Our Chair writes May 2016

How do you REALLY improve your playing? 

applauding crowdEveryone reading this will be familiar with the following feelings having just played something, either in a concert or before / after a service. 

  1. Despondent, as it didn’t go as well as expected.
  2. Astounded, because it went better than expected.
  3. Anything else between vaguely satisfied and quite pleased.

Everyone applauds you, they say well done, that was very nice. Sometimes they are being polite, sometimes the compliment is truly worthy. Sometimes the excitement, generated by the thrilling or beautiful sounds coming out of the organ, is what has inspired the compliment, but folks do want to thank you and acknowledge the effort, despite what you may be thinking. So, smile, say thank you, and hide the way you felt about what you did.

I have written before about hearing, listening and not being aware, and this is largely along the same lines. So what really goes wrong when you feel big dissatisfaction, despite the compliments? How much of it is anxiety, and how much does that increase the less well prepared you are?

It is easy to fail to notice things like not playing notes to their correctgrumpy 1, written length. The composer knew what s/ he was doing, so take care to follow instructions. In the amateur organ world one main issue for most is not playing to a pulse, or playing rhythmically. Pulse work is not always systematically taught. For some, it means memories of playing to a soul destroying metronome, set in motion by a seemingly grumpy old teacher! I managed to escape such arduousness and consequently, my bête noire is not noticing how much one speeds up. Others, pianists especially, are taught the importance of creating and cherishing a particular sound quality through sensitive touch. When converting to the organ, with the necessity of playing in time for a choir and/ or congregation, playing to a pulse is hard at the beginning.

 In the 1950’s and 1960’s, my musical learning experiences were all about entertainment and enjoyment. Even as a college student, I did not fully understand the discipline requiring hours of dogged effort rather than merely tinkering with nice noises. Many years later, when appointed to teach in the JAGS Music Department in 1992, it was soon obvious that Gustav Holst had taught there for twenty years. One Old Girl was quoted as saying that ‘Mr Holst says that music is a job’. If it is a job, you just sit down and do it objectively, without panic or fuss. My performances were based on effort that came from an abundance of nervous energy and pleasure giving, undisciplined by a lack of playing to the pulse with correct, fully worked out fingering and pedalling. That realisation came a bit late for stardom to be an achievable goal, but not too late to do something about it for the sake of fulfilling the early dream of wanting to be a very good organist.

Goerge MartinDecades later, my current project is learning all Buxtehude’s Chorale Preludes and the whole of Barenreiter Volume 5 has been learned so far. Recording has always been eye and ear opening.  Sitting with two pages of beautiful music for nearly half an hour, playing three minutes worth of music repeatedly in order to get to the flawless performance, is tiring. Even when one has reached the point of making no slips, it is likely that the playback elicits deep groans because of insecure tempo, sounding too rushed, and inconsistent articulation. It is enough to drive the confidence level down. Such acceleration will have been edited out of professional recordings, and when perfect performances are seemingly commonplace, we can take some consolation that the player probably repeated the piece, or sections thereof, a few times. A skilled editor using a sophisticated editing programme, using instructions from the player, knows exactly how to produce that flawless performance. Editors and engineers require good ears and knowledge and are high earners as result. Some of the skills required for such work, although developed in the film industry in the early 20th century, were extended and refined by musicians in the pop business. The late Sir George Martin was at the cutting edge of this profession in the 1960’s.

So how does one improve? 

  1. Learn accurately and avoid playing music that is too hard. Avoid the feeling ofMetronome being the Greatest Organist of all Time. We are music’s servants, through whom the music should flow.
  2. Practise with a metronome, making sure that when playing a 2,3 or 4 part chord, one sound only is heard. Fingers have a habit of going down at slightly different times. Be in control of them. Develop a sense of awareness of each note and which finger/ foot is playing each note.
  3. Avoid worrying about registration, concentrate on notes and manual changes, then…..
  4. Discern the character of the music and register appropriately.
  5. Record and listen to it critically, noting where there are smudges, errors.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Re-register, if the sounds don’t balance, then record again.

Avoid becoming too tired. It pays to be optimistic, but realistic. 

If I miss my weekly yoga classes, it doesn’t take long to fall out of the good habits. Learning how to breathe properly, with awareness, in conjunction with musical phrases, has been such  a good influence. Like practising the organ, this has to be worked at too, but at least it can be done whilst waiting for a bus or train. Doing nothing is brought to a fine art. To be a communication channel for performing music, the empty mind and relaxed body learned in class is a good thing, and that was not taught in my student days. This is the method which works for me when playing in public.

Hazards of recording that those who have done MyChurch videos might recall are:

  1. Extraneous noise spoils your work, eg aircraft, a motorbike, the church clock chiming.
  2. Someone comes into church unexpectedly.
  3. You make mistakes and have to start again.
  4. Microphones may not have been in the optimum place, and recording levels were not set to take into account the loudest and softest sounds used.
  5. The Swell Box was open or closed when it was meant to be the opposite.
  6. A pedal coupler or any stop was inadvertently left on.

RecorderMy own equipment is good and easy to use but I do not have tall stands to put mics on so that the organ can be recorded in its best place. But I can do my best with what I have got, and will be pleased when the current project is done. My recordings won’t be put onto CD’s for public sale, they will be put on the SSLSO website. This is my goal before it is too late to achieve it. It will be the result of a big learning curve with a few strange bits which will indicate that one is not a robot! 

On the subject of good aural skills, the conductor John Wilson, whose performances of Hollywood film scores have given pleasure to many Proms audiences, described how, in some instances, all the film scores were destroyed when the studios closed. The composer will have sold his/her rights to ownership of the music as part of the contract, so wouldn’t have had a say in the destruction of the score and parts. So John’s reconstruction job was to listen to old recordings and transcribe what he heard, a lengthy, time consuming process. I guess, after a while, he became quite quick at it. Bach’s music almost suffered a similar fate of near disposal. The Passion according to Saint Matthew by Bach happened to be sitting on top of Mendelssohn’s piano. Along comes the cleaner and finds some stray papers with which to wrap some waste…….thus, a masterpiece was nearly lost, and in those days there were no recordings from which to transcribe…….

Since beginning the project, I have had a lesson or two in simple editing. New jargon, new visual appearances of the music I know very well and cutting out some of the errors have had to be learned. Like many other matters connected with technology it seems like utter gobbeldy gook to me. Well, if others can learn it, so can I. Progress report to follow….

Marilyn Harper


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