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the following personal message
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MY FRIENDS, IF YOU'VE EVER TRIED PLAYING a keyboard of any kind, even at the earliest novice level -- then never ever ... repeat NEVER ... give up playing it ... or if you have, it's time to rethink it. Allow yourself to be a learner, don't EVER feel overwhelmed, read this message completely through, and believe in yourself. All you need are the right tools -- and a little practice. NO ONE -- not even J.S. Bach -- ever started off being excellent at ANYTHING.
PLEASE LISTEN CAREFULLY: During my junior year of high school and all through the following summer I received private organ study outside my school district with a wonderful teacher at a church about a half hour from my home. This man was the third of five remarkable musicians with whom it was my privilege to study Organ privately; his name was Henri DeKeersgieter, and he had been one of the most talented piano pupils of Dr. Leo Sirota at the St. Louis Institute of Music, an institution and building which, sadly, no longer exists. For Henri difficulties at the piano did not exist; he was remarkably gifted -- musically, physically, educationally, and temperamentally -- to excel as a keyboard musician; he was a large person with stocky fingers well muscled from years and years of piano playing; he also played the organ with astonishing precision, including the pedals without ever looking down; in addition, and perhaps even more importantly, he was a wonderful teacher who had a great sense of humor and yet had a serious side, a man who rightly commanded the respect of his peers and yet could be very forgiving, understanding, and encouraging to a student on any level of development -- a truly phenomenal teacher, friend, and mentor. Besides all of that, he was one of the kindest and most generous human beings anyone could ever be blessed to meet; just knowing this man was enough to illuminate an existence. It was thus a privilege on top of many privileges, to study the organ with him, but his example taught his students more than music; his students learned from him what it means to be a friend, what it means to be a mentor, and how to define each. A friend -- cares about you for the way you are. A mentor -- cares about you too much to leave you the way you are.
I EXPLAINED TO HIM, as my final year of high school was approaching, that I was needing to curtail my organ lessons with him for a time in order to concentrate on my senior year to have the best chance of being accepted to college. I added however that it was something I didn't want to do and fully expected to resume my lessons with him after I started college, presuming I was accepted. He said he understood, and, I remember him standing in the door of the sacristy as I was leaving my lesson, and he asked me then to promise him something -- that I would never give up playing. I agreed to this, of course, as I could not do otherwise. He then asked me twice more, with an ever widening smile on his face each time -- "... D'you promise? ... " Each time I answered in the affirmative, the last time loudly raising my voice -- "YES HENRI, I PROMISE !!" He laughed; we both laughed together. I then thanked him, as I always did upon leaving, and departed from the church. I never realized then -- that this was the last time I would ever see this man.
A LITTLE OVER A YEAR PASSED, I finished high school in the top 10 per cent of my class, and, having done well enough as a senior, I was accepted to college; I then tried to contact Henri at his phone number without success. Upon inquiring at his place of employment I was given the news that, to my great sorrow, he had passed away suddenly a few months earlier, having succumbed to cancer, and he was gone. He was a mere 25 years old when this kind and incredible talent left this world; there were no surviving children, and his young widow, I was told, had moved away and left no forwarding address or phone number; there was thus no way to offer my sympathies or pay my respects to anyone in the family. This man had been beautifully kind to me -- the foundations of my playing were set in place largely due to him. He was rudely whisked away in the prime of his life ... I had no photo of him, nothing else to remember his by, save for my lessons with him -- there's no telling when a teacher's influence will ever end. Only his memory remained ... Imagine how the shock of this news struck this young, eager-to-learn, 16-year-old boy -- all communication with his friend and mentor abruptly cut off without a trace ... That boy, at that moment, felt crushed ... annihilated. But, driven by a love for the instrument and the promise I had made to very dear teacher, in spite of tremendous discouragement, I never gave up. I couldn't ... I had promised -- given my word -- to Henri. That was well beyond half a century ago; since then I've had to overcome many obstacles on the road to learning that could have easily destroyed the strongest interest to keep at it. But today -- you can bet your life that this same student of his will never ever, repeat NEVER, give up playing, no matter what. And neither should you.
AN OLD MAN WHO WAS VERY WISE once said, "If a thing cannot go on forever, it will stop." No matter how long we're privileged to live this life, we all have a stopping point. Time and good health are therefore finite resources that should be administered wisely. If you're not well physically, then see that you get the best medical care you can, follow your doctor's orders, take your medicines at the right time, get enough rest, get the right kind of nutrition, be patient during your recuperation, take it one day at a time, flood your mind with anything fine and good and lasting and beautiful you can get your hands on, and, if you haven't already, get in touch with a Higher Power and connect. If you're already well, then do everything you can to stay that way and keep up your strength. Wear a hat and coat when you need to, avoid drafty surroundings, be sensible with what you eat, keep regular hours, give your body the sleep it needs, take vitamins (always with medical supervision), do what your health care professionals tell you to do, and get regular check-ups.
