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Thread: Playing from memory at the organ?

  1. #1
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    Playing from memory at the organ?

    I'm just curious. For what I regularly observe, it seems that piano players tend to memorize the works they are studing having as an objetive to play from memory. In the case of organist, I would not say that I never saw this, but it seems to be rare.
    Do you think this is good or it's better to try to memorize?
    take care
    N.

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    Midshipman, Forte susangio's Avatar
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    No Playing from Memory at the Organ? Also wondering

    I too have wondered about that, except perhaps for the fact that organists have 2 extra appendages to memorize as well....As an organ major, undergraduate, I had to do a memorized one-half hour recital for my junior recital and a one-hour memorized recital for the senior-exit performance. I am guessing organists would prefer to get a lot of cool new music out there and performed rather than spending the amount of time it takes to perfect a memorized program, which limits the repertoire. I don't play any more, and I'd also like to hear an answer to your question, from someone/s who perform regularly. (personally I don't mind at all listening/watching a performance where there's a page-turner.)
    Susanne
    Oregon, USA

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    Well, this "dual appendaged" organist has done the memorization process over the years. Presently, I place more emphasis on mastering the technicalities of a given piece ahead of memorization.

    As a student, I learned Prelude, Fuge et Variation by Cesar Franck and played it from memory in an organ competition event. I'm glad I had that experience, and I'm certainly glad my teacher insisted on my learning that piece backwards, forwards, up, and down, sideways ... it saved me as there was a memory lapse towards the end of the Fuge. I was able to back up a few measures and proceed, finishing the piece without any further problems. I won the competition, btw. I still have most of the piece in memory and play it several times a year - It's also one of many pieces by Franck that I enjoy playing.

    Having been a church organist since I was 12, I can now play the hymns by heart, transpose them into any key ... strange as it is, I still use the hymnal and liturgy books during a service. But only for 'reference' - not for the notes, but to keep tabs on which verse the congregation is singing, for example.

    Your world renown organists commit everything to memory - the late Virgil Fox never used it in performance, Carlo Curly rarely uses music, and countless others, too. Many great artisists do use music, and that should not, IMHO, be a fault. Either method makes sense to me - it's all what one is most comfortable doing.
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  4. #4
    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Yes, I agree--some do and some don't. I remember in graduate school (Westminster Choir College) noting that there seemed to be two types of organists: those who can sight read really easily, and those who can memorize easily. Even now, while I wouldn't say you can always put people in a box, I do find this to be somewhat true. I have a new organ student (has played the piano for many years) who can memorize so easily! But sight reading is difficult for him.

    I was always pretty good at sight reading, and I have to work hard to memorize. When I was getting my Master's at Westminster, they were just making a change in the requirement for performance majors. It used to be ONE memorized recital, but a number of the faculty were pushing for the choice of one memorized or two with music. I chose to do two recitals, but still had to memorize for juries. I memorized the Bach Dorian, the first movement of the C major Trio Sonata, and a piece or two by Frescobaldi. My teacher made me do what I think Lars' teacher did from what he said, which is to memorize a series of "starting places" in order, and we had to memorize them both forwards and backwards. I always got through my memorized pieces that way.

    I have not played from memory in years, and I have never, ever played a memorized recital. I know some people say they play better from memory, but for me it is stressful enough that I play better with music. I also have some kind of a visual/spacial thing going on in my head about interpretation based on what I see on the score.

    On the other hand, I have concerns about dementia later in life because of family members who have had it, so I have recently started to memorize again at home at least. I've recently started to work through the Hanon exercises (actually to work on a technique different from what Hanon intended) and I try to play them from memory. It's a start, as I've gotten so rusty at it that even memorizing those patterns is difficult for me.

    Another aspect of memorization that is very interesting. When I was a teenager I was teaching myself piano. I had been using Bartok Mikrokosmos, and I had also read a book by Walter Gieseking which goes into pretty much detail about memorizing. In that book, he describes a system where you memorize the music BEFORE you play it, so you don't even use the score at the piano. I actually did learn a Mozart Sonata movement that way, and of all the pieces I have memorized in my life, that one has stayed with me better than any other. I don't know if it's the system, or the fact that I was young. I remember I took the score with me on the school bus and memorized it on the way to and from school.

    I keep telling myself I should try that method again. Perhaps a Bach Invention would be a good place to start. It certainly should be a good exercise to keep the brain healthy!

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    I read Gieseking's books. It´s like you said, he gois into pretty much deatil on memorization. I did try the method for learning one Bach Invention and play the other one reading. I must agree that the one that I've memorized sounds better.
    I heard also that Karl Richter used to follow the same method. Months learning the score before actually start playing it.
    thanks your sharing

  6. #6
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    I am no sight reader- so I naturally memorize everything without realizing it

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    Interesting observation about sight readers vs. those who can memorize easily. It truly makes sense ... memorization for me comes from repitition - listening over and over, or like the church hymns, repititious playing. That's kind of where my 'signature' line originated from.

