Make the pianist to organist conversion Jump to main content

Make the pianist to organist conversion

Morwenna Brett made the shift from piano to organ several years ago, and started her website The Lady Organist to help others who were interested in doing the same. It’s now grown into an online magazine with news, interviews and resources for organists at all levels.

Who doesn’t want to play the Bach D minor Toccata and Fugue - as in all the best horror movies? Or the last three bars of the Widor Toccata? VERY LOUDLY. Oh the power of being an organist. Fellow-pianists, whatever your age or standard, can I suggest you join me in the absorbing process of transforming yourself from pianist into organist?

Transition might seem straightforward at first but there are a few traps for the unwary. It may look like a piano with knobs on but essentially it is a wind, not a percussion instrument. The organ rather enjoys pointing out your mistakes to you, and you can’t fudge the gaps in your technique with the sustain pedal because there isn’t one. Harpsichordists actually have a head start over pianists when it comes to touch: on the organ the release of the finger from the key is as important as the attack, and, as with the harpsichord, throwing the weight of your hand or arm at the keyboard does no good at all.

Along with this you have to read three staves of music at a time, not two, and teach your feet to play a keyboard of their very own independently of the hands. (You will know you have mastered this when you can play the Bach Trio Sonatas with both accuracy and nonchalance. I am a long way off either.) It takes at least 18 months to develop a reliable pedal technique but there is plenty to play in the meantime – the manuals-only repertoire begins in the dim mists of the earliest notated music, and extends right up to the present day.

Have a few lessons – you need to know how to get the best out of all those bells and whistles. The Royal College of Organists runs a directory of teachers in the UK, and they welcome everyone to the organ, so don’t be shy.

A local church will often be profoundly grateful for even your most basic attempts at the repertoire when you feel up to playing in public. Being a church organist has its frustrations (follow me on Twitter @theladyorganist for more!) but there is great joy in being the one who provides “the soundtrack to the important events in our lives”, as Catherine Ennis, RCO President,recently put it. You can add to that the pleasure of exploring almost six hundred years of music, and attempting a convincing performance of it on wildly differing instruments - from the large and glorious concert organ­­­­­ to the small and cranky parish machine.

If you really catch the bug there are of course the famous RCO Diplomas to try for. I’m currently sweating my way through the final stages of CertRCO - read more about this on my website which has lots of resources for pianist/organists as well as interviews with some of the best in the business.

Morwenna Brett