IF THIS SOUNDS LIKE PREACHING it's only to drive home the point that playing the organ is a privilege not granted to everybody, and good health and keeping up your strength for your music making is important; two-thirds of the rest of the world is too undernourished to even play a musical instrument. You can have the right shoes on your feet, the right glasses on your nose, the right sheet music on the rack, the right teacher at your side, even the right practice instrument in your home, and if you're too sick or weak or worn out to sit on the bench and practice, there's no play.
ANY TIME you find that you need remedial work at the keys to get some skill up to speed, whether it's sight reading, transposition, improvisation, repertoire, hymn playing, accompanying, or simply technique, or maybe there's some aspect of harmony or pure theory that seems too hard to understand, composition is a mystery that you just can't figure out, and your time and strength is limited, don't push yourself too much at this stage. Take frequent breaks; try another presentation of the same material, read it from a different book, consult web sites (including this one) for help, talk to a real teacher, have your questions answered by someone who can explain it, and give yourself time to let it soak in, to absorb it at your own pace. Try it out at the keys, get your notebook PC set up to write music on line, set up a printer and download and study from the internet what you'd like to learn, give yourself some time and experience with it, be patient with yourself and don't be too too hard on yourself. Remember that learning is always a work in progress and relax.
You can do it -- all you've got to do is just practice a little and believe in yourself.
CHOICE OF REPERTOIRE for study is important, especially for the work-a-day organist. Since there is much easy organ music, with and without a pedal part, that people enjoy hearing, some good advice would be to work on pieces that sound hard but are easier to learn and play rather than those pieces that sound easy but are fiendishly difficult. The mind is the chief culprit with most playing problems -- people have given up playing in times past for reasons of insufficient talent when, upon closer inspection, it's clear that the problem was dysfunctional learning, i.e. the mode of study, or the lack thereof. Everything in organ playing is balance, and selection of repertoire for study is a balance between what we can easily handle at our current level of skills and what will stretch us to the next higher level of attainment without overwhelming us. Someone may be known to you who has an incredible pedigree in terms of training and a recognized reputation as a concert organist, composer, improvisor, choir director, and/or recording artist, who can play extremely well, who may have held many major positions as an organist and presided over many important historic organs during their long and impressive career and whose repertoire may be extensive; that does not necessarily make them a great teacher, the right teacher for you, or an accurate judge of everything your Maker has put inside you to be developed.
TEACHING THE ORGAN involves, among other things, getting inside the student's head and discovering their individuality, bringing out the best to be found there, working with them in terms of their own interests and strengths, showing them how to adapt their playing to prevailing conditions, helping them in a broad minded way to find their own style of interpretation, not making them into an identical clone of their teacher but to help them through the technical details on their way to becoming their own teacher. It includes identifying what the student is doing wrong, if anything, and then figuring out what in the blue blazes to do about it to be sure, but it's much more broad than that. To do it well it has to be done very carefully and very respectfully, always ... ALWAYS ... dwelling upon what the student is doing right and how they're making it sound good before commenting on what could stand improvement.
ALL BARRIERS to mastery ought to be articulated in these pages, and so, listen carefully and get hold of this: Saving your dream alive may require you to miss an opportunity to study organ with someone you've asked to teach you -- at times it may even be necessary to stop taking lessons with that person in order for you to get your bearings. The world is blessed with many accomplished, even inspiring, teachers who support the student in understanding the material, but there are also many teachers -- too many - who give weekly assignments (a common practice) without drawing out the student's latent capabilities; many were taught this way, and so they teach the same way; fear and anxiety (about not being stuffed with sufficient preconceived knowledge) are thus passed on, from generation to generation. A student buried in assignments will feel overwhelmed. And it will sink him. The quality of a teacher may mean the difference between becoming a performer and not; some don't make it, precisely for this reason. So we have this corollary: Never let the results of some wretched, unfair sight-reading test, someone else's pathetic ideas about teaching, or their bankrupt sense of investing in students who can carry on this art pulverize your dream by distancing you light years from it; the only way doubt can turn on you and destroy your interest in organ playing overnight is if you LET it.
