Fergus Black

music teacher and performer


Pipe Organ Tutor Books

A Review of the literature, by Fergus Black, August 2014

It behoves a teacher to be able to suggest a course of study to a student. This is a fraught area that requires a bespoke solution; for what might suit one student, might be too hard, too easy, too chatty, too formal, or simply irrelevant, to another. When it comes to learning the pipe organ, there are a lot of old books. Many of them are dated, and usually written by cathedral organists, who were working within a certain tradition, making certain assumptions about their students previous musical training. The world of the organ has changed now, with more awareness of different styles of instrument and of performance.

New books have been appearing; how do they compare with some of the old standards? and which one is best for you? It can be hard to tell from some publishers’ descriptions, which can say that their book is suitable for everyone at any level. Also, older books tend to underestimate the keyboard and theory skills needed to begin with. ‘Elementary’ they are not.

None of the books I am considering shows much interest in design and layout. In some cases, the design and layout seems to be to act against the content.

It is easier to snipe, than to do the work in the first place. By necessity, the following comments and recommendations are brief; sometimes, the negatives may outweigh the positives. Let me say now, that I take my hat off to anyone who manages to collate their material to the stage of actually publishing it.

Finally, the organ is a difficult instrument, and none of these books is a substitute for practice: you need motivation and energy to follow any course of study. Almost all of them suggest that you work carefully through them in order: good advice.

click on the titles below to open and close

Play the Organ 1

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Title: Play the Organ - A Beginner’s Tutor
Author: David Sanger
Date of publication: 1991
Publisher: Novello
Number of pages: 112 pp

David Sanger’s Book 1 doesn’t assume previous keyboard experience, or the rudiments of music - he really does include “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”*, and “This is a sharp”. All scales and arpeggios are printed. Those who have previous experience will need to skip a lot.

(1) the tone of the writing suggests the book is not aimed at young people;
(2) the book moves very swiftly for an absolute beginner, with the difficulty building quite rapidly. Sources of further examples and repertoire for each section would have helped a real beginner to consolidate their learning.
(3) the design of the book is wordy: there is a lot of good, practical and technical advice, but it is sometimes ‘hidden’ in paragraphs of text;
(4) The exercises are for the studious - these are not fun games; they are not tunes.

This is a modern book, taking account of the neo-classical organ revolution of the past 50 years: there are many references to historical literature, both of organ tutors (“Here is an exercise from Lemmens…”), and the repertoire (“Another setting of Ein Feste Burg…”). It swings too far, or course, as reactions always do: all the pieces in the book are German baroque music, apart from one piece by the French 19th century organist Jacques-Louis Battmann.

Who is this for?
This book would suit an adult (or late teen), who is starting to learn the organ for solo performance, from scratch. Whether there are such people, I don’t know. It seems to me a fairly narrow target market.

* and “Girls Buy Designer Frocks Always” - not sure how that one made its way past the editor!

Play the Organ 2

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Title: Play the Organ - Volume Two
Author: David Sanger
Date of publication: 1993
Publisher: Novello
Number of pages: 256 pp

I had never opened my copy of Volume Two, because I thought it was a continuation of the first book. It sort of is, but is, in fact, more like an alternative, aimed at those who don’t need the basic keyboard skills and theory included in Book 1. It covers, more or less the same ground as Book 1, but in a lot more depth, and missing out the elementary keyboard skills and rudiments of music. Each section starts at a higher level than Book 1 (at a level that would be easy for a Grade 6 pianist), and progresses to a more advanced stage than Book 1.

There are a wider range of keys in the exercises, and transposition is woven in at an early stage. There is also more detail in the book on stops, action, articulation and historical style.

The tone of the text, and the layout of the book, are the same as for Book 1. In Book 1, however, the tone and layout seemed at odds with the target market; here, with a more advanced syllabus, they seem to suit better.

Who is this for?
This book would be suitable for a 1st year College or University student (or able Year 12-13). who is learning the organ for solo performance. For example, someone who has passed Grade 5 piano and theory, and even someone who has played the organ before, but not learned systematically.

Getting started

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Title: Getting started on the organ
Author: Corinne Hepburn
Date of publication: 2005
Publisher: Animus
Number of pages: 39pp

Getting started on the organ is admirably clear about who it is intended for:
“beginners on the organ who have a keyboard standard around Grade 2”, although many of the included pieces (all by CH) are easier than Grade 2 to allow for the extra practical demands of the organ.
The rudiments of music are not included, and the music is largely for manuals only.
The book is well written for children and teens: it is well laid out, and easy to follow. The key words are “explore”, “experiment” and “imagine”. Each piece introduces a new element, which might be even as simple as changing stops at a repeat sign. There are suggestions for further listening throughout the book, thus relating the learning to the canon, and hopefully inspiring the student (This is the only book I’ve seen to do this).

An adult might find the pace slowish, with its “one new thing at a time” rule; the word squares and other games might appear childish. Children and young teens will love them.

The book does not include accompaniment.

There are three other books in the series:
Getting started on the organ two - 34pp
Getting started on the pedals - 29pp
Getting started on organ improvisation - 37pp

Getting Started Two is a collection of eighteen pieces by CH in diverse styles, with suggestions for improvisation. More of a resource book for those who have completed Book 1, than a tutor. There is almost no text, but the suggestions for further listening remain. Pedal parts are simple, or non-existent.
The Pedals book ditches exercises in favour of tunes, and does everything a good teacher would do to improve a student’s familiarity with the pedals: it is imaginative and creative, with good, precise and clear, technical advice on every page.
The Improvisation book is newer (2013). It doesn’t assume harmony training, but takes a melody-based approach to improvisation.

