Spent the bulk of the day preparing my final Electone upload to YouTube for 2016. Song I chose was tomorrow, a 90s J-Pop hit by Chage and Aska.
A little over my head with this. The arrangement looked plain and straightforward, but it had all sorts of tricky syncopation hidden everywhere. Moreover, I only started working on this on Monday evening. Really had to focus just to ensure I got, most things, right.
At the same time, running into the typical situation with my uploads. Again, I’m using an arrangement published over 25 years ago i.e. with registrations (programming) not meant for the current generation of Electone organs. I needed to re-programme practically all of the sounds just for the song to sound normal. Solution for this is, of course, to just stick to playing new arrangements, for which it’s a breeze to purchase modern registrations off the net, plunk in, and play. But doing this creates a dilemma for me. The classic one.
What am I going to do with all the arrangements I’ve collected for 30 years? Some of which are truly creative and inspirational, just … lacking in modern sounds and drums programming for the current Electone Stagea generation of digital organs.
I can’t just shelf them away to rot, can I?
My conundrum since returning to the Electone in 2008. While I’m uploading a song named tomorrow on New Year’s Eve, I’m clinging onto yesterday. In the process ensuring reduced views for my channel because my uploads will always sound retro to an extent, no matter how I redo the registrations. I ought to give some serious thought to this. Perhaps weave a New Year Resolution around it.
Anyway, here’s the upload.
About the Electone
Since this is the first time I’m mentioning the Electone in this blog, allow me to write something about it.
Electone (エレクトーン) is the brand name used by Yamaha Japan to market their series of digital organs. It is NOT a type of instrument, a misconception that has been floating about in recent years. The Electone itself is the Yamaha version of the Hammond and tonewheel organs. Over the years, it incorporated sequencing and programming capabilities. Personally, I would describe the current generation as a hybrid of the pop organ, synthesizer and arranger keyboard.
The Electone was popular internationally in the 70s and 80s. In Singapore, this used to be what tiger parents send their kids to lessons for. (Although, in my case, it was the opposite case) To give an example, I once went with some classmates to a kids’ talent show audition. The nice (awful) lady in charge began her briefing by declaring she’s not looking for anybody who plays the organ. Because that’s sooooooooo common. You can guess where I stood during that audition.
Since then, Yamaha has released four new generations of the Electone, each generation featuring a massive leap in sound and programming capabilities. Curiously, this didn’t grow the popularity of the Electone. In fact, it very much went the other way. According to some players, this slip into obscurity had a lot to do with Yamaha’s decision not to market to the western market post 2000. I feel there is truth in this. However, in Asian countries like Singapore, there’s still a dramatic decline in interest and awareness. I’m remain unsure whether this was due to business decisions to reduce marketing efforts, surging interest for other instruments, or simply the unpleasant reality that learning the Electone is quite a tedious and exhausting process.
Or perhaps other less obvious reasons are at work. Such as this not being one of those instruments easily available. I.E. you aren’t going to get many chances at flaunting your skills in some public location. Neither are schools, institutions, hotels, likely to have an Electone around.
Or the grim reality that to bring out the best in an Electone performance, you need extensive pre-programming. Who would be carrying a diskette/USB with them all the time? I don’t.
Enough with the lamentations. Let me touch on another area. Misconceptions about the Electone. I’ve mentioned the one about its name. Here are some of the other misconceptions I’ve read about in recent years.
That the Electone is a simplified piano. That it’s a “lead-up” to the piano, as in, kids fool around with this till they are old enough to attempt the piano. That we Electone players only play pop songs. That everything is a matter of the machine playing from automated programming. That it’s an instrument more suitable for boys because it is fun-based. That everything is faked, as in all sounds are artificial. That you don’t learn real “music” from playing this instrument, because it is a toy.
Heart-wrenching. Simply, heart-wrenching, these misconceptions are.
The Electone is an organ. The instrument Bach used to compose music for. The organ precedes the piano and musically, it’s considered a different type of instrument. Admittedly, while we do have scores with bars that stretch the entire width of a page, organists are usually not on the same level of keyboard virtuosity as pianists. But that’s more the case of a different skill-set. Organ scores have an additional bass line. Three lines per bar compared to two for the piano. A good part of the challenge is smooth co-ordination between all three parts.
Smooth co-ordination, partnered by expression control by foot pedal. In other words, you need both arms and legs to play an organ. From what I’ve read, the organ is one of the only three instruments that require all four limbs. (The other two being the drums and believe it or not, the harp) It is a very intensive workout playing the organ. Trust me on this.
For modern digital organs, there are also the additional challenges of programming and articulation. You don’t simply choose a sound and whack away. You must understand the nature of a sound to play it realistically.
And before that, you have to perform a certain amount of sound control, the process of which requires knowledge of audio techniques like compression, delay, reverb, chorus, distortion, etc. In the case of the Electone, a student must also be familiar with many genres/style of music, for that is an exam topic. To put it in another way, we never only play pop music. Actually, we play very little pop music in higher grades. We play everything from classical to jazz, to latin, to folk, to electronic, to even trance music. If only because we are forced to learn.
Benefits of Learning the Electone or Other Digital Organs
For parents seeking to give their kids a head-start with music lessons, the digital organ probably does not appeal, because benefits are not immediately obvious. There seems so little opportunities to perform, for example. But here’s what I can confidently say. Any digital organ course, Electone or not, encourages true musicality. You learn to appreciate the many, many genres of music the world has created. To produce and articulate such music.
You also learn audio techniques. This, in my opinion, is way more practical than performance skills in our modern digital world. The student can easily progress to audio engineering, production of music clips for all sorts of commercial purposes, or venture into stage/event management, etc. In addition, there are actually more performance opportunities in the professional world. Consider this. How many bands can afford a full strings orchestra? How many music producers rely on digital keyboards to produce backing accompaniments? Playing the keyboards is no problem once you have mastered the organ.
That’s what learning the digital organ, the Electone, is about. True musicality and flexibility.
A broad entryway into to the many worlds of world music.