Learning to play the Organ:
The blog of a beginner organist by Mrs Walster (Head of Music)
21st December 2017
Day 1: 7th November 2017
I have always loved listening to the sound of the organ. One of my favourite things to do when I visit Coventry Cathedral is to sit in the canon’s stalls and listen to the organ music. In these seats, you don’t just hear it, you feel it through the wood of the seats too, and through the floor. It’s seriously impressive.
Until last week however, I had never seriously considered taking lessons myself, even though I have had an organ sitting in my classroom for the last two years. Then everything changed. I was totally inspired by Mr Brown’s recital, and I asked him to teach me before I could really think about the practicalities and talk myself out of it.
You might think that I would be feeling quite confident about learning a new instrument. After all, I’ve been playing various instruments for the last 35 years, and I’ve been really quite successful at it. I’ve been to music college and have a music degree that was largely based on performing. I’ve taught music for nearly half of my life, and for the last few years I’ve held the title of Director of Music. It should be easy, right? Wrong. For the first time in my life I actually feel anxious about learning a new instrument. What if I’m no good at it? What if I can’t find the time to practise? What if I don’t enjoy it? Fortunately, the week before the first lesson was really busy, and I had little time to think about it. Before I knew it, it was the day of the first lesson.
After a small technical issue with actually turning on the organ (I wasn’t being stupid, it seems the organ has a fault), we began the lesson. Mr Brown began by taking me through what some of the stops are for. It was fascinating, but I was soon wishing that I had a notepad and pen with me to make notes. There is so much to remember, and I was feeling horribly self-conscious in my new-found role of pupil rather than teacher. Eventually, it was my turn to play for the first time. To begin with, it was a bit scary, but then I began to enjoy it, and to relish the challenge. Before I knew it, the bell was ringing for break, and Mr Brown was setting my practice for the week ahead. I’m really looking forward to my practice session tomorrow, as I can’t wait to try out the organ all by myself and really get my teeth into it. I’ve decided that I need a regular practice time each day, but the only time that I can really manage is really early in the morning. I’m aiming to start at 6.45am, but only time will tell if I will be dedicated enough to keep it up…… I’ll let you know what happens as the weeks pass!
Day 2: 10th November 2017
Well, at 4.50am when my alarm rang, playing the organ really didn’t seem that appealing. However, this blog made me get up! Having published my intentions to the world, I would have felt pretty small having to admit to you all that I couldn’t even do it on the first day. I managed to leave home on time, but then had the frustration of having to visit three petrol stations before I found one that opened before 6.00am. By now I was late, and on the road to Coventry, not Oxford. Note to self: Get organised, and buy fuel on the way home in future!
I eventually opened the organ cover (only 10 minutes late), and switched on. Nothing happened. The organ was apparently dead. Noooooooooo! I was not to be out-done though, and persisted (Hope you like the Habits of Mind reference there) with some frantic button jiggling until suddenly it came alive. Phew! I must ring the organ engineer and get him to visit.
I got to work, and found myself really enjoying it. It has been a long time since I worked on a piece of music just for me. I began by note learning (not too tricky as I’ve always been quite good at sight-reading), then moved on to attempting to turn what sounded like a technical exercise into a piece of music. Much more difficult! I am used to playing the viola, where you can alter the dynamics and tone colour instantly by applying different amounts of arm weight and speed to the bow, and by changing the amount and speed of vibrato (left hand finger wobble to the uninitiated). On the organ, none of these tools are available. No matter how hard you hit the keys, the same volume comes out. According to my teacher, the key to making music is to master when and how much to separate notes from each other, but at the moment, I’m finding it hard to feel this instinctively, and am instead relying on the notes Mr Brown made on the music.
I’m also occasionally finding myself accidentally playing on only the bottom keyboard instead of using both, and my fingers seem to be tying themselves in knots as it’s years since I concentrated on a sensible fingering pattern. Hopefully, practice will make perfect! I certainly intend to keep trying, as by the end of the practice session I had enjoyed it so much that I was in an amazingly positive state of mind, and I remained really motivated for the rest of the morning.
Update on the organ problems: While I was playing in the morning, I remained aware that there was something wrong with the organ. The sound kept fading out, and there was distortion on the top keyboard (swell manual). I turned it on again at morning break, and to begin with, once again couldn’t get it to switch on. Then it did, but after my first note, there was a fairly loud bang, and it was dead once more, this time permanently, so I have called the engineer, and await his visit on Friday. How disappointing.
This morning I had a real battle with my inner self. The organ was broken, so therefore, there wasn’t much point in getting up to rehearse. Was there? On the contrary. My inner angel told me that I should get up anyway and spend the time listening to my pieces on the internet to get a better understanding of the musical interpretation. If there was any time left, I should read all the information about organ playing that is printed at the front of my tutor book. My conscience won through, and I arrived on time for my practice. Just to be sure, I decided to give the organ one last try, and to my delight, it switched on normally first time! Needless to say, I had a lovely time playing, but still haven’t done the reading. Today, I felt a bit more sure of myself, and once again felt really enthusiastic about the day to come by the end of the session. I can’t wait to play again tomorrow.
Week 2: 17th November
Number of practice sessions completed since last week: 7
Number of times the early morning alarm call has been ignored: 1
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first week of organ playing. So much so, in fact, that I am now arriving at 6.30am each day, so that I can extend my practice time by another fifteen minutes.
The problems with the organ have continued, but mostly, in the mornings it has worked for me. The engineer visited on Friday and replaced a relay, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to have done the trick, so I am awaiting a return visit.