IF, FOR EXAMPLE, the foundations of your playing are already well in place, and a new teacher with whom you'd like to study organ wants you to first learn all 30 Bach Inventions before accepting you as a pupil, doesn't have the time to teach it to you, and suggests that you study it with one of his other organ students until you're ready to study organ with him, it sounds reasonable on the surface, and the premise may be good, but it buries the student in assignments -- a scenario that, I'm sorry to say, has defeat built into it. For starters, it becomes entirely up to the piano instructor where to begin this instruction and when it's permissible to move on to the next Invention, the next page, the next system, or even the next measure of music; an entire one hour lesson can be occupied getting the right hand line in Measure One of the 1st Invention performed to the instructor's satisfaction. When the objective is clearly not to create a concert pianist but to use the Inventions as a means to an end to better prepare one for organ study, it will not take long for that pupil to see no point in continuing along these lines. It's like trying to construct the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks. If you think such a state of affairs could never happen in the real world, then with all due respect you need to rethink it because, the fact is, it HAS.
IN ADDITION, piano instructors, like all instructors, are rightly paid for their time; this sets up a financial incentive for this piano instruction of yours to drag along and, unless you put a stop to it before it starts, your dream of organ playing, under these conditions, is very apt to be ground to powder. Any organist -- no matter how big their name is or how highly respected they happen to be -- who sends potential organ students of theirs down a path like this under the guise of seeing them progress at another instrument under the supervision of another pupil, certainly means well, has their best interests at heart, wishes them no harm, and cannot and should never be blamed or criticized for that -- all they're trying to do is point them in the right direction (and the Bach Inventions are wonderful for study) -- but, the fact of the matter is, in so doing they're leaving the door open for disaster to transpire, viz., the student's interest can be destroyed. If that were to come to pass, that teacher would unintentionally find themselves the proximate cause of the worst possible outcome. Strong words perhaps but, from that potential organ student's perspective, it's the plain and ungarnished truth of the matter, no offense to anyone intended.
FACED WITH A CHOICE like this, take it or leave it, you might choose, if you wish, to learn on your own this keyboard repertoire parallel with your organ study and then at a future time return to audition again with this same organist -- learning easier repertoire first, particularly with Bach playing, because of its complexity, is, to be sure, a non-negotiable point -- but you should fight to your last breath against any influence, no matter how trusted, innocuous, or benevolent it may seem to be, that attempts to redirect you along lines that deviate from the straightest path that leads to realizing that dream of yours. Organ majors making a parallel study of piano in college are sometimes told by their piano teacher that they'd like to see them stop playing the organ for about a year so they can just work with them with their hands at the piano; here again, the premise may be good, but when the student must already be able to play major organ repertoire in order to be accepted into the program, it's safe to say that most organ professors at that same school would never stand for this. Being victorious means guarding that dream of yours above all, with everything you've got, even if it means sending someone else's prescription-for-your-instruction packing to save it alive; whether it's organ playing or anything else you've got in mind, refuse to let any doubt-merchant disguised as a teacher sell you his wares if it would mean mortgaging away your dream to pay for it. I wouldn't let that get into my body. Doubt has killed more dreams than failure ever will.
NEVER GIVE UP -- no matter how many times you may have experienced rejection, no matter what kind of academic or musical background you come from, no matter how poorly versed in the liberal arts and sciences you may think you are, no matter how bad or non-existent your past track record in school may happen to be, no matter how late a start with it in life you may be getting, no matter who's making you think you're wasting your time, no matter who's been indifferent toward your work in the past or who may be indifferent to it today, no matter how many times you find something in your work that may have been overlooked by mistake and begs to be improved or fixed. That doesn't mean that your work isn't any good, that your efforts aren't producing any results, or that your tree of progress is barren, but quite the opposite; it means that you're getting somewhere with it, that you're bearing fruit, that you're growing in the knowledge and skills needed to correct your own self. It means that you're heading straight for that dream of yours.
BEING IN POSSESSION of a university education in music is a wonderful privilege to have, one that opens many doors, but let's say you've always wished you could write a song or some other musical piece of your own; you've got the interest, you're wanting to learn, but you never took any courses in the subject and have no certificate, no diploma, no degree or any kind in music. Well, so what -- neither did J.S. Bach. But, you say to yourself, "By lacking the academic credentials, I can't get the attention of my audience -- no matter how hard I work at it, almost no one else besides me will show the least interest in what I might write or ever take a stab at playing it." Again, so what -- just about no one else showed Bach or his music the kind of interest either one deserved either while he was alive -- both he AND his music in fact were unfairly and undeservedly criticized. But then you say to yourself, "The hardships I had to endure when I was a child gave me a poor start, and it's hard to see how I can get anywhere with it now." Once again, so what -- Bach was orphaned at the age of 10. Did any of this hinder him? No. The difference is, he kept his dream alive by grabbing doubt around the neck, so to speak, with both hands and showing it the front door. This allowed inspiration to enter by the back door -- escorted by hard work on the one side and determination on the other. Young Sebastian Bach was determined to pursue his dream of being a proficient work-a-day musician (which meant, in his day performer/composer/improvisor, all three) in spite of hardships, heartache, disappointments, unexpected setbacks, undeserved criticism, and the need for unrelenting, persistent effort on his part, a little bit at a time; his unrelenting determination and persistence to get there made all the difference in realizing his dream. He refused to surrender to conditions; he believed that everything must be possible, would never hear of anything being unfeasible, and he simply refused to give up. He is quoted as saying, "Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction -- that is my secret." We can all take a page from him.
