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The Anglican Way of setting up and using pistons!

2015-10-05 - Playing and Pieces

I have to admit that "pushing pistons" is one of my favorite things to do!

Since I'm pretty much "self-taught", I do LOTS of things that many fine teachers would say are "wrong".  Each musician must have an open outlook and approach, but what is right for me may be wrong for others.  In expressing my opinions here, I am telling how I do what I do.  Also, I think even the "strictest" English cathedral organist would have to agree that the principles that I am setting forth here ARE in the "English manner" of playing.  Probably more the "old-fashioned English manner," but still true in spirit today.

In addition to these general principals (NOT pistons!) I will show you how I set up console.  Very soon, I will present a few articles showing "what I do" in specific pieces.  These "demos" are, save one, completed, and I hope to upload them later in the coming week.

So, let's take a look and see how the English do it!

First and foremost, you must understand that to do this manner of playing you use LOTS of pistons - not just a few "generals" (dealing with the whole organ) but "divisionals" (which deal only with a single division or manual).  Also, what the English excel at is making these "piston changes" WHILE playing.  It's not a "play, stop, push, play" skill that we are talking about here!  It's pushing pistons, possibly many of them, while playing.

Years ago, I had the "good fortune" of playing in a masterclass given by one of the most well-known organ teachers in the US.  In his remarks dealing with "registration changes" in pieces of a "romantic nature," he stated that, in general terms, and even in large pieces, there should never be more than 3-6 changes of registration for the entire piece.  I realized that my performance would get his attention, as my performance had 18 registration changes - and that was just on the first page!

Before I get into specifics of the "English-style" I should say that I've never seen a difference between it and MY "American-style", except that I can now play pieces, even big ones, with no general pistons, or at least very few.

When I was Assistant at Ripon, I had the good fortune of playing a magnificent 4-manual Harrison, which was equipped with all the divisionals of a big organ, but with NO general pistons!  I knew before I got there that this was the case, but I didn't realize what an adjustment this would be - and I would have to "adjust" QUICKLY!

To add to the "adjustment shock" that while there where the standard 8 pistons per division (actually only 6 for the Choir and for the Solo), these "divisionals" were NOT to be changed - EVER!  These present but "unchangeable" pistons were set in a "standard cathedral manner" and were to be used as such.

(I actually did change a few of these on occasion, but ALWAYS made certain to put them back - although I forget on 2 or 3 occasions and received intense anger from the cathedral organist, Ron Perrin.)

At the time, it seemed silly and restrictive to not change these, but NOW I understand the reason!

And what IS that reason?  The reason is that, once you've mastered HOW to use the "setup", you can play almost ANY piece in a "satisfactory" manner without "preparing" it, and without having to even "think" about it.

The reason is that all organ music, with the exception of some "modern" literature, will use a standard or "expected" sound palette.  When playing the English literature, and certainly when accompanying the choir, the sounds that would be correct and expected are all there - on these "unchanging" divisionals.  The pistons, set up per division from soft to loud, where "arranged" so that you can make a smooth crescendo and decrescendo with the "correct" sounds, just by using your "divisionals" in "numerical order". 

If this sounds complicated, it really isn't!  Shall I show you why?  OK, at this point why don't you take a look at my "normal" setup of the Salisbury Cathedral Willis DIVSIONAL PISTONS?


1 - Lieblich Gedackt 8', Viola da Gamba 8', Vox Angelica 8' (according to preference)
2 - ADD Open Diapason 8', Flute Harmonique 4' REMOVE Vox Angelica 8' (REMOVE Viola da Gamba 8' according to preference)
3 - ADD Hautboy 8', Octave 4' (add this to Sw. 1 - removing the 4' Flute according to preference)
4 - ADD Octave 4', Super Octave 2'
5 - ADD Contra Gamba 16' (or not, according to preference) Mixture IIIrks
6 - ADD Contra Fagotto 16' (REMOVE Contra Gamba 16' according to preference.  This is the famous Willis "Mini-Full Swell")
7 - ADD Trompette 8'
8 - ADD Clarion 4'


1 - Stopped Diapason 8'
2 - ADD Claribel FLute '
3 - ADD Open Diapason 1 8'
4 - ADD Open Diapason 2 8', Principal 2 4'
5 - ADD Principal 1 4', Fifteenth 2'
6 - ADD Double Open Diapason 16' (according to prefence) Twelfth 2 2/3', MIXTURE IV rks
7 - ADD Trumpet 8', Clarion 4' 
8 - ADD Trombone 16'


1 - Lieblich Gedackt 8'
2 - Flute Harmonique 8'
3 - ADD Salicional 8'
4 - ADD Open Diapason 8', Flute Harmonique 4'
5 - ADD Gemshorn 4'
6 - ADD Flageolet 2'
7 - ADD Lieblich Gedackt 16'
8 - ADD Trumpet 8'


