Using Interactive Multimedia in Early-Level Organ Teaching

This article, by Don Cook, AAGO, was published in
The American Organist, March. 1999, pp. 72-75.

When I joined the organ faculty of the Brigham Young University (BYU) School of Music in 1991, I was challenged to implement computer-assisted teaching in the organ lab. Parley Belnap and Richard Elliott had established this unique lab in 1988. Equipped with twelve Rodgers church organs, it is the heart of a group organ program that now serves more than 250 beginning organ students each year. Seven instructors share eleven sections of up to twelve students each.

Until 1996, the procedures for teaching basic organ techniques, registration, and hymn playing in the organ lab were traditional: a combination of lecture, demonstration, and listening. History has proved that this approach can be successful, especially if students move on to private instruction. However, in either group or private settings, many students fall away.

I identified several challenges that faced us in both group and private organ instruction, and theorized that by by placing some effective multimedia tools in the hands of teachers, we might improve the learning process for every student and encourage more of them to continue. After years of proposals, development, trial and error, and refinement, the hardware and software were installed in time for fall semester 1996. The resulting software, called OrganTutor Organ 101 ("OrganTutor" or "OT" for short) was delivered on one Power Macintosh computer at each organ.

Now that this approach has been used for over two years with more than 500 students, this article will share some of the details and outcomes. I have found that by combining carefully designed interactive multimedia instruction with personal interaction, organ teachers can encourage more organ study and help students improve their learning process.

Traditional Approaches: Private and Group Instruction
Traditional private organ instruction offers advantages that have been enjoyed for centuries. This system usually involves a 30- to 60-minute appointments between teacher and student. With this frequent personal comes a sense of accountability in the student that inspires diligent practice. The instruction can also be adjusted precisely to individual needs.

The student compensates the instructor through periodic payments. The cost of this service provides motivation to both student and teacher: the student practices in order to receive a good return on the investment, and the teacher provides a fair service in order to merit the fee. At the college level, grades and juried performances that fulfill degree requirements provide additional incentive. The professor is motivated to produce students who excel in performances and competitions–an important matter when being considered for promotion and tenure.

By sacrificing some of the benefits of private instruction, group organ instruction offers and important advantage. The lower cost of group instruction brings organ instruction within reach of those with more limited budgets. This is especially important in light of the current need to attract and train future organists. How many potential organists turn away simply because they cannot afford the necessarily high private lesson fees?

On the sacrifice side, personal interaction between teacher and student is reduced to a degree that depends on the class size. Customizing the course to the needs of the individual is more difficult as class size increases. A student can more easily fade into anonymity in a larger group, possibly resulting in lower motivation to prepare and eventually a. However, our informal end-of-semester surveys show that a surprisingly large percentage of students prefer to learn in an environment where they are not supervised as closely as in a private lesson situation. And while the group setting in general loss of interest.

In my own experience as both student and teacher, certain challenges have always caused concern. Several of these stem from two important factors: the limited amount of time available for each student, and the hesitation to ask questions for fear of appearing ignorant. The amount of demonstration, repetition, and playback that will occur during a lesson is limited by these factors. However, if the examples or demonstrations are not remembered during practice, the student will learn incorrectly and the demonstrations must be repeated in the next lesson.

In another case, a diligent student may simply have more material prepared than can be heard during a lesson. By postponing teacher input, bad habits worsen. This becomes more serious if lessons occur biweekly or even less often. When a student comes to a lesson having learned a poor habit, time and money are lost and progress is postponed.

Time limitations also make it difficult to use a sequential approach to teaching organ registration. When lesson time is short, a teacher is less likely to explain registrational possibilities than to simply pull stops for the student. This practice saves time but may contribute little to student learning.

Some of the challenges inherent in traditional instruction may be summarized as follows:

  • TIME. Students who progress below or above the norm would benefit from more time with the instructor.
  • RETENTION. Students tend to forget important details demonstrated during the lesson.
  • PRIDE. To avoid appearing ignorant, students hesitate to ask questions.
  • STRUCTURE. Playing and listening time precludes formal instruction on important topics.
  • COST. Many potential organ students simply cannot afford regular private instruction.

In addition, several unique challenges face the group organ class as it increases in size:

  • INTERACTION. Time for listening and offering feedback to individual students is reduced.
  • PACING. As class size increases, accommodating various learning rates becomes difficult.
  • ANONYMITY. The background and needs of each student are more easily overlooked.

