Stop, collaborate and listen

David Sinden has a series of blog posts recording different stops on various organs, one at a time so that you can really hear the character of the stop. It seemed like a good project, so I decided to try and record some of the stops on the organ at St Andrew’s.

Here, then, is the Oboe stop on the swell box. This is probably an original stop on this instrument. Swell Oboe 8 playing Stanley by artsyhonker

Apologies for the whooshing noise. The bellows are in need of serious repair, but we’re a very small parish and the repairs aren’t cheap so for now we just have to put up with it. In services, I usually turn the organ off completely after the gradual hymn, so that the Gospel reading and the sermon are a bit easier for people to hear, then turn it on again during the Peace before the Offertory hymn.

The piece is the beginning of a voluntary by John Stanley, whose (manuals-only) voluntaries I generally enjoy. I suppose I should find a pedal-only piece for another stop recording, I am meant to be getting better at this business of playing notes with my feet.


Organ diagnostic chart

We had our organ tuned earlier this week, preparing for Lent. Hooray! I have all the notes back on the Tromba stop! I can use the Great Stopped Diapason when playing in flat keys! I approve of this. Some problems are going to wait until there’s time for a longer visit, and then there are the bellows which need repairs — a huge and expensive job which we don’t yet have sufficient funding to undertake.

Most organs I’ve visited seem to have a sort of organ log book where the organist can write down faults and the tuner can write little notes of the temperature and humidity (which always seem to me to be chiding somehow, though I’m sure they aren’t meant to sound that way). Invariably there will be scribbles along the lines of “F# below middle C not right” or similar, or as in my case the organist will try and remember to make a note of problems but then completely forget to write them down in the little book!

During the summer I couldn’t find the book at all so I made this chart. It’s a very simple affair: date, place and manual, then a table with a column for each key (up to 61) and a row for each stop (up to 11). I’ve shaded the black notes so it’s a bit easier to keep your place when filling it in, and left plenty of space underneath the chart for writing down further observations. I found myself using different symbols for different problems and extrapolating below the chart.

This was just a quick sort-the-easy-stuff tuning, and so I didn’t actually fill out these sheets, but for the Really Big Tuning that happens each summer they’re really valuable. It does take a while to sit down and play every note of every stop but it’s well worth it in terms of letting the organ tuner know exactly which notes are problematic.

The Volunteer Organist

Last Sunday I rolled along to Christ Church Wanstead as I often do for Evensong; it’s usually quite a small service and I enjoy turning up, singing, and going away again without having to worry about messing anything up. Evensong doesn’t have to be all cathedrals and choirboys and processions and Stanford; it can be an intimate, quiet occasion, comfortable like an old coat — even if, for me, it’s an old coat I’ve only recently acquired, somewhat by accident.

It wasn’t quite like this Victorian parlour song, but I arrived to find the organist was absent, and somehow I ended up volunteering to play.

The minister’s decision to say rather than chant the psalm was the right one, given that the congregation was also small that day. I don’t have enough experience of chanted psalmody to be able to do this without at least being able to play through the chant a few times. The canticles were okay though, because the text is more familiar.
My sight-reading isn’t as bad as I thought! But, it isn’t good enough yet that I’d really be happy to do that for a “main” service. I didn’t do myself any favours with tempo and I might have taken things a bit more slowly, especially as at previous services there I’ve found the hymnody leans toward a more stately pace. On the whole I think I would be better off playing the first line or even just the starting notes and then singing: people would likely find that easier to follow than an organ or piano. In fact (and I did discuss this with the minister afterward) there’s a strong argument for two-note chanted psalms and canticles, and unaccompanied hymnody, with so few people and without the usual organist.
Next time, it would be better to spend more time rehearsing the unknown hymns on the electric piano and less time trying to work out how to turn the organ on… and I really should get around to doing some practice at Christ Church, as a change from the instrument I’m learning on at St Andrew’s.

Warmer wrists!

On Saturday a pair of these arrived in the post:

They were knitted for me by my aunt, and my mum sent them along to keep my wrists warm while I’m practising at church.
St Andrew’s, like many church buildings of its time, was built with not much regard for temperature regulation. Once upon a time there was some kind of underfloor radiator system but that has since been replaced by radiant electric heaters, which are a lot of good if you’re standing directly where they are pointed (preferably wearing something dark), but not much help elsewhere. This hasn’t been the warmest winter, and while indoor morning temperatures at the moment are around 9ºC with the milder weather, over Christmas it was sometimes as low as 3ºC. I do have a radiant heater pointing at the organ keys, which does help, but the organ itself is part of the problem as a fierce draught comes down from behind it! I can’t really wear gloves, even fingerless ones, because they interfere too much with playing. Practising I can leave my coat on, but services are another matter as I can’t fit very many warm jumpers underneath cassock and surplice. Brr!
This week hasn’t seen much organ practice at church yet, and the weather is warming up here now, but I’m looking forward to trying out the wrist warmers tomorrow morning. If I can use them for playing then my work in the winter months will be far more pleasant. Many thanks, Aunt Pat!
Now to figure out how to keep my feet warm while wearing my organ shoes, which fit very closely and are just a thin layer of leather… I’m thinking fuzzy gaiters or legwarmers.

