I recently played an organ 4-hand piece with another organist, a player whom I will say right off the bat, is much more accomplished than I am on the instrument. It was a real treat for me to play with her, and I feel like I learned a great deal from the collaboration.
We rehearsed and performed an organ duo by J.C. Bach (one of J.S. Bach’s sons). This was not only the first time I had played an organ duet with someone, it’s also the first time I had played anything by J.C. Bach on the organ. I have played plenty of Classical era pieces on the piano. However, there are stylistic things that are done on the organ that differ greatly from the piano. Phrasing, articulation, and dynamic contrast are just a few of the musical elements that are achieved very differently on the two instruments. I have not been trained much on the organ, so I find myself extremely eager to hear accomplished organists play. With the absence of instruction, we learn primarily through listening and being exposed to other performances.
The only way we could create a good “ensemble” at the organ was to listen to each other. I felt like I didn’t have a good grasp on style for this piece, so I listened very intently to my duo partner. If she phrased a passage in a certain way, I would need to follow it and phrase the same way. The piece has a lot of dialogue between the primo and secondo parts, so this method worked well. I basically learned by imitation.
The importance of listening in any kind of musical ensemble cannot be overstated. Every group that plays together, whether it’s a string quartet, brass quintet, small choir or other combination is making music TOGETHER. Without a director, the individual musicians of the ensemble need to be involved that much more, discussing how each part interacts with all the other parts. The more experienced and accomplished musicians obviously should be influencing the less accomplished members of the group. But there needs to be a constant awareness and understanding of ensemble. A few things to think about in rehearsal:
1. How does my part relate to the other parts at this spot in the piece? Do I have a motive that has been heard before? How was it phrased/articulated previously?
2. Are we all breathing together where possible?
3. When am I in unison/octaves with another voice/part? Are we listening and tuning to each other?
4. Why not try playing the piece at 2/3 tempo or even 1/2 tempo to see how the parts relate to each other?
5. Get your hands on as many recordings of other ensembles playing the same piece. Avoid listening to only one interpretation.
Hope this helps!