HIS MIND was a sponge -- he kept training himself to be better today than he was the day before -- he kept performing and studying the work of earlier and contemporary composers, he absorbed everything of value and substance which they created and came before him, even to copying many pages by hand with quill and ink, note by laborious note, often by candlelight -- he kept practicing -- he kept composing, producing, creating -- he was ferociously determined to realize whatever potential he was given in his creative work and get it before the public whenever he could for the glory of God and the benefit of his fellow man. He created original music which employed only existing forms, remained well inside the tonal fences of triadic harmony, and he demanded the same of anyone who studied with him. In so doing, he didn't "think outside the box" -- outside the box there's nothing but a vacuum, nothing to interact with, nothing to work against -- there's no rules there to observe, bend, or break like an artist -- nothing to elaborate upon, no place from which to produce a lasting work of art. Instead his thinking was along the edges of the box; this is where he found the means of production available to get things done, the place where the audience was, the place where he found the nourishing sap to put forth new branches of artistic growth -- the place from which his creative work could carry on and make an impact.
HIS HABIT of deciding definitely and firmly to labor to get somewhere, his determination to erase all uncertainty and hesitation from his mind, and his impulsion to maximize the musical gifts he was given had several by-products, among which were 1) a sheer mastery of the techniques of composition which has never been equalled, 2) 50 years of white hot creativity, 3) some of the most monumental works of art the human mind has ever produced ... AND, because he had been down every blind alley and dead end on his way to achieving that mastery, it turned him into 4) a particularly good teacher -- scholars from all over the academic world came to study with him. When we want results there's sacrifice involved, striving involved, a plan involved, and patience and kindness with ourselves involved. When young Sebastian Bach wanted to learn those Pachelbel fugues and chorale preludes he found out about from his older brother, that's how he had to do it [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue]. That struggle yielded its own rewards -- it turned him into the greatest fugue-writer this world has ever seen.
FIND OUT what sets your own work apart and makes your own voice different and unique among thousands of other voices in the organ world, then follow that. Make it your business, like young Sebastian Bach did, to know and understand what came before you and how it was put together; learn from what others have already built, how they built it, how all of its moving parts functioned and what made it work. Familiarize yourself with the dimensions of that box, what's inside it, and where its edges are. In the end, there are no losers; there are only winners, some of whom take a little longer to develop, some maybe not as long.
LET'S SAY FURTHER that you're beginning to write your own music now, and it's become your ardent desire that these pieces of yours be put to good use by others -- either in worship services, recitals, fraternal work and ceremonies, or perhaps for instruction. Virtually no one in this present world besides composers and their dedicatees can be expected to show an interest in their music without demonstrating that it's worthy of one's time and attention -- today this means, if their strength will permit it, having to learn it themselves, then recording it, getting it on the internet to reach the widest audience, and performing it publicly whenever they are able. While this requires a sacrifice of time and effort, a disciplined approach, and a certain amount of physical stamina and wellness, see that this does not lead to desperation; take your time and do what you can, as you can do it.
IF IT'S BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE to have produced a written piece for the organ having enduring works for models which has been well crafted on the sane and solid principles of the past, and you're well satisfied for good and sufficient reasons that it represents some of your best work, and let's say you've submitted it in a composition contest and received no recognition at all for it after learning that some strange-sounding, ugly new piece of music of vague tonality and unidentifiable form having no musical rhyme or reason was awarded a prize, this does not mean that your work is inferior in any respect. History is rife with examples, both in and out of the music business, which show that the bestowing of awards and prizes for artistic achievement is a slippery slope which too often ignores some of the finest artistic work created by some of the most talented and deserving people. A work created from far outside the box, if it happens to be what a certain panel of judges wants to see, may create a hit with them and win a prize but will not produce a lasting work of art. If your writing is never award-winning, know that you're in the best of company; none of J.S. Bach's writing ever did, either; his music was even ridiculed during his lifetime as being old-fashioned, pedantic, and unnecessarily burdened with art. Three centuries later musicians are still admiring, interrogating, studying, and marveling at the masterful counterpoint of Bach while a boat load of the kind of music lauded by his critics has passed into oblivion and will stay there.
