Let's say that you've worked a bit at the keys, learned your keyboard topography, and have developed a modicum of finger facility and knowledge of scales, chords [photo], and harmony.  You love this piece you don't know.  It's within your technical grasp.  You want to learn it.  You've seen that you've got a copy of the score in front of you.  You've spent some time "silent reading it" and know how it's put together.  You now have time to sit down to the instrument finally, put the score on the rack, and start to play your way through it, slowly, all parts together.  You get a few beats into it and have to stop.  Disgust begins to flash through your mind that "maybe you can't play it."  You back up, try again from the beginning, and the same thing happens.  You give a sigh and lay it aside.  But maybe you already can play a piece or two far longer and more difficult than this new one in front of you ... so ... what's going wrong? 

Just this:  You haven't failed yourself -- you're still as capable as you ever were, it's just that you've skipped steps and expected the same result.  No one's brain, fingers, and feet can perform a new series of fine motor skills until they're trained to do so.  ALL training happens by degrees.  No one climbs a ladder by placing one foot on the first rung and the other foot on a higher rung 2/3 of the way up.  Before we can expect to put all 3 staves together we first need to train the brain to play one staff at a time, then two at a time.  That doesn't mean we "don't have what it takes."  It means nothing of the kind.  You're simply needing to train your reflexes against a constant of time, one step at a time.

Think of learning a piece you don't know as arriving at the top of a ladder.  That climb needs to be broken down to one rung at a time.  The time-honored proven plan of 7 rungs, or steps, is to begin practicing from the score with 1) right hand separately, then 2) left hand separately, then 3) pedal separately, following this with 4) right hand and pedal, 5) left hand and pedal, 6) both hands together, and finally 7) both hands and pedal, SLOWLY, working out the fingering, hand division, and pedalling as we go along, marking the score accordingly, always remembering that pedalling markings will depend upon what's going on in the hands at the time and the overall balance of the body, and that what works in one application may not work in another.

We divide TO conquer -- and, while this 7-step method of attack may seem the long way around, it's actually considerable time gained.

We also aim for accuracy when practicing, of course, but not primarily.  Organ playing is many more things than that.  Accuracy will come -- it's freedom which lead us to that, and freedom is gotten by repetition and keeping good habits going.   

Organ practice isn't drudgery, my friends -- it's a privilege, one for which the player should be grateful and which may not come every day.  Many major talents, some of whom hold important professional positions, wish they had time for daily practice, but, the reality is, they do not.  Sometimes they have so much administrative work to do that day that they don't make it to the bench -- or maybe they're too exhausted mentally to make it to the bench.  Anyone with opportunity to work with any kind of musical instrument every day, even for just a few minutes, should be deeply grateful.

Practice is not a burden.  It is not a chore.  It is not performance.  It's preparing for performance.  It's a privilege to be enjoyed.

If there's one thing to remember about practicing repertoire, it's this:  when we're trying to learn a piece we don't know, we discipline ourselves to



  We work out the best fingering and hand division as we go along, and when we can play it correctly without mistakes, at this very slow tempo, from start to finish, at least twice, then and only then should we attempt to speed it up.  One of the worst errors we can make when learning an unfamiliar piece is to start practicing it at concert tempo.  This can lead to a very wrong impression, that the piece is too difficult for us when, in many cases, its within our grasp but we're denying ourselves the benefit of the period of slow practice.  If half concert tempo is still leading to mistakes, then we subdivide the task:  first we practice just the right hand part, then the left hand part, then the pedal part ... SLOWLY.  After this, it's both hands together, right hand and pedal, then left hand and pedal ... SLOWLY.  Finally then, we're ready to put both hands together and finally adding the pedal to that.  Again ... SLOWLY.



If the piece being learned is densely contrapuntal, such as a fugue, a special approach to practicing is needed that's described elsewhere on this blog [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue].  Highly gifted organists throughout history sometimes concocted their own method of practicing everything, including fugues, the same way.  Such was the case with the French master Marcel Dupre.  In 1922 he performed the complete organ works of J.S. Bach from memory in a series of 10 long recitals at the Paris Conservatoire, a feat all the more astonishing considering that each of the recitals was spaced only 2 weeks apart.  Dupre, in his teaching, was a great devotee of the "divide and conquer" strategy and employed a different kind of ladder to reach the objective -- a practicing and memorization system similar to that used by the great German organist Helmut Walcha [See blog, Practicing and Memorizing, Part IV]. 

