American Guild of Organists, Baltimore Chapter
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.

Colorful Sounds on a Monochrome Instrument

Dear John,

The organ which I play on a regular basis has a limited supply of “Color” stops for use in solo melodies.  Can you perhaps suggest any remedy?

Mono Chrome

Dear Mono Chrome,

Other than enlarging or completely replacing your current instrument, fortunately there are some available methods to simulate the color or traditional solo ranks in the organ.  Here are several frequently used techniques:

Orchestral Oboe – Combine a string (i.e. salicional) 8’ and mutation (nasard) 2-2/3’

Orchestral Clarinet – Combine bourdon 8’ and mutation (nasard) 2-2/3’

Vox Humana – Combine string celeste 8’, nasard 2-2/3’, tierce 1-3/5’ and tremolo, perhaps omitting either the nasard or the tierce

Harmonic Flute – Combine flutes and bourdons 8’ on all manuals

French Horn – Compare all bourdons and flutes in the middle register to find one which might most closely approximate a French horn.

On each of these combinations, play with articulations resembling those of the actual orchestral instruments:  try to simulate the tonguing of an oboist or clarinetist, the sparkling articulation of the flutist, or the tonguing of the French horn. It is also helpful when playing on trumpet ranks to employ articulation resembling tonguing of an actual trumpeter. When using a combination of principal ranks, one might emulate the warm legato sound of orchestral strings.

Employing strong creative imagination and varied touch, we can produce organ sonority to resemble a vast array of orchestral sounds. Robert Glascow frequently suggested that we organists should always imagine that we are playing a wide variety of other instruments, thereby bringing greater variety and musicality to organ performance.

In a half-serious manner, the organbuilder Franklin Mitchell occasionally proposed installation of blank stopknobs (without names) on consoles, thereby requiring players to register by listening carefully to the sounds rather than by merely reading names on the knobs.  Realizing that eyesight can often interfere with one’s ability to listen deeply, I suggest that you try sometime to close your eyes and register a composition according to the sounds you hear.  You might be surprised with the result!

Louis Gephardt