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The Piano
By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

It is not possible for me to discuss the following topic without offending many of my good friends in the organ and piano teaching profession, but I do have some unusual ideas which I wish to present.  As we all know, a great doctrine of organ study has been that one must be proficient at the piano before beginning organ, and one should avidly continue studying the piano throughout one's career.  I will try to suggest a background for this and my own alternative to it. 

Before the advent of electric blowers, playing the organ involved having one or more people on hand to pump the instrument.  Imagine practicing hours of scales and études on a pipe organ while having to deal with the expense and nuisance of having the organ pumped, and the unheated church booked and used for student practice.  The harpsichord, clavichord, and piano were simply much easier for such studies.  No teacher would expect a potential organ student to spend all that time at the organ when the inconvenience of such studies was obvious.  A simple ideology of piano first solved many logistic problems. 

A more subtle problem developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when organs, even those with the new convenience of electric blowers, housed in buildings with year round heating and lighting, became somewhat detached in action and response.  Teaching and learning on such instruments did not develop precise technique.  The clear quick pipe speech of earlier eras disappeared and the organ was distant and enclosed in chambers behind shutters.  No wonder that the piano was the preferred instrument for study. 

With the revival of more responsive organ actions, exposed pipes.  and cohesive, prompt pipe speech, the issue of where to learn has now become a question for study.  The simple dogma of demanding that the student study piano for umpteen hours and years before being allowed to touch the hallowed keys of the organ is no longer tenable.  Indeed, I know of many contemporary organs whose actions are so sensitive and unforgiving that they would serve as better devices for practice than many pianos. 

When a student shows interest in an instrument, we are pleased.  We start the budding violinist on a miniature violin, the clarinetist a clarinet, the French horn player learns the horn.  We would think it odd if the flutist were asked to study the bassoon first simply because they are both woodwinds.  But we still detour the student who is dying to learn the organ.  who hungers for the sound and special satisfaction of the instrument, and who really wants to become an organist.  We intimate that the organ is not a beginner's instrument and must be approached only after studying on a non-organ.  I suggest that if a modern pipe organ is available with good action and good tone, a student should be brought to the glories of that instrument soon so that interest and desire will not be suppressed, but nurtured and expanded from the moment of that interest. 

We no longer have to worry about bothering the organ pumper.  Most churches would welcome anyone interested enough in church music to learn the organ, and we have light and heat for hours of comfortable study.  The old practical reasons for putting off organ study in favor of the piano no longer apply.  Perhaps we can even get around the problem of the piano teacher who knew nothing of, or feared the organ and therefore selfishly kept those interested in the organ from studying it. 

I don't believe that the organ is any more difficult than the violin or the French horn, and certainly far easier for the student who really wants to learn.  I don't believe that the piano is an absolute prerequisite for the organ any more than it is for the harpsichord, clavichord, or synthesizer.  With proper instruction, a dedicated student and a competent instructor should be able to start on any instrument and develop all the techniques and skills needed.  This is not to eliminate the piano as a vital and important instrument in its own right, but only to detach the organ from it and to stress that the organ is a distinct and separate entity with its own requirements, and not necessarily the instrument to which one graduates after learning some other instrument.  The organ and the piano do not look alike, have different keyboards, different sounds, different methods of tone production, different literature, and different functions.  That they are linked in the manner of learning piano first and then the organ second is certainly an oddity in the music world.  I suggest that this tradition needs careful scrutiny and a thoughtful evaluation in terms of our current situation.


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