Liturgical Organ Playing Techniques

The liturgical organ requires the organist to be comfortable with several parts of the organ and their uses in a liturgical performance. Most church organs are full pipe organs that create sounds capable of filling an entire concert hall. Most organists start as piano players and then move on to the organ after proficiency on the piano develops. To play the liturgical organ well, the player must know each of the main parts of the organ and the proper technique to use each component.

Footwork Technique

Foot pedals may be confusing to the new organist, as the ones found on the organ do not appear on pianos. The pedals line up like the keys on the piano. There are longer pedals that correspond to the white keys of the piano and shorter pedals that correspond to the black keys. To play these pedals, the organist uses a pattern of heel-toe alternation. The organist presses the first pedal with the heel while the toe hovers over the next pedal, before depressing it with their toe. This creates a smooth counterpoint to the main melody played on the keyboard.

Stop Technique

Stops are a complicated liturgical organ technique that requires lots of practice and experimentation. The stops look like buttons and control the timbre of the instrument. Each stop corresponds to a different organ pipe. When used correctly, the stops can create several sounds, including passive and subdued background textures appropriate for sermons or more striking sounds for strong and powerful hymns. Stops have labels with a number that corresponds to a specific pipe. The higher numbers will correspond to larger and deeper pipes while the lower numbers correspond to higher pipes. This makes it possible to change the intensity and quality of sound to fit appropriately with the religious liturgical music.

Keyboard Techniques

Most organs will have two keyboards controlled by the stops the organist has pre-configured. These keyboards do not respond in the same way as a piano. The piano is a touch-sensitive instrument, meaning that each note produces volume in relation to how hard the pianist strikes the key. With the organ, this is not the case and the notes will immediately stop when the organist lifts his finger. To create a connected texture on the organ, the organist must develop a legato playing technique in which each note releases immediately before another is depressed. It is also possible to increase and decrease the intensity of the instrument by playing more than one keyboard at a time. This technique often appears in church music to indicate downbeats and new musical sections.

Swell and Crescendo Technique

While it is not possible to change the volume of specific notes on the organ, it is possible to create crescendos. Two separate pedals control these crescendos and swells. The swell pedal will restrict the airflow depending on how far down it is depressed. This creates brief moments of crescendo and decrescendo within the music. The crescendo pedal operates by completely shutting off or adding additional stops. The extra octaves created by this technique will increase the sound of certain sections, but this is a very difficult technique to master and employ subtly.


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