Preparing the Organ

The organist relies on a series of buttons, knobs, levers, and keys operated by ten fingers, both feet, and the occasional elbow, in order to create music. On a modest instrument, these can easily number over 200 objects. The organist, therefore, requires the ability to control these objects in such a way that musical ideas can be conveyed. Since the advent of electricity, the organist’s mainstay for controlling the increasing number of available sounds has been pistons. Pistons allow for quick changes of sound with minimal effort.

General pistons affect stops on all keyboards or divisions of the organ. Divisional pistons affect only those pistons on a particular division. In order to maximize control over the instrument, set both general and divisional pistons according to a pattern that will be useful and memorable. The following scheme will be useful primarily to 19th- and 20th-century works. Here we are looking for the following characteristics: homogeneity among registrations, gradual dynamic changes, dramatic variation in dynamics, and using the Swell box to assist in dynamic changes.1

The first consideration should be volume, followed by stop color or timbre. Set pistons from soft to loud as smoothly as possible, but take care not to drastically change colors, or timbres, as the volume increases. As you explore individual stops, some will sound darker or wider, and some edgier or thinner. This has to do with the complicated physical properties of the pipes themselves that control how audible their upper harmonic properties, or overtones, are. Some stops, like many flutes, sound clearly at the fundamental (8′) pitch. Other stops, like strings and reeds, will present louder overtones even though they may be designated as an 8′ stop. As you grade pistons, try to select stops that are close to one another in timbre as well as volume. 

Next, consider special effects like solo sounds, undulating strings or flutes, and, if available, a soft 32′ flue in the pedal. If there are enough general pistons, the final consideration for our purposes will be one or two numbers that you can change according to the needs of a particular piece.

For the purposes of basic choral accompaniment, I will only take into consideration the use of two divisions here: the Great and Swell. For considerations involving a third manual, see the Orchestration tab.

The Swell Division

The Swell division is useful in choral accompaniments because of its quick adaptability via pistons and an expression pedal. The Swell is almost always enclosed in a wooden box or room that contains shutters. The shutters open and close by operating the Swell Pedal at the organ console. When the shutters are open, more sound travels into the room than when they are closed. Other enclosed divisions–sometime the Choir, Echo, or Bombarde–are likewise useful for accompanying, especially for advanced orchestral accompaniments.

First, and most importantly, set up the divisional pistons of the Swell manual from soft to loud in a graded fashion described above, aiming to achieve a homogeneous timbral progression as well as a smooth increase in volume. The number of available Swell pistons determine what you put on Piston 1. For now, start with Piston 2. If you have six to eight pistons, set Piston 2 with an 8′ flute and 8′ string. This will be your default piston for giving pitches during rehearsals and playing any number of ppp, or mp passages.

Following are some of the many ways to set up Swell pistons for anthem accompaniment. The specifications and recordings for Swell Piston Settings, Versions 1 through 3, come from the organ built by Hellmuth Wolff & Associates in 1990 at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. A complete stop list of this instrument can be found here.

Thalben-Ball Grading Model

A gradation for a modern Swell division on a large English organ can be found in the settings of George Thalben-Ball (1896–1987). These are his standard Swell settings for the organ at the Temple Church in London as of 1978:2

Swell 1Swell 2Swell 3Swell 4
8' Echo Salicional
8' Vox Angelica
Octave (Sw to Sw 4')
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Echo Salicional
Octave (Sw to Sw 4')
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Echo Salicional
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
4' Principal
Swell 5Swell 6Swell 7Swell 8
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
4' Principal
2' Fifteenth
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
4' Principal
2' Fifteenth
Mixture
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
4' Principal
2' Fifteenth
8' Oboe
16' Double Trumpet
Octave (Sw to Sw 4')
8' Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
4' Principal
2' Fifteenth
Mixture
8' Oboe
16' Double Trumpet
8' Trumpet
4' Clarion

It is important to spend time finding the most subtle gradations possible in order to create the smoothest crescendo and decrescendo. The more stops and divisional pistons you have, the smoother your transitions can be. Further, always remember which piston brings on the first reed. On most organs, this will be an 8′ oboe and will most likely require you to adjust the Swell pedal to compensate for the “bump” in sound. In addition to volume, a reed will change the timbre because it includes more audible upper harmonics. More suggestions about adjusting the Swell pedal and masking bumps in sound with another manual can be found in the Registration tab.

