Considerations in working with pipe organ accompaniment

These articles are an attempt to alert the professional soloist to some of the details  inherent in working with a pipe organist, many times of necessity using music written for piano. Some general concerns are also listed. In no way is this a complete discussion, and it may be added to in future. 

We are sincerely grateful for the guidance of long-time organist and AGO member M. F. Johnson, in assembling this information.

1. The piano has 1 keyboard with a total of 88 black (incidentals) & white keys.

2. The piano has 2 pedals, played by the feet.

2.1. The sustain pedal (on right) allows any number of notes to continue to sound until the pedal is released, or the strings stop vibrating
2.2. Since these sounds are made by strings, there is another element acting simultaneously: decay of the sound as the strings slowly stop vibrating. Thus, the sustain pedal allows the strings to continue to vibrate (sound) until they stop naturally, or the sustain pedal is released.
2.3. This effect allows large leaps in chords,top to bottom and vice versa, rolled chords, arpeggios, repeated rhythmic pattern of chords.
2.4. The soft pedal (on left) acts as a damper, so no matter how forcefully you strike a key, it sounds softly.

3. The piano keys are touch sensitive; i.e, if you play a key forcefully, it sounds loudly; play gently, it sounds softly.

4. The piano keys may be touched/sounded and continue to sound while the fingers quickly move up or down the keyboard to play additional notes, giving a very full sound. It’s easy to play legato using the sustain pedal.

5. The piano has 1 register: the piano. It can’t sound like trumpets or flutes or strings.

6. The piano and soloist are positioned anywhere in the hall, generally with little or no regard for optimal acoustical blend of sound.

Pipe Organ
1. The organ can have multiple keyboards (manuals) with 61 keys per manual. These keys may be white/light wood with black/dark wood incidentals (pipe organs and electronic organs), or black/dark with white/light incidentals (tracker organs).

2. The organ has 1 or 2 octaves of pedal notes, played by the feet.

2.1. Since all organ notes are played as sound is pushed through pipes, when the key is not pressed, the pipes get no air and do not sound.

3. The organ keys and pedal volumes are not touch sensitive.

4. The organ keys and pedals do not sound if they are not being held down. Finger  substitution is the only way to obtain a legato sound. Finger substitution is initially playing a note with one finger, then siding another finger onto the key without releasing it or accidentally playing any other note. This allows some hand movement while keeping a legato melody. Figuring out where to make such substitutions is one of the most important and complex differences between piano fingerings and organ.

5. Registration:

5.1. The organ has stops (or labeled tabs) which allow different sets of pipes (trumpets, strings, etc.) to sound.
5.2 The organ allows different ranks/registrations to be coupled together, to make major changes quickly.

6. The sets (ranks) of pipes may be positioned in different parts of the hall, and it takes an experienced organ technician to make certain the overall blending of pipes in the hall is focused, balanced and esthetically pleasing. This is done when the organ is built. Changes in the hall will result in changes in balance.

Changes include such things as audience size, weather [is the audience wearing coats?],  and location of performers.  Also requires an organist experienced at accompanying a soloist to choose which pipes to use for a particular soloist’s vocal quality, which requires practice. This shouldn’t be left to the last minute!

Problems & Solutions

1. Organ music has pedal part, no sustain, different phrasing, open chords, pipe registrations.

Solution:    Pianist must rewrite organ accompaniment – this takes time.

2. Piano music may have repeated rhythms, full chords, large skips, arpeggios, legato, dynamics, no pedal part.

Solution:    Organist must rewrite piano accompaniment – this takes time.

3. Generally the organist or pianist and soloist are not near the optimal focus of sound.

Solution:     a) have someone musically knowledgeable in that spot to check balance, or b) make a rehearsal recording from that spot & both review it for balance; then c) have a second run-thru to check that changes are sufficient.

All soloists should consider adding these 2 volumes to their libraries. They each contain all available keys in both piano and organ accompaniments. A quick comparison of piano vs. organ in either of these books shows how different piano and organ music is.

Note: Accompanist must have printed music for public performance. A copy from the soloist isn’t legit.  Copyright information available in this post.

The Complete Lord’s Prayer for Every Busy Accompanist 

The Complete Ave Maria 

Additional Resources

Further explanation, with recordings of different registrations, and photo of 4-rank organ.

The Technique and Art of Organ Playing, Clarence Dickinson, has examples and full explanations. Availability is too fluid to include a stable link.

Organ Technique Modern and Early, Ritchie and Stauffer also has explanations of these problems.

American Guild of Organists (AGO)

A Mini-Course in Basic Organ Registration 
Accompaniment and Adaptation Practicum 
Vocal Solos for Weddings CD 

Organ Historical Society (OHS) 

Presenting Concerts in Your Church and Community  
Additional methods and other books 

Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA)

Planning Space for the Pipe Organ, excellent acoustical diagrams



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