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June 8, 2015, 12:00 AM

Cockpits and Consoles

By Guest Blogger Zoe Wiltrout

Airplane cockpits and pipe organ consoles have much in common.  Both areas are the “command central” for operating either device.   As a passenger on many planes, I have often times peaked into the cockpit and have been overwhelmed by all the buttons, levers, gages and switches that are needed to fly the airplane.  I am much more familiar with the cockpit, or console, of an organ. Like a plane, there are many knobs, pedals, buttons, and tabs that can look very overwhelming to an untrained eye.

In writing this blog, I learned that not all plane cockpits have the same instrument panel layout.  There might be a generic “blueprint,” but different plane models will not all be consistent as to the location of every switch.  A competent pilot will know the subtleties of different models so he can safely fly any plane.   The success of a flight is the responsibility of the pilot and he has to know the instrument panel like the back of his hand. 

An organist has the same issues.  There is no established standard for how an organ console is set up.  The organ builder and participating organist are ultimately the decision makers on where each knob or tab is placed.  A competent organist will know what knobs (stops) create what sound, but will have to explore the specific instrument to find those knobs, or sounds.  Michael Pettry is an accomplished organist, but it’s going to take some time for him to learn how all the knobs, switches, buttons and pedals work on this console.  Most likely he’ll be able to sit down the first week and plunk out a hymn and it will sound wonderful.  But to create the music that this new instrument will be capable of, it will take Michael time to learn the console itself to create that music.

During the organ restoration project at PUMC, Michael has worked very closely with the organ builder to create a console that is efficient and logical for him and other organists. After reading an email thread between Michael and Thad Reynolds, the organ builder, my experience and knowledge of organs was definitely put to the test.  I laughed when I read through several of the questions: “Is the 8ft Tuba or Tuba Harmonic?”; “Can we move the Midi CH and MIDI PED buttons to be in vertical alignment with the So, Sw and Gt MIDI buttons?”; “What about a vertical wood inlay (subtle) running between the Swell I and Swell II knobs?”; “Are we calling the 8ft and 16ft Trompette En Chamade or Fanfare Trumpet?”; “Can the two Tutti buttons be labeled as Tutti I and Tutti II?” I had no idea what they were talking about.  I might as well have been reading an airplane manual! Michael has to be commended for the many hours he has spent hashing over drawings and bouncing ideas off of the organ builder so that the console is the very best for any organist.

As a pilot learns an instrument panel of an airplane cockpit – so does an organist learn the layout of an organ console.  It takes time and dedication, but once mastered, flying and playing are most rewarding.

Written by:
Zoe Wiltrout
Pipe Organ Restoration Committee member


06-09-2015 at 3:06 PM
Didn't know the depth of understanding and then the task of making the music happen. If my clarinet pads are sealing and I have a good reed I'm in business. Thank you Zoe and Michael.
for enlightening us.
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