In the wind...

March 4, 2015

Where’s the fire?

Throughout my organbuilding career, I’ve owned and driven large vehicles. There was an interval when I tried a mini-van. It was a nice car with lots of space inside, but it was no truck. It only lasted 185,000 miles, by far the least of any car I’ve had. The transmission couldn’t take the loads.

The current job is a black Chevy Suburban—think presidential motorcades (Wendy thinks Tony Soprano!). It has a big V-8 engine and a 31-gallon gas tank. It’s a 5,800-pound carbon footprint. I know it’s environmentally irresponsible, but I justify it because of my work as an organbuilder. As often as not, the car is loaded with ranks of organ pipes, a reservoir or two, a windchest, or at least, five or six boxes and bags of tools and supplies. It’s also great for taking organ committees on field trips to visit our past projects. Three ranks of reeds or a six-member committee takes the GVW up to nearly 7,000 pounds!

Even though the car is big and heavy, that engine has power to spare. Trusting that there are not many state troopers reading The Diapason, I confess that I routinely drive close to 80 miles-per-hour. I know I’ve exceeded 90 going downhill and not paying attention, but I’ve never “maxed out” the speed. I’m pretty sure I could pass 95, maybe even 100—but I doubt I’ll
ever try.


How fast is too fast? 

When I joined the Organ Clearing House, I knew I was taking on a travel schedule that would preclude my work as a church musician, so after thirty years on the bench, I hung up my cassock. It’s been fifteen years since I played for worship. Of course I miss it, and I may go back to it someday. But in the meantime, it’s been fun to mix having free weekends (!) with hearing other people play for worship. 

The huge repertory of music for the organ is chock-full of fast passages, and any good organist is capable of sending salvos of notes across a room faster than a speeding bullet. And good bel canto singers can dazzle listeners with fast passages. But the ordinary person in the pew is comfortable at a slower pace. Though I’m not a trained singer, I think I do pretty well, and I’m certainly familiar with most of the hymns we sing, but still I find that sometimes I have trouble keeping up. And I’m uncomfortable when I’m not given enough time to breathe. It’s easy to tell if an organist is paying attention to the words, even singing them as he plays, because he needs time to breathe also.

How loud is too loud?

Several years ago, Wendy and I attended a recital by a visiting European organist played on the Kotzschmar Organ in Portland, Maine’s City Hall. He came out on the stage to the customary applause. When he got to the bench, the audience went silent and the lights dimmed. The first chord he played was so furiously loud that we jumped, and I set my teeth against liking the rest of the program, which predictably continued in bombastic style.

My Facebook page regularly lights up with posts from organists who indignantly report to the community that a parishioner had the audacity to complain that “the organ was too loud.” No doubt, some are meant in fun—one exchange included the quip, “if they don’t like it, they can sit in the hallway.” Surely, no organist would say something like that in earnest. Would they? But I often read similar comments that I know are heartfelt.

No other musical instrument can approach the dynamic range of the pipe organ. Organbuilders tell an old joke: 


The voicer, seated at the console, cups his hands to his mouth and yells to his assistant in the distant chamber, 

“Is the Aeoline playing?” 

Barely audible, from the distance, “Yes.” 

“Make it softer!”


The Aeoline in the Echo is barely audible; with the box closed it’s but a heavenly whisper. And the full organ is mighty roar—a hurricane of sound to be used with discretion.

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of pipe organs I’ve heard and played, I’ve experienced only one that was so much too loud that there was no single stop soft enough to accompany a solo singer. There are many organs that are infamous for their power, but even they can be used with discretion. As organists, we have become inured to the mighty tones of our instruments. We sit on the bench, alone in a dark church, challenging the muses to our hearts’ content, in the thrall of the power of the tone. For many congregants, not so much.

I have to admit that when sitting in the pews, I often feel that the organ is too loud. I wonder how many of you would simmer down your registrations if you had the chance to sing to someone else’s hymn playing a couple times a year. Besides, if you’re always playing “with the pedal to the metal,” you’re making organbuilders look bad. We’re supposed to provide instruments that can challenge the Gates of Hell once in a while, but thank heaven we’re not always facing the Gates of Hell.


What’s your job?

I often ride the train between Boston and New York. It’s a beautiful route along the Connecticut coast, passing tidal inlets loaded with osprey, egrets, and herons. There’s a wonderful sensation as those trains leave a station. I’m daydreaming, gazing out the window, and suddenly realize the train is moving. There’s no sound of locomotion, or clanking as links between cars take up slack. My imagination goes next to the expert bus driver and his ability to operate the vehicle smoothly. His foot on the brake pedal is feather-light, his speed through turns is just right, and his passengers are free to enjoy the ride, knowing that they’ll arrive safely and promptly at their destination.

