Church Organ Playing Techniques

Written by denise howard
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Church Organ Playing Techniques
Church organs have multiple keyboards. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Church organs, whether full pipe organs or electronic instruments, create a sound large enough to fill large chapels and cathedrals. The volume of the organ and the confusing array of buttons and levers can intimidate fledgling organists, many of whom have been trained on piano and are uncomfortable with a new instrument. Knowledge of basic organ technique can help overcome the nerves and produce a confident church organist.

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Most organs have at least two keyboards, or manuals, and some have even more. This allows the organist to play on different keyboards at the same time, with a different setting for each hand. The organ keyboard is not touch-sensitive. The keys respond with the same volume and intensity no matter how they are struck. The quality of sound depends on the stops and settings the organist has chosen. Because there is no sustain pedal, a note will stop playing the moment the key is released. To achieve a smooth, unbroken musical line, the organist must hold down each key as long as possible, using finger substitutions as necessary to accommodate the fingering.

Foot Pedals

The organ's foot pedals are arranged like the keys on the keyboard, allowing the organist to play a counterpoint with his feet, or to use the foot pedals for solo work. The foot pedals, like the keyboard keys, are not touch-sensitive and only sustain the note as long as the pedal is depressed. The technique for playing the foot pedals involves a heel-toe pattern, allowing the foot to move from pedal to pedal without obvious breaks. For example, the organist plays one pedal with his heel, then uses the toe of the same foot to play the neighbouring pedal, transitioning smoothly between notes. Some organs feature a bass coupler, a setting that produces a note one or two octaves below the lowest note played on the keyboard, mimicking the sound of the foot pedals. This is a useful feature for inexperienced organists who are unable to play the foot pedals.


Organs contain buttons or switches that control which pipes produce sound. These buttons, called "stops," can be combined to produce a variety of sounds, from a gentle, soft prelude to a powerful hymn. The numbers on the stops refer to the length of the pipe they control. The larger the number, the longer the pipe, and the deeper the sound. In an electronic organ, these stops mimic the sounds the pipes would make. Most organs come with presets, settings that are formatted for several types of music. These presets are helpful for beginning organists as they learn to create their own settings.

Swell and Crescendo Pedals

These two pedals regulate volume on the pipe organ, in a manner of speaking. The swell pedal opens and closes the shutters on the pipes, increasing and decreasing the air output. If an organist wishes to increase the volume without changing the sound, this is the only way to do so. The crescendo pedal, however, adds and deletes stops. The sound may seem louder because of the extra stops, but the actual volume remains the same. Use of the crescendo pedal can easily get out of control---an inexperienced organist is best served by leaving it completely off.

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