The personal interaction offered in traditional private and group organ instruction will continue as an effective means of perpetuating the art. The remainder of this article, however, will focus on ways of enhancing these traditional approaches with new technological tools. I have found these tools to be most effective when used in combination with traditional private or group instruction.

Interactive Multimedia Assistance
In attempting to implement computer-assisted instruction in organ teaching, I focused on the challenges described above. OrganTutor was designed as an on-call "teaching assistant" for our instructors, performing tasks for which today's computer is well suited: demonstrating and describing manual and pedal techniques, and providing instruction in organ registration, hymn playing, and other general concepts. The instructor then has more time to do what he does best: hear and see the student play, then offer fully customized feedback and direction.

OT contains 62 lessons that are grouped under six units: General concepts (6 lessons), Manual Technique (14 lessons), Pedal Technique (22 lessons), Organ Registration (10 lessons), Hymn Playing (5 lessons), and Projects (4 lessons). A Help lesson is also included. Each lesson consists of a series of ten to 60 screens. A lesson contains whatever text, graphics, animations, CD and MIDI audio files, video clips, drill questions, and testing are required to cover the topic.

The lessons are of two types: study lessons and demonstration lessons. A study lesson teaches the topic, then assists a student to assess his or her own understanding through unscored drill questions and a scored test. Demonstration lessons use video examples to demonstrate specific exercises, studies, and projects. They also suggest practice methods and warn of common pitfalls. No drills or tests are normally included, since the real "test" is to play satisfactorily for the instructor.

The Manual Technique and Pedal Technique units contain mostly demonstration lessons. The manual exercises cover two important facets of manual playing: legato fingering techniques and independence of line. Lessons devoted to standard fingering techniques (i.e., crossing, substitution, thumb glissando, etc.) alternate with lessons that teach independence of line (one part in each hand, two or more parts in one hand, then three parts between two hands).

The pedal exercises are organized into 20 groups, each one teaching a particular legato pedal technique. Each lesson introduces the technique, offers a few "do's and don'ts" pertinent to that technique, and demonstrates the exercises. Video examples (QuickTime movies) appear as the user clicks an on-screen button. The sound is heard through the computer's sound system.

The Organ Registration unit begins with three lessons about the organ itself: the console, organ types and components, and a "hands-on" lesson on using console devices. Three basic registration topics follow: pitches, families, and non-speaking stops. The three primary types of organ registration (chorus, solo and accompaniment, and trio/duo) are first introduced in general, then covered in detail. These lessons are filled with audio examples that illustrate each concept in several ways. The stop combination is revealed as each example begins to play.

The Hymn Playing unit contains four demonstration lessons. The first hymn project is an easy three-part hymn that a student can begin at the first lesson. This project draws attention to perfect legato, precise releases, and independence of line–the three listening skills. The second and third hymn projects are more advanced three-part hymn settings. The fourth and fifth hymn projects are complete four-part hymns. A lesson demonstrating the left-hand-and-pedal studies is also included, dedicated to helping the feet operate independently of the left hand.

The General Concepts unit contains lessons on the nature of organ tone, the listening skills, position, practice techniques, touch, and score preparation.

Our group and private organ instructors are able to meet the challenges listed above more successfully when they use interactive multimedia assistance. For example:

  • TIME. Independent study outside of class has replaced lecture and class demonstration, nearly doubling the amount of time available during class for individual listening.
  • RETENTION. Since students can refer to the video models whenever needed during practice, they often play exercises or projects correctly on their first try for the instructor.
  • PRIDE. Serious students do not hesitate to see or hear an example repeated, to reread a passage, or retake a test as many times as needed until a concept is understood. If it remains unclear, they seem to feel more comfortable discussing it during class or at the lesson.
  • STRUCTURE. The OT lessons can be taken in a 15-stage plan, with a balance of study and practice at each stage. A student may spend one week on a stage, or more as needed.
  • COST. Since practice quality is higher, each lesson with the instructor is more productive–a better value to the student and a more satisfying situation for the instructor.
  • As the group organ class becomes larger, OT helps to meet the following unique challenges:
  • INTERACTION. Regardless of class size, more time is available for personal interaction during class when OT study outside of class replaces lecture and demonstration.
  • PACING. Students may complete the course requirements virtually at their own pace.
  • ANONYMITY. An instructor is more likely to get to know individual students when he or she spends more time listening to their playing.

