If you slip back into the sanctuary after the conclusion of your next Sunday services and take a peek at the base of the organ, you might spot a pair of seemingly abandoned shoes. While you might suspect the organist kicked off his church shoes and is down at the creek barefoot, the more likely scenario is that this is where he keeps his organ-playing shoes.
Most organists have a designated pair of shoes as their “organ shoes,” and many, in fact, own a specially designed pair to better facilitate playing the organ pedals. Even though the style of organ shoes often mirrors other popular shoes, church organ shoes are constructed with an entirely different purpose. Organ shoes are designed to be as narrow as comfortably possible to prevent accidentally playing more than one pedal key at a time. They also usually have leather soles and leather heels that are glued into place, rather than stitched, to allow the feet to slide along and across the pedals easily. The soles are designed to be thin enough to feel the pedal key surfaces but stiff enough to make secure contact with the pedal keys. Organ shoes also typically have a heel of about 1 inch to ease playing with the heel and to allow non-adjacent notes to be played at once by one foot.
To both maintain their quality and avoid damaging the organ with outside dirt, grime, and particles caught on the soles of shoes, most organists maintain a strict policy of only wearing their organ shoes around the organ. They trade out their street shoes for organ shoes before they begin playing, and then change back when they wrap up.
One notable exception to the policy of wearing organ shoes while playing is the illustrious American jazz organist Rhoda Scott, who is known for playing the church organ barefoot. Daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, her first memory of playing the organ was as a little girl slipping off her shoes and working the pedals — a practice she continues to this day. In 1967, this celebrated American musician moved to France, where she has since spent most of her career and was recently awarded the Légion d’honneur. But for those who haven’t been awarded the Legion of Honor, wearing organ shoes remains de rigueur.
Read more about Columbia’s church organists on page 40.