I've been playing the piano for 15-odd years, so I like to delude myself into thinking that I'm somewhat skilled. However, my question revolves around the organ. I've played the organ for 5-odd minutes, and I've found myself in the position where I'm about to get one for free from my church. (Let's just say that I am getting my money's worth, and nobody there is sorry to see it go....)

Since I anticipate spending a fair amount of time playing the organ in the coming years (mostly to accompany the church choir), I would very much like to avoid picking up bad habits right off the bat. So, what basic organ technique issues should I anticipate and actively work towards avoiding?

I'm specifically looking for tips in areas where organ technique differs markedly from piano technique or simply doesn't exist with the piano (pedaling technique, for example).

  • To stave off the obvious answer: I acknowledge that I should get a teacher (and I will get a few hours of instruction from the church organist), but my time is extremely tight, so it's not a particularly feasible option. Which means that most of what I'll learn will be on my own.
    – Babu
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 6:40
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    I'd say self-tuition is the best option if you're cash-poor and time-rich; a teacher makes sense if it's the other way around (although either way, you'll get nowhere if you don't find time to practice)
    – slim
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 12:08
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    While some content on the following pages is geared towards members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much of it applies to all. I encourage you to visit all of the links on: uvago.org/handouts.htm The AGO is an excellent resource - find a chapter in you area here: agohq.org/chapter-websites Long-time members of the AGO typically love giving advice to those wishing to develop their musical talents. SDG, Mike O. - North Carolina Chapter, American Guild Of Organists (contact them if you would like to get in touch with me)
    – user10983
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 16:32

3 Answers 3


You'll likely pick up a lot just by listening to how your technique translates into what you hear.

On the organ, once you move your fingers from the keys the notes stop sounding instantly - with no sustain pedal to cover your poor legato technique either! So the biggest difference you'll find is that you'll probably end up doing a lot more finger-substituions to keep the note sounding whilst adjusting your hands to move to the next passage.

The flip side of this is that the note sounds for as long as you hold down the note - and won't die away as it would on a piano - so any fingers that rest on the key for a little too long will be equally conspicuous!

Your wrists should also be raised higher than they would normally be on a piano but at the very least they certainly shouldn't sag down.

If you are playing a mechanical ('tracker') organ - where the keys physically move the valves to let air flow through the pipe - you will find that as you add more stops, the action will become very very heavy. In other words, pressing the keys down will be a lot harder to do than on the piano and you may find finger strength to be an issue at first.

On the other hand, you may have an electrical action where the keys stay uniformly weighted and will actually be easier to depress than a piano's.

Whilst no one listening will notice, you should also get out of the habit of using any 'percussive' style of attacking the keys - the organ doesn't care how hard or soft you press them, so concentrate on keeping things fluid and uniform. That's not to say you play staccato and legato in exactly the same manner, but there should be very little need to be lifting your hands completely off the keyboard; try and do as much as possible through your fingers.

As far as pedalling goes, this will be entirely new to you and so you shouldn't have learned any 'bad habits' as yet. This is a topic in itself and probably best left until you are comfortable using your hands.

However, a few tips:

When using the 'toe' of your foot (the other option being the 'heel'), try to use the ball of your foot rather than the toes alone. You'll probably do this naturally, but this will feel more stable and also make swivelling your heel a lot easier.

When you get on to more 'involved' pedal parts, you'll also notice that you have to physically balance yourself to prevent the pushing of your legs from moving your upper body. When playing the pedal by itself you'll often find yourself grabbing hold of the organ bench to steady yourself and offset the force of pushing down especially on the outer ranges of the pedals. When playing with manual and pedal, you'll be using your hands on the keys to steady yourself - sounds awkward but will happen naturally.

Finally, shoes.

Whatever your preference, you can't play in trainers. The majority of organists will advise you to get a good pair of purpose-made organ shoes. These are similar to ballet shoes, disguised as formal suit shoes - thin but with solid heels and toes.

Personally I never wear shoes, ever - just socks. To me, playing the pedals wearing shoes is like playing the manuals with gloves on. But I know I'm in a minority and whilst some others will say it's okay for practice, they'll always wear shoes to perform. It's up to you - see what feels most natural.

