January 2015 Deanery


The Deaneryby Kari Miller Magg

An organ is not a piano. A piano is not an organ. We all know this, but I wonder how often we stop to consider how very little the two instruments have in common. Both are keyboard instruments and both play music which is usually written in treble and bass clefs. There the similarities end. Most of us need to switch back and forth between the two instruments, but playing re- spectably on both is not always an easy proposition, no matter which side of the fence we come from. The skills and techniques needed for one or the other may be related, but they are not automatically transferable.

It seems to me that many of our failures and frustrations have to do with not knowing how to properly listen and react to what we hear. We are all taught to ‘listen’ as we practice, but what exactly are we listening for, beyond the right notes and rhythm? Think about it – a pianist is taught to listen, evaluate and react with hair-trigger response to each sound, to carefully balance each chord, to shape the melody ‘just so.’ Hours and hours are spent developing the fine finger control to achieve those subtle inflections that are the life-blood of expressive piano playing. Sadly, very little of it is of any use on the organ. No wonder that to many pianists the organ feels like an unmusical, unwieldy behemoth. Even something as basic as just playing in time can seem difficult without the ability to ‘feel’ the pulse in one’s fingers.

Instead of simply laying the blame on the organ, the pianist-turned-organist needs to approach the task completely differently, to get the ears and brain and imagination working together like a giant super- computer, weighing all available options and choosing the solutions that sound best for the highest percentage of the time. It is a lot like figuring out a puzzle. The good organist listens for the ‘big picture,’ even while attending to the difficult tasks of keeping hands and feet playing strictly together and achieving the desired touch.

The organist going to the piano has a different set of issues to over- come. Listening only for the big picture on the piano is like playing an organ with only one or two stops to choose from. The organist- turned-pianist may find the piano ‘boring,’ may complain about the unchanging, bland character of the sound, or may relegate the instrument solely to the utilitarian arena. What a mistake that is!  So many wonderful colors and textures are available on the piano, but they don’t happen by themselves (or even at the push of a button). The novice needs to experiment, to actively search for and learn how to produce the wide range of sounds that will bring the music to life.

An organ is not a piano. A piano is not an organ. Yet each is beautiful, demanding and worthy of our best efforts.