Learning the organ with Reverend Richard Coles

The Reverend Richard Coles is taking part in the BBC Virtual Orchestra this August as part of the BBC’s Get Playing initiative. We caught up with him to see how his organ practice is going…

Published: August 17, 2016 at 11:11 am

Why did you choose to learn the organ?


I’m revisiting a disaster of the past. I had a very unsuccessful attempt at playing the organ when I was a boy, when I was a chorister. But I’ve always been intrigued by it and I love hearing it, so I thought I'd throw caution to the wind and have another go.

And how did you start?

Well, I had to start by unlearning the piano, which is really my instrument. The way your hand works for the piano keyboard is completely different to the way it works for an organ keyboard. Having to unlearn and call to mind these piano techniques was interesting. There is also learning the endless combinations of stops and voices and pipes and rags and so forth, to make the infinite colours of the organ come to life.

How are you dealing with the foot pedals?

It’s like when I learnt to drive and was thinking ‘Oh God, changing gears is so complicated'. But of course you get that in no time at all, and it’s the same with pedalling: a little bit of practice and it just comes. The complicated thing is not that but getting the right notes in the right order and really understanding the way the organ produces its sound.

Have you been managing to do regular practice?

Well I do it as regularly as I can. I’m so busy at the moment and of course organs are not always so easily accessible, so I’ve had to rely very much on my wonderful teacher Christian Wilson, who is part of an organist’s circuit in London. He’s been able to get me onto some spectacular instruments to practise, at Westminster Cathedral and at the Tower of London. That’s been wonderful, being given the chance to play some magnificent organs, even if it is the Toreador Song, which sounds a little out of place in the solemn silence of Westminster cathedral.

How is learning the Toreador Song going?

Well the Toreador Song is very jolly. As long as you’re in time and you’re jaunty, you’re probably doing ok. Christian has also set me some other quite exciting pieces. I’m learning some Sweelinck at the moment. He is a wonderful, wonderful organ composer of the 17th century, so I’ve been playing a bit of that and that’s been lovely.

Have you recorded your video for the Toreador Song yet?

We’re doing that on Friday (19 Aug). We had a go last Friday but none of us could work the phone.

What do you think is going to be the hardest thing about recording the song?

I think just starting and finishing, without falling apart at all. That is going to be the challenge!

What do you think you've got out of Get Playing?

The sheer joy of learning is not to be underestimated. Having a wonderful teacher like Christian has been great, but also I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than making music with other people, and to be able to participate in that is wonderful.

Do you have any tips for anyone who is getting involved?

Yeah, try the recorder!

What do you think is the best thing about the organ?

Well, I think obviously for a control freak megalomaniac like me it’s just wonderful. It’s such a mighty instrument, and to be playing full organ and filling a vast space of sound is immensely satisfying. But actually, the real challenge, the same with any instrument, be it the piccolo, be it the organ, is trying to make a beautiful sound.


Richard Coles is taking part in the BBC’s Get Playing campaign for amateur musicians running through the Summer. For a chance to join the BBC’s Virtual Orchestra and be part of the Last Night of the Proms celebrations visit www.bbc.co.uk/getplaying. Hurry though deadline is midnight 27 August

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