When making a new journey on an unfamiliar route, it always seems to take a long time. The return trip always seems to take much less time, even though the number of minutes is the same, a most odd perception. The outward journey feels like a big space with no boundaries, whereas familiar space has identifiable ones, in which time seems to move more quickly, or so it seems to me. Perhaps the boundaries are defined by certainty and uncertainty. Some thrive on the latter, finding it exciting, whereas others can be anxious in new situations. Perhaps those who thrive on uncertainty are those who can improvise music with ease. Those who like boundaries may prefer the safety of a written score or at least, a plan to work to.
As musicians, we must read and understand scores correctly. So often, attention is fixed on sound, melody lines, maybe counterpoint, but sometimes, not enough attention is paid to the whole sense of rhythm, especially the relationship between the time signature and the number of chord changes in the bar, and how they move. Dotted notes are sometimes clipped, short note values rushed. Tempo may be wayward, sometimes metronomic, indicating a lack of, or too much, technical control. Too fast or too slow, and who is to say? Printed instructions should be followed but a good tempo should be comfortable for the player, the instrument, the building where the organ is situated. As a young student, advised aged 16, that I had perfect pitch, I learned that my sense of rhythm was far weaker than my acute sense of pitch. I failed to recognise time signatures in O level music aural tests, apart from 3/4 and 6/8, and wondered why my fellow student couldn’t do the pitch test but got the rhythm right every time. Subsequent training and general awareness strengthened my weakness and musicianship improved.
A few years later, I was overwhelmed by my College Director of Studies informing me that my organ teacher for the next three years would be Gillian Weir, now Dame Gillian Weir. The first hour long lesson consisted of learning to play one note, which puzzled me. After all, with ARCO, GRSM and ARMCM diplomas to my name, I was looking forward to learning advanced repertoire. Not so. Concepts of touch and rhythm, as she taught through French Classical repertoire, opened new ideas on how music should go. Forty years later, including several fallow years, I teach and play with much enjoyment, finding that in many instances, rhythm and playing to the harmony is what I talk about most of all. Hearing Dame Gillian coach young students at the Bloomsbury Organ Day on 28 January 2017 was not only thrilling, it helped one realise that what she taught had sunk in, but without my realising it fully at the time. Uncertainty and lack of confidence affected the outcome. However, the combination of hearing the masterclass and later, finding myself sitting next to Dame Gillian that day was an affirming experience. It was as if forty years, during which time I had not spoken to her, instantly been shortened. This was a strange feeling, akin to my hypothetical journeys taking the same time when one felt longer than the other. Perhaps there is a relationship with the idea that timing is frequently bent in jazz, and that modern computer technology editing software can make anything bend, including timing, pitch, timbre. Anyone can produce perfect recordings of their work, and as Neil Brand showed in his programmes about the influence of technology on pop music, it is possible to make such things happen and not even get up in the morning! I begin to wonder if the hard work required by the demands of live performance will become redundant when it is possible to make anyone’s imperfect performance into a dazzlingly perfect one.
What Dame Gillian taught has been written about by composers and theorists over many centuries. For further elucidation I refer all readers to the article by Terence Charlston in the RCO Journal 2016 regarding Froberger‘s fantasias and ricercars four centuries on. In this article, he refers to Frescobaldi, Froberger‘s teacher, being preoccupied by tempo and expression. We would all do well to ponder upon aspects of this article, and apply them to the way we approach music. Another source of advice is in the preface to the Barenreiter Edition of the complete organ works of Frescobaldi. Not everything that the composer intends can be written down. This includes the realm of feeling, possibly the most difficult aspect of music to get just right. Some players capture it instinctively and easily, some have to be shown it and learn it. Learning to trust one’s instincts is a good start.
I would like to pay tribute to the organisers of the 2017 Bloomsbury Organ Day, including Philip Luke and Philip Norman, and to congratulate our recent Hon Secretary Nicky Jones for being one of the organists to perform in the RCO Academy section of the programme.