Site Design and Construction : Colin Moore
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To Midi, or Not to Midi..........
.....that is the question. Whether ‘tis........... you know the rest.
So....”what on earth is that idiot wittering on about this time” I hear you wail? Well, I’m going to discuss what can be an emotive subject amongst the organ fraternity; light the touch paper and run like hell in the opposite direction in other words!
Seriously, the debate on whether it is acceptable to use a midi file, or WAV file for that matter, as a backing to the songs you like to play has raged for years. In one corner you have those who think it is not only OK but correct to use whatever means available to enhance and improve their performance, and in the other corner congregate the ‘purists’ who take the view that an organ is to be ‘played’ rather than toyed with. “A song’s performance should be the creation of the player using the least amount of automatic enhancements as possible,” is their mantra.
I’m not going to preach the pros and cons of both arguments, we’ll be here for days if I did, but I would, if you’ll let me, like to take up some of your time exploring both sides of the coin from a ‘fence-sitters’ perspective.
I don’t profess to be an expert on Midi, far from it, what I know could be written on the back of a very small postage stamp, so you can rest assured I won’t be baffling you with jargon and techno-babble. No, the point of this article is to highlight, from a musical point of view, the usage or not of Midis, WAVs and anything resembling auto accompaniments in our music. With that in mind, I will split this into two parts, ‘purists’ and ‘non-purists’. Each will be accompanied by a song recorded once with the minimum usage of backings, and again with no restraints. I’ll also try to provide Total Presets for each version of the song.
Right then.........*pauses for a slurp of tea*..........
In this part I shall leap off the fence onto the side of the Purists.
When I started playing, and for a good few years after, organs were basic; a few sounds, mainly flutes/tibias, a couple of strings, maybe a Piano and the obligatory Clarinet. Rhythm units sounded like someone was banging on a box and any auto accompaniment plinked and plonked away merrily with little or no variation.
But weren’t they GREAT!!!!
This meant, when you sat down, switched on and opened your music book, you then had to ‘PLAY’. You, the organist, had to create your performance. You had to interpret the tune, change registrations by physically switching off and on the appropriate voice tabs and, in most cases, play the pedals and left hand rhythmically. Pedal chord, pedal chord for anything swingy, pedal chord chord for a Waltz and, many people’s nemesis, pedal chord.....pedal chord pedal chord for a Bossa Nova and other things of a Latin vein. I remember when I learnt Take Five, writing Ps and Cs above the melody line so I knew when I should be playing either a pedal or a chord and with which melody note. Looked strange, but made it a whole lot easier to learn.
Actually, that’s quite a handy tip. If you’re having trouble playing the rhythm accompaniment along with the melody, try writing Ps and Cs above the corresponding melody notes. You can sing the song slowly in your head or play the melody, again slowly, and write in the pedal or chord symbol as you go. When done, practise it slowly at first, gradually building up speed as it all begins to fit into place. Writing in the symbols above the melody line means you only have to concentrate on that area of the music as everything will be on that line; melody, chord symbols and loads of little Ps and Cs.
But hang on a minute, organs have progressed. In the old days you needed 10 pairs of hands to change a registration from strings to full flutes; God help you if you wanted to change the rhythm as well!! Now, you just press one button and the whole set up can be changed instantly from a string ensemble with a Latin accompaniment to a swinging Count Basie big band.
Has this made us lazy? Has the ‘art’ of organ playing diminished as they have evolved into ‘one-touch’ digital orchestras? Have we become too reliant on what the organs ever growing features can do for us?
There remains a large contingent of players who have refused to succumb to the temptation of relying solely on the organ’s automatics to make them sound good. This intrepid band are quite happy to just switch on, set up a few sounds, or choose a Preset, and proceed to play using both hands and, more often than not, the pedals, to fill in the gaps in the melody with ‘fiddly bits’, twirls, arpeggios, etc., etc., etc., using a rhythm purely for backing and added interest.
Quite often, I will play a song with no auto accompaniment using just the organ sounds to ‘make my noise’. Classical pieces are ideal for this, but there are many songs from the 20th century that sound just as good with or without such accompaniment. Songs such as Stardust, Misty and Memory from Cats.
Most of the ‘mature’ professionals on the organ circuit today learned to play on organs that offered the basics in accompaniment. Great names such as Howard Beaumont and Peter Hayward, both of whom I had the pleasure of working with in their days as main UK demonstrators for the Baldwin Piano & Organ company and, in Peter’s case, Hohner Organs whom he joined when Baldwins pulled out of the UK market. Amazing players, both, who could easily play a complete concert without any automatics and have you completely enthralled from the first to the last note. Brian Sharp, John Mann, Carlo Curly......the list is extensive. All masters at their craft and not reliant on backing tracks, midis and WAV files to make them sound good.
I would like to see some of today’s organists, the ‘new breed,’ go head to head with a few of those mentioned above in a play-off where the use of automatics was forbidden. I know who would win.
