Learning to play the organ

Organ with three manuals (ie keypads) and four stops being played
A challenge that piano or keyboard players sometimes face in church is being expected to play the organ:  People see it as "just another keyboard" and assume that if you can play one, you can play them all.

Unfortunately this isn't true.

This article explains the differences and similarities  between the organ and other keyboard instruments, and recommends books and on-line resources for beginner or cross-instrument / reluctant organists.

The difference between the piano and the organ

The piano, organ and keyboard are very different instruments.   The key difference between them is type of instrument, and the way they make sound:
  • A piano is a percussion instrument:  Lift the lid, and you can probably see the small hammers which hit a string when you press a key.
  • An pipe organ is a wind instrument:  It has a set of pipes and a bellows, and when you hit a key "things" inside the organ cause some of the air from the bellow to be blown through the correct pipe(s).
  • A digital organ is an electronic instrument. Superficially it looks like a pipe organ and (tries to) sound like one, but inside it uses electronics, not bellows, to produce sounds when the player presses a key or control.

As well, organs:
  • Have stops (controlled by buttons) which change the sound by changing which pipes air is blown into
  • Don't have sustain pedal - but do keep sounding a note until you release the key
  • Usually have keys on separate boards for each hand:  each board is called a manual, and mostly each manual has fewer keys on it than a piano
  • Usually have a keyboard for the feet too, called a pedalboard
  • Have a swell pedal, controlled by the right foot, which (roughly speaking) controls the volume.

That said, all three instruments are played using a white and black buttons which are arranged in much the same way. There's a lot of basic music knowledge and some keyboard technique in common between the three of them.  It's very likely that if you can play a piano or electronic keyboard, then you can coax a tune out of an organ, too.

But learning how the organ works, how to play it well and how to use it effectively in a church setting is quite different.   Finding an organ teacher is highly recommended, as well as negotiating regular practise time on an organ you can access: very few people have an organ in their home.

The following is a list of resources which some people have found useful, especially in situations when an organ instructor isn't readily available.

Video resources

The American Guild of Organists commissioned a series of 30 videos to provide instruction for proficient piano-players who are transitioning to play the organ.   All are free to watch on YouTube.

Books for learning the organ

In no particular order, these books have been recommended by experienced church organists.

Buy from Amazon #affiliate link
The Reluctant Organist

This is  an English Royal School of Church Music handbook, written by Janette Cooper, specifically for pianists who have agreed to play the organ in church.

It includes information about the typical layout and structure of an organ, approaches to using the pedals (or not), using registration settings and approaches to rhythm.

Available directly from the RSCM, or via Amazon.

Play the Organ: A Beginner's Tutor

Buy from Amazon #affiliateLink
A beginner level book by English organist and organ-teacher David Sanger.

The book is ring-bound, so that it sits on a music-stand without closing.  

It assumes that you are starting at the very beginning, and covers keyboard skills and music-reading.

Play the Organ Volume 2

Buy from Amazon #affiliateLink
Continuing from David Sanger's Beginner's Tutor, this book may be a better starting point for people with substantial keyboard background.

It has in-depth material about manual-playing, the pedal-board and hymn playing techniques, and some advice about registration and improvisation

Buy from Amazon #affililateLink

Tutor Book for Volunteer Organists: A guide for pianists who have volunteered to play the organ for services in their church

Exactly as stated, this book is about the skills and knowledge needed to enjoy switching from playing piano to organ in a church setting.
The author is a very experienced organist, and runs UK-based courses for volunteer organists, including distance-learning courses.

buy from Amazon  #affiliateLink

Little Organ Book

This compact book by Belgian organ-teacher, Flor Peeters includes the most important parts of his classic 3-volume course "Ars Organi".

It assumes that the reader has good keyboard skills, and moves quickly through the material.

Buy from Amazon #affiliateLink

Organ practice: The Anne Marsden Thomas Guide

This book, published by the Royal School of Church Music and written by an accomplished organist, focusses on how to effectively practice a musical instrument.

It is based on learning the organ, but many of the techniques presented apply equally well to other instruments.

This is just a small selection of the organ tutor publications which are available: the books listed above have been purchased by readers of this website site and/or recommended by experienced church musicians, some professional organists, some volunteers who play organ occasionally to meet specific needs.

In choosing a tutor book always consider your prior knowledge, to get material which will meet your needs.

Other resources for church organists

  • The Reluctant Organist website/blog:   focused specifically on the pianist-turned-church-organist.
  • The Organ Forum - a general-purpose organ forum, not just for church organs.
  • YouTube - Many many organists have posted videos of themselves playing different models.  Much can be learned from watching these.   Searching for the tune-name of a a hymn, and the words "instrumental" and "organ" usually gives several options, at least.

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