I know, I know, that may be a fictional driver. The New York to Boston route is crowded with budget bus companies that have terrible safety records. That’s why I take the train. But I like the image and compare it to the “hymn driver” at church. He goes fast enough that the words make sense, but not so fast that the average congregant can’t keep up.

When an organist is really focused on the words of a hymn, both pace and registration follow. The other night, Wendy and I attended a service of Evensong, and the devil made an appearance in a middle verse. The organist led us to safety, acknowledging Satan’s presence with a growling registration for those few bars, and returning to something more soothing. There’s the majesty of the organ, painting pictures with tone color.


A happy little cloud

Bob Ross (1942–95) was a teacher of painting who famously hosted a series on PBS called The Joy of Painting. He had a goofy way of chattering as he painted that I think was intended to make aspiring painters feel at ease. Make a little mistake, a slip of the brush? No problem, make it into a bird. It’s a bird now! His brush strokes were quick and easy, and he often suggested dropping in “a happy little cloud.”

The pipe organ has a greater expressive range and wider variety of tone colors than any other musical instrument, and the expressive musician uses those characteristics like a brilliant painter with a lovely palette of colors. Think of the landscapes of Meindert Hobbema (1638–1709) with those magical patches of sunlight glowing through the trees. How did he do that? I think he always included trees just so he could do his sunlight trick. I love it when the organist gives me glimpses of sunlight through the trees, or happy little clouds. If you play through all the verses of a hymn on full registrations, loud, louder, loudest, you deprive the listener/singer of the beauty of it all.

You can use your palette like sunshine and clouds, and you can use it like an arsenal. The arsenal is fine with me at the right moment—that powerful Tuba giving the melody in the tenor is an awesome effect, but I don’t want to hear it in every hymn. 

Many of us are inclined to characterize the pipe organ as a keyboard instrument, as if it is common with the piano or harpsichord. In the matter of tone production, the organ has more in common with a trumpet or flute, the piano has more in common with a xylophone, and the harpsichord has more in common with a guitar. I consider the organ first to be a wind instrument. Making organ music happen is about managing air. This, simply, is why the organ is ideal for leadership of our singing—both the organ and the human voice are wind instruments. We circulate the same air molecules through the organ’s pipes and through our voices in sympathy. We’re all in it together.


You can’t play a tune on a Mixture.

Since the revival of classic organbuilding in the mid-twentieth century, many of us have had love affairs with Mixtures. They provide brilliance and clarity in polyphonic music, and their harmonic structures blend wonderfully with choruses of stops. I say this assuming that the Mixtures on your organ are well planned, well voiced, and balanced with the other voices. In my days as a student, I was organist at a church in Cleveland that had an aging Austin organ. Originally, there was no Mixture, and one had been added not long before I got there. But even in my brash youth, steeped in the ethic of Northern European classic organs, I couldn’t bear to use the thing. It was just too loud, and had nothing to do with the rest of the Great division.

Mixtures in pipe organs are harmonic tricks. The typical Great Mixture comprises four ranks, meaning four pipes are speaking on every note. My organbuilding colleagues know that I’m leaving out a lot of exceptions and variations as I describe Mixtures generally, but it’s enough to say here that those four pipes each speak a different harmonic, and the harmonics “break back” each octave. It’s formulaic. At low C, those four pipes typically speak at 11⁄3–12⁄31⁄2′, which are logical additions to “Principals, 8-4-2”. At tenor C, they jump back a notch: 2–11⁄3 –12⁄3. The 22⁄3 pitch enters at middle C; 4 pitch enters at “soprano” C. In the top octave, some builders omit the scratchy 51⁄3 and jump directly to 8.

Follow me carefully. A 4pitch at soprano C is the same note as 1pitch at tenor C. A 11⁄3 pitch at low C is the same note as 51⁄3 pitch at middle C. Think this through, and you’ll realize that an ordinary Mixture has pipes at soprano C that speak the same, and even lower pitches than at tenor C. Sounds like a muddle, doesn’t it? Well friends, use it wrong, and it is a muddle. Just for fun, play the melody of a hymn on Mixture alone, especially a hymn whose tune passes out of the middle octave past soprano C. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Now play all four voices of the same hymn on Mixture alone. Wacky. Absolutely wacky. Imagine that as a tool for teaching a tune to someone for the first time. Now play the same hymn on 8Principal alone. That’s better. What’s my point? Be sure that every hymn registration includes enough fundamental tone that the tune is easily recognizable when playing four-part harmony.