In that respect then, it would be fair to say that using midis to improve your performances is wrong and taking ‘the easy way out’. The same, though, could be said about using styles/rhythms.
Many of the rhythms and the accompaniments that....erm.....accompany them, found on today’s organs are like mini-songs compared to the plink and plonk we had years ago. With the advent of intros, fill-ins, endings and sampling came the liberation of the left hand and foot. As the backings became more complex and clever enough to determine which type of chord you were playing, changing the variation of the backing to suit, many a left foot has been resigned to dangling aimlessly or resting on some part of the organ. The temptation to forget the pedals, play chords in the left hand and let the organ do the work, is akin to putting food in a dog’s bowl and telling it not to eat it! Besides, if you play anything in the left hand apart from chords, all sorts of weird things start to happen as the organ tries to work out what the hell you’re doing whilst adjusting the accompaniment to suit. Put Wersichord on at the same time and you’ll end up with something Les Dawson would be proud of!
The good thing about all things electronic is the option to turn something off. We have the choice to play or play along. Lead or be led.
There is a certain smugness and self satisfaction to be gained from playing a piece of music without the aid of auto-accompaniments, multi-tracking and backing tracks (including Midi files). You can sit back, although not too far otherwise you’ll fall off the stool/bench, knowing that the effort you have put into the counter-melodies, left hand movement, right hand chords and two handed melody, (playing chords with the right hand, melody on top, and, on the same manual, playing the melody an octave lower with the left hand), has been ‘all your own work’. Your creation. How do you really feel after playing something using all the ‘whistles and bells’ the organ can throw at you using just your right hand to play the melody, usually single notes, and chords in the left hand? Slightly pleased? Indifferent?
“But what if we are not up to professional standard?”, you say. Good question, and one that any one of us would be justified in asking.
You don’t have to be a Peter Hayward clone to produce good sounding, automatics-free music. If you registrate properly, and in the right places, you’ll soon find you can gradually cut down on the sometimes over-use of ‘effects’. If you can’t play right hand chords, play two notes instead or use Wersichord to produce a ‘big’ sound.
We are not concert artists performing to a crowd of ‘go on then, impress me’ organ nuts who demand manual dexterity of gladiatorial proportions. But we do like, no want, to bring out the best in ourselves when tickling the Wersi ivories whether or not you can do all the fancy bits or just play chords and melody.
Try it. Choose a song you would normally add all the automatic features to but resist the urge and, instead, think about what sounds you are going to use, how many presets, how the sounds used on each layer complement each other and add, or detract, from the over-all sound. Where do you change presets? Use the split on the lower keyboard with an alternative, contrasting sound for the melody. Think about where you can use Wersichord to good effect, not just something to give you a fuller sound. Build up the sound as you progress through the song aiming for that big crescendo finish. By all means use a rhythm if you need to, but try it without its accompaniment.
There is a strong chance our playing can become too automated if we constantly use rhythms and Midis. Following the strict patterns makes us play the notes robotically, as written, with no freedom to express the piece, and ourselves. Turning off the rhythm lets you transgress the boundaries and limits imposed by the 2, 3, 4 or 6 beats to each bar. You’ve time to shorten or lengthen notes, speed up or slow down at will, add syncopation (playing off the beat), and generally put more expression and feeling into the song.
Take, as an example, Stardust. I have recorded two short snippets for you to illustrate this point: Stardust without accompaniment and Stardust with accompaniment. If played as written it can sound flat and regimental. But, with no rhythm, you can play the notes freely, shortening or lengthening, slowing down or speeding up and, as a result, adding a lot more feeling into the piece. I hope the examples explain it clearly and show you the difference in how your performance can sound.
Whilst we are on the subject of feeling and expression, have you ever wondered what those funny looking words written on the music are? Words such as rit., rall., 8va, loco, and so on? If you don’t, or have heard of them but can’t remember what they are, they are known as expression marks. They are there to tell you how the composer wanted that particular section of the piece to be played, and are very important guides when playing ‘non-automatically’.
Rit. or Ritardando – to slow or decelerate
Rall. or Rallentando – to become progressively slower
Accel. or Accelerando – to speed up or accelerate
8va – play one octave higher than written
Loco – return to playing at written pitch
Others include crescendo, (get gradually louder), decrescendo, (get gradually quieter), f – loud, mf – moderately loud.....etc., etc. It’s easy to miss, or just overlook, these when trying to keep up with a rhythm, but very effective when playing ‘freely’.
So, to conclude, as I’ve probably waffled on for far too long, to sound good and give a pleasing performance that is a joy to listen to, you don’t need fancy backings or Midi files featuring a host of instruments playing individual melodies which, in the end, might sound impressive, but only result in showing off what the organ can do, not what you, the organist, can do.
Automatics have their place, but it’s often more satisfying to now and again, get back to basics.
In the second part we’ll have a look at the other side of the fence.
© Terry Bolger
To Midi or Not To Midi...