Lengthen or Shorten Here

Rosemary Field (b 1957) trained at the Royal College of Music with Nicholas Danby, and has spent her professional life in church music, as a choir-trainer, organist, teacher and diocesan adviser/supporter of parish musicians. She has worked in Birmingham, Portsmouth, Lincoln, and London, as a Cathedral Assistant or Parish D of M, and most recently spent 8 years working in Salisbury for the RSCM.

As a student she won prizes at RCM for organ-playing and harmony; subsequently being awarded the Tournemire Medal for Improvisation at the St Alban’s Festival.

As a teacher she has launched 3 generations of organ scholars at both parish and cathedral levels, and is known for technique-advancement and tenacity, but with a long fuse!

Moving to Lincolnshire now, Rosemary is seeking fresh opportunities for the next chapter of her life and work, and since Covid that will include online teaching and other coaching (arrangement, composition, exam paperwork, aural) in the absence of playing opportunities “live”. Rosemary is accepting organ and paperwork pupils online, and in person in the East Midlands when permitted. You can contact her on rosemaryfield@rmfield.co.uk

Anyone used to following a paper pattern to make a garment will know why I chose this title! (For others, it’s the adjustment place at which, within one size-band, people of different heights and arm-lengths can be tailored-for exactly.)

Given that the manipulation of sound within surrounding silence is how we deliver emphasis, rhetoric and all manner of contrast, the length of a sound within its set note-value may need similar adjustment to the sleeve or hem of a garment.

The triumvirate of acoustic, voicing, and velocity need to be co-ordinated to get a good result. There is a danger in preparing with too much finality before arriving at the venue and testing things out. That said, fingering and footing will have to be decided, largely, in advance. Fine-finishing the playing to the surroundings will be (should be) one of the top priorities in rehearsal. “Shorten here” – there is a need to consider very closely the releases employed (and this of course will show up most noticeably on a responsive mechanical action). It’s to do with the speed of key-release – by which I don’t mean percentage of the note-value taken up by the sound, I mean the physical manner in which one closes off the note. This can be a

  • deliberate release, effected smartly with a snap-shut result on the sound; or
  • a languid letting-up of the key, which may in extreme cases create pitch-warp and in less drastic fashion allows the note to decay very slightly before stopping; or
  • an abrupt staccato, in which the sound has barely spoken before it’s clipped.

Working on this sort of control is best done outside an actual piece, in order to concentrate fully.

All the above is about managing both length and style of gap. It applies also to the onset of a note, where the qualities of sudden attack or gentle onset will apply similarly. As the pipe comes onto speech, so the mechanism responds to all the parameters (or doesn’t!) As a test-piece, I would suggest taking a single line of music and trying it out in all these ways; then add some other strands and chords, until the control is starting to increase and the listening ear gets tuned in to the result.

“Lengthen here” is the skill of leaning on a note so that it takes up more time than it should and therefore sounds prominent. This is a total fake, and a very useful one. The key thing is that the discrepancy should be both minimal and impossible to measure. As soon as you can say it’s a demisemiquaver extra, or similar, you have got it wrong. The golden rule is that whatever you steal from neighbouring notes by way of overspill must be compensated for quickly, before it degenerates into merely unrhythmical playing. So that might be within a bar, or a pulse if a slow tempo is used.

How to do all this? By ear. It is fatal to measure it, sounding wooden and possibly rather affected and artificial. If your ear is able to hold the memory of the pulse or bar effectively, then making minute adjustments within that unit would not be difficult. Just as one might pin up a sleeve before sewing the required hem, so one listens to the result of the playing and adjusts. After a while it stops being a cognitive decision and becomes totally natural and feedback-driven.

But of course the much bigger question is, why and when would one deploy this? The answer lies somewhere between performance practice, taste, and instinct. And, there is no denying that one person’s sensitive performance is another’s over-indulged abomination. Faithfulness to a composer’s intentions presupposes that we know what they are. The further back in history we go, the less likely it is that surviving material fully indicates this.

