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Twelve painless lessons ease the transition from pianist to organist

For starters, pianos and organs are not the same thing.

Just because Sister Mary Brown tickles the ivories doesn’t mean she’ll be immediately capable of playing the organ if she is called to do so by her church leader. Maybe, with oodles of practice, she’ll muscle through.

But, like most piano players asked to become organists, the challenge they face is a steep uphill climb littered with fear, pressure and trepidation.

BYU music professor Don Cook knows what the transition is like and he wants to make it easier. That’s why he and a group of students from his graduate pedagogy class produced a free online organ course: The New LDS Organist.

“It’s a course designed to help LDS pianists adapt their skills to the organ as quickly as possible,” Cook says. “It allows people to go at their own speed and helps those who are expected to start playing in church meetings right away to feel more confident.”

All 12 lessons of the free course are available online as podcasts designed to be listened to at the organ with an mp3 player. The course offers four hours and 20 minutes of instruction, with each lesson lasting between five and 35 minutes.

The lessons involve listening to instruction, getting to know the organ console, trying out new skills and playing simplified hymns. Cook recommends that learners meet with a trained organist or other musician to receive feedback and discuss progress.

“The whole program is fabulous – it’s just awesome,” says Beth Ballantyne, who uses the tutorial regularly to teach 4 to 5 week sessions in the Riverside California Stake. “A lot of people are going through this and fulfilling the goal to be able to play in their ward.”

Former students Jane Dye, Ruth Eldredge and Shinji Inagi helped create the tutorial, which, as Ballantyne has proven, can be a useful framework for a ward or stake training course that combines self-study with class or individual instruction.

BYU organ performance grad Brian Mathias says the tutorial gives transitioning LDS organists something to help them get out of a tough spot.

“Most people don’t realize how different the piano and the organ are,” says Mathias, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas. “This tutorial has filled an important hole by providing training where there was really none before.”

The New LDS Organist Website allows learners to download and print a free 56-page packet, which contains the handouts needed in the lessons as well as 25 hymns that are simplified for beginning organists. In addition to several no-cost options, the Web site offers a no-frills mp3 player with the lessons pre-loaded and a printed packet for $35.

“It’s fulfilling our vision of providing a tool to help train newly called organists,” Cook says.

The New LDS Organist is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Lesson titles, with approximate lengths:

1. Welcome to Organ Playing (35 min.)

2. First Steps in Pedal Playing (13 min.)

3. Playing Prelude Music That Invites the Spirit (13 min.)

4. Effective Hymn Playing — An Overview (11 min.)

5. Hymn Playing in Shortcut Mode — Playing Hymns Right Now (5 min.)

6. Hymn Playing in Polish Mode — Playing Single Lines in Legato Style (21 min.)

7. Hymn Playing in Polish Mode — Playing Two Independent Legato Lines (28 min.)

8. Hymn Playing in Polish Mode — Playing Three Independent Legato Lines (31 min.)

9. Hymn Playing in Polish Mode — Playing Four Independent Legato Lines (38 min.)

10. Hymn Playing— Deciding When to Tie Repeated Notes (25 min.)

11. Playing Postlude Music Appropriately (17 min.)

12. Continuing Your Organ Training (15 min.)