Adjustable Bench Campaign - bench stories
There's a church in the Midlands where the back legs of the bench are cut short to rest on a narrow, knee-height stone ledge behind the player, a death trap for a player who moves the bench forwards to reach the keys.
There is a church in Lewes where the bench is bolted to the floor! The organist must have had very long legs and arms when it was fixed. I emerged after the service like a lego figure and slowly cranked myself back to normal. I think it started life as a pew - it has a back and narrow sides. It was originally quite narrow and then at some stage another panel was added to the seat which almost doubled its depth. This may have been because of someone with shorter legs. The result is that when I play there I have to be careful not to clip the pedals. There is nothing to perch my feet on and I always finish with bad backache.
There's another church in Lewes which has a very narrow bench - about 8 inches with bevelled edges. I did an organ recital there and so took the bench along from my church to feel more comfortable.
The present generation of female organists is not the first to suffer from the dimensions of the organ bench. One of the first English organists to perform Bach's organ works with pedals was Elizabeth Stirling. In 1838 Miss Stirling applied for the post of organist at St Luke's Church in Chelsea and gave the customary public audition. A contemporary report described her (literal) downfall: "Miss Stirling had not conceived it necessary to put a saw in her bag, as an accompaniment to Sebastian Bach; but it so happened that the stool was about four or five inches too high, and the moment an attempt was made to pedal a passage, the performer found herself falling from the seat… there was then no alternative between a tumble off the bench of a temporary loss of credit as a performer by seizing hold of the manual keyboard." Not surprisingly (but hardly fairly), Miss Stirling was unsuccessful in her application on this occasion.
Nicholas Thistlethwaite (President, British Institute of Organ Studies)
I once played at a church in Hertfordshire whose organ is in a lofty gallery and, unbeknownst to me, the bench was balanced on hymn books. I sat on the bench and it tipped backwards away from the console and towards the ledge of the loft with a 30-foot drop to the floor. Thank Goodness I managed to grab the bottom manual otherwise I might have fallen out. I had a very long chat with the rector (a good friend) afterwards and the hymnbooks have been removed (although, alas, the bench is still fixed height - I'm still working on that!) and a retaining rail fitted to the back of the loft.
I've played at another church in south London where the bench was (and still is) bolted to the floor.
I have three recent stories, two churches in Central London, the other abroad.
The first concerns a bench that had a wooden block underneath, to allow for two levels only. Being a person with a short torso and longer legs, I needed the higher level in order to reach three manuals comfortably and still, just about, reach the pedals. If the great manual is set too high, the bench needs to go higher to keep arms level. The second church had no adjustable bench. It had no old hymn books to prop the bench on, so the only solution was to sit for the whole recital on a handy volume of the Dover Edition of The Fitzwilliam Virginals Book Volume 2. This worked surprisingly well, but was liable to slip a little. Members of the audience had heard the press campaign and were suitably amused.
A trip abroad to a lovely historic instrument produced almost the opposite problem, in that the console’s two manuals were set rather low and the non adjustable bench caused me to have to lean forward all the time. Local organists also complain about the lack of an adjustable bench.
I was wearing a slippery, silk skirt that literally led to my downfall. During the silence of communion, I tried to to stop a sneeze which caused me to suddenly start sliding across the bench towards the organ. Realizing that I was going to fall off the bench, I instinctively stuck out my feet to stop my fall and landed with both feet on the pedals. It did wake up some of the older folks asleep in the back and elicited a few giggles. The bench was solid and jammed against a wall which caused it be at a slight angle towards the organ.
Have you got a bench story? We’d love to hear it!