Who is this for?
I would start a beginner with Book One, then move on to the other three books all at the same time. An older teen with piano who plays the piano could go straight to the Pedals and Improvisation books.

The Oxford Method

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Title: Oxford Organ Method
Author: C H Trevor
Date of publication: 1971
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Number of pages: 142 pp

This is a good book, well laid out, and well planned. It assumes the ‘rudiments of music’ and is aimed at a student, who ‘is able to play the piano reasonably well.’ Trevor defines ‘reasonably well’ as Bach 2- and 3-part inventions, Beethoven Op 14 piano sonatas, and some Bartok Mikrokosmos.

The first 40 pages are taken up with pedal technique, then there are 27 pages on the manuals, especially some of the things that make the organ different from the piano.

Who is this for?
The course is aimed at an able pianists, probably around 1st year university or adult level who is learning the organ for solo performance - that is when I would have found it useful.

The First Year

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Title: The First Year at the Organ
Author: Percy Buck
Date of publication: 1912
Publisher: Stainer and Bell
Number of pages: 35 pp

This a no-nonsense book without pictures. Ignore the advice in the forward that the book is really elementary: ‘elementary’ clearly meant something different in 1911. The book starts above Grade 4 standard, and moves quite quickly beyond that.

It is systematic and well written, both in terms of the musical exercises and the text. There are concise, clear explanations of each point (such as playing detaché, crossing hands, etc.).

The book is all about hands and feet: it doesn’t cover different historical styles, organ management (registration, etc) or accompaniment. The assumption is of a standard English instrument, and english stop names are used throughout.

Who is this for?
This would be a good book for a Grade 5 or 6 pianist wanting to build on their existing technique at the organ. The book would need to be supplemented by other material, to cover the tuition areas that are omitted.

A Practical Guide

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Title: A Practical Guide to Playing the Organ
Author: Anne Marsden Thomas
Date of publication: 1997
Publisher: Cramer Music
Number of pages: 226pp (in Book 1). There are five books.

Book 1 is the Tutor book: Books 2 to 5 are anthologies, which are used to illustrate the various lessons in Book 1. There are (almost) no exercises; rather, each point of pedagogy is referenced to a piece in Books 2-5, with an extract printed in Book 1.

It covers all the main areas of solo performance: registration, musical expression, technique, how to practise, etc.; even how to dress in order to practise in cold churches.

However, I found this an annoying book. It failed for me at the most basic practical level: it doesn’t lie flat when open.

Also, the order is odd: Book 1 is in two main parts. Practical advice (‘hands and feet’) which is probably what most people want from a tutor, doesn’t start until page 125. The first hundred or more pages is about Stops and Registration. Registration for North German organ music before 1800 is covered on pages 78-79, some forty pages before any mention of technique. That seems the wrong way round to me.

In addition, the emphasis even odder: for example there are more pages on ornaments than there are on fingering.

The intention is that students of different abilities should read the chapters of the book in different orders, but I fear that most people will dip into it, and not follow it as a course.

I’m afraid I’m not finished being annoyed: the book is laid out in bullet points, as if it had to go to the printers in outline mode. I’m all for a clear structure, but this has the outline skeleton visible. The outline format makes the pages seem sparse - there is a lot of white space on every page. It is a big book (226 pages), but it needn’t have been.

This book largely assumes a neo-classical organ. You will search in vain for the word ‘diapason’ except in passing. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t most students’ experience.

Who is this for?
The book would be best for someone who plays the organ as a solo instrument decently well already, and wants to find out how to adapt their technique and their instrument to different styles and historical periods of music.

Complete Church Organist

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Title: Complete Church Organist Level One
Author: Daniel Moult
Date of publication: 2010
Publisher: RSCM
Number of pages: 107pp

This is an excellent book: it is different from all the others, because it is about how to play the organ in church, not just how to play the organ. Much of the book is about accompaniment. This being Level One, the material is manuals only, much in two parts, progressing to three parts, and occasionally four. The first section is exercises: there are only 13 pages of exercises, which still manages to cover a lot of ground. Mostly, the exercises cover the differences between piano and organ technique. They are written in an easy manner, without making a meal of it.

The rest of the book is in three sections: Hymns, Worship Songs, Anthems and Settings, and finally Solo Repertoire. It is multi-denominational, as suitable for baptists, as anglicans. Each of these sections considers examples of the repertoire, with advice on how to play them: in Hymns, for example, the hymns have been arranged in 2- and 3-parts (manuals only), with helpful advice often missing from tutors, about speed, what to play in a playover, changing registration between verses, and even counting between verses (Hallelujah!).

This book is sorely needed, and very helpful: one can grumble at some editing and layout decisions:
there are some stupid page-turns in the middle of 2-page pieces that could easily have been avoided, and
there are some curious choices of repertoire (what, one wonders, is the correct liturgical occasion for “So oft ich meine tobackspfeife”? The fire of Pentecost, perhaps!)
Anthems and Settings is suddenly, and without warning, in four parts. Everything else is two or three.

But these are minor complaints, that might be sorted out in a second edition.

There is a second book, that I haven’t seen.

Who is this for?
Suitable for a pianist of around Grade 4+ standard, playing in church. The rudiments of music are not explained, nor is there elementary keyboard technique. Recommended.

Other Books

I haven't reviewed the following books, which are also available:

Tutor Book for Volunteer Organists: A Guide for Pianists Who Have Volunteered to Play the Organ for Services in Their Church
Robert Fielding

The Church Organist - Volume 1
Christopher Tambling

Complete Organ Method - John Stainer