Take a Frescobaldi Elevation toccata, for example. On paper, it is a prayerful-sounding ramble around a few related chords with some figuration thrown in. In sound, it is a matter of judging exactly when to move from one harmony to the next, balancing their relative importances and gravitational power within the context of an improvised response to a sacred moment. Just to play it “as written” would be to reduce it to a chord sequence. But to over-dramatise it with vigorous flourishes, exaggerated rhythmic gestures and intrusively spikey articulation would be to misunderstand entirely the purpose of it. Or, let’s consider that exquisite little piece from the Orgelbüchlein, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig. Here, there is a sighing motif employed which is typically heard as lean on the first note a little, then release the next one early, creating a sobbing effect. The manner of the release really affects how this is conveyed, and it has a major bearing on the sense of line of the long phrases at slow tempo. Here, the detail of lengthen and shorten must not (in my view) disrupt the forward movement of the total line, but rather, be treated en passant as a detail – albeit a significant detail. In my view, this performance gets the tempo right, but the sighs are slightly too clipped for the dry acoustic of a domestic room. Yes, it’s me playing! If I were to retake that, I would take a longer view of the 2nd note of each sigh. That I could have used more reverb is not the point at issue! I should have listened more intently.

From the romantic period, this delightful miniature by Frank Bridge offers the perfect canvass for expansiveness around significant notes or moments. Try playing this in strict time, to observe the difference. Hearing this piece in your mind’s ear first, as though for strings, would probably inform how you would interpret it on the organ. There are many moments when a minimal rubato technique brings it to life, allowing some notes to blossom whilst others flow on unremarkably. This, of course, is  within the context of a near-total legato, whilst the Bach is based on an articulated-line technique.


Recorded on the Viscount Envoy 23 kindly loaned to the RSCM during Covid-times by Viscount Organs Wales.

Lengthen or shorten accordingly – and listen, listen, listen.

For more information on the loan instrument from Viscount Organs Wales please see https://www.viscountorgans.wales/new-organs/envoy-range/envoy-23-s

Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies »

  1. *A story with a difference.*

    At the age of 80 years My wife of 59 years wedded life died. How I miss her. I decided that I had two options, one was to follow her, and believe me I wanted to, and the other was to set myself a task for the rest of my time till I joined her.

    I must be Mad, Because I decided to learn to read music. A church organist friend of mine said at 80 its impossible, and, Yes in a way he is right, I never will be any good at it. I will never be a Gert van Hoef, or a Xaver.

    Anyhow I bought myself a Yamaha keyboard, and some children’s books on how to play the piano.

    Now it gets dafter because one of my aims was to learn to play. O rest in the Lord. , why, well because we had this as the intro music for my dear wife’s funeral. The funeral director said, we need to get somebody special to do this piece justice, .

    Now I thought I really am MAD. Picking a piece that needed a good organist to play it. I will probably never do it. But here goes.

    I started learning the scales, found out what the squiggly bits on music meant, i.e. long notes of short notes. Tied notes, and held notes. Goodness what a mine field this music lark is. And then I noticed something. I loved it. There is a satisfaction which comes with music, but above all there is a Peace. Music comes from God, of that I am sure.

    A retired school teacher friend of mine found out what I was into and as she is a grade 7 pianist she offered to help me, That showed me just how much I did not know ha ha, but it was a great help, she even tapped my knuckles when i did it wrong, I was a 5 year old back at school. But hey in 12 months I could play Happy birthday, and a few Hymns.

    I bought some hymn books and a book on easy classics. And I soon decided that this was the type of music I wanted to play, anyhow to cut it short, after two years I played Ava Maria, in our local church, , and yes I cried, silly ain’t it an 82 year old man crying over music.

    I have not yet reached the time when you can just take a piece of music and play it, I need to have warning, I.E. it has taken me a week to master Blaenwern, but O the satisfaction.

    So why write, well simply just to say if you really want to play, then GO DO IT.

    As for “ O rest in the lord,” Yes after 2 years and 3 months I can play it, not without errors, and its definitely a work in progress. It sounds just like a 5 year old practicing , But there is no price on the satisfaction you get from Music.

    Kind regards Brian.


    • Thank you so much for sharing this. What a wonderful tribute to your wife. Congratulations on all you’ve achieved so far in your playing. We look forward to hearing about your continued progress!


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