IF AND WHEN some publishing firm expresses an interest in including one or more of your compositions in its catalog, be on guard not to sign any "standard contract" it offers to you that's only 3 sentences long guaranteeing the firm ownership of your composition and copyright when in return you're being offered no advance, no say in how your work will be marketed, no guarantee of sales, pitiful royalties, no provision for payment of same in the event of your demise, no provision for what happens to your music if the firm ever closes, and only a promise that your work will make it into their online catalog at some future date. An agreement like this makes a poor excuse for a contract, as it protects only the firm's interests and amounts to nothing more than a release form that's definitely not in the best interests of either your music, your legal heirs, or yourself; it's merely a form of legal means used to exploit creative artists for profit by preying upon any desperation they may have to see their work published. Such a publisher, if ever encountered, would not be too hard to identify; this is the type of firm that would tend to keep a composer waiting 10 months for any communication about submissions and then expect its "standard contract" release form, as described above, returned to it within 10 days. If any firm would be so afraid of taking a chance on publishing the work of an emerging composer that they can't offer anything better than this, take it or leave it, then it's better to leave it and publish your work yourself -- and any firm which withdraws a non-offer like this within the time frame it expects would be doing that composer a favor; at least that composer will still own the work, its copyright, and the freedom to do with it as he or she wishes.
IF WE MANAGE to suffer some setback with our health that takes us away from the instrument for several weeks or months and we discover some strange gaps in our memory when we're trying to play a piece that we used to know by heart, or maybe something seems to be missing with our technique, bear in mind that we haven't lost anything. It's still in our brain, it's just a matter of access, and with a little practice it will return to our neuromuscular system. A setback like this is nothing more than a set-up for a comeback; I'm living proof of that. Pick yourself up and start walking yourself through it again. Take small steps at a time, even if you have to limp. That's better than giving up. If you give up, then in time ... trust me ... deep down inside you'll only feel restless and quite possibly disgusted and unhappy about it. Don't wait until you're feeling better to create. Create and you'll start feeling better. Start anywhere.
WHERE OUR LIVES ARE NOW may someday change, and the wisest knows not how soon -- if one day you find that the effects of serious illness, multiple surgeries, or the side effects of medicines or radiation or other medical treatments have robbed you of a good bit of your former energy and stamina, maybe now you're sick to your stomach most of the time, maybe also find no enjoyment in eating, and you just don't feel well enough or have the strength to concentrate on learning any new music, though you would very much like to -- or maybe you've reached a stage where you're feeling the effects of advanced age or maybe suffering from chronic fatigue, often too tired to practice every day, and it's all you can do just to keep up to speed the music you already know -- and if a zone like this should be where your life now is -- then it's better to stay focused even on the tiniest of goals, stay quiet about them, smash them to bits, clap for your Self, and repeat.
SO FAR AS WE'RE ABLE TO CHOOSE, it's still better to take the bull by the horns and give it a go. It's far better to be down in the arena getting stomped by the bull than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot always wishing and never succeeding. Talk with your health care provider about it; there may be medicine you can take to get yourself feeling better; even if we get to a physical stage where we can't sit on the bench and play at all any more, we still have our most important investment intact -- our mind. We can still use that mind of ours to contribute to the general good -- we can still write about, teach, and share what we've learned with others; in this day and age we can reach people this way as far as the internet can reach -- which is the entire world; we can be the kind of example that inspires the new organist; we can even try our hand at composing, if we haven't already -- at our own pace, and in our own time. Five major collections of contemporary organ compositions and a successful conceptual learning blog were created precisely this way. Can it be said that the world is a worse place for it? ... hardly.
WE HAVE THIS CHOICE -- we can either 1) forfeit our dream in toto, write it off, and be discontent and restless, if not miserable, for the rest of our lives dealing with a big hole inside us from now on that nothing else can ever fill -- OR -- we can 2) continue to feed our love for this art, be happy and thankful for the privileges and learning that's been ours to enjoy, and share some of that same joy and knowledge with others. An innumerable company of people have made a tremendous difference in this world by carrying on and refusing to let conditions keep them in restraints.
WHAT SPARKS A LIGHT INSIDE YOU to be drawn to the organ, no matter how little talent you may think you have, connects you with those precious souls from history who were and still are the masters of the most stupendous, the most wonderful musical instrument ever fashioned by the hand of man; this interest of yours that seems to be lacking in others wasn't planted in you by mere chance for your own amusement but to spur you forward to grow in a direction which, ultimately, will have effects to relieve, benefit, edify, strengthen, and heal the people around you in a broken world, to draw them to thoughts of God and higher things [See menu bar, Bio, Nature's God]. It connects you with organ music -- something that can unite people in the face of tragedy -- because it's about power, love, and purpose, three things our broken world desperately needs. For those who have considered it carefully, thoroughly, and thoughtfully, there is indeed a God [See menu bar, Bio, The Reality of God], and there are pastoral dimensions to what you're doing at those organ keys. Organists know that theirs is a unique ministry, one that God uses, through them, to bring people closer to the reality of His presence in their lives. The inner joy and peace you feel through your faith will be reflected in your music-making.
