How to play the theatre organ
Posted: 10 February 2022
Revised: 10 February 2022
Copyright C E Pykett
Abstract. An introduction to theatre organ playing, written mainly for the traditional organist who just wants to know a little more about these fascinating instruments. The article includes a case study comprising a detailed analysis of the registrations used in a popular piece for which the sheet music is readily available online, together with an audio recording. Some wider issues of playing style are also discussed.
(click on the headings below to access the desired section)
The title of this article might seem high-handed or authoritarian. I mean, who am I to tell you how to play the theatre organ? So I only use it lightheartedly, and in truth the article is aimed mainly at classically trained organists who just want to know enough about theatre organ playing to enable them to enjoy making music when they encounter one. I am one of these people - I was brought up wholly within the staid and disciplined church organ tradition, and although being aware that there were those things out there called theatre organs, it was only in later life that I began to realise that there was this whole other world of legitimate organ playing that I knew nothing of. In those days I could sit at a Wurlitzer or Compton console yet have no idea of what to do with it, even though I had built up a reasonable classical technique and had played church organs for many years. So the article charts my journey along this road and it is written with the hope that it might be of interest to others with a similar background. There is without doubt a problem confronting people like us in that, although it is fairly easy to find classical organ teachers, those who can teach the theatre organ seldom live just around the corner. Another problem one encounters is the rarity of theatre pipe organs or satisfactory digital ones.
The first thing to realise about playing the theatre organ is that it has to be learnt and worked at. Some might be born with more instinctive ability than others, but that's true of all walks of life so it can be discounted here. All of the great players who have expressed an opinion on the matter have said the same thing judging from what I have seen. So we are faced with a two-edged sword - on the one hand learning and practice are involved, but the good news is that you will not only get there but enjoy making progress along the way. I can say this with some confidence from my own experience.
This section of the article begins by emphasising the specialised nature of the theatre organ console, and then goes on to look at some aspects of theatre organ registration and playing styles.
Figure 1. WurliTzer console at the St Albans Organ Theatre, England
The console of a theatre organ is key (pun not intended) to the playing results you can achieve. It is rather different to the church organ where practically no two consoles are alike, ranging from the well-equipped to the primitive (with overdone enthusiasm for the latter in some quarters in my view). Indeed, one of the aspects drummed into the heads of beginners is that they must develop the ability to make the best of the instrument they are faced with and use it to render as wide a range of serious music as possible. In contrast, theatre consoles are (fortunately) more standardised so that you know broadly what to expect, and they offer a wide range of playing aids to help the average player become a one-person orchestra . The basic ingredients of much theatre organ music are a solo-ed melody, an accompaniment and a bass line. Therefore this is reflected in the design of the console, which is why even the smallest organs have two manual divisions (unsurprisingly labelled Solo and Accompaniment) together with a pedal board.
A comprehensive stop combination system is provided on theatre pipe organs, though on digital ones it often is not on account of the expense involved. Theatre-style music best retains the interest of the listener if it includes frequent changes of tone colour, controlled not only by direct manipulation of the stops but by thumb pistons as well (toe pistons are also useful). Both general and divisional pistons are of comparable importance. Second touch thumb pistons, which bring on a suitable selection of pedal stops, can be a mixed blessing since it is easy to press them too hard when you don't intend to. Some organ builders such as Compton incorporated additional facilities like stop keys with second touch cancelling, whereby you momentarily press any divisional stop key against a stronger spring to cancel the whole lot, or to bring on solo stops. Wurlitzer sometimes provided a 'suitable bass' facility to look after the pedal stops by selecting them automatically to suit the manual combinations.
Second touch keyboards are found frequently on theatre pipe organs but seldom on digital ones, again because of the expense. They are nice to have but not essential, at least in the first instance. It requires much practice before you can simultaneously play a chord while bringing out a melody using only the one hand, although occasionally pressing the keys further down to emphasise or 'jazz up' an entire chord now and again is easier. But if you really aspire to emulating the topmost rank of theatre organists then you will probably reach a point where second touch becomes more important.
As with the church organ, the way you choose which stops to use is the subject more of guidelines rather than strict rules. However it is fair to say that here the similarity ends, because registration on a theatre organ is quite different. For instance, with theatre instruments pronounced differences in tone colour and loudness play a much greater role than in church organs, where subtleties of blend are often more important. And as for tremulants, the subject can induce heart attacks among the most zealous on both sides of the divide so I'm not even going there. It is impossible in this article to do more than scratch the surface of the subject, however I will begin by first referring to more detailed works which I have found useful, and then go on to discuss how a particular piece might be registered in terms of a case study. You will also be able to hear the piece to form your own judgement.
When I started to develop more than a passing interest in the theatre organ I came across an excellent cassette tape recorded by the late Everett Nourse . Unfortunately this was back in the 1980s and the tape is virtually unobtainable now, but I mention it should you have the good fortune to come across a copy. Were it not for copyright reasons I would be more than willing to host an mp3 version on my site, and if anyone can prove to me that Mr Nourse's estate would raise no objection then I will do so. More recently Roy Bingham in the UK published a very useful article containing (quote) 'some suggestions for achieving a good technique with particular reference to the art of registration' . Although this appeared in 2000, the book containing it still seems to be widely available online at low prices and I highly recommend it. Coming towards the present day the versatile and gifted Tom Horton has generously recorded many helpful videos, some of which are available on YouTube .
