Don’t Forget to Breathe!

My teenage organ student—a talented pianist—and I sat at the organ bench together. He was new to the instrument, but had gotten the idea of legato touch down very well. Too well, it seemed. As he played through his well-practiced hymn the characteristic choppiness of pianists at the organ was pleasantly absent. Unfortunately though, there was not one single break between any of the notes. It was a good thing taken too far.

I complimented him for his ability to play smoothly, then explained the concept of taking breaks, of playing the text as if you were singing the hymn, of letting the organ breathe. He listened carefully as I played the hymn, taking my hands and feet completely off the keys at times, letting the organ ‘breathe’ as if it were singing the hymns with the limitations of human lungs. He understood and was able to repeat what I had done, but after a time turned to me and said, “I don’t like having silence in the middle of the hymn. Won’t that be distracting to the congregation?”

His response reminded me of this quote from Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel:

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.

And so it is with the organ. The well-timed moments of silence separate the organists from the organ players. But it is a little unsettling at first, if not downright scary, to let go of those keys and hear nothing in the middle of a congregational hymn.

Thinking of the organ as a wind instrument rather than a keyboard instrument may make the concept easier to understand and incorporate. And the human voice is one of the finest wind instruments we have. My first organ teacher taught me to approach the hymn the same way a trained vocalist would, studying the text of each verse and noting appropriate places to breathe. Here’s an example of how I mark a hymn to help me remember where to place my breaks:

Sometimes these breaths are just brief pauses. But often they need to be long deep breaths. For example, in the first verse of Come, Ye Children of the Lord I would release for just an eighth rest between Lord and Let while allowing for a full quarter rest (yes, a full quarter note value of silence!) after accord. In the 2nd verse I would not break between be and When in order to help retain the continuity of thought in the text.

If you’re not convinced that silence is an important part of organ music, next time you listen to general conference or Music and the Spoken Word check it out. Listen for the ‘breathing’ of the organ. Notice when the breaks come. Are they short pauses, or bold breaks? What is the relationship between the silence and the musical phrasing? Between silence and the text phrasing?

If you’re not used to it, this silence may seem deafening during practice time in an empty chapel. But the end result is amazing. When the hymns are played with appropriately placed breaks, it is as if the organist and the congregation are joined together in singing, worshiping in unity.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalm 133:1

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