The guest blog feature this month is written by Anne Marsden Thomas. Anne is one of the most influential organ teachers of today, and has wide experience as a concert organist. She has written and edited over twenty books for organists. She is Director of Music at St Giles Cripplegate Church, City of London. In 2015 she was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours, and in 2017 she was the first woman to receive the Royal College of Organists’ highest distinction, the RCO Medal. She is also co-Chair of the Society of Women Organists.
You may wonder why Frederick Stocken and I have written a new organ tutor – the New Oxford Organ Method (NOOM), published last July by Oxford University Press. After all, there are many organ tutors on the market already. But our combined experience after years of organ teaching indicated that most of the tutors already on the market are either out of date, or hard to use. Besides, although there is excellent tuition within some tutors, Frederick and I felt that none of them offered the comprehensive and up-to-date training that students seek. We wanted to write something different.
So, what is different about NOOM? First, it offers a fully integrated structure. We felt this was vital because most popular organ methods group registration, technique, style and practice strategies into different sections, with pieces as a separate activity, leaving the student or teacher the major challenge of cherry-picking pieces and related exercises in progressive order. Instead, our tutor enables users to proceed in a continuous flow through the book.
Many current tutors depend on having a teacher to explain and amplify the tuition. But finding an expert local teacher is impossible in some parts of the country. So, although we believe that studying with a teacher is preferable to self-tutoring, we wanted NOOM to be comprehensive, helping the student to progress effectively even if they cannot find a teacher. And our approach helps teachers, too, as it can save precious lesson time by setting a chapter for a student to explore alone, in preparation for the next meeting.
Other current tutors give detailed and lengthy explanations. While that detailed approach may be attractive to some, Frederick and I felt that most students don’t want to sit at the console reading text – they want to play! So it was quite a test for us: to be comprehensive, but never to let the text dominate. We achieve this by illustrating every point with a musical exercise to play.
Old tutors assumed that organists play all the repertoire similarly: using legato touch, and one style of fingering and footing. Of course, they were wise in detailing legato touch and techniques for organists since it brings challenges different from playing legato on the piano. But more recent research indicates that, until the nineteenth century, players used a non-legato (‘ordinary’) touch, with complementary fingering and footing techniques. So NOOM first trains the organist in ordinary touch and the earlier finger and footing techniques, not least because it makes the music easier to play and to interpret. Later in NOOM we introduce all the more traditional techniques associated with legato playing.
All the features mentioned above were inspired by our starting point: twenty graded pieces, each chosen from the repertoire to present a different style. Our composers include Buxtehude, Pachelbel, J. S. Bach, Albinoni, Franck, Reger and Walton. We chose the pieces carefully, aware that a student organist deserves the most beautiful and stimulating repertoire to inspire learning. We grouped the pieces into three sections: those using ordinary touch, those using legato touch, and finally three pieces exploring more advanced techniques.
We also had to consider how our choice of pieces would build the student’s skills in carefully graded steps. NOOM’s first piece is a simple vehicle for introducing ordinary touch and position fingering; the second piece includes changes of manual and the Swell pedal. The third piece introduces the pedals, with just one note per foot, and the fourth piece requires each foot to shift one note. These first four pieces also show the student the appropriate interpretation for music from 16th-18th century England, France and Italy.
We established an identical structure for each chapter. First, an introduction to the composer, then a new lesson in registration. Technical exercises follow, always drawn from features in the piece. This means that, after completing the exercises in each chapter, the student has already successfully addressed the fresh challenges that the piece offers. The piece now seems easy! Although we break each piece into its individual techniques, we took care to ensure that no technique is unique to that situation: each would apply to countless future pieces.
At the end of the chapter we wanted students to consolidate their learning, so there are three studies, composed solely for the book, each further illustrating one of the points introduced in the chapter. When teaching I find these invaluable for confirming that the skills just learned can be applied successfully to a new context. They also provide a graded course in sight-reading.
The detailed training within each chapter teaches the student how to learn methodically, breaking each task into its components and building success on success. For many students this will be an innovative approach to learning and practising: instead of their learning being a series of trouble-shooting tasks, they learn accurately from the start. Then, before the whole piece appears, there are suggestions for more learning and practice methods, and these refer back to the list of twenty practice strategies at the front of the book. These suggestions also encourage the student to think about wider interpretation issues, because our aim was to nurture musicality at the organ. If NOOM helps students to listen deeply and think about the music they are playing, its authors will be very happy.
NOOM’s main aim is to provide a complete method for beginners to the organ. We assume beginners already have some keyboard experience, so the start of the book assumes ability at the level of piano ABRSM Grade 3. But we hope that experienced organists will find it useful, too – organists who want to study or just revise historically-informed approaches to style.
The first piece in NOOM is ABRSM organ grade 1, and the final pieces are about ABRSM organ Grade 7, and you may wonder if the twenty pieces in NOOM are sufficient for such a journey! Certainly, the fast learner will enjoy moving promptly from chapter to chapter, but those who want more repertoire can consult our online resource, which recommends additional graded pieces to follow each chapter. So the teacher never again needs to ask ‘what should be this student’s next piece?’, as there will always be a ready choice between moving to the next chapter, or to a range of online graded recommendations for the current chapter.
Writing NOOM has been very much a collaboration between Frederick and me, and I can certainly recommend working with a close colleague on such a complex project. As a well-established composer, Frederick was the obvious person to write the lovely studies, and we both chose the graded pieces, organised the structure and wrote the text. The constant feedback we gave to each other at every stage was precious, but always stimulating and friendly. Our students have also been essential in preparing and checking NOOM’s content, since we road-tested all the material on them. Thank you, everyone!
The New Oxford Organ Method book – available here
If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!