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Having one's hands full

By Brewster Johnson / April 8, 1981



I am a left-footed organist, not because I am against the right, but because every time I've attempted to play both feet together (using those famous Dupre exercises, all of which are written in French, possibly even the notes themselves), I fell off the bench.

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The problem lies in the fact that, like many organists, I'm really a pianist in disguise. It is one of the least-plumbed musical mysteries that practically no one sets out to become the World's Greatest Organist. Oh, perhaps E. Power Biggs as a little boy dreamed of simultaneously working four keyboards, a full set of pedals and a swell box to boot -- but it is quite obvious to most organists that E. Power Biggs must also have been born with four hands and three feet.

No, the rest of us set out to become humble concert pianists or humble concert accompanists (or humble page-turners). And if we do encounter the organ , we pridefully chortle: ahah, one familiar keyboard piled on top of another, I'll just play the top with my right hand, the bottom with my leftm . . . whereupon we discover that those keyboards are called "manuals" (I'm sure the etymology of the term has something to do with "labor") and anywhere from eight to several hundred stops will control the instrument's ever-varying voices. These radical, manually-operated changes in tone must be made during the very playing of a piece and to a pianists, this isn't fair (we like to think our tone-changes are "inspired"). Thus, I humbly propose that the main difference between pianists and organists is that the former plays -- and the latter works.

Considering my background, I count myself fortunate that the organ I essay every Sunday morning (a cranky, lead-piped tracker that may or not have graced the ancien regime)m boasts no more than six stops per manual. This means that I'm off the hook in the creative tone-change department, as the organ inevitably plays either Loud or Soft. Moreover, it leaves me free to worry about the pedal-playing. One of my favorite daydreams, in fact, features a small person -- a Juillard-trained gnome, if you will -- who kneels under the bench and, using his own score, plays the pedals with both hands while, up above on two manuals, I am impressively performing the, for example, "Chorale Prelude" by Franck (a real pew-buster, if I do say so myself).

Ah, but I wantm to be a proper two-footed organist. Until I'm ready, though, there is certainly a merciful plentitude of distractions. For one thing, the organ's motor is lodged in its own little shed directly outside the 19th-century church. This means that both the instrument and its operator are at the behest of the weather. In summer, when it's humid, the keys on the Great manual stick, sometimes interminably -- and always during the hymns. Since a hymn is the one piece of music a congregation can be counted on to know intimately, I've learned to station the soloist nearby: as fast as I play, she pries up each sticking key. And in winter, when outside temperatures hit 12 degrees or less, the entire instrument groans, slows down, and threatens to expire in midservice. (My ingenious predecessor is said to have carried his 900-watt blowdryer to every cold-weather service).

Recently I learned that it's not just because I am a single-footed organist that I have such singular problems. For example, a neighboring church's organ (another 19th-century item) has its motor lodged in the leaky cellar -- and when it rains, the organ, er, drowns. Once, I lightheartedly suggested to the Reverend that the next time this occurred, the organist might make the best of things by playing Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" as, although it wouldn't stop the water, it would certainly make a terrific theological pun. . . . She wasn't amused but I attribute this to the fact that her job is to preach, not play.

So, in view of what I have to cope with, I do hope I will be forgiven for remaining a left-footed organist. I have two-footed friends who are performing at magnificent electronic multi-stopped, climate-controlled instruments; often they call and tell me of their feats (I promise you, that was not another pun). Sometimes, they even call to tell me of other posts available -- and I'm tempted.

But I always wonder (probably like all organists here before me), who else would know that Flute 4' whistles like a calliope unless pushed in full? And who else would know that when you pull out Great to Pedal and hit low E flat, you get its dissonant next-door neighbor, D natural? And if you put the couplers on, high C on the Swell manual does nothing but sing "Hoooooooooo"? And if a bird flies in one of the upper windows, you just leave Flute 4' on calliope, pull out Great to Pedal, hit the couplers, press hig h C and the bird disappears . . .?

Obviously, I am needed.