilary Shaw, Cheddon Fitzpaine Church, Tuesday 9th May 2017
We can all understand that playing any piece of organ music requires the acquisition of a complex set of physical skills, and that mastering any physical skill takes practice. For organists a working definition of “practice” could be: “the accurate repetition of actions carried out with the goal of improvement, resulting in playing with more ease, accuracy and confidence”
Published strategies for such practice are limited; those that exist emphasise repeating separate parts until they are learnt, followed by carefully combining them, often at slow speeds. Sometimes advice is given to learning a small section, often at the end, then moving on to another until the piece is learnt. This analytical/intellectual approach takes no account of individual differences in skills acquisition, and ignores the psychological/emotional aspects of human behaviour.
Considerable research into skills acquisition has been done in Sports Psychology and Science, where the interplay of the body and mind has been investigated. Musical pedagogy has been slow to take this up, but the latest thinking is beginning to regard music learning as a holistic combination of the physical and psychological. After all what is music but an emotional response to sound?
Current research about skills acquisition in general suggests common strategies which can get us musicians started, but the intricacies of organ playing require a more refined approach.
It is vital to realize that we are all different: from our early music education, our teachers, opportunities, natural abilities etc, which have led us along our own individual pathways. We have developed ideas about our own organ playing along the way, and may have even reached conclusions about ourselves that are limiting and unhelpful. So therefore it must be right that we need to develop an individual approach to our own organ practice.
Where to start?
What exactly is your problem?
Socrates exhortation to “Know thyself” might be one place!
- What is your own personality?
- What do you like musically, how does this help you choose repertoire?
- What do you want your practice to achieve?
- How do you measure your own success?
- How are you feeling about your own practice right now?
Strategies for practice…..some ideas to consider
- Choose music that you like
- Remind yourself why you want to play it
- Set aside a defined time for focused practice, owls vs larks
- Use a timer, 15 mins of full attention is better than 60 mins of faffing
- Use a diary to record what you want to work on
- Identify the parts of any piece that you cannot play
- Don’t spend time on what you can do already
- Consider what YOU need to do to acquire those missing skills,
- Consider Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Analytical, Emotional inputs
- Brush up any basic skills if these have lapsed
- Add in fingering etc to keep practice consistent
- Consider taking 3 sections and doing interleaved rather than blocked practice
- Practice without errors
- Check that you are relaxed and enjoying!
- For refinement try using dotted rhythms, play faster, start half way through a bar
- 15 mins of focused practice should be followed by a break
- Use self analysis to Reward your efforts
- Regard a practice session as part of a journey towards a goal, not an item that is finished
- Record or video yourself and enjoy your own efforts
- Stay positive….always
How to go forwards
Don’t seek to change all your practice strategies in one go. A period of reflection will help to focus on particular aspects of practice that could be altered, bearing in mind your own individual circumstances. Notes in a diary will help decide which you think is the most suitable for you, and later, how effective it was.
Different pieces of music present different challenges, practice must be refined and targeted to each one.
When it comes to acquiring skills, there are no short cuts.
Some people find a particular passage easy, others find it difficult. Therefore the notion that a whole piece is easy or difficult has no meaning.
Comparing yourself with others is pointless… they are not you.
Organists have to invest considerable time and effort to acquire the skills needed. Reflect on why this is important to you.
Noa Kageyama PhD, blog at bulletproofmusician.com
Graham Fitch, blog at practicingthepiano.com
Vidas and Ausra Pinkevicius, posts at organduo.lit
Annie Bosler and Don Greene, video..How to practice effectively, at ed.ted.com
Anne Marsden Thomas A Practical Guide to Playing the Organ 10.3, p205
Philip Scriven Practice Technique—a few Ideas handout at Lyme Regis Organ School 2016
These notes are a distillation of my current research. They are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive, but rather to provide points for discussion and reflection.
Hilary Shaw, May 2017