OUR JOB IN THIS LIFETIME isn't to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine ourselves to be but to find out what we already are, and become it. We don't come into this world as some passive generic blob waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us -- no, we show up here with a specific personal destiny, a job to do, a calling to enact, a Self to become. If we were born to be able to play something, anything, at an organ or piano, no matter how simple, or we have a desire to do so that won't seem to go away, then it's part of our job while we're here to grow in that direction to the best of our ability and get down to business.
AT TIMES a student studying with a teacher may get to feeling like some difficult passage in that piece of repertoire they've been assigned seems to be threatening their boat with capsizing in a rapids as they proceed to practice it at concert tempo. If you ever get to feeling this way, remember that it isn't a rapids at all ... it's just a pasture, with a bunch of little sheep in it lying down and snoozing. All you need are the right tools. Slow it down, learn it in smaller fragments, and only then put it together and speed it up.
IF YOU DISCOVER that you've been doing things wrongly for a long time and have to learn several new things that aren't as familiar to get it corrected, be on guard that you don't work so hard at it that you'll put it off. The last thing you want is for your mind to get caught in this mixmaster of all kinds of things to where you're working too hard at it, getting nowhere, maybe making some of your own hurdles, and not enjoying it. It's important to enjoy.
LEARNING TO IMPROVISE as a beginner is like learning to walk as a toddler; we don't learn it by following rules; we learn it by doing, by falling down and getting up again. Funny how nothing seems to stop a toddler from trying to walk. The difference is, they're not afraid; they don't pay heed to the negative, repelling force they feel that's ever ready to tell them not to risk trying anything new, the same influence with no conscience that arises from within, reasons with an adult like a lawyer, and keeps telling them they've never done it before so they won't be any good at it, the same enemy of creativity and engine of destruction that's only interested in its own selfish sense of short-term safety whose aim is not just to keep us from realizing our creative dream, but to kill it. This second you can master it; this second you can turn the tables on it ... by denying it the fear that fuels it and just sitting down and doing your work.
When you're improvising you can't make a mistake.
The music, every note of it, including any unintended dissonance, it's yours to work into the musical fabric any way you want.
You can in fact keep repeating the same dissonance each time, which will make it sound like the unintended "mistake" was intentional from the beginning.
Only you will know the difference.
PLEASE READ THE BOOK (The War Of Artby Steven Pressfield)
IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
[See blog, The Book].
IF YOU'RE COMPOSING or getting yourself set up to learn how, then read everything you can get your hands on about harmony, counterpoint, voice leading, form, canon, and fugue. If you're worried about the rule book standing poised ready to crush you in an instant if you try anything original, then consider the scores of the bold, rule-breaking c minor Op. 11 double Fugue, the A Major Op. 13 "jig" Fugue, the D Major Op. 18 Fugue, and the d minor Op. 22 Postlude; read about how they were put together [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Parts VI, VIII, XIV, XXVII]; these are prime examples of how to find your own voice in an increasingly crowded world of composers. Learn the rules of part writing and fugue writing [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX] not only so your own writing will sound smooth and schooled but that you'll know where and when to break those rules like an artist if the situation suggests it. Life improves dramatically when someone decides to break the rules and finds beauty where they were told, or where they believed, there was none. Look for something unexpected to do in every piece. Don't kill your audience with surprises ... but think about surprising them maybe a little bit to push the boundaries of your art.
THERE'S NOTHING WRONG in principle with going back through an earlier work and reworking it, making any refinements that you deem necessary; some of the greatest composers in history have gone back and reworked music that they composed decades earlier; creative artists have every right to reshape something they've created out of nothing as they see fit, for any purpose they see fit, any time they see fit, to hone it around, do some different things with it, and add in new changes. If we're not careful with this however we can get endlessly stuck in the editing process [See blog, The Book, Part I, Procrastination, Parts I-II]. Once we've learned the rules and know what to avoid, and we've passed through a few drafts of an earlier work, it may be advisable to cease polishing what already has good architecture, is imaginative, sounds satisfying to the ear, and moves the listener because, by then, it may very well be that no further improvements are advisable or even possible. The chase after perfection becomes at some point an illusory effect -- a mirage.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO start creating something right off the bat in order to wade into organ playing at your own pace and enjoy it. The majority of people who love and play this instrument are consumers of music, not creators; at least, they don't act like it. Most people don't even know what to create because they're stuck if they can't envision themselves creating the next Michelangelo masterpiece. Perfectionism is the art-killer. Strive for excellence, not perfection. An unknown author once said, "Excellence can be attained if you: care more than others think is wise; risk more than others think is safe; dream more than others think is practical; expect more than others think is possible." If you're performing repertoire, then learn to laugh at perfection and just keep playing. We all make little errors at times. At times we're excessively tired, we're not feeling our best, we just haven't practiced in a while, or maybe our concentration lapses for a brief moment. We all have moments like this. Our Maker, the One Who gave you the desire and ability to play, doesn't care about the outcome of some wretched audition; He has a higher purpose for you in mind. All you're trying to do is make some beautiful music; no one's life is at stake if you sense that some blemish or imperfection has crept into your playing; accept the fact that you're human, don't flinch, and just keep going. Don't think ahead, just stay with the present moment; the present moment will save you.
