Playing a tracker organ

Today at the Adult Forum as part of a series on Albert Schweitzer, I discussed the Organ Reform Movement (Orgelbewegung) and how we at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu were influenced by these ideals. According to Schweitzer, the golden age of organbuilding culminated with the instruments built during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach and the best instruments are those which can play polyphonic music clearly. That means that the organ needs to speak directly into the long axis of the room. Its specification should be based on Werkprinzip, with the principal stops beginning at different pitches on different manuals. It also means that the organ should have mechanical or tracker action — a direct linkage between the key and the pipe.

Beckerath organ keyboard

Beckerath organ keyboard

Shortly after the Beckerath organ was installed in 1975, thanks to lessons with McNeil Robinson, who dedicated the instrument, I learned the true secret of how to play a tracker organ. What this means is that one can play with either light or heavy touches —pressing the key halfway down lets just a little air into the pipe vs. pressing the key all the way down to the bottom lets all the air into the pipe. In Baroque music, we use a combination of these two types of touches to create accents and literally make the music dance. I call this articulation technique a “secret” because it was something I never learned in college or from any other teacher.

A comment I heard from the Adult Forum members today was, “Wow! an organist not only plays with both hands, and both feet, but to do this too!” However, it’s my husband Carl, who plays both organ and piano, says that playing the piano is infinitely more difficult than the organ, because you have to make the sound—playing with a heavy or light touch on the piano makes the sound louder or softer. On the organ, the dynamic level (loudness) is not affected by heavy or light touches— only in how the pipe speaks.

I have to say, though, that I agree with a famous quote attributed to J. S. Bach about playing the organ, “…is nothing remarkable… all one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

I could say the same for playing the Beckerath!

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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