Following are several suggestions for varying your practice routine. Introducing variety into physical practice can help stimulate a sense of creativity and curiosity. Not only does it help alleviate boredom, but it can make time at the organ more enjoyable.
“All learning is emotionally colored and we learn best that which we most enjoy.”1
Prepare Yourself Physically
Just as athletes prepare themselves by stretching their muscles, so too can organists benefit from relaxation and stretches. Playing the organ is physically demanding and sometimes may lead to muscular tension; over time, this may lead to poor posture or physical pain. Take a moment to relax your muscles, particularly in areas where you may feel tension. This may be in your neck, shoulders, back, legs, or elsewhere. Since organists use their feet so much, don’t forget to rotate and relax your ankles.
Take a moment to breathe, as well. Just paying attention to your breath for a few minutes can help slow down your nervous system and the inner dialogue that is almost always present. Doing so can help prepare you for periods of concentration on your musical task at hand. For more information on the cognitive benefits of certain breathing techniques, do a quick search internet search. YouTube videos by Max Strom and Belisa Vranich are particularly recommended.
All suggestions below have a caveat: they are meant to be done musically, not merely as motoric gestures. When you play one melodic line from a fugue, make it beautiful, or exciting, or languid, or whatever the musical qualities of the whole work dictate. If you are practicing a pedal line from Handel’s Messiah, try to make it sound like a Baroque cello. If you are practicing a pedal line from Sowerby’s I Was Glad, see how over-legato you can make it sound. Get to know the music even when you are in the early stages of practicing. Some advice for doing this can be found in the tab, Preparing for Rehearsal.
Vary the Number of Parts
For those who learned how to play the piano long before studying the organ, it may prove helpful to secure the pedal part first and add the hands later. Make sure you can play the pedal part without watching your feet.
Next, play one hand or one melodic line at a time. If the left hand has a more difficult task than the right, start with the left hand. If both hands are covering three melodic lines at a time, such as in a four-part hymn texture, play one melodic line at a time. If one melodic line is played by both hands at various times, make sure to use the correct hand for each melodic note.
In passages with tricky or numerous piston changes, swell box adjustments, and/or page turns, practice those movements by themselves. Without playing the notes, watch the music and practice each movement so that it is accurate and replicable. It may help to say what you are doing out loud. When you press a piston, for example, just say “piston,” and so on. This reinforces your motoric action by connecting it to a different area of the brain.
Now practice different combinations of the above. Play the right hand and pedal part, then the left hand and pedal. Play just the pedal part and piston changes. Any combination that you can think of is acceptable. The purpose is to see, hear, and feel different combinations of the musical whole.
Vary the Tempo
Play slower than performance tempo when you are learning. Choose a tempo where you can play all of the notes accurately and with the fingering you will use during the performance. If you are uncertain which fingering will be best in a particular section, play that part up to speed to ensure it works at the final tempo. Subdivide beats when you play slowly. If a passage has various combinations of quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, count the sixteenth notes aloud or internally. Then count the eighths. If you have a string of quarter note, add some variety by counting either the eighth notes or triplets.
Practicing in moderate tempos can be especially useful for fast passages. Once you’ve marked in your desired fingering, play certain passages a little below performance tempo.
Finally, play above performance tempo. This may challenge your brain and muscles to process information faster than normal, which can be a helpful aid to learning. Don’t do it often, however, especially if you play inaccurate notes, rhythms, or fingerings. When we get nervous during a service or performance, it can feel like we are playing faster than we would like to. Occasionally practicing above tempo will help prepare for that sensation.
Use a Metronome
Whether you use a physical metronome or an app on your phone, I recommend using one that can sound subdivided beats. Metronomes, such as the Frozen Ape app, can be useful for gradually increasing tempos while you are learning and for checking tempos; just don’t let it become a crutch. Try not to use it at the same tempo for the same passage repeatedly.
If a passage is full of sixteenth notes, set the metronome’s subdivision so that there are clicks on all of the sixteenth notes: 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a. As you increase the tempo, set the subdivision to the eighth note: 1 and 2 and 3 and.
Let the clicks fall on the weak beats at times in addition to the strong beats. For example, in a 3/4 measure, with clicks set to the quarter note, play so that the clicks sound between the quarter notes: 1 and 2 and 3 and. This is referred to as playing on the backbeat, and is common in jazz and pop music.
