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Keyboard Skills for Organists

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Teaching and learning keyboard skills for organists

The term ‘Keyboard skills’ will inspire a feeling of dread for many an organist. Whilst happy to perform complex pieces of music in front of examiners, panels, or live audiences, the idea of playing a short exercise (often unprepared) is somehow utterly different. It doesn’t even feel like doing anything musical anymore – there is a feeling that you aren’t actually expressing or communicating anything, but dragging yourself through a series of gruelling technical challenges. But does it really have to be like this? This post will explore a little bit about how students and teachers can prepare for these exercises (if we are to call them this).

What do keyboard skills actually test?

The skills really test a sense of musical literacy. We tend to think of these skills as separate entities because of the way they are tested and examined, whether dreaded sight-reading, score reading, transposition, harmonisation, sometimes figured bass and improvisation. The first three are particularly notation focused because they rely on an ability to take information off a printed page instantly. This is undoubtedly an important part of a musician's tool kit, and we can all think of scenarios where this skill is put into place in professional situations. However, notation based skills are only part of the wider toolkit musicians need.

Particularly within the realm of church and keyboard music, we risk cutting off an arm of creativity and prioritising the ability to instantly reproduce sound from a written score. Crucially, though, we risk actually alienating students who haven't grown up in the particular musical environment where these skills and awareness of certain musical styles are not present.

Where does this disconnect happen? Ultimately it comes from the fact that tasks such as sight reading, transposing, score reading, and harmonising, are associated with notation and being able to read music quickly. For some students, reading musical notation can actually be a comfort – something to lose yourself in, but for others it can be a barrier from the very start of the music learning journey. As teachers, we need to make sure we work with each individual, equipping them with a range of useful skills, but not neglecting that music is fundamentally not a written art form.

Training in keyboard skills

Approach: Try to integrate the learning of the core 'skills' into all music material, from pieces of repertoire to accompaniments, to hymns, chants, everything! Try to connect musical material in different contexts. Always observe what is going on in music in every way – ask yourself questions about everything. Ultimately: how is a piece constructed and put together? Build this into your enjoyment works from the start of learning. As a start:

Texture – how many voices in a work in? Is the piece built on polyphonic lines?

Harmony – what is the harmonic language? Can you reduce this to a simpler

version so that, for example, dissonances are taken away and seen as an additional expressive tool?

Rhythm – rhythm is always a good place to spot patterns. What are they, and how to do they make the piece move, and give it an identity?

Answering these sorts of questions means that you are observing the music in written form, and working out how and why it communicates something away from the score.

How can we teach and develop these skill

s in an interesting, integrated and connected way? This way we stand a chance of being able to move away from the disconnection between skills and music.

Case study – score reading from an open score

To me, score reading is the skill where the task is to play some beautiful music (and often very straight forward music!), but which is written out in a slightly scary way. To read an open score of 4 to 8 parts, you have to be able to understand harmony, the speed of harmonic change (and spotting where this changes), common patterns, cadences, how dissonances are prepared and resolved, the voicing of chords, the role of decorative features (non-harmony notes). The beauty in this music is created from the connection between linear or horizontal parts meeting to create harmony.

Some ideas for preparing and practising score reading:

· Create reductions of pieces – wrote yourself a short score. Write in the chords in a way that you understand (Figured bass or chord symbols etc). Mark in suspensions and cadence points.

· Transpose the piece - in sections of course. Here you will be thinking in chords. Yes, this music uses chords – even though the parts are presented as ‘horizonal’ lines. As you transpose, start to allow your fingers to think and feel where progressions are going (rather than your eyes and mind). Get your hands to learn the shapes of chords

· Look at the voicing of chords – how are chords and parts spaced? Are there places where the bass descends low? Or the treble very high? Does the tenor rise up higher than the alto? When something like this happens, how do the other parts respond and support it?

· Mark up the score with observations – anything can be written in. Write in how you will distribute the parts between the hands, and where this needs to change. Are there places where the fingering is hard (or where there is only one option?) Write this in.

· Look at the harmony – try thickening up the chords and adding other notes where they aren’t in the actual version. Play harmonic progressions out of rhythm.

· Sing the lines one by one, observing the lines and learning how they move. Which intervals do they use lots? Are there rhythmic patterns? What happens when the part jumps up by an interval? Sing the lines at the same time as playing them, trying to bring in the sense of shape, dynamic, and direction which you can naturally find in your voice to your touch.

· Listen to a recording of the piece and get into the style. You will notice that composers use the same patterns again and again. Remember that sixteenth century composers learned their craft often by writing out, performing and absorbing the style. There is so much of this music available on the internet now, it’s so easy to get into the style.

· Play the piece as a performance – not just on an 8’ flute – play it as a piece. Can you make it sound like a plein jeu, or a fanfare? Make it your own, and even think about choosing a different tempo for this exercise (being careful to not vary the speed within each version)

· Try to improvise in the style – make up your own miniature piece based on a few chord progressions from the example you are working with.

· Be analytical - train yourself to see what it happening in the music and then you can start to recognise musical processes again and again.

· Learn the piece in sections – do not just play the whole thing through

Overall - work with the materials. Spend time with pieces and examples. Get to know them, how they function. Don’t just sightread through examples, but treat an exercise as you would your repertoire. What do you find beautiful or interesting in it? Where are the climaxes or peaks of phrases, moments of tension and release? Which is your favourite part? Why? The answers to these questions will point you to musical processes - certain harmonic devices, textures, progressions of chords.

Investing in getting to know examples means that when you open up your next one, you will start to recognise features and gradually get quicker and quicker at this.

Come back soon for further guidance and musical examples and do get in touch with any questions or queries

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