Organ 101: how to give a lesson to introduce piano students of all levels [Printables]

The pipe organ is an incredible instrument. It is awe-inspiring and majestic. Put a child at the helm and they become instantly hooked on the spectrum of sounds and features available at their fingertips. Throughout his childhood, Mozart, himself, experimented with and played at least eleven different organs in ten places, including Ybbs, Wasserberg, Heidelberg, Versailles, London, Ghent, Antwerp, Harlem, Rovereto and Verona.

Lately the organ has been losing ground in sacred circles, with many North American churches launching worship bands instead. I feel it is short-sighted to remove organs from churches. The organ is a timeless instrument with unparalleled sound capabilities and deserves a place of honour in any community.

Last year I had one lesson remaining after my spring studio recital and I wondered what I could do with my students that would be meaningful and memorable. After all, once students have performed, it doesn’t make sense to go over the same pieces again.

I am a church organist and sometimes after I finish my postlude (to conclude a service), a gaggle of children will alight around my organ bench, an energetic little flock, hoping for a chance to try a few notes. Following a good example, I always let the children come unto me. And bless the members of the congregation, they don’t mind the hoots and toots that blast and blow.

One of my young piano students is among those children who gather. After finding out that his favourite musical selection each Sunday was not the rocking worship band video, but the organ’s Doxology, I got an idea.

I decided to ask my church if they would allow me to use the sanctuary to teach my students a lesson on the organ and the answer was yes. The question of what to do with the year’s last piano lesson was solved: give an organ lesson instead.

What happened next was beyond my expectations.

Students giving the organ a test drive. Loving it!

1. Discovery

I invited my students to sit in the driver’s seat. The console looks like something from a sci-fi movie, so I described the organ as a medieval rocket ship. Indeed, until the advent of telephone networks in the late nineteenth century, the organ was the most technically advanced invention made by human hands.

With guidance on being gentle with the instrument (which my students respected), I let them first try out the many buttons, just to see what sounds they could find. Yes, we ‘pulled out all the stops.’ (Well, on my organ we depressed tabs.) They found chimes. They found soft woodwind sounds, bold brassy sounds, honky reedy sounds. Extremely low sounds and piercingly high sounds. They loved it.

An excellent video on the sound capabilities of the organ.

2. Playing repertoire

If you plan an organ lesson after a spring recital, your students will have several pieces under their fingers.

Here is my student playing White Frost on My Window, a piece I wrote for piano. It sounds natural on the organ with the written-in mordent ornaments. Read the score while you listen:

Student playing White Frost on My Window.

Experiment with adding and subtracting stops and trying the pieces different ways. Try playing two manuals (RH on an upper keyboard, LH lower, or vice versa). If their piece of music has distinctive sections, try a forte section on the principal pipes (the more prominent ones), and a piano section of music on the swell or Récit pipes (can be softer).

3. Extraordinary history

Here is a section your students may enjoy. Please feel free to share the link to this post with them, or use it in your lessons.

The organ is the oldest keyboard instrument. It was first mentioned in 300 BCE, and its invention has been credited to Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria. It remained the only keyboard instrument for more than fifteen hundred years and is one of the only instrument designs of antiquity still making music today.

Notice that the early introduction of the organ to Germanic lands influenced 900 years of excellence and innovation leading to Bach.

  • 300 BCE — Hydraulis (the organ’s predecessor) invented by Ctesibius. Wind to the pipes was supplied and controlled by water pressure. Played in sports arenas throughout the Roman Empire. Wide wooden keys (no ‘black key’ sets).
  • 100 CE — Inflatable leather bag introduced.
  • 395 CE — Positive organ first introduced, which was built to be portable and would be commonly played in sacred and secular music between the 10th and 18th centuries.
  • 500-600 CE — Bellows like a blacksmith’s began to be used to supply wind to pipes in the Eastern Roman Empire. Played during leaders’ dinner parties.
  • 812 CE — First chapel organ built for Charlemagne in Aachen, now part of Germany. It was based on one with leaden pipes that had been given his father, King Pepin the Short, by Byzantine Emperor Constantine V in 757 CE. The organ had already been played for over 1000 years before it was used in a church.
Positive organ common in the medieval era.
  • 1250 — Portatives (portable organs) with a laptop design, became widely used in Europe and had balanced, narrower keys. Still no ‘black key’ sets.
  • 1200s — Foot pedals that looked like stubs (nicknamed mushrooms) added. They held long bass drone notes, ‘pedal points,’ over which melodic lines were played.
  • 1361 — ‘Black keys’ added, marking the first chromatic keyboard. Short pedalboard also included some ‘black keys.’ First permanent organ installation in Halberstadt, Germany. Each key produced a blended sound from several ranks of pipes played in octaves or perfect fifth intervals.
The world’s oldest working organ.
  • 1404 — Clavicimbalum and clavichordium (harpsichord and clavichord) mentioned in the German poem “Der Minne Regeln.” Both likely invented 100 years prior, in early 1300s. It is unknown whether ‘black keys’ were first used on stringed keyboard instruments or the organ.
  • 1450 — Controls (early stops) developed that allowed ranks of pipes to be played separately. Individual sounds could now be heard one at a time or blended.
  • Renaissance and Baroque eras — the tonal colours were expanded to include sounds that imitated other instruments.
  • 1600 — builders expanded the range of the pedalboard until it encompassed two octaves-plus-a-fifth that eventually became standard.
Bach played on a Baroque drawbar organ.
  • 1707 — qravicembalo col piano e forte (piano) invented by this year by Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori in Florence. 2000 years after the invention of the hydraulis.
  • Romantic era — organs became more symphonic and capable of creating crescendos and diminuendos with the introduction of the swell expression pedal.
  • 20th century — electricity began to power the wind supply and digital controls were added to pipe organs. Completely digital organs were developed.

