Playing Piano Versus Playing Organ
I play the organ every Sunday at a Presbyterian church in Southern California, and sometimes people will come up after the service and marvel at all the buttons and stops and pedals and compare it to the control panel on the space shuttle. I’ll often get a question something to the effect of, “So, is this pretty much just like playing the piano, but adding your feet into the equation?” The answer is yes and no. There’s obviously the very important transferable skill of your fingers feeling comfortable on a keyboard, but that’s about where the similarity ends.
The key difference between how to approach playing the piano versus the organ has to do with the way the sound is generated by each instrument, and the implications that this has on the performer. On the piano, if you strike a note and hold it, the sound immediately begins to decay after the initial strike and will eventually fade to silence. On the organ however, a note you play and hold will continue playing with the same constant volume for as long as you’re depressing the key. Along with this, the piano has a sustain pedal that allows you to remove your fingers from the keys without immediately silencing the notes you just played, whereas the organ affords you no such luxury – as soon as your lift your fingers, the notes stop playing.
What this basically means from a performer’s standpoint is that the piano allows you to move from note to note without much concern for how you get there from a technical standpoint – the sustain pedal covers a multitude of sins. The organ, though, is very demanding of your technique. I’ve had my fingering compared to a spider crawling over the keyboard by pianists – making sure to never release a note until the next one is depressed so as to create a smooth, fluid sound for the congregation to sing to.
If this wasn’t enough to consider, there is the big addition of the pedalboard that organists have to think about as well. Not only do you have to get the technique of pedaling under your feet, but it also has implications for what you’re playing with your hands. On a piano, you’re almost always playing the bass notes with your left hand. On the organ, these bass notes are taken over the pedal board, forcing you to change your voicing entirely in your hands. Suddenly instead of playing the root with your pinky, you’re playing the third or the fifth with your pinky, which is very foreign to most classical pianists.
These are the big differences between playing the piano and the organ. There are more – learning the registration of the organ and how to mix and blend different timbres together to sound harmonious is vital – but in terms of technical approach, the difference in fingering and the addition of the pedalboard are the two big ones.