Did you think your legs and feet were there just to keep you from falling off the bench?
It may surprise you how much undiscovered potential there is in those oft-neglected appendages!
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An Introduction to the Pedalboard
the organ’s most dreaded feature
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An organist plays the pedalboard with the heel and the toe of both feet. A good organ shoe is a basic tool of the organist.
While playing in stocking feet may seem to be easier at first, the organ shoe offers many advantages. The sole minimizes the irregularity of the bottom of the foot. The heel of the shoe makes playing with heel of the foot less awkward. Additionally, playing intervals, such as a third or fourth, with one foot is a much easier task in organ shoes than in stocking feet. (Check out this fun video to see some great pedal technique.)
If you’re not ready to make the investment (about $50-60) in full-fledged organ shoes, you may want to look for some less expensive dance shoes that meet as many of the organ shoe characteristics as possible; with heel and sole characteristics being the most important.
Another option is to alter an existing pair of shoes. A shoe repair shop could add a heel, strap or a leather sole to make a pair of ordinary shoes suitable for organ use.
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On the Bench
When preparing to play the organ, adjust the bench height so that your heels are at the same height as the pedals, with the feet roughly parallel to the keys. The feet should graze the white pedals as you move your feet around under the organ. You should have to lift your toes up off of the pedal board in order to reposition the feet, not stretch to press the foot pedals.
Adjust the bench position forward or backward until both feet are just shy of the black pedals. Position yourself in the middle of the bench where you will remain seated while playing. Pivot your legs rather than sliding yourself along the bench.
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Playing the Foot Pedals
Economy of motion is the most important organ pedal technique, and using only slight movements will help you avoid wrong notes and missteps. During rests, reposition the feet and hold the toe over the next note to be played.
Press the organ foot pedals with all of the toes, but don’t play with a flat foot. Keep the ankle flexible, like the wrist in keyboard technique, and roll the foot to the left or right to play the black organ foot pedals.
Practice the foot position of different intervals until you get used to the motion of adjusting your feet and can judge where to place your foot based on the contact between your right heel and left arch. Practice both pressing and releasing notes cleanly, and keeping the feet from pressing any pedals unintentionally.
Keep your knees together in all use of the pedals except where your feet must reach to the extremes of the pedalboard. Keep the ankle and knee in line, and allow the knees to move right and left to follow the foot and ankle, but do not let the knee bob up and down.
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Building Your Skills
Organ techniques, like piano techniques, improve with practice. Finding a good organ teacher is ideal. If that is not a possibility for you, consider purchasing organ technique instruction materials.
I highly recommend OrganTutor by Don Cook. It is an amazingly thorough and user-friendly computer-based resource for classical and traditional sacred organ instruction. and is available at ardpublications.com.
Above all, take time to build your skills starting with easier pieces and gradually moving to the more difficult. As you abilities grow, you’ll soon discover the organ is a creative, exciting challenge–not such a nasty beast after all!