Source: Several articles on Wikipedia: Pipe organ, Pedal keyboard, Positive organ, Portative organ. Get the FREE printable version of the history of the organ here.

3. Toccata (To touch)

The organ requires a completely different touch and technique than the piano. The most important difference to impress upon first-time organ students is the simple on-off finger motion.

In my printables section I have included a sheet of exercises that will help introduce students to the techniques of organ playing. The exercises go from easy to more difficult and can be used with students of all levels.

FREE sheet of organ exercises available here.
  1. play and release while counting.
  2. finger independence
  3. legato exercise
  4. finger crossing
  5. finger substitution

Younger students may wait until their playing is more developed to try exercises 4 and 5.

Credit: My exercises are inspired by Roger E. Davis’s organ method.

Depending on the level your student is playing, you may cover:

  • Piano: string/percussion instrument. Organ: wind instrument.
  • Piano: sound decays immediately following the start of the tone. Organ: A tone could be held for any length of time. On-off, sound-or-no-sound, air-or-no-air, like a computer’s zeros and ones. Each finger plays with a simple on-off down-up motion.
  • Piano: arm weight. Organ: no arm weight; finger action only.
  • Piano: angle of arms adjusts to support each finger for even tone, wrists drop and lift. Organ: arms and wrists remain mostly still.
  • Piano: damper pedal sustains, legato slurs. Organ: holding keys sustains tone. Finger legato connects.
  • Piano: for expression, shape phrases with dynamics (arm weight). Organ: for expression play with varied touch; articulation. Expression pedal can make crescendos and diminuendos in the swell pipes.

Thumb glissandos. A technical trick for your students to try. The thumb plays legato between two keys, with preparation while holding the first key, then a quick shift to the new key.

Organ thumb glissando UP.
Organ thumb glissando: DOWN.

5. Intro to pedals

The pedals are one of the most exciting features of the organ for children. You might add a drone pedal tone to a piece they are playing. Or, if their piece has tonic and dominant sounds in it (chords I and V), alternate between two foot pedals. This would be a great moment to teach or review tonic and dominant harmony.

Scales are also fun to try for students who have already learned scales in piano lessons. Here is a video of the D scale for the feet.

The E Major scale is actually the easiest scale to play on the pedals because you begin with the left heel on E (with both feet close together throughout), play the two black keys with both toes (F#/G#), swing over to play both white keys with both heels (A/B), swing over again to play the next two black keys with both toes (C#/D#), and finish with the right heel on E.

Children will likely wear sock feet to play the pedals. Personally, I wear organ shoes. It is not advisable for students to wear footwear that has ever been worn outside, as the pedals might get scratched.


This blog post is to encourage you to sometimes break away from the usual piano lesson script. You may or may not have access to a real church organ. Perhaps a digital piano would give a similar experience with an organ sound.

Perhaps you could go a different route and rent a harpsichord. Perhaps (if you teach through the summer) you could plan a whole unit on the organ or harpsichord. In any case, allowing your students to play around with sounds and techniques of a different keyboard instrument is enlightening and informative. Many of these techniques are relevant in Baroque music that is now commonly played on the piano.

Our end-of-term organ lesson last year was so successful that when I asked my students if they wanted another this year, they jumped at the chance! I hope this becomes a regular option in my studio.

One way to counter the organ’s decline is to invite children to learn to play it. Musical kids know a good thing when they hear it. I hope you, too, can try this with your students!

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

2 thoughts on “Organ 101: how to give a lesson to introduce piano students of all levels [Printables]

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the reminder of fun time we had in our studio this year! A church close to me was practically giving away their organ a few years back so I scooped it up for myself with the hopes that I could one day learn to play it with due justice. 🙂 We did a unit on Chopin this year and every student learned to play the beginning of the Funeral March. To finish out our unit, I let them play it on the organ. Everyone had so much fun; young and old alike! I’ll definitely be looking for more ways to incorporate this beautiful instrument into future lessons!

    Like

    1. Pamela, wow, this sounds like fun! You are so lucky to have your own organ! For sure your students are going to love using it more. I passed up the chance to get an organ once and I’ve been regretting it since. Keep us posted!

      Like

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