At the weekend I don’t yet have a proper organ to play on, as I live too far from school to just pop in. I need to grasp the mettle and speak to my local church about using theirs, but I feel strangely reluctant to do so, as at present, I am not competent enough to be able to return their favour by playing at services for them. In time perhaps! In the mean-time, I am reliant on my electric piano at home, which has a church organ sound. I wasn’t looking forward to using this, but actually, was pleasantly surprised, and my practice continued to be productive.
I have mainly continued to work on the musical interpretation of my pieces, and have also learnt the notes of the next couple of pieces in the book. The new pieces proved to be quite a challenge, as it took me a few days to realise that the reason the stop settings didn’t make sense was because the pieces are only meant to be played on one keyboard, rather than the two that I had been using. Back to square one! Then I was puzzled by what the ‘positive’ keyboard might be. Eventually, I googled it, and discovered that the ‘positive manual’ (keyboard) is a third keyboard at the bottom of the instrument, usually used for accompanying choirs. Our school organ doesn’t have one. Oh. Which keyboard should I be using instead? Phone a friend? I really could do with a direct web-chat link to my teacher, but I do realise that he might find this a little excessive at 6.35am. Eventually, I took a guess, and plumped for the top keyboard, as this has the stops that correspond most closely with the instructions in the book. (Later, Mr Brown confirmed that I had got the right idea!).
By Monday, I was looking forward to my lesson, as I had worked hard during the week, and felt like things were moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, I woke up on Monday morning feeling ill, and didn’t get up in time to practice.
Never mind, I thought. I have a free period first thing on Monday morning, so I’ll catch up then, and do my school work later during the day. This back-fired badly on me. My practice went fine, but the organ over-heated and switched itself off at the end of the session. By then, it wasn’t long until my lesson, so once I had done some more button jiggling and got it back on, I decided to leave it switched on. Mistake. When my lesson started, the organ repeatedly switched itself off until we were forced to give up and switch to the electric piano in my classroom, which does not feel remotely like an organ, and led to some extremely bad playing on my behalf. Lesson learnt. Next week, get up!
Actually, perhaps my last paragraph is a case of a bad workman blaming his tools. The bad playing was also about a lack of self-confidence. In the room by myself, I feel fine, but in front of my teacher, I feel very self-conscious and reluctant to show him my work. Mrs Johnson put her head around the door one morning, and I didn’t want to play to her either. Now I remember how the girls feel when I ask them to play to me. I also know that I need to do something about it, or my playing won’t move on. Keep reading…
Today I decided to take the bull by the horns, and get over the self-doubt. No, I am not signing up to give a concert yet! I have recorded two of my pieces, and they will appear online, alongside my blog. I will record myself regularly. If I can let the world (or the Wychwood community) hear my playing, then surely, I can play to my teacher without feeling anxious. The recordings are not masterpieces, but they are a record of where I am right now, as a beginner organist.
Having listened back to my performances, I was tempted to delete the previous two paragraphs, and say nothing to you at all about recordings. When I listen, I can hear all the mistakes and places where my playing isn’t working in a musical sense. I mean, how could I have possibly thought that the first piece needed to go that fast? Having reflected on it though, I will not be embarrassed by my playing. I am on a learning journey, and I will continue to strive to improve. Tomorrow morning in my practice, I will listen again to the recordings, and begin by making notes about what doesn’t work. Then I will spend time aiming to play it better. I might even record again to monitor my progress. Go on, all of you who are learning musical instruments out there, I dare you to record yourselves as well. It really is a very valuable learning tool!
Week 4: 1st December
Number of practice sessions missed since the last entry: 1 (I was away for the weekend, and didn’t have access to an instrument.)
Well, here I am, four weeks into my new adventure and still playing! In fact, it would be fair to say that I am absolutely loving learning the organ. Although it has been years since I practised on a regular basis, the habits that I learnt in my childhood and teenage/ young adult years have come right back to me, and it feels completely natural to be practising every day. The only difference is that now, my practice is so much better than it was back then, as I have unconsciously learnt incredible focus and concentration during my years off. Now, an hour of really focused practice can fly by in what seems like a minute, whereas, if I look back to my teenage self, I can remember how slowly the minutes sometimes ticked past during practices, and how my poor mother used to have to nag me to get up to practise, and yes, how she used to call up the stairs that she “couldn’t hear much playing” when I was supposedly practising, but was actually reading a novel…….. Yes girls, even your music teacher sometimes failed on the practice front as a teenager, but the important thing is that I stuck with it, and did work hard most of the time. If only however, I had had the focus and motivation then that I have now. I wonder what else I could have achieved? Still, there is no point in looking back, so let’s concentrate on what I’m learning now.
During the last two weeks I have continued to work on Baroque pieces to learn about touch and part playing. As the parts become increasingly complex it becomes more essential to work through each piece slowly for accuracy, and then to work on musicality once I have mastered the notes. Sometimes I feel like I need far more fingers than the ten I actually have. I haven’t even started to think about using the foot pedals yet!
Some of you might be wondering what happened to the recordings that were supposed to feature alongside the blog. Well, I did make them, and I submitted them, but unfortunately the files were too big for us to be able to upload them. I didn’t know that they couldn’t be uploaded for about a week however, and the interesting thing is, that because I thought that they were up there for the world to hear, my performance anxieties settled right down, and I was able to play quite reasonably to my teacher. I also found it so useful to listen back to the recordings that now I record myself most days as a normal part of my practice. Learning the organ really is turning out to be an invigorating and incredibly positive experience for me, and every day, I can’t wait to start my practice. I am also beginning to hear my progress, and to get positive feedback from my teacher. Long may it continue!