Ask Aunt Wilma

Dr. WWilma Jensonilma Jensen has been heralded as an outstanding recitalist, church musician and teacher. As Professor of Organ at Indiana University, among other schools, she has helped shape a generation of outstanding organists. Wilma will be honored at the 2016 Recital and Gala Benefit Reception on April 8, 2016, where she will receive the AGO Endowment Fund Distinguished Artist Award.

Aunt Wilma will answer user-submitted questions in her new online video column. Please enjoy the latest installment below!

Dear Aunt Wilma,
What kind of freedom do you think would be appropriate in the Adagio section of  Franck’s Choral No. 3 in A Minor?

Have further questions or discussion about this months’ episode? What would you like Aunt Wilma to address next? Submit your comments and questions below and watch for our next installment or watch previous episodes.


  1. Bill Halsey says:

    Note the hand/finger position for a different style of organ playing.

  2. Leslie Wolf Robb says:

    When introducing young students (middle school age) to their first Bach works on the organ, what are your suggestions for helping them understand appropriate articulation?

    • The question of how to begin teaching Baroque articulation to young students is such a difficult one. I believe the time or age of starting this training depends a great deal on the student’s piano proficiency and active finger technique. If the student starts the organ with minimal finger facility and control I think the student should first learn, over a rather long period of time, a controlled legato. This legato should not tend to move toward over-legato but a controlled, fast attack and bright release of each note, still with no space between the notes. When this control is attained, then the teacher can start having the student make a break or articulation between the beats. Then make a break after each four sixteenths. Also, detached eighths can be similar to half value staccatos. If there are two eighths that are stepwise the first of the two eighths can be legato and the second detached before the next beat. There may be groups of sixteenths which logically could be played in two note groups rather than four note groups, detaching after the second and fourth sixteenth of the beat. I think it best that a beginning approach be clearly defined with definite, clear articulations with space between the notes. Initially telling the student to let the sixteenths become more articulate and subtle as the beat progresses is probably too vague a way to begin the student’s study.

      In other words, starting with such a definite (square) formula helps the student begin the study of articulation. This plan, with precise, active, bright releases should precede development of freer and more artistic expression in articulation.

      I suggest starting with duos, which is a single line in each hand, generally with sixteenth and eighth notes only. Of course, when playing the pedal use all-toe pedaling which often works well with alternate toes; use right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, with each quarter slightly articulated before the next beat. When stepwise eighths appear, play R L, which will be connected.

      After the student studies duos and easy trios he/she might next study North German Präludien, especially Bruhns, Buxtehude and Lübeck. For example, in the Bruhns (small) E minor I suggest pedaling the passage:

      Notice the use of alternate toes and R L for stepwise motion. Also R leaps B to G# preparing for the next stepwise motion.

      Development toward a later artistic, more expressive approach to articulation usually needs a defined foundation.

  3. Wayne Dieterich says:

    Dear Aunt Wilma,
    Who do you think are some of the greatest living composers of organ music right now, and what do you think are their best works?

    • I’m not sure I’m a good source for an answer to your question about living contemporary organ composers because this has not been my area of focus. Most of the contemporary composers that I teach and play are not still living. I do try to coach and perform works by a broad spectrum of nationalities and composers. I have taught some Lionel Rogg (Partita on Nun freut euch), Thierry Escaich (Five Verses on the “Victimae paschali” and Evocation II), William Bolcom (Gospel Preludes) and Dan Locklair (Phoenix Processional).

      I spent nearly a year of my life learning the Escaich Victimae so I have a good appreciation and a healthy respect for his technically unique and challenging composition.

      Contemporary composers who are not living whose works I especially enjoy include Larry King (Resurrection), Calvin Hampton (Five Dances for Organ), of course Messiaen (Transports de joie from L’Ascension), Jean Langlais (Mors et resurrection), Maurice Duruflé (Prélude from Suite, Op 5), John LaMontaine (Evensong), André Jolivet (Semaine Sainte à Cuzco for trumpet and organ), Philip James (Méditation à Sainte Clotilde), Anton Heiller (Tanz-Tocatta), Jehan Alain (Postlude pour l”Office de Complies), Samuel Barber(Adagio for Strings, arr. for organ by William Strickland) , Henk Badings (Passacaglia for tympani and organ) and Pierre Cochereau (Berceuse in Memory of Vierne).