Swell Piston Settings, Version 1 

Swell 1Swell 2Swell 3
8' Flûte harmonique8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Flûte octaviante
Swell 4Swell 5Swell 6
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
8' Hautbois
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
8' Hautbois
8' Trompette

Here is what that sounds like:

For my first version, I sought to create “warm and sonorous combinations reflecting [the typical] organ aesthetic” of the 19th and 20th Centuries.3 I therefore used all of the 8′ flue stops available, both 4′ flues, and capped the loudest sound with an 8′ reed rather than with a bright mixture. My default accompanying stop here is Swell 2. It includes both a string and a flute sound as they have complimentary characteristics: the 8′ Viole de gambe makes it easy to hear pitches while the 8′ Flûte harmonique modifies the tone “so as to blend with voices, and also to quicken the naturally slow speech of a string-stop.”4

Normally wide-scaled stops such as flutes and wide-scaled principals should be added to subsequent pistons first, followed by narrow-scaled stops such as strings and certain principals. This allows for the fundamental pitch to be presented louder before the upper harmonics are brought out by more narrow pipes and/or mutations. All organs are different, however, and you should rely primarily on which stops blend well together. The organ used in this scheme does not have a soft 16′ stop available in the Swell; otherwise, that could be useful for adding gravitas when warranted. Henry Coleman cautions, however, that this stop “helps to detract from the clearness of the singing and is very liable to encourage flattening.”5 Finally, do not add stops that are distinctly soloistic to your Swell crescendo such as a bold cromorne or some variant of a tuba.

Swell Piston Settings, Version 2

Swell 1Swell 2-5Swell 6
8' Viole de gambeSame as above8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
V Plein-jeu
8' Hautbois

Here is what that sounds like:

For the second version, I changed two components. First, I started with a string sound rather than a flute sound. Typically, the Viole de gambe speaks better in the low range of the keyboard while the Flûte harmonique speaks more clearly in the upper registers. Both are equally useful stops when played alone, depending on what musical needs you are addressing. Second, I capped the loudest sound with the bright Plein jeu rather than than the Trompette. I find this more useful on modern accompaniments like those of Bryan Kelly or Kenneth Leighton, when a clearer and more crisp sound is warranted. I did not include the Basson 16′ in these gradations because I find it too jarring with only six pistons available. If you are fortunate to have enough divisional pistons and one or more suitable 16′ stops in the Swell, experiment with adding it at the penultimate or final piston.

Swell Piston Settings, Version 3

Swell 1Swell 2Swell 3
8' Viole de gambe
8' Voix céleste
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
Swell 4Swell 5Swell 6
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Flûte octaviante
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
8' Souavial
8' Viole de gambe
8' Flûte harmonique
4' Prestant
4' Flûte octaviante
2' Octavin

Here is what that sounds like:

This version allows for a more gradual addition of sound, though only to about mezzo forte rather than forte or full swell. On an organ with more Swell pistons, such as eight or ten, this more subtle gradation could reach a fuller sound. As with many organs, the accompanist on this instrument must compromise on their Swell pistons by seeking either a smooth or a robust crescendo.

On this final version, note that the Voix céleste is only present on Swell 1. It should not be added to subsequent Swell pistons due to the nature of the stop, i.e., that it is tuned intentionally sharp. To carry it forward would cause subsequent pistons to sound out of tune.

The Great Division

The Great can also be used effectively in accompaniments. Keep in mind that it is nearly always unenclosed and will probably project more sound into the room than an enclosed division like the Swell. As a result, you will likely use fewer and softer stops than on the Swell.

Due to its exposure and use as a coupled or masking manual, as discussed in Registration, I recommend setting Great 1 with no stops. Unless you have access to a very large Great division with very subtle dynamic changes, only add one stop at a time for each piston. Following is one possible way of grading the Great for anthem accompaniment. The specifications for this instrument, which has four Great pistons available, can be found here.  Note that the first piston is silent.

Great 1Great 2Great 3Great 4
8' Flûte á cheminée8' Flûte á cheminée
4' Flûte á fuseau
8' Montre
8' Flûte á cheminée
4' Flûte á fuseau

Here is what that sounds like:

For reference, Thalben-Ball’s settings for divisional pistons on the Great are below. Note that these pistons would likely be used for hymns and other music, not just for anthem accompaniments.6

Great 1Great 2Great 3Great 4
8' Stopped Diapason8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
4' Octave
Great 5Great 6Great 7Great 8
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
4' Octave
2' Super Octave
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
4' Octave
2' Super Octave
Mixture
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
4' Octave
2 2/3' Octave Quint
2' Super Octave
Mixture
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Geigen
8' Sm Open Diapason
4' Octave
2 2/3' Octave Quint
2' Super Octave
Mixture
8' Tromba
4' Octave Tromba

When finding the best gradations for your own circumstances, consider adding a soft 16′ stop if available. With the full Swell coupled, this can lend some grandeur to the sound. On the Wolff, above, I find the 16′ Bourdon too loud for most accompaniments. If no 16′ is available or if the existing one is too loud, try drawing an 8′ 4′ 4′ 2′ combination and playing it down the octave. You could do this physically or, if available, use a sub-octave and unison off combination.