1 - Clarinet 8'
2 - Orchestral Oboe 8'
3 - Violoncello 8'
4 - Violoncello 8', 'Cello Celeste 8'
5 - Flute Harmonique 8'
6 - Flute Harmonique 8' and 4'
7 - Cor Anglais 16', Solo Super Octave, Solo Unison Off
8 - Tuba


1 - Bourdon 16', Lieblich Gedackt 16'
2 - ADD Flute 8'
3 - ADD Violone 16', Viola 8'
4 - ADD Open Diapason  2 16, Octave 8'
5 - ADD Open Diapason 1 16'
6 - ADD Open Wood 16', Mixture IV rks
7 - ADD Open Wood 32', Ophicleide 16'
8 - ADD Contra Posaune 32', Clarion 8'

Let's look at the Great buttons first.  Now, notice how each button higher "adds" to the sound?  First we start with the softest 8' Flute/s.  Then we add the smaller of the Open Diapasons.  Then the bigger one, and now the 4's.  Then the 2' and then the mixtures.  Finally we add the reeds.  Now, if you want to prove how this works, set up your pistons, 1-8, and then play a chord and hold it.  Now, add them slowly in order, until you've gotten all the way to the top.  Then, "take them off" one by one, until you're returned to where you started.  Do you see?  I mean, do you HEAR the "logical" increase and decrease of sound? 

So, let's say you are playing a piece that starts on the "Diapasons".  (By the way, when you're playing an English piece, and it says: "Great Diapasons", that would mean the OPEN and STOPPED diapasons, which would mean the Open Diapason and the "stopped" one, which could be called, Rohrflute, or Bourdon, etc.)  Now, if you're using my setup, you're probably on Great 3 at this point.  Now, maybe the score will say something general like "Add".  OK, so, "add" Great 4, then 5, etc.

If it says "Reduce", then just work one by one and in reverse.  If you were already at "full Great" and the piece changed the dynamic from "FF" to "MP", then just "skip" down to the piston "level" you want.  If you were going from "full" at Great 7 or Great 8, down to "moderately soft", you'd probably go directly to 3, or something like that.

Now, remember, the Swell is often coupled to the Great.  Probably most of the time, at least for our purposes of consideration".  If you go back to the exercise that we did above, the one holding the chord, and adding and then subtracting one by one, this time, you'll press two pistons in succession, or, if you can manage it, at the same time.  In other words, couple the Swell to the Great, and "add" Swell 1 and Great 1.  Then, go up and down by step.  I suggest adding the Great pistons first, but this varies from piece to piece.  Take your time as you try this, but ALWAYS try to "think ahead" as you do this.  When you're doing something more "complicated" you'll have to remember what comes next and be able to push the buttons WHILE you're playing.

Sounds hard?  Well, it is, but believe me, it will get easier and easier, the more you do it.  Nobody ever explained this to me, I just "figured it out" and did it - over and over and OVER again.  Most of the difficulties I encounter when preparing/uploading pieces for the Concert Hall is in the registrations and not the notes.

So, now that you've done this, stop and think what is missing...

Did you think of it?

Think LOW...

The Pedal!  So, does this mean that you have to add Pedal pistons too?!?  NO!  There is a little "device" that makes this sort of piston use possible.  Do you know what it is?  If you look at the real Salisbury console, or Hereford, or ANY of the English consoles, the "device" is there - and it looks EXACTLY like a stop knob.  Actually, it IS a stop knob?  See it?


What this does is to "join" the 8 Great Divisionals to the 8 Pedal Divisionals.  So, when you press for example, "Great 5", you simultaneously get "Pedal 5" as well.  This way, if you've set your buttons correctly, your Great and Pedal stops will always "balance" each other, and make it far easier to manage your registrations in a smooth manner. 

By the way, the "Great & Pedal Combinations Coupled" is NOT to be confused with the "Great to Pedal" coupler, which is only a standard manual to pedal coupler.

When I learned that this "Gt. & Ped. combs" was virtually ALWAYS on, I began to realize how this whole thing worked.  I suppose I feel pride that I "learned" all this in a few days, as I did not have the luxury of time on my side, but whether you "learn" it slowly or quickly, playing like this brings a new sense of mastery and confidence to your playing, especially in managing the registrations!

I have a good friend who is a well-know recording artist.  He's known for his virtuosic playing of unusual literature (a lot of which he got from me...), but he's "nervous" in his "console technique".  I've seen him set a general piston to add a single stop... ;-)  Well, we've all done that, and I have to, but if you don't HAVE any generals, you had better find another way!

If you can master this "unchanging divisional" arrangement, and remember to keep your Gt & Ped Combs ON, you can play almost anything "first time through" - which is often what you need to do if you're singing 8 fully choral services per week.  You don't have the time to work out "specifics" for every piece or for the verse of every psalm sung at Evensong during the course of a week.  It's just not physically possible!  And, if the organ DID have all these levels of general pistons, you'd be setting 50 or more pistons for each days' music, and maybe 150 on Sunday, as there are three sung services!  You see WHY this HAS to be "the way" to do it?