The unique features in OT study lessons offer advantages over lecture or textbook delivery, increasing the likelihood of a complete understanding of concepts:

  • PACING. Students can spend as much or as little time as needed on any word, concept, or example. Although this is also possible with books, it is not with lectures. Assuming that a student studies each concept until it is understood, self-pacing offers a particular advantage when it comes to organ topics. Some organ instructors teach beyond the understanding of a student by using unfamiliar terms, allowing concepts to pass by without being learned.
  • AUDIO EXAMPLES. Carefully constructed audio examples help clarify each concept. A good teacher can provide such examples, but usually only once. While most students will not ask the teacher to repeat the example if the concept is not clear, they will click an "on-screen" button a second time. If the MIDI audio example are used, they can see the stop choices appear on the organ and can manipulate them as the example plays through the organ itself. If the CD audio examples are selected, a clearly explained example plays through the computer speaker system. The effect of adding a chorus mixture above a principal chorus, for example, is worth repeating until it is "in the ear" of the student.
  • HYPERTEXT. Books may include a glossary or index of terms, but few offer enough detail to satisfy the needs of most students. Furthermore, the time required to learn the meaning of a vague term usually discourages them from even turning the page. Hypertext links and pop-up definitions facilitate this process. Clicking on hypertext will produce a more complete discussion of the term in the case of a hypertext link, or bring up a simple pop-up definition.
  • SELF-TESTING. OT offers two levels of self-testing. Drill questions are available with any study screen, where an important concept can be applied in a good multiple-choice question. Scored end-of-lesson tests, another level of self-testing, accompany the study lessons. Test scores can be stored electronically on a diskette, the hard drive, or the server.
  • FEEDBACK. Whereas some books and lecturers offer limited feedback, the OT drills and tests offer feedback for every incorrect answer. Prepared feedback statements lead students away from the incorrect answer. Prepared feedback statements lead students away from the incorrect answer, but require that they derive the correct answer themselves. Truly customized feedback, however, comes only through hymn interaction. Concepts that remain unclear after OT study, drills, and tests can be discussed in class or at the lesson.

The BYU Group Organ Courses

Two group organ courses are offered at BYU, each worth two semester hours of credit. The first course, "Basic Organ Skills" (Music 115), introduces legato manual and pedal technique, organ registration, and hymn playing. The second course, "Organ Techniques and Literature" (Music 116R), continues with a dual focus on the hymn playing and a survey of organ literature.

Because OT is dedicated to "Basic Organ Skills" topics, only that course will be described in detail. Each class begins with brief discussion of a topic that may be difficult to understand or that is particularly important. We often begin by singing a hymn, calling attention to the discussion topic.

The remaining 40 or 45 minutes are spent in supervised practice. All twelve students put on headphones and begin practicing. The instructor greets the student whose turn it is to play, and he or she quickly unplugs the headphones, closes the expression pedals, and prepares to play one of the assignments. Hymn projects are heard at various stages of completion, and are usually passed only when they are played perfectly. Hymn projects, a few written assignments, and some others have due dates. Students are encouraged to complete manual exercises and pedal exercise groups within two weeks of their assignment, but allowance is made here for individual learning abilities.

Instructors check individual OT scores and practice records regularly. Four hours practice per week is minimal, plus OT study lessons. The weekly total work load is approximately six hours.

Organ Lab Setup

Two systems are added to each practice organ: a computer system and a MIDI sequencer/sound module. Although the main purpose of the computer system is to deliver OT lessons, the lab is part of the campus network. This provides communication within the lab, and with the School of Music server, the campus network, and the Internet. We use Apple Network Administrator to manage student access.

The computer runs OT from the hard drive and the CD-ROM. Audio and video files are read directly from the CD-ROM, but program files operate directly from the hard drive. Audio signals run from the computer audio output into a separate mixer. The mixer sends its output to the audio input of the organ. The audio system of the organ acts as a second mixer, funneling the audio signals from the mixer and from the organ itself into the headphones or organ speakers.

All 250 audio examples can be played directly from the CD-TOM through the sound system just described. These recorded examples are delivered in a compressed high-quality monophonic format. The user selects one by clicking the "CD" side of the audio example button. The 140 video examples (QuickTime 2.5) play directly from the CD-ROM.

