Playing the Organ

By Greg Baer M.D.

September 12, 2011

From childhood I've played the piano, and when I was twelve, the church we attended asked if I could play their organ for the Sunday services. I said, "Sure," and then I scrambled to teach myself how to play this instrument I had no experience with.

Playing the piano is difficult enough. You have to translate the notes you're reading on the printed page to the keys you push with your fingers—as many as ten keys simultaneously—in a wide variety of tempos, syncopations, phrasings, and acoustic volumes. But the organ is even more complicated. In addition to playing with both hands, you play with one or both feet, which adds a layer of bass notes to the sound. The tone of each note can also be manipulated by the use of a broad spectrum of buttons and pistons—called stops—that control collections of pipes or electronic devices that simulate the sounds of flutes, bassoons, trumpets, and more.

It gets more complicated. In large church organs there can be as many as four different keyboards, all used to produce yet a greater variety of sounds. So imagine playing with all the fingers of both hands, moving them from one keyboard to another as needed, while dancing over a huge keyboard with both feet, simultaneously reaching out from time to time to frantically change the entire sound by pushing or pulling the stops. That's what it's like to play a large organ.

Not long ago I was asked to lead the congregational singing at church, and a young, inexperienced pianist had been asked to play the organ. She was terrified and asked me if I would be willing to conduct the music at a much slower pace, so she wouldn't be overwhelmed.

"Sweetie," I said, "it's your job to follow me, and the congregation will follow both of us. That's just how it works, and I'll be leading each song at a pace that I judge will best express its meaning."

I knew that wouldn't calm her down, so I further explained that she didn't have to play everything she saw on the page. She could begin by playing only the melody—just one note—with her right hand. As she felt more confident, she could then add more of the notes written for the right hand, creating chords. Then, here and there, she could begin to add notes with the left hand. Eventually—weeks or months hence—she could use her feet on easier passages and change the stops once in a while.

She followed that plan, and her confidence grew with each experience. As with a musical piece, life has a certain pace. It doesn't slow down because you're having a hard time. But you don't have to play with every finger, both feet, and all the stops. You are not required, for example to love everyone all the time. Relax. If you try to do too much, you'll become overwhelmed, and then you'll just make more mistakes, lose your confidence, and be unhappy.

Love people as much as you are able. Not too much, or you'll empty out and be unable to love at all. Don't love too little either, or you won't stretch and grow. Start out with one finger. Simply practice genuine listening, for example, which is actually a rare phenomenon. Listen only as long as you feel loving, and when you begin to feel tense, terminate the conversation. There are many ways to do that, which you can find here.

As you learn to listen, you can add other notes to the loving music you play. You can express loving thoughts, physically touch people, and offer acts of service. Relax and do what you can, which is often less than what other people need or demand.

Don't know where to start?

Start here:

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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