Hugh Morris is Director of the Royal School of Church Music. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, and has played in every setting from village church services to international competitions. Prior to joining the RSCM in 2018, his most recent organist position was as Director of Music at Derby Cathedral.
Oops!… I did it again
I am no expert on, or even that familiar with, the output of pop songstress Britney Spears. But I do know the title at least of this song, and it set me thinking about the process of learning and practising pieces on the organ. There are many, many occasions when I have heard organists rehearsing making the same mistakes, multiple times in a row. I’m interested in ways of not doing that; and from a personal point of view I’m always looking for ways to achieve more in the time I have available to practise, which these days is often rather limited!
I can easily tell, having been playing the organ for some 3 decades and amassing a reasonably sizeable repertoire, which pieces I’ve really learned properly over the years. How? Because the ones which I spent sufficient time on the first time I learnt them, doing the job properly, I can fetch off the shelf and bring back to a performance standard much more quickly that those where that wasn’t the case, even if I haven’t played them for a number of years. Pieces learnt in a hurry don’t stick so well. I only wish the me of 2020 could have a word or two with the 1990 version and offer him some advice. Here, then is some of it. With experience, I could reasonably take some pragmatic shortcuts; but that’s with the contextual knowledge of the whole process and knowing which bits I can miss out.
Spend time looking at the piece before you start, away from the console. Try to imagine what it’s going to sound like. I had an academic tutor at university once who said he preferred sitting and reading the score to listening to recordings, because they were mistake-free; but especially in this age of YouTube, you might after an initial look want to give your ears a helping hand and listen to someone else playing. You can learn lots from that – it’s easy to make an arrogant assumption that your performance is going to shed new light on a piece, but the reality is that there are very few genuine trailblazers out there, and a more realistic starting point is to copy a good model – you know what you are aiming for!
Spot the difficult bits. Then plan a learning process. That definitely does not mean sit down and play all of it from the beginning. Segment it in to manageable chunks – some pieces do this rather more easily than others, but even if it means stopping at a random point in the music, it makes it a more digestible task .
It’s a tedious process, but you do need to put in necessary fingerings, and footings. How many that is depends a bit on the music, and your own learning preferences, but none really isn’t option, not least since the process of writing them in makes you actually grapple with the questions of where your hand should be and what the best solution to finger patterns is. It’s often more comfortable to finger manual parts at the piano because the music desk is much closer to write on. I actually have two versions of some pieces – one with detailed fingerings for practicing , and another performance version where I have taken out much of the detail, and left only the really critical markings – so that in a real time performance, my eyes have less information to take in. I am always trying to give my brain less to do!
The critical thing is to practice it right, from the very beginning. That means going slowly, to give your brain time to think. It may well mean working at one hand at the time, or just the feet, before building up to full texture. Slow can feel painful, but what you are trying to do is teach your brain how to get something right. Do it too quickly, and you will stumble. You will then have another go and will either stumble again, or immediately have to correct your brain’s previous learning. Much better to learn it right, and then the only thing you have to improve is the speed. Think about how you learnt times tables by rote – you don’t mis-learn them, only have to correct yourself again.
Don’t fall into the trap of learning a piece on full registration, most especially if it’s loud. I taught an organ masterclass earlier this year where, in working with a student on articulation, I correctly guessed that they had only ever played the piece of Bach on the pleno registration. I made them play it only on an 8’ stopped diapason, and they commented ‘Oh, it makes you listen, doesn’t it’. Yes indeed!
Assuming you have a reasonable span of time to learn a piece, aim to build confidence each time you approach the piece. Don’t fall into the trap of expecting to approach it and have the same practice each time. Make a plan: what do you want to do? Sometimes, it’s a good discipline only to practice the difficult bars. You can reward yourself with a play through at the very end , and as a real treat if it’s something loud and/or flashy, allow yourself to let the organ fly making the big noises you been longing to make for ages. Or only practice the ending. Or the beginning. Or the bit where your hands have to change manuals lots in a short period. Of course, if you’re practicing in a church which is an open building and has visitors in it then you have to do that with some care .I know of one church where an organist spent a whole Sunday afternoon learning Leighton’s Paean on the full (very loud) registration…and the verger was just about ready to throttle them by the time everyone else came back for choir practice for Evensong. You can end up feeling that you need to give a rolling, constant recital, though, if you know people are listening. That’s fine as a form of entertainment, but it’s probably not very effective practice!
Any how will you know if you’ve got it right? Because when it comes to actually performing the piece in concert or service, it feels good. It feels like you’ve mastered it and it can only really go right. When that happens, it’s like the opening title… but replacing “Oops” with “Yes”!
If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!