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    Organmaster Shoes are one very good brand. Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 2:27
  • +1 - I've played the piano for 13 years and am just now learning the organ; I find that the pedaling is the hardest to learn; Most of the keyboarding comes naturally, from piano experience Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 3:38
  • Thank you for a very thorough answer! The tip about not playing the manuals too hard is an excellent one. I'll have to work on my touch.
    – Babu
    Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 15:19
  • As someone that played the piano initially, I'm now my parish's "second" organist. I definitely agree with @Widor (brilliant handle, by the way) and using the pedals should come later. Additionally, you will find that your control over dynamics on the piano loses it a bit. The organ that I play is around 150 years old and more than a bit stiff so force is definitely required. I'd also recommend trying new stuff out in private and getting someone you trust to comment on any new settings before you try them in public, as some of the stops I used could be a little "heavy". Good luck!
    – jClark94
    Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 9:45
  • Good answer. One cannot overstress phrasing: the piano is a percussive instrument and readily masks sloppy timing of the key release. On the piano, something like a badly phrased leggiero run is basically indistinguishable from the real thing. An organ, in contrast, is pretty unforgiving in that respect.
    – User8773
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 14:39

Excellent answer from Widor, I just wanted to add a few bits from my personal experience (which is only a few months ahead of yours, by the sound of it).

  • Registration can be a challenge: not only because you don't know what the different stops 'mean', but also because you have no guarantee that what you can hear from the console is what everyone else can hear in the congregation.

  • Also the sheer number of permutations of possible registrations (with manual-to-manual couplers, octave couplers, etc) can be daunting.

  • Time lag is also something to get used to: depending on the size and layout of your organ, you can sometimes get a sub-second time lag which is just enough to knock you off track.

  • As Widor said, fingering is completely different on the organ. Your piano teacher would have told you off for crossing fingers and things like that. On the organ you have to cross fingers and do finger substitution if you want to play legato.

  • He also mentioned dynamics: you can't hit keys harder to make them louder, and you can't pull out stops for individual notes to accentuate them. So you have to play with the spacing of notes, and the pauses between them. (Disclaimer: This is something I haven't really got the hang of yet)

  • Pedalling is not that hard, unless you're planning on playing with your hands at the same time :)

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    +1 for "Pedalling is not that hard, unless you're planning on playing with your hands at the same time :)". As to "Your piano teacher would have told you off for crossing fingers and things like that," I think it really depends on what you're playing on the piano; there can be just as much need for this type of technique in complex counterpoint whether on the organ or the piano. Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 17:39

Fingering is a lot different. Try playing a series of parallel thirds and just keep going up the keyboard. On the piano you would just play them with thumb and third, then second and fourth, then third and fifth, and then just move your hand. But on the organ you can't lift the hand and move it like that, or it chops up the sound. So you have to learn alternative fingerings. For example, try second and fourth fingers, then thumb and fifth finger, then second and fourth fingers, and just keep going. You should be able to do this smoothly both up and down the keyboard.

Parallel sixths are really hard on the organ. Say you're doing parallel 6ths coming down the keyboard. You could start with second and fifth fingers, then move to thumb and fourth; however, if there is another sixth below that, you're stuck. Remember you can't just lift the hand. So you start the interval with thumb and fourth, and then, while still holding down the notes, switch to second and fifth, allowing the thumb and fourth to grab the next one. You should practice doing this, both up and down the keyboard. Sometimes this substitution has to be fast.

Another example. Try holding down the G above middle C with your right thumb, then, while holding it down, walking the notes all the way to the octave or beyond. To do this, you would use second finger, then third, then fourth, the THIRD again, then fourth again, then fifth (or third again depending on the size of your hand), and then the fourth cross over the fifth to hit the next higher note, then fifth again.

All these fingering techniques are strange to a pianist, so practice them over and over again.

The pedalling is a whole new world. Practice slowly and carefully. Use the balls of the feet and the heels. Don't slam onto the notes. Generally, keep the right foot slightly in front of the left one. Practice intervals. Start at the C right below the middle of the bench. Hit C with the left foot, then D with the right, the C, then E with the right. Then move to D with the left, F with the right, D, then G, and then move the left foot to E. Keep doing this until it feels comfortable. Then try again with thirds and fourths instead of seconds and thirds. Patience is a virtue. Try not to look at the pedalboard too much. You need to get a muscle memory for it.

Good luck!

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