I understand that Ripon now has a new and "complete" console in the Nave.  It manages things exactly like the old console (hidden on the Quire screen), but the new one has a sequencer and something like 1,000 levels for the pistons.  Does it make it easier?  Sure, if you have the time to spend setting all those pistons for all that music!  Me?  Well, believe it or not, I think I'd prefer to just "do it" with the divisionals.

The downside of this "divisional playing" is that it's very hard to get "too specific" with the registrations.  If you're a "stop picker" like me, you may feel frustrated if you can't always get the "exact sound" you want.  For instance, maybe you want to add the Swell 4' Principal, but the stop on the "next step up piston" is the 4' Flute.  Well, don't feel too bad!  I'm betting the next piston up will add that Principal - although it may also add the 2' ....

I'm hoping that this is helpful and informative and interesting to my readers.  A lot of people have asked about my registrations, and I've included them as I use them.  I DO change my divisionals from time to time, but the principle of "graded sound" is always the same. 

If you have questions, comments, or requests for specific (or general) things, PLEASE ASK THEM!!!  The more you ask, the easier it is for me to write such articles as this one!

One final thing for your consideration...

If you are like me, you own the great Classic Organworks Keyboards.  I like these, and find them very comfortable and durable.  The only negative thing that I would say is in the design of the piston lay out.  The pistons are basically grouped in "sets" of 5, with spaces in between.  In reality, for this type of playing, the Divisional pistons should ideally run 1-8 or at least 1-6 WITHOUT any spacing.  An organ like Hereford or Salisbury, which has a total of 8 pistons per division is, because of the space gap" almost impossible to use as in real life.  I can manage to use 7 pistons, but it can be very hard for the sophisticated piston-pusher, as the pistons, meaning 6, 7, & 8 are in the wrong location and are "too far up and to the right" to use comfortably.

Real English pistons, like the ones on the Salisbury organ are MUCH "longer" and "stick out further" into the keys.  Ripon was also exactly like this.  The reason?  So you can "knuckle push 'em" while your playing... ;-)

Here is a picture of the Ripon "screen" console, the one I played, and the ONLY console at the time.  Notice that there are 6 pistons for the Great and Swell, 4 for the Solo and Choir, and 4 for the Pedal, which are above the Choir, and the farthest to the left.

Now, if you look at the pistons, you'll see that they "extend" further forward, allowing the player to push with the finger, thumb, or knuckle.  By the way, if you look above the Solo manual, you'll see a "new" piece of wood that is a slightly different color.  This was added since I left, and appears to be 8 General pistons.  You can also see what is probably a "setter button" at the lower left.  When I was there, the pistons were "set mechanically" using a setter board in a box, which hung on the wall behind the organist's back.

PLEASE give me some feedback as to the helpfulness or interest of the article!  The more YOU TELL ME, the more HELP I CAN BE in return!

Coming up next (in a day or two): playing an English cathedral piece with MANY registration changes, and doing it all with the divisionals and NO general pistons!  In one spot, I have to get from "p" to "fff" and back to "pp" in a few measures time, and the absence of general pistons makes you work hard and really "think" ahead.

I'll be uploading Walter G. Alcock's Legend played on Salisbury.  Alcock was organist at Salisbury for over 50 years and was a wonderful champion and preserver of the mighty Willis organ.

Here is a link for the Legend

I will deal with the registration and use of the organ in a separate article. "Specific advice on playing an English cathedral work without the use of General Pistons - a COMPLETE How-to-Do!"

Editor's note: If you like this article, and want to be notified of more like it, make sure you subscribe to The Barde using the form to the right of this article.


Jaap380 (2018-12-27) Edited Log in to Reply
One more question David,
If there is no need for pushbuttons for the Pedal, How do you program them in Hauptwerk, so they walk together with the Great divisionals?
There's not always a GREAT & PEDAL COMBINATIONS COUPLED-stop in Hauptwerk.

Agnus_Dei (2018-12-27) Log in to Reply
Hi Jaap.

ONLY English organs (and some American ones) have the combs coupled control.

This makes it harder, but you have to work around it on other instruments. :-(


Jaap380 (2018-07-13) Log in to Reply
Very usefull information! I wondered how smooth you pulled out a 32-foot on the last note, while having all fingers on the manual.
I'm surfing right now to Aliexpress to order some momentary buttons :)
Thanks Dave!
Agnus_Dei (2018-07-15) Log in to Reply

The "pushing of buttons" is a true art in itself! :-)


Jaap380 (2018-07-16) Edited Log in to Reply
yes, You're the master of pushin'buttons :)
But it makes the difference between moderate and excellent performance. You can't really tell a colourfull story without pushing buttons like you do. Very inspiring. Thanks!
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