Alternate playing passages with and without the metronome. This will aid your ability to play with a steady pulse without the crutch of the metronome. Alternatively, keep the metronome on but muted. After playing a specific portion of music, check to see if you are still at the beginning tempo.
Elongate certain parts of a beat or measure. This is particularly useful for quick passages of one or two lines at a time. For example, in a passage with eighth notes, play the first eighth note of each beat longer than the second eighth note. Then elongate the second eighth note. Here’s what that may look like:
The same rhythmic alteration can be applied to sixteenth notes. Lengthen the first sixteenth note of each beat in a passage. Then go back and lengthen the second sixteenth, then the third, and finally the fourth.
Next, try lengthening one beat of a measure while playing all of the notes. In a 2/4 measure, play the first beat twice as long as the second. This results in a 3/4 measure. In a 4/4 measure, elongate the first and third beats to create a compound meter. Here’s an audio example of the opening four measures of Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter. First, it is played as written. Next, beats 1 and 3 are lengthened, then beats 2 and 4. Changing meters like this allows the mind to focus on notes that may otherwise receive less attention when played straight through.
Isolate musical units such as beats or measures and play them alone. Play from the first note or chord of any beat or measure to the first note of the next beat or measure. In a passage with continuous sixteenth notes, for example, play five sixteenth notes at a time, like this:
Do this with any length of beats or measures as you wish. Remember that you don’t have to start only from the beginning of a measure; try playing from the middle of one measure to the middle of the next. Here’s an example from Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) of playing measure-to-measure, starting first from beat 1, then from beat 3:
The purpose here is to allow the mind and muscles to focus on smaller units of information, to develop proficiency at those individual units, and then to join them together into longer phrases and the entire piece itself. By dividing beats and measures into smaller or slower units, your mind will also have more time notice things besides the notes, such as articulations, dynamics, and so on.
Invest in a high-quality recording device and record your practice sessions, choral rehearsals, performances and worship services. Listen carefully for how your articulation comes across in the room. Do you want the organ to sound crisper and more detached? Then lighten your touch. Would you like the organ to sound smoother or more legato? Perhaps you should play over-legato. Listen to how the organ balances with the choir. To do this, listen to the recording while you are watching your copy of the music so you will know what registrations were being used at the time. Then you will know what pistons, if any, need to be adjusted.
Here, I am not referring to experimentation as you choose your final performance registrations. This refers to altering registration so you can hear melodic voices, hands, and pedals, in a different way. For example, turn off the soft 16′ in the pedal and replace it with a 4′ principal. This makes it easier to hear how you are playing the pedal part. Try playing the left hand on a louder manual than the right hand. When you hear these parts more audibly during practice sessions, it can help you hear them better during performance and therefore play them more musically.
Try playing some or all of the parts with no stops drawn. When you do, listen to the sound of the keys as they hit the bottom of the key bed. The louder the clicks are, the more force you are using to depress the keys. Loud clicks may indicate muscle tension in your wrists, arms, or elsewhere.
Changing registrations can also provide some relief to your ears when practicing for long amounts of time.
Play passages on manuals other than what you will use in the performance, or play in a different octave. Many choral accompaniments may be played on the Swell. For variety, play on a different manual once or twice while practicing. Try playing the right hand up an octave while playing the left hand down an octave.
Sing! As a choral accompanist, it seems most natural to sing parts of your accompaniment in addition to singing choral parts. You may learn something about how you want to phrase a particular musical line with an expression pedal, or where you want a phrase to “breathe” during an organ interlude.
Play something on the piano or harpsichord, if you are fortunate enough to have one available. If you play another instrument, play a melody on that instrument. You may learn something about how you want to phrase a musical line by playing it on a stringed instrument rather than the organ.
If you are having trouble with a rhythm, tap it on your lap or clap the rhythm. By focusing on one element rather than multiple tasks, you will probably decrease the amount of time it takes to master a passage in the long term.
Grover, Elaine. Keyboard Practice Skills. Colfax, NC: Wayne Leupold Editions, 2002.
Jørgensen, Harald. “Strategies for Individual Practice.” In Musical Excellence, ed. Aaron Williamon, 85–103. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.