In his Preface to his "79 Chorales" Dupre suggests that the learner subdivide the piece being learned into separate fragments of 4 measures each.  For each 4-measure fragment he would learn measure 1, work out the best fingering and hand division for all the parts at the same time as he went along, including the pedal, and repeat it a few times in a slow tempo, perhaps 5 times looking at the score and 5 times without looking.  He would then learn measures 2, 3, and 4 one at a time the same way, always starting on the downbeat of the first measure and finishing on the downbeat of the next measure.

After learning these 4 measures separately Dupre would then practice 2 measures at a time, combining measures 1-2, 2-3, and 3-4, repeating them 5-10 times.  He would then practice these separate measures in groups of three:  1-2-3, and 2-3-4, maybe 5-10 times  Finally he would put all four together in a row: 1-2-3-4.

After taking a break, or the next day maybe, Dupre would proceed to the next fragment of 4 measures and learn them in the same manner.  After learning the entire piece in these fragments of 4 measures each he would then go back and combine the first 2 fragments together and practice 8 measures at a time, later taking 16 measures at a time, and so forth.  He also pointed out that not all musical passages are equally difficult, that some are easier than the others, and there are places where not all the moving parts are present.  He would say that this is especially true at the beginning of fugues where the student will need to repeat the opening measures of the exposition  much less than others having a more full polyphonic texture [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations, Part I].

By proceeding in this fashion Dupre found that these 4 measure fragments seem to stick together in larger chunks with great ease, the whole learning process becomes faster and easier, and more importantly, as difficulties are encountered they get pulverized.  In a matter of a few short weeks he found that he had learned and memorized an entire work in a very solid and systematic way.  By dividing the entire task into smaller bite-sized tasks we can make use of this same approach to guide our own progress in learning repertoire, but it doesn't have to be in 4 measure fragments.  We might focus instead on maybe a page a day, or maybe a half page a day, a line at a time, working out the best fingering and pedaling, and practicing it over and over until fatigue sets in or we can play it without mistakes close to concert tempo, whichever comes first.

Any new music we practice at the organ today will, at the end of your practice session, go to a place in your brain where it's temporarily stored.  This process happens with anything we try to memorize.  Over the next 6-8 hours your brain works to empty that learning from temporary storage and transfer it to a different place in your brain where it's permanently stored.  When we perform anything from memory, we're simply accessing what our brain has placed in permanent storage.  There's some evidence that it's important not to do anything that could interfere with this transfer process going on in the brain during this critical 6-8 hour period, such as by engaging in other hand/eye learning activities (playing video games, for example) during that time, which could cause what's already in temporary storage to be pushed aside before it's sent to permanent storage.  This may explain why many organ students achieve good memory results by doing little or no hand/eye learning after their organ practice, or perhaps by scheduling some of their organ practice in the evening before bedtime.  Sleeping 6-8 hours helps consolidate this memory transfer process going on in the brain.  The next day, students who do it this way often find that they can easily recall what they practiced the night before.  It's there [See blog, Practicing And Memorizing, Part II].

So, using this knowledge, let's say, you've spent time on an interesting piece, learned it thoroughly, and then moved on to new material.  You haven't practiced that piece in, let's say, a year, and now you're thinking about using it again.  You sit down without the score in front of you, confident that you have it in tight memory, and start playing it again, only to find some strange spots where your memory seems to be blank.  You should relax here and NEVER EVER, REPEAT NEVER, UPSET YOURSELF ABOUT THIS.  That isn't where it is.  You haven't lost anything.  Your efforts to learn a new work, any work, and learn it thoroughly, are never for nothing.  The entire work, every bit of it, every single note and chord along with all the muscle memory, is still permanently stored in your brain.  Nothing's changed there.  The winds of time have simply obscured bits of it to where you just need to spend a few minutes sweeping away the sand to gain access to every part of it that you already learned.

This is a good time to review our fingering.


The counting system in general use with Piano Methods today is the Continental form where the digits are numbered beginning with the thumb 1, index finger 2, middle finger 3, ring finger 4, and pinky (little) finger 5 [photo].  In old reed organ textbooks from America in the 19th and 20th centuries the sign "+" is usually used for the thumb and 1,2,3,4 for the other fingers.  In Germany/Europe counting from 1 through 5 has long been standard.  In the UK right up through the 1950's Piano Methods were published in both "English" [+2345] and "Continental" [12345] fingerings.

It would be impractical to mark each and every note in the score for fingering, hand division, and pedaling, but, if you haven't done it before, it's a good idea to take the time to work out and mark the tricky places.  It's perfectly all right and will be considerable time saved.  It also doesn't matter what the score looks like afterwards.  A well marked up score full of these helpful indications is an invaluable tool.  