IF YOU BEGIN TO FEEL SCARED about taking your first few creative steps at improvising or composing, or maybe taking your performing of repertoire to the next level, and you feel the winds of fear blowing from some direction, and you want a positive outcome, then don't run and hide from it. Instead, know that you're on to something and head directly into it. Fear is an indicator that love is present. If there were no love there, there would be no sense of fear.
THERE ARE ONLY 12 notes in an octave, but those same 12 notes have limitless combinations and can keep us fascinated for a lifetime. It's a never ending quest to learn new repertoire ... we can never get through everything we'd like to get through. Just about the time that we overcome one challenge the second one is right around the corner ... just when we think we've got it all figured out, we DON'T have it all figured out. Realize that this can be perplexing at times, for all of us, but it stretches our mind and body and soul in ways that we could never imagine. What we walk into today provides new opportunities to learn new things, think new thoughts, and to feel new feelings. It's a tremendous gift to be able to do that.
WHEN PRACTICING MUSIC YOU DON'T KNOW YET, break it down so you can be successful; if it's a fugue, it demands a special way of practicing [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue]; try focusing on just one new piece at a time, divide it into fragments, and tackle these fragments in order, maybe one new page at a time every 3rd or 4th day; find the best fingering and pedalling and develop fluency with that page before moving on. Keep practicing that same page until you either feel fatigued or can play it at close to concert tempo without mistakes. Make your practicing deliberate, systematic, and concentrated like this, with focus and purpose, not the kind of mindless fiddling around that tempts all of us but wastes valuable time. Love what you're doing, have your heart and soul in it, and be committed to it.
DON'T HAVE A SPEC (specification) on how much remedial work you think you need or how much time every day you think you need to be at the piano or organ. Just take what can be taken, and go from there. Burdening your mind down like this with concerns about the clock isn't important. Having a clear mind for the work is very important. Set realistic goals for yourself, take pride in what you can do, and be grateful for the time you have with it. Some have no time at all, and it isn't always because of their own choosing. There are some major talents working in big places who have some days where they have so much administrative work that they don't make it to the bench ... or maybe they're too exhausted mentally to make it to the bench.
KEEP IN MIND that a rose is still a rose whether it's in full bloom, a bud, a fragile plumule, or a seed -- and while it may undergo many disguises along the way, at each phase of its development it's still a rose and perfectly all right, as it is. All around us we seem to find incredible talents in full bloom, many of whom have sacrificed their entire lives for this art; we're apt to find in them a powerhouse of technique, a sensitive interpreter, a brilliant arranger, an improvisor of genius, an inspired composer, or perhaps any combination of the above -- and we tend to gravitate toward them along with a host of other admirers and fans; but then, the insidious and inevitable happens: We get to thinking, "If only I could play like that -- if only I could improvise like that -- if only I could compose like that -- if only I could arrange like that -- I couldn't be one-tenth the musician they are -- I'll NEVER get to that point." No one seems to be immune to this cross comparing; there isn't a human being alive who doesn't at times indulge in it, but all it does is drain us; we do not benefit from it; we do not grow from it. It just makes us think, "If only this or that didn't happen ... if I were this, if I were that ... here's where I'd be." You should learn to avoid this kind of thinking like the plague. I wouldn't let THAT get into my body, either. Never is a long time. Instead, keep your mind on yourself; concentrate on your own things, your own level of skills, and caution yourself against falling into the habit of cross comparing yourself with your teacher, another student, or some other organist you greatly respect and admire. Cross comparing is stealthy; it creeps into our thinking almost before we know it like a thief in the night, and, if we allow it, it can rob us of confidence in our progress; it takes us nowhere, and it's demoralizing -- a drain on real productivity. No rose compares itself with any other rose but goes about its business never doubting itself, leaving itself room to grow at its own; therefore focus on your own skills and give yourself room to grow at YOUR own; compare yourself only TO YOURSELF -- to what you could do yesterday.
