By Kari Miller
Many organs these days boast a dizzying array of bells and whistles. Row upon row of couplers, pistons and toe studs, memory levels numbering in the hundreds, recording and play-back mechanisms, unusual digital stops which make the organ sound (sort of) like a harpsichord or string orchestra, as well as traditional extras like zimbelstern and chimes are only some of the wonders that may greet a modern organist. This astounding panoply of riches, seemingly endless in scope and possibility, is for many a large part of the instrument’s appeal, and figuring out how to use it all to full advantage can certainly be a lengthy and highly interesting process.
It may surprise you, then, to learn that my current self-improvement project at the organ involves a quite basic feature, encountered by almost every organist: that is, the lowly swell pedal. I speak solely for myself in saying I am often guilty of using the swell pedal only when it is convenient or easy – but I would venture that there are many others out there who could say the same. My own hesitation is caused, nine times out of ten, either by fear (that I will mess up or something bad will happen) or by pure laziness (lack of preparation.) The laziness can hopefully be rooted out by a bit of mindful planning and practice, and the fear will likely be assuaged by the same means.
I usually have no trouble identifying the places in the music that would be enhanced by the use of “expression” or figuring out how that might affect my pedaling or phrasing, but it does take some time and effort to get it right. Not a lot, really, but without some planning there are no guarantees, and there is indeed plenty that can go wrong. Being “spontaneous” and “winging it” doesn’t always work. A hasty lunge at the expression pedal can lead to unexpected consequences such as a painful stubbed toe, total flubbing of the regular pedal part, the unintended triggering of a piston or general, or, perhaps worst of all, the accidental engagement of the crescendo pedal. This last is usually so shocking that it is, hopefully, something one does not often repeat. Another less disastrous but still undesirable result of poor planning might be that we get stuck for an extended period with the swell shades too far open or closed, but with our feet too busy to make any adjustment. And, of course, there can always be too much of a good thing; nobody wants that seasick, “ocean swell” effect which comes with senseless or excessive use of the expression pedal.
In the planning and practicing stage it is essential not to focus on how it feels, but rather to listen closely to how the music sounds. This may be harder than one might think. It may not feel good or natural; the pedal might be stiff or move unevenly or the actual increase of sound may come much later than expected. The physical action and the musical gesture are often quite out of sync and one has to keep reminding oneself to gauge by sound and not by feel. Sometimes the actual sounds of the shutters themselves are a distraction as they open and close; I try to just ignore any creaking, moaning or crackling and hope that the listener will not notice anything amiss.
So, for the moment, that is my self-improvement project. What is yours? It is probably good to have one, and also good to remember that improvement doesn’t always mean pursuing things more and more difficult or complex. It can sometimes mean staying right where you are, making an honest self-evaluation and deciding to do better.