Before going further, it is worth pointing out the prevailing musical zeitgeist during the heyday of the theatre organ. Radio broadcasting of dreadful technical quality had only just begun in the early 1920s, complemented by equally appalling gramophone (phonograph) 78 rpm records. So theatre organs had little difficulty competing with these in the cinema until the 1930s when the 'talkies' arrived, thus they had a head start of at least 12 years. People also tend to forget nowadays that another reason for their success was the sheer novelty of the sounds they produced. Their ability to synthesise entirely new tone colours from multiple pipe ranks extended to many pitches swept audiences off their feet because they had heard nothing remotely like it before. It was additive synthesis for the masses, making the theatre organ the first really practical synthesiser of musical sounds of the highest audio quality. It was not until the 1960s when electronic music exploded onto the scene, in the shape of the Moog synth and similar devices, that a second popular music revolution occurred. So when registering music for the theatre organ it can be helpful to keep this background in mind.
Figure 2. Rutt console at the St Albans Organ Theatre, England
Now let us delve into a case study describing a simple approach to registering a still-popular tune, 'Daisy Bell', from the late Victorian era. You might like to listen to it first of all, played on a digital simulation of the Rutt 3/6 (three manual six rank) theatre organ at the St Albans organ theatre in the UK . This console is shown at Figure 2.
Daisy Bell (Harry Dacre)
Listen particularly for the registration changes which will be described in detail later. They were made using the combination pistons on the Prog Organ  virtual pipe organ console (Figure 3) which had been set up beforehand. They demonstrate some characteristic tone colours and stop combinations commonly used by theatre organists on all makes of theatre organ. By memorising them you will be able to approach any theatre organ with some confidence as to what will probably sound reasonable on it (an assumption that certainly cannot be made for most church organs!).
The next step is to download the same sheet music I used by following the link at reference , and preferably print it out so that you can annotate it with bar numbers, registrations, etc in line with the discussion below. Ignore the last page of the download as I did not use it.
I registered the piece as described in reference , which links to a separate PDF download. In view of the amount of detail it would have been out of place to include it on this web page. So the following discussion assumes you have downloaded both the sheet music  and the registration instructions .
At first sight this registration scheme might seem complicated and impenetrable, though if you pencil it into the score it will appear less so. Even so, it is actually a very simple way to register this piece, and an experienced theatre organist would probably embellish it more richly. However one has to start somewhere, and there is nothing wrong about playing pieces simply yet with enough changes of registration to hold the listeners' interest. In any case, your audience might well start to sing along with you, rather than sitting in grim silence waiting to pounce with glee on every perceived defect of your performance as they might in a church or concert hall organ recital!
If registration is a complicated topic, playing style is even more so. The two are interlinked of course, with style being a much wider topic than registration alone. With the possible exception of the fabulous orchestral transcriptions of the sort that the late and great Quentin McLean played , the theatre organ is more often used in a free and relaxed style where things like consecutive fifths in the harmony, chords with doubled thirds and even the odd fluffed note here and there are of little consequence! Such things horrify the church organist though. There are occasions where maintaining a stricter tempo is very important, such as when playing a tango for dancers, but otherwise it is quite common for theatre organ players to emphasise rubato in songs and ballads to an extent that would not be acceptable to a traditional organist. Swell pedals are also exercised to the full, to the extent of emphasising the beat of the music in some cases. This can be particularly effective on digital instruments where the swells are usually precise and have a sensitive immediacy.
* Play in consecutive thirds, sixths or triads where a single note melody is written.
This often works either on the Solo or the Accompaniment, depending on what else you have just been doing at the time.
It leaves listeners with a sense of incompleteness and
anticipation which might even wake them up! It might just stimulate them to applaud ...
All of these things should usually be done occasionally and for short periods only, such as the duration of a phrase or two, before reverting to the previous pattern or moving onto yet another one. However it is possible to overdo things, so assess what the best players do and thereby help to attune your ear to what to listen for. Although an enormous subject, some understanding of jazz styles, and especially its improvisational aspects, can be of great value. Other helpful sources are the chord progressions of 12-bar blues and the like, which you can use to accompany melodies in an unusual and attractive manner.
It was mentioned earlier that developing a playing style requires practice, and one way to approach that is by imitation. There are plenty of online videos of good theatre organists, so begin by choosing a piece in a style that you would like to imitate. Then make notes of what the player does in terms of registration and nuances of technique such as those discussed above. If necessary keep pausing the recording while writing the notes. This will take time and patience but it will then form an invaluable self-teaching resource which you can use to guide your practice sessions. And when practicing, use the same methods which you used when learning the piano and traditional organ - attack short segments at a time, and start by playing them slowly until you get them right. Then string the segments together into a whole, and gradually increase the tempo until you are playing the piece much as your chosen mentor did on the video. Once you have done this you will be in a strong position to repeat the process for other pieces but - and here's the good news - you will be able to do it quicker next time.
Your repertoire is nothing more than what you like playing and what your listeners want you to play. But there are some peculiar problems associated with it, and one of them is the prosaic matter of how to get hold of sheet music from the 1920s and 30s, say. It goes without saying that much of it is out of print and its specialised appeal means that it is not always widely available online, though IMSLP and some other websites are nevertheless excellent sources of much sheet music which can be adapted for the theatre organ. A problem today is that old fashioned second hand music shops are disappearing rapidly, so it is always worth calling in if you see one since it is sometimes possible to get boxes full of promising music at knock down prices.
A major concern is copyright. Much theatre organ music is still in copyright in the UK, and I sometimes wonder if people who play it in public are aware of the draconian situation they can find themselves ensnared in if they are caught doing it without paying the requisite fees. I cannot offer further advice on the matter as it is a strongly policed legal minefield, but you ignore it at your peril.
1. A small theatre pipe organ console will typically have two five-octave manuals, a 30-note pedal board and enough stop keys to control at least six extended ranks of tonally-contrasted pipes plus multiple tremulants, percussions (both tonal and non-tonal) and effects. It will also have a comprehensive combination system with many thumb and toe pistons operating motorised (self-indicating) stop keys.