{LDS How-to} Play the Organ - for Pianists


If you're a pianist and a member of the LDS Church, chances are you (like me) have been asked to play the organ at some point. Most of you have probably pointed out that the instruments are different, said that you couldn't, and gone on your merry way. 

One fact remains—while there are plenty pianists in the Church, we are in short supply of organists. Look at any ward: the position of organist usually rotates between three people, all of which usually have another calling, or who have been ward organist for the last 10 years. (This was the situation in my ward until six months ago when I and another pianist agreed to learn how to play.)

It's time for us piano players to pick up some of the slack. So here's my inexpert, quick-and-dirty instruction for playing the organ as a pianist. The instructions should work for the electric organs that the Church has in most meetinghouses. You won't sound like John Longhurst (long-time organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), but you'll be able to support a congregation and help where needed.

Basics. Turn the instrument on. An organ’s keyboard is typically split into two (or more) levels; you don’t need to worry about the top one. Middle C on the lower half is where you’d expect, though a little to the left. Expression pedals near your feet (like where piano pedals are) control volume and crescendo.

Learn the stops. The stops are the white buttons or tabs above the keyboard, and these indicate the sound and “color.” Typically you want to have all the English-sounding stops (8' octave, 8' principle, and 4' octave) turned on. Adding stops will add color and volume, so when you have time to practice, play around and see what sounds good. Exotic stops like the bells are typically reserved for special occasions, like Christmas. The 2' and Mixture stops are good for adding more "umph" to typical hymns.

Find the bass coupler button. Typically labeled "BASS CPLR," this button is your best friend: it makes it so you won't have to play the foot pedals. By picking up the lowest note you're playing at any time, it acts like the pedals and creates the booming organ sound we all love. Most of the Church’s organs are the same (in fact, they're all tuned to sound like the organ of the Salt Lake Tabernacle). If you have a standard Rodgers church organ, this circular button is found on the very right hand side under the keyboard, third from the right. (On non-electric organs, you’ll have to play the pedals.) Note: Rest your feet on the bar on the bench, not on the pedals; the pedals are still on, and if you touch them, they will play.

Practice "legato technique." Pianists rely on the damper pedal to prevent jumpiness between phrases. Because an organ is an on/off proposition, you don't have that luxury. When you push down on a key, the note is "on"; when you take pressure off, the sound dies completely. Learn to prevent jumpiness by moving your fingers smoothly from one note or chord to the next, trying to eliminate "off" time in between. This might mean using your right hand for lower notes (and vice versa) or other creative fingering.

Use "on/off" to your advantage. The nature of the organ isn't always a headache. Sometimes your notes will stay the same for an entire measure. You don't have to lift up and play the chord again each time it appears. Just hold it down.

Watch the melody. You can hold chords quite a bit as I said—except when you repeat a melody note in succession. When this happens, you have to lift the note for half the value of the standard count. So, if the standard note is a quarter note, lift the melody for a 1/8th rest. This will prevent confusion in the congregation on when to sing.

Mark your music. As I said earlier, you'll have to come up with some pretty creative fingering. Thumb rolls (knuckle to tip) and finger transfers are fairly common, so when you practice, mark problem spots so you remember your technique when accompanying for real. Mark the stops you want to use as well, particularly if you want to add or take away a stop for one verse. Also mark places where you want to create audible breaks in music by lifting one or both hands completely.

Practice, practice, practice. After you know the basics, this is the biggest tip I can give for improvement. You’ll become more comfortable as you spend time at the instrument, and you won’t feel overwhelmed on Sunday when you play.

That’s all! For more in-depth lessons, visit BYU’s organ lesson podcast project, The New LDS Organist.

To long-time organists: Did I miss anything important? Anything you would suggest? Leave a comment below.

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This version is edited from an earlier version to reflect a suggestion from the comments that the 16' subbass stop is probably best not played every time.

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