    I've always been very good at sight reading ... I can look at an organ score and hear it being played mentally, too.
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  8. #8
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    I would love to be a very good sight reader. Thomas and Krummhorn how did you learn to sight read so good? There's actually a "method"? It has to be studied on purpose?

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    Nachoba,

    I truly don't remember how I learned sight reading ... it must have been in my early years of piano study ... I still sight read at times, and when playing a learned piece, I tend to read ahead of my playing most of the time, which I think is a basis for learning how to sight read.

    Not ever having been a teacher of piano or organ myself, the real answer is perhaps best left to those who are better qualified than I.
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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    I did have a teacher when I was young who specifically worked on sight reading. She insisted I had to learn to feel my way around the keyboard without looking at my hands or feet. She would hold up a piece of paper so I couldn't see my hands . . . I think that might have been a big factor, but I can't say for sure. I also remember being told to look ahead, like Krummhorn says.

    With my students, I tend to try to identify their strengths and accept them, though depending on what they want to do I'll have them memorize or sight read. But I don't mind using their strong points, perhaps having a student memorize pieces I, myself, would not memorize if it makes them feel more comfortable. This student of mine also sings in my choir, and he will often just set his music aside when he sings, something I never did when singing in choir, but it makes him comfortable, so that's fine with me.

    On the other hand, I do have him sight read at lessons. He WANTS to learn to play the pedals without looking, and I think that will probably help a lot.

    Interesting side note here: as I said, I sight read well but memorize with a lot of effort. Since I have been memorizing again, I find that looking at my hands actually confuses me! The movements of the fingers on the keys actually confuse my mind, whereas looking at the notes on the page (I keep my eyes glued to the page when playing, often) helps me to hear the notes. I'm trying to look at my hands more and get used to seeing their movements, but it has amazed me how it confuses me! I think maybe some of us relate more to that hand movement than others, and maybe those who memorize easily find that looking at their hands helps them find the notes, I'm really not sure.

    I'll also add that I am an adult ADD (you know, as in attention deficit) and we tend to learn kinesthetically, which means BY FEEL! I can easily feel my way around both a keyboard and pedalboard without looking. Ha, looking makes it worse for me!

  11. #11
    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    I too cannot watch my hands or feet while playing - the feet "know" instinctively where each note is. The pedalboard light is only there for non organists who like to watch my footwork as I play. I never, ever look at my feet. The organ bench is adjusted and placed in a certain position for each organist. We do much the same in our own cars ... we adjust the seat so as to reach the control pedals ... do we ever look at our feet to help them find the gas, brake or clutch? It's instinctive where they are in a car ... same is true for me with organ pedalboards and the manuals, it's all done totally by "feel."

    Tom's comment about the piece of paper jogged my memory from my piano lesson days. The teacher would stretch a long piece of cloth in such a manner as to prevent the keyboard from being viewed by me. Apparently that method worked in forcing me to feel my way about the keyboard. To this day, I never watch my hands while playing the piano either.
    Last edited by Krummhorn; Aug-05-2007 at 08:32.
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  12. #12
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    I am much better at playing by ear than reading. And I find it helpful to to look at my hands while playing, though I can play with my eyes closed I seem to understand which notes I am playing better if I look.

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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Just curious, Lars. Did you learn to feel your way around the pedalboard the way John Stainer taught it? That's how I was taught--you feel for the spaces between the groups of black notes if you're not sure. I've had teachers criticize this over the years, but it never fails--I can play all different kinds of pedalboards, including some pretty strange early New England ones with an octave and a half spread out in the middle, and always find my place. So while some of my teachers didn't like it, I am glad I learned it that way.

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    Hi Thomas,
    Would you please talk a little about John Stainer's technique? I'm just curiuous of how this method works. It sounds really interesting.
    Thanks in advance and thanks for your previous answers.
    nachoBA

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    Tom,

    I used the Harold Gleason book (still have it) for practicing my pedal technique. By "feel", I meant that my toes and heel just know where to go. I use the positioning method of left foot between A# & C# and the right foot between D# & F#, which puts my body at D natural on the manuals. This position has always worked best for me, and from that point, I never have to look at fingers or feet while playing.

    My only experience at a non-radiating pedalboard was at the cathedral in Salzburg (Mozart's church) ... fortunately, I was granted practice time the day before having to play the Trinity Mass there. Once I got used to it (maybe took 10 minutes) I was able to navigate that pedalboard without any problems. Beautiful church ... 5 pipe organs ... we used the "Epistleseite" organ, an 18 rk tracker (I forget the builder).

    I still dig out the Gleason book from time to time to keep my pedal technique up to par in the months between my annual recital gig.
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