  4. Dear Aunt Wilma:
    How would you pedal the fugue theme – especially in the opening of the fugue. In J.s. Bachs’ Prelude and Fugue in D. There are a number of ways to go about it, some including the heel and some not. I am interested in the opening few bars.
    Thank you,
    Gregory Hamilton.

    • Wilma Jensen says:

      I subscribe to all toe pedaling in Bach with a few exceptions. Not only is it significantly easier in Baroque music, but the toe has so much more control than the heel, especially in controlling articulation. It is helpful to realize that alternating toes can create a more legato line. When one wants more detachment, especially with eighth notes or between beats, using the same foot for two successive notes creates a break, and thus a naturally detached articulation.

      The opening pedal entrance on A can be alternate toes: L R L R, with the left foot passing in front of the right foot. The pedaling at the end of m. 26, beginning with B, should be: L L R R L R. This allows the pick-up note to be detached into the new beat and over the barline, and by using alternate toes, the stepwise motion of C# – D is more connected. By using two right toes, the pedal line is detached again into beat 2. I recommend alternating toes again in m. 76, which will leave the stepwise motion within the beat less detached.

      One exception to all-toe pedaling might be in mm. 132-133, for a person of short stature playing on a flat pedalboard, as it might not be possible for the right foot to reach the notes in the lowest register.

      Some historic instruments, especially those throughout Europe, require all-toe pedaling in cases where the pedalboard semitones are closer to the bench than AGO standard. This requires you to bring your toes back nearly under the bench, and there is absolutely no possibility of using the heel.

      Happy practicing!


  5. Patti Whaley says:

    Thank you for this wonderful new series. Aunt Wilma is always thought provoking! Can I add more comments on the Brahms prelude? I just played this in recital and it is an exquisite piece. For me, the repeated 8th-notes are not boring, they are essential to the feeling of the piece. They suggest that mood when you are so drawn into your own thoughts and feelings that you are aware (perhaps uncomfortably aware) of your own heartbeat. This gives a sense of disquiet or perhaps longing for peace. There is a similar feeling in the Howells psalm prelude on “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”. I feel this when playing but I am not sure how to convey it technically. Certainly the freedom of tempo that Wilma discusses is a key part of that and perhaps you want to play with the tension between the freedom and syncopation of the upper voice and the obsessiveness of the repeated 8th notes. Why are the Brahms preludes so rarely played? They are such lovely, heartfelt little pieces.

  6. Ethan C. Pearson says:

    Dear Aunt Wilma,
    What do you think about Oliver Messiaen’s organ works? 🙂

    • Wilma Jensen says:

      How could I answer the question of what I think about Messiaen’s music in just a few words?  Some of his compositions are my very favorites, and I have striking memories of hearing or playing some of his works.

      When I was a freshman at Eastman School of Music, I vividly remember hearing André Marchal playing “Apparition de l’église éternelle (Apparition of the Eternal Church)”. To a young, naïve student who had never heard anything but functional harmony, it was shocking and stunning! Many years later, I was preparing a recital at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and on the eve of the recital, I was told that my program was too short. The person in charge asked me to add a composition from a large stack of music by the organ! I could not possibly have played any of the complicated French scores in the stack such as Guillou, but fortunately this work was there, and I had the great pleasure of hearing Messiaen’s harmonies reverberate through that beautiful space.

      I cherish playing the “Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father)” from the Ascension Suite in worship on the Sunday after Ascension. Other favorites of mine include, but most certainly are not limited to, “Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux (Joy and Light of the Glorious Bodies)” from Les Corps Glorieux; “Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us)” from La Nativité du Seigner; and “Méditation VI” from Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity).

      Messiaen has contributed such a wealth of beautiful music to the canon of organ literature.

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