The Pedal Division

“The Pedal division’s primary role in accompanying is to provide a 16′ bass foundation underneath whatever is in the manuals.”7 A soft 16′ flue will prove indispensable to many accompaniments. Two Pedal pistons, therefore, should be devoted to adding or removing a 16′ Bourdon or similar stop. Note that an independent 8′ pedal stop may be too loud when you are playing on soft sounds in the manuals; in most cases the Swell to Pedal coupler will suffice.

Following is one possible way of grading the Pedal for anthem accompaniment. The specifications for this instrument, which has four Pedal pistons available, can be found here. Note that the first piston is silent, for use when the Swell is coupled to the Pedal.

Pedal 1Pedal 2Pedal 3Pedal 4
16' Soubasse16' Soubasse
8' Bourdon
32' Bourdon
16' Soubasse
8' Bourdon

A soft 32′ stop, if available, is likewise very effective if used judiciously. An accompanist will be tempted to draw a soft 32′ at cadences, particularly final cadences. Pedal points may benefit from a low rumble, as well as any place that would include a timpani roll if the piece were orchestrated. On the other hand, do not feel obligated to use it as often as possible. The soft 32′, like a celeste or other unique sounds, is best reserved for special moments.

Following are Thalben-Ball’s gradations.

Pedal 1Pedal 2Pedal 3Pedal 4
16' Bourdon
16' Dulciana
16' Bourdon
16' Dulciana
16' Bourdon
16' Violone
16' Dulciana
16' Geigen
16' Bourdon
8' Flute
Pedal 5Pedal 6Pedal 7Pedal 8
32' Bourdon
16' Open Wood
16' Geigen
16' Bourdon
8' Flute
32' Db Open Wood
32' Bourdon
16' Open Wood
16' Geigen
16' Bourdon
8' Flute
32' Db Open Wood
32' Bourdon
16' Open Wood
16' Geigen
16' Bourdon
8' Flute
16' Ophicleide
16' Orch Trumpet
8' Posaune
32' Db Open Wood
32' Bourdon
16' Open Wood
16' Geigen
16' Bourdon
8' Flute
32' Db Ophicleide
16' Ophicleide
16' Orch Trumpet
8' Posaune

If you are fortunate to have six, eight, or even more Pedal pistons, consider grading them from soft to loud like the Swell. Given that the Swell is normally coupled to the Pedal for accompaniments, focus more on adding 16′ stops than 8′ stops. Note that Thalben-Ball includes the Swell to Pedal coupler on all pistons, and no independent Pedal 8′ enters until Pedal 4.8

General Pistons

Organs with multiple memory levels allow one to designate one or more levels for choral accompanying and even to specific anthems or canticles. To set up a level for general accompanying, begin by activating the Swell-to-Great and Swell-to-Pedal couplers and drawing a soft 16′ flute in the Pedal. Next, make the General pistons correspond to the Swell pistons. For example, with the couplers activated and 16′ Bourdon drawn, press Swell 1. Set this as General 1. Next, press Swell 2 and set this as General 2. Continue this for as many Swell pistons as you have. After setting the General pistons according to the gradations of the Swell pistons, add some graded stops to the Great and Pedal divisions as the sound increases from the Swell.

On organs where there are more General pistons than Swell pistons, you have some options concerning the extra General pistons. You may choose to leave the unused General pistons blank so they can be set to according to specific sounds needed for specific anthems. Alternatively, utilizing multiple manuals, you may choose to grade the General pistons in a way that is more subtle than the Swell pistons alone. This is particularly useful when adapting orchestral or romantic-style works, but is largely beyond the scope of this introductory method. Janette Fishell suggests using some additional generals as solo-plus-accompaniment combinations such as a Swell reed accompanied by a Great flute, a Great Principal or Flute 8′ accompanied by a Swell celeste or foundation 8′, or a Tuba accompanied by the full Swell.9 

Further Reading

Fishell, Janette. “An Introduction to the Art of Registration.” In But What Do I Do With My Feet?, 11-16. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

  1. Janette Fishell, But What Do I Do With My Feet? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 61–62.
  2. Jonathan Rennert, George Thalben-Ball (North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, Inc., 1979), 160-161.
  3. Janette Fishell, “From Accompanist to Conductor in Ninety Minutes: Fundamentals of Accompanying and Console Conducting” (working paper, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University).
  4. John Stainer, Complete Organ Method, edited by F. Flaxington Harker (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), 80.
  5. Henry Coleman, The Church Organist (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 38.
  6. Jonathan Rennert, George Thalben-Ball (North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, Inc., 1979), 159–160.
  7. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.
  8. Jonathan Rennert, George Thalben-Ball (North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, Inc., 1979), 161.
  9. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.