If you’re playing on a large organ, you likely have more than one Mixture on each keyboard. Listen to each one carefully, octave by octave, and try to analyze what pitches are actually playing? Use that to inform how you use them. A Principal Chorus with Mixture(s) is ideal for playing a fugue, because the graduated harmonics of the Mixture help project inner and lower voices of the polyphony. Mixtures are great with Reed Choruses, because they emphasize the rich harmonics of the Reeds. But Mixtures are like icing on a cake—they enhance, even decorate, but substance is in the batter. All icing, and your teeth will hurt. Do I sound like the parishioner who says the organ is shrill? Maybe it is. The math says so.


It’s all in the numbers.

Here are some pipe organ facts for nothing. The reason reeds sound more brilliant than flutes or Principals is that reeds have richer development of overtones—those secondary pitches present in every musical tone. 

Pythagoras (571 BC–495 BC) was the first to understand overtones. He proved that they follow the simple formula of 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, etc. That simple progression was later defined by Leonardo Bonacci (c. 1170–c. 1250) as the Fibonacci series. Google that, and you’ll find terrific articles that show how the Fibonacci series describes the shell of the Nautilus, pineapples, artichokes, pine cones, and magically, the Romanesco broccoli, which I think is one of the most beautiful and delectable vegetables.


Break a head of Romanesco apart into florets, toss them in olive oil and salt, and roast them at 400° for 40 minutes (or less if want to keep some “tooth”), maybe sprinkle a little lemon juice and parmesan.


What does all this have to do with playing hymns? Pythagoras’s overtones can be defined this way. Play low C on an 8-foot organ stop, and you’ll be producing the following pitches: 8, 4, 22⁄3, 2, 13⁄5, 11⁄3, 11⁄7. Recognize those? It’s nothing but a list of the most common pipe organ pitches. Accident? I don’t think so. You may find these hard to hear, and as a practical matter, lots of them are inaudible, but they’re there. 

I demonstrate this at the console using voices like Oboes or Clarinets. They have especially rich “second overtones,” which is the equivalent of 22⁄3 pitch. Play and hold tenor C on the Clarinet. Then, on another keyboard, tap third G on an 8 stop. (That’s the equivalent of 22⁄3 pitch at tenor C.) That should enhance your ability to hear the 22⁄3 pitch present in the Clarinet note. Move around to different notes, and you’ll likely hear that overtone a little better in some notes than others. Then, play and hold tenor C on the Clarinet, and on your second keyboard, tap fourth E of an 8 stop. That’s the equivalent of 13⁄5 pitch, and you should be able to hear the Tierce independently in the Clarinet note.

Have you ever wondered why a Nazard and a Tierce sound so good with a Clarinet or Cromorne? It’s because the Clarinet and Cromorne (those two stops are very similar in construction) both have prominent 22⁄3 and 13⁄5overtones. That explains the origin of the French registrations Cornet (8, 4, 22⁄3, 2, 13⁄5), and by extension, Grand Jeu (Trompette 8, Octave 4, Cornet). Accident? I don’t think so.

Because of this, it’s often easiest to tune high mutations to reeds, assuming that the reeds are trustworthy, because the harmonics of the reed pipes are so clear. Draw 4 Principal and 13⁄5Tierce, and play up the top octaves of the keyboard. Substitute a Clarinet for the Principal, and do it again. I’ll bet a tuning fork that you hear the pitch of the Tierce more clearly with the Clarinet.

Why is a Rohrflute brighter than a Gedeckt? Because the hole in the cap with the little chimney emphasizes the second harmonic, which is 22⁄3 pitch. 

What does all this have to do with playing hymns? It tells us that higher-pitched stops are secondary to fundamental pitch. What is fundamental pitch? Eight-foot tone. It’s that simple. If your hymn registrations favor higher pitches, you’re back at that exercise of playing a hymn on a Mixture alone. Awareness of all this is at the heart of good pipe organ registration.

You can’t play a tune on a Mixture. It’s confusing to the singer, especially if that singer doesn’t know the tune. Suggestion? Introduce the tune on a simpler registration, and bring in bigger sounds as appropriate. If you have a variety of lovely solo sounds, use them. Play one verse on Trumpets alone. Play another with Principals but no Mixtures. Just be sure they can hear the tune. And be sure that your choice of sounds supports the words. There’s more to hymn playing than a blur of harmonics.

Gentle on the accelerator and the brakes, paint beautiful colorful pictures, “ . . . and the wheels on the bus go round and round . . .”