If the edition you're working from already has suggested fingerings, tailor it if needed so that it works best for YOU.  Whether it's an editor's suggestions, a teacher's fingering, or your own that's penciled in, it's important to USE that same fingering each and every time to stay out of trouble.  Keep physical limitations, if any, in mind such as small hands, limited stretch, past injuries and/or surgeries, other medical issues such as arthritis, etc., but remember "the best" fingering means more than making it easier to reach the very next note.  It's about setting up the notes which follow it.  With fingering it's just as important, if not more important, to look not just to the very next note but to the next few notes lying beyond it.  A large part of lesson time can be taken up by the teacher merely with marking the score with these indications, it's THAT important.

Once a pattern of good fingering is settled upon and any rough spots are eliminated, the very same  should be practiced each and every time.  The playing becomes more deft when the motor memory is programmed like this.  If many months have elapsed since performing a work you know well, and it seems you've forgotten how to play certain passages, spend a few minutes, set the score in front of you, go over the parts that seem to have disappeared, check out the fingering and pedaling, give it a little slow practice, and watch what happens.  You'll think it's sorcery.  The entire piece will reappear again, as if by magic.  Whole passages that you think are gone forever will materialize right in front of you.  This author is living proof that this will work.  During one period in his life he was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness for months and his recuperation from surgery would not allow him to practice the organ for even longer.  After being away from it for nearly an entire year, he was able to get it all back by following these steps.

NOTE:  The term "early fingering" refers to a specialized system which prescribes the strict use of non-legato touch [See Touch, Parts I-V] in performance of ALL early (pre-1800) organ music.  Such a schema eliminates for all practical purposes the use of legato and clean legato touch, thumb glissando, and thumbs on black keys in deference to broken touch, viz., non-legato.  The routine insertion of definite breaks like this between all moving notes, something which has come to be known as "ordinary touch," reflects a return to historic performance practice with regard to articulation and style.  Whole organ departments of colleges and universities these days are teaching the use of this type of fingering as part of a complete performance approach to early music, and many professors are insisting upon it.  The chief characteristics of this engagement are:  they never change manuals, they never change stops, and every note, every voice, is broken.  One prize-winning professional organist (a grandson of Marcel Dupre tutorially, holder of a master's degree in organ performance from Cincinnati College/Conservatory of Music, and a legend in the Milwaukee area) with whom this writer studied commented at a lesson that, "Bach sounds dull that way, and, the playing sounds choppy at times, so, I could never buy into that."  He added, "No one will ever be able to convince me that's beautiful or interesting.  Some of the playing is really fine, but we might as well have organs with only one manual; we might as well have not have any stops, they would all be on all the time, or we could only change stops between pieces.  But this is some kind of a fad, and, the next fad may be worse, but, I've been very annoyed by it."  In his view all aspects of performance including fingering should serve the music, not the other way around.  He therefore ignored "early fingering" and instead promoted conventional (piano) fingering combined with imperceivably broken (clean legato) touch for the moving notes.  He stated that, "In the Bach fugue the more we connect the left hand line the less the right hand line is evident, the more it's compromised.  When we play it exactly as written sometimes things aren't kept clear that really need to be kept clear.  The moving lines aren't really audible; they are just vaguely moving.  We need to break the left hand line in places so the right hand can be heard more clearly [See blog, How To Play A Fugue].  In Reger we have to change hundreds of things in the way he wrote it, but we do it because we can't hear clearly what we're playing, and it's wonderful writing.  With Bach we're not really changing anything, just not holding things quite as long, and this works in all kinds of music, not just Bach."  This is how HE taught it.  And, lo and behold, one day, to his great surprise, a local colleague of his also of substantial reputation who happened to be a champion of non-legato articulation and style with early music, after listening to him perform, told him he liked the way he played Bach [!!].  So.  There you are.   

Practicing extremes is another way to maximize our ability to perform.  The premise is, he or she who can do the most can do the least.  That premise is good.  This is the reason why an "on deck" batter in a baseball game swings two bats or with a weight on the bat before stepping into the batter's box ... this is why a voice student or other instrumentalist works on their extreme high and low ranges to extend them as much as possible ... this is why the manual parts of organ pieces are often practiced on a piano or weighted keyboard to help develop finger strength and muscle technique ... this is why organists practice with both feet at the high and low ends of the pedalboard ... this is why organists practice scales in 2 octaves on the pedals and 3 octaves on the manuals ... this is why organists spend time on the highest manual of an organ keydesk or console to identify any potential problems with bench position or balance.  By practicing extremes like this we're better prepared for the usual technical requirements that come our way.

(con't in Part II)

Fingering, Practicing, And Memorizing, Part I

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Sep. 9, 2015