The Subtle Art of Hand Registration November 2015
Holy Trinity Church, Clapham
Saturday 7 November 2016 2-4pm
Following our successful and enjoyable dinner three days ago, eight organists ( Messrs Beer, Bowles, Callingham, Jones, King, Pilliner, Ramell and Mrs Harper) gathered round the console to learn from Harry Bramma, our President, how to successfully avoid using prepared pistons to change registrations to great effect. Harry believes that too many organists rely wholly on pistons for registrations, and feels that the result can be less musical than if timbres are selected by hand.
Key pieces of advice using well known hymns as a guide:
Know the organ inside out and what it can do in the space it is in. Try out full organ to see what it is like, and find the softest sounds to know what ppp is. Keep ears wide open for beautiful sounds.
Blend the 8′ and 4′ pitches, including the swell oboe, for a basic sound for playing hymns. Experiment with what sounds good.
Add a 16′ double or bourdon to add body to the sound. Also use the no 1 Diapason for a similar effect, if the organ has two instead of the sole one that will be on the divisions of smaller organs. If not, try playing LH parts down an octave for similar result. Experiment with a sub octave coupler, but be judicious with the super octave coupler. It will add the octave for sounds that may not blend at the higher pitch.
Keeping the swell box closed, add bigger reeds, and open the box gradually for climactic or grand moments. A general principle is to add reeds before mixtures. 8′ and 4′ flues should have the oboe added for the particular richness required before higher pitched sounds, including a 2′ stop. Harry advised using the tuba in the tenor register when soloing out a hymn melody. Too high a pitch is off putting to congregational singing.
Be sparing with mixtures, especially on the Great division. Swell Mixture with the box shut will be enough towards the end of a hymn of praise, then open the box and add whatever the organ has got that seems appropriate for the final chord. Above all, listen and be sensitive to the created atmosphere.
Hold final chords of hymns with one hand whilst you draw chosen stops with the other. Harry cited Herrick Bunney as the best hymn player he had ever heard, a fact corroborated by the late John Scott, and Norman Cocker as the best exponent of hand registration he had ever seen. He was reputedly quick and agile at finding exactly what he wanted on the Manchester Cathedral organ, something that improves with daily practice!
Know the text of a hymn and set the atmosphere of the hymn by choosing appropriate stops to its general meaning.
Every organ is different, so if dynamics are the only guidelines, prepare what is meant by mf, f, ff, or p, pp.
Vary the touch eg legato or staccato ( of which Harry said there were at least 100 different types). Listen to the congregation, sing the hymn and breathe as the singers do. Be subtle and sensitive to the occasion. Hand registering where one can gives a wider palette of sounds than those preselected on divisional pistons, usually the choice of the resident organist.
Everyone came away informed and inspired by an aspect of organ playing that is not always easy to teach. Lessons are frequently concerned with learning music at a different organ to the student’s usual venue, and is often on a basic registration. Lessons don’t always deal with the registration of piece until the point comes when it is learned and the sounds can be explored more fully. It can also be tried out in a lesson as it proceeds but the student will have to adapt it to his/ her own instrument. If the teacher can visit the student in his/her customary church or place of practice that is most helpful.
Following Harry’s departure to a well earned dinner in Oxford, some members played on the Holy Trinity organ, and quite a few of us discussed Harry’s points over tea.
Thank you Nick and Peter for providing tea, coffee, milk and biscuits, and to the Rector and staff of Holy Trinity for the use of their excellent facilities. Thank you Peter for making all the arrangements and liaising with the church office.