Organists Online birthday celebration

Saturday afternoon I attended the Organists Online ten-year anniversary event, an Open House at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

It was good to meet other organists; we tend to get quite wrapped up in our own work, being all busy at around the same times on Sunday mornings, and if I didn’t go out of my way to speak to some in other parishes I could easily not meet any at all.
The programme included talks and mini-recitals as well as a buffet. I didn’t attend the entire afternoon, but the talks about the organ in the church, and about the Small Choirs website were interesting and informative.
I was sorry to miss some of the playing, but the standard of what I did hear was superb. The organists were on a video camera with the footage projected on two screens in the front of the church — one of the few times I’ve seen projector screens used suitably inside a church 😉 — which meant that I could see their technique for myself. It was interesting seeing the difference between Cherry-Willow Pauls’s very fluid, rounded movements and David Aprahamian Liddle’s absolute economy of movement. It’s rare that I meet an organist in their natural habitat and even rarer that I get to watch them carefully while they play, so this was an excellent opportunity for me.
I do hope there will be another one!

St Albans Organ Theatre and various other sundries

This afternoon, N and I went to the St Albans Organ Theatre, a marvelous museum of various instruments. There were a number of instruments, from tabletop music boxes and cob organs to two impressive theatre organs and four mechanical, “self-playing” organs — like player pianos but much larger. There were also some player pianos; I don’t think I’ve seen one in action before.

Possibly my favourite specimen was the roll-playing Aeolian Orchestrelle. The picture on the website really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful intricate oak. The instrument had been painted black, so someone had to remove all that black paint… but the real beauty of it was a lovely warm tone colour and quite a few drawstops. I’d encountered a parlor organ or harmonium as a child in Canada but they were generally in poor repair. This one had the addition of a roll, similar to a player piano roll — but with the additional twist that the foot pumps seemed to control the speed of the roll, and the various stops could be pulled to change the tone. The roll demonstrated had dynamic instructions and even some pauses marked.

The various mechanical instruments put me in mind of a sort of steampunk pre-cursor to MIDI files. That in turn reminded me of this:

The video is of a sort of robot that fits over the manual of a pipe organ and plays it from a midi file, made by Dorkbot Alba.

Searching for that, in turn, turned up the Odd Musical Instruments website. Some of the contraptions on there make the serpent look quite tame!


I’ve been on vacation for most of the past week, staying in a guesthouse in Mark, Somerset and cycling a lot.

I’m well aware that I have a shiny new job starting in September, and I didn’t want to miss too many days of practice. So I rang up the local vicar to ask if I could use the organ in Mark Church. I’m glad I did; it’s a lovely instrument in many ways and I spent a few hours on Wednesday morning playing, as well as a bit of time on Thursday. I don’t think the organ has the range of tone colour that the one at St Andrew’s has, and I’m accustomed to three manuals rather than two and a greater range of pedal stops, but the blowers were much quieter (probably on account of not being broken) and — this was exciting — all the notes work. It’s being kept in reasonably good tune, too.
Yesterday was back to work, of a sort — I was playing serpent with the London Gallery Quire at a wedding in the afternoon, and then again in the ceilidh band in the evening at the reception. The wedding itself was very long, with a range of liturgy and music that showed a fair portion of the breadth of the Church of England. After the wedding some Quire members had kindly arranged a lunch, which was very much appreciated, especially by those of us going on to play in the band. Playing the ceilidh was good fun — I’d like to do more of that sort of work — but it did mean I got home after 1am!
Today, then, is for tidying, laundry, all the post-holiday stuff, so that tomorrow I can settle into a working routine again without tripping over myself. That’s the plan, anyway…

Sweet singing from the choir

In late summer of 2009, I was talking with the organist at St Andrew’s Leytonstone. I mentioned that I wanted to write more church music, but that I realised that many parish churches in England don’t have large choirs and so in order to write effectively for existing resources I would probably need to learn more about the organ.

One thing led to another, and to another, and soon not only was I learning to play the organ, but I was directing the choir in our carol concert, helping choose some of the hymns, and even playing for a service here and there. I’ve been loving the work, and learning a lot.
Earlier this year, the organist asked if I’d be willing to take over his position. I said yes, and had a chat with the vicar, who is happy to employ me. In September I will be officially taking over as organist and choirmaster. This was announced to the choir on Easter Sunday, which means I’m now free to blog about it.
I’m looking forward to it, and also feeling some apprehension. I still have an awful lot to learn, and five months doesn’t seem like a long time to learn it.