Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists
Enriching lives through organ and choral music

Dear John

John Walker, DMA is Artist-in-Residence at Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, having served earlier as Minister of Music at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and The Riverside Church in New York City. He is a member of the organ faculty at Peabody Conservatory of Music and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Organ at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, following previous teaching positions at Duquesne University, Manhattan School of Music, San Jose State University, and the American Conservatory of Music. His active performance schedule has taken him throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Dr. Walker has recorded frequently on the Pro Organo, Gothic, and JAV Recordings labels. As a student of Herbert Nanney, John Walker earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Stanford University, where he was also Assistant University Organist. He holds two Master of Music degrees cum laude from American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where he was later a member of the faculty. Dr. Walker was the 1984 alumni recipient of the Professional Achievement Award from Westminster College. A Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, John Walker was elected President of the AGO in 2014, having previously served the Guild in numerous other capacities including several terms as Vice President and Treasurer.

In our "Dear John" series, Dr. Walker answers questions from our Chapter members. An experienced, knowledgeable, and pastoral member, he has graciously accepted the board’s invitation to lead an “advice” column for our chapter newsletter. Many thanks to Dr. John Walker for taking up this challenge. If you have an organ, choral, or church music question, please use our contact form to submit your question to Dr. Walker. He will then choose one question to answer each month.

Effective Sonic Balance Between Voice and Organ (Part 2)

Dear John,

Members of my congregation occasionally tell me that the volume of the organ is too loud during hymns and anthems. Is this situation unique to my instrument? How might I solve this problem?

Dynamically Distressed

The quest for effective sonic balance between voice and organ is likely as old as the instrument itself. Although the pipe organ produces its sound by the motion of air, the organ is able to produce a much greater range of pitches and to sustain its sound far longer than the most experienced singer. Therefore when accompanying singers, the organist must constantly be sensitive to the fluctuating dynamic environment.

Unfortunately the organ console is frequently located at the least favorable acoustical location in the room, thereby making it extremely challenging for the player to evaluate the dynamic balance between congregation and organ or choir and organ. In 1877, more than 140 years ago, Dudley Buck wrote in his influential book Choir Accompaniment: “The real test is for the student to hear the effect of voices and organ at a distance from the keys. To this end he [she] might get some friend to play the accompaniment, but the organist himself [herself] dictates the stops to be employed.” With today’s technology, frequently we are able to perform a similar exercise with assistance of MIDI playback, which can enable the organist to experience the sonority realistically from the vantage point of the congregation.

Often a choir or vocal soloist can balance a fuller combination of ranks if that sonority is enclosed behind swell shades. The reduction in overtones achieved thereby will frequently allow larger stop combinations to balance voices quite effectively. Occasionally greater articulation between pitches will provide adequate space for voices to be audible with even larger registrations. In Choir Accompaniment Dudley Buck clearly states his preference for predominance of eight-foot sonority in vocal accompaniment; but clearly greater variety of timbre will often be essential. When adding organ ranks of higher pitch, he also recommends balancing those sonorities by inclusion of selected ranks of sixteen-foot pitch, thereby maintaining a central eight-foot sonority. He suggests caution with the use of reeds and mixtures, which can quickly overtake vocal sonority rather than support it.

As a first step, might I suggest that this month you ask a friend to demonstrate the organ, using registrations which you specify, so that you can listen at various locations within the seating area of the congregation? This will give you a more realistic sense of the sonority which the congregation is experiencing. Next month I hope to suggest some basic organ registrations for use in accompanying choir and/or congregation.

John Walker