As an alternative, clicking the "MIDI" side of the audio example button delivers the example by actually engaging the stops and playing the organ itself. This option allows the student to get to know the properties of stops by changing them while the example is playing. Such a MIDI setup is only possible where the organ is near the computer and where a particular model of organ is being used (several current Rodgers, Allen, and Ahlborn-Galanti models are compatible). The MIDI signal runs from the modem (serial) port of the computer into a MIDI interface. A MIDI cable runs from the MIDI OUT port of the interface into the MIDI IN port of the organ. When the program is first installed, the user selects the model of organ being used in a special MIDI setup screen. This selection can be changed at any time.

The MIDI sequencer/sound module provides several important services. A performance can be recorded directly into the sequencer without the need of tape or diskettes. Upon playback, the performance is duplicated with all notes, stop changes, and expression pedal changes intact. The tempo can be slowed, allowing for more careful scrutiny of such matters as perfect legato, precise releases, and vertical alignment. Organ students of all levels use the lab for this feature, since the ability to detach themselves from the act of performing allows them to hear details that are otherwise difficult to detect.

Also included on the sequencer/sound module is a very useful metronome feature, as well as many on-board MIDI sounds. We encourage students to experiment with some of the possibilities for MIDI sound sources in organ registration. However, because of our focus on teaching basic organ skills, we have yet to tap the full potential of this side of the sequencer/sound module.


  • Organ: Rodgers 751ie
  • Computer: Power Macintosh 7500/100 or 7600/120
    • 1 GB or 1.2 GB hard drive
    • 32 MB RAM with keyboard and mouse.
  • Monitor: 15" Apple Color Display
  • MIDI Interface: Altech MIDIFace EX
  • Mixer: Radio Shack 32-1213, 4 stereo in, 2 stereo out
  • Sequencer/Sound Module: Rodgers PR-300


We have our challenges, mainly dealing with student perception. Our informal end-of-semester surveys show that 80% to 90% of the students feel that the benefits to be derived from OT, as applied in their class, offset any negative effect resulting from the impersonalization of computerized instruction. However, we are not impressing the other 10% to 20%. The initial fascination with the computer wears off very quickly as students discover how much study is involved. Some mention physical discomfort while reading a monitor at an organ bench. Others just do not like computers.

This challenge is magnified in the first three weeks of class, when we concentrate so heavily on basic concepts that must be learned at the computer. We offer our students the hope that after the third week they will be able to spend more of their time actually practicing and less time studying.

In spite of the challenges, a surprisingly large percentage of students (43%) feel that they would learn more effectively by studying an OT lesson than by spending the same amount of time having a lesson over the same topic with an organ instructor. This seems to indicate that many prefer to learn in a situation where they are not supervised as closely as in a private lesson situation. Larger percentages feel that they would learn more effectively with OT study than with lecture (56%) or textbook study (65%).

This project is leading us down some other interesting paths. Our organ certification program, six levels (courses) of organ study offered through BYU Independent Study, has recently made Level One available over the Internet as a Web course. This course uses OT as the primary text, and includes nine computer-graded "Speedback" assignments, two instructor-graded assignments, three played assignments, and two exams. Immediate feedback is offered over the Internet for any incorrect answer on the computer-graded assignments. Played assignments and written exams can be taken off campus with approved examiners. We will place Level Two on the Internet in the near future, and possibly some parts of the higher levels.

Other new development include a published version of OT that runs on both Power Macintosh and pentium PCs. Selected lessons are being prepared for actually delivery over the Internet, and OrganTutor Organ 201 and some specialized applications are in development.

With an ever-increasing number of organ-related Internet resources, the computer is becoming a more valuable tool for organ study. Perhaps through cooperative efforts we can help the organ world reach, attract, and educate a wider audience.

Syllabi and other information for group organ courses, and more detail on OT or the organ certification program are available on the BYU Organ Studies Web site <>.

Don Cook is associate professor of music (organ) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, where he serves as organ area coordinator and as university carillonneur. He appears frequently as a guest organist at the Salt Lake City Tabernacle and performs actively as a carillonneur. Formerly, he held full-time organist positions at Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and First United Methodist Church, Lubbock, Tex. He holds BM and MM degrees in organ performance from Brigham Young University and a DMA degree from the University of Kansas.