Solo Pedal Variations

Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey from the last newsletter about a workshop next summer in Baltimore! So far, it looks like July is the preferred month, but you can still make your voice heard here. I’m excited by the interest demonstrated in the responses and will keep you posted as the event takes shape.

Solo Pedal

A regular part of my early organ studies was devoted to pedal practice. Whether it was exercises by Stainer, Gleason or Nilson, a significant chunk of my practice time was spent acquiring the ability to find my way around the pedal board. The end goal however was always to combine the feet with the hands. Aside from a few cadenza passages, we rarely play with out feet alone after we master the basic technical exercises.

After creating the virtuoso pedal variation on Salzburg, I realized how easy it would be to progress to solo pedal variations. Where we made the virtuoso pedal part by playing the bass and ornamenting the tenor, we could play the soprano ornament the bass, perhaps something like this:

Sometimes it might be easier (or sound better) to use the alto as a harmony part rather than the bass. When there is a half note in the melody, we can choose to find some way to fill in order to keep the motion going (I added passing notes above), or we could slow the motion down to eighth notes or even have a quarter note if we need a break in our virtuosity!

Ornamented Melody

As Salzburg has several large skips in the melody, we could create another simpler variation by using choosing to only ornament the melody with neighbor tones:

And of course, one of the most impressive pedal techniques is to play notes with both feet at the same time, adding in three- or four-note chords for the biggest splash:
While these solo pedal variation techniques might better be suited to concert use than liturgical use, they are still useful tools for our improvisational toolbox. If we need to practice our pedal technique, we might as well practice our improvisation skills at the same time. Besides, wouldn’t a flashy pedal cadenza be a great touch to add to the end a toccata?

Hoping your feet will soon be flying across the pedalboard,


Newsletter Issue 38 – 2015 05 26
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Virtuoso Pedal Variation

Fast feet

Most people are amazed when they discover that an organist uses his or her feet to play notes (and has to do so without looking). And the more notes an organist plays on the pedals, the more impressed they tend to be. Variations for pedal solo, pedal cadenzas, and any other piece with a very active pedal part are crowd-pleasers and generate a lot of enthusiasm for the performer.

Inspiration strikes

Recently I had the opportunity to hear an organ concert where the performer played the ‘Concert Variations on Old Hundredth‘ by John Knowles Paine. I may or may not have ever heard the piece before, but towards the end, there was a rousing variation with a very flashy pedal line that reminded me of the Charles Ives ‘Variations on America‘ (which was the model for the newsletter series on creating holiday variations). Probably because I sang Old 100th every week at the Presbyterian church where I grew up, I knew the harmonization well and was struck with how easy it would be to create a virtuoso pedal improvisation very similar to what Paine had taken the time to write down.

Work from the harmony

Since we are now in the Easter season, let’s take the tune Salzburg for an example today. (We will sing it this week with the text ‘At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing.’) Starting from the tune as harmonized by J.S. Bach (available as a PDF here), we can create a pedal line of sixteenth notes by ornamenting the tenor with lower neighbor notes. So the first two measures could become something like this:


Other fills

The first note of each beat is the traditional bass note of the harmony and the tenor follows with a lower neighbor in order to fill out the rest of the beat. When the chord stays the same for two beats, you could borrow a note from the chord in order to keep from playing the same pattern twice. The second beat of the second measure in my example uses the C# from the alto and where there is a unison D for beats three and four, I fill out the harmony, keeping the pattern, but using different notes from the D major chord.

When there are half notes or eight notes in the bass, you’ll need to find a different figuration in order to fill the time. Here are some options for portions of the third line of the hymn:



Finally to finish off our virtuoso pedal variation, we need something for the hands to do. My recollection of the Paine variation is that both hands played the standard harmonization in short staccato chords an octave higher than normal. Ives gives the right hand the harmonized melody to play in full quarter notes and suggests the left hand should hold onto the bench! Try both and figure out which is easier for you. The great joy of this idea is that it is easily repeated and can be practiced almost like you would practice a written piece. I wrote out a complete example for the tune that you can download here. While I doubt it will become a classic in the organ literature, it will serve nicely as my postlude for this weekend!

May all your improvisations be fun and impressive!


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Newsletter Issue 36 – 2015 04 16
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