IF ANYONE CALLING THEMSELVES A MUSICIAN EVER ASKS YOU in front of a group of people to grade yourself as an organist, i.e. to ask you how you would characterize your own playing, whether you think it's good, average, or whatever -- this is not a question about your level of competence; it's an inquiry about your self-perception of competence, which are two different things [See blog, Dunning-Kruger Effect]. It's never up to artist musicians to judge, and it isn't their place to say, whether they think their work is good or not; that's for others to decide. The best response you can give therefore is to offer this unfortunate soul your teacher's contact information so that this same question can be put to your teacher; this isn't ducking the question at all but, quite to the contrary, it's where the nuts and bolts of this information will lie, if they're truly interested in getting at it; a really good teacher might know a pupil better than the pupil does, and, just like you can see things in others that they may not be seeing in themselves, a good teacher will have seen some things in you that perhaps you aren't seeing. It's plain enough however for ANYONE to see that someone bold enough to ask such a rude and irrelevant question is an armchair expert who already has their mind made up about you when, the fact of the matter is, they're more than likely 1) stuck on the hump nicknamed "Mount Stupid" in the Dunning-Kruger curve, 2) falsely convinced that they've been fully exposed to the subject, 3) don't have a clue about all the moving parts involved with organ playing, and 4) only THINK they know YOU. A real musician will always be complimentary to another -- a lifter -- offering an encouraging word at all times, and would never be critical of or think of propounding a question like this to one of his fellows, even in private. Criticism of one's fellows, in this field, is the death gargle of the non-achiever. If anyone can't agree with you about this, they either haven't studied it, thought about it enough, or haven't encountered it yet.
IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE STRUGGLING WITH ACCURACY in some passage of repertoire, bear this in mind: We play for accuracy, of course, but not primarily; organ playing is many more things than that. Accuracy will come to you. It's like a cat -- if you call your cat, it disappears; if you don't call it, it's right there. It comes and visits you if you leave it alone; when you want it, it's harder to attain, and it hides from you. So, don't reach for it; let accuracy come to you. Learn about spontaneity and believe in it. Now matter how long you've been working at playing a piece, no matter how much you've practiced or recorded it, each time you play it there will be a difference. So, don't try to play it "perfectly" ... just play it. Just keep playing, carve a few minutes every day out of your schedule to be able to sit on that bench, slow things down and concentrate, and just let go of that "perfection thing."
THINK ABOUT IT my friends: If He can take a lump of coal and make it into a diamond -- if He can take a grain of sand and make it into a pearl -- if He can take a worm and make it into a butterfly -- then our Maker can take any obstacle standing in the way, turn it into a door, and open it; He glories in taking something common and plain and turning it into something uncommon and distinctive, something that has its own special characteristics.
HE BRINGS ALL OF US THROUGH the same wilderness of study and mundane practice -- partly to train us, partly to prune our unbelief in ourselves; and, once He's done making Moses, He's done with that and moves on -- to Joshua; He doesn't try to remake Moses all over again.
THERE ARE SIMILARIES, OF COURSE -- we learn similar skills so we can perform similar tasks -- we may study and perform the same things to learn the same lessons -- but it's His plan for each of us to have our own unique destiny, to find our own voice, to develop our own style -- which is why we shouldn't try to be a copycat of anyone else. The other person doesn't have your gifts -- they can only focus on their own. When we notice the success of a fine player in the here and now, we find them nearing the end of their own finish line and tend to become envious of them; we want to do things exactly as they do; what we don't see is the struggle, the work, the pain and sacrifice focusing on their own gifts all along the way that got them where they are today. Our own gifts are unlike the next person's and have been specially arranged and placed inside us in a way that makes us fully loaded for the unique destiny that our Maker has in mind for us. We organists don't have to be a brilliant performer, a brilliant arranger, a brilliant composer, or a brilliant improvisor in order for God to use us, i.e. the gifts he put inside us such as they are, in a great way. We just need to keep applying ourselves, as we are doing. Consistent work combined with our passion for the instrument and music will bring its rewards.
CONSIDER THESE THINGS, MY FRIENDS and follow through with them -- dare to step outside the campfire glow -- dare to take a leap for the rim of the bucket -- dare to go down that trail that scares you. Simply make up your mind to sit down and work with it, give it a chance, put doubt and unbelief on the shelf for what it is, tell yourself you're going to have a new adventure, stop being afraid to try, and watch what happens: when we do this, our thinking is spurred on -- creativity is stirred -- the intellect and emotions are animated and enlivened -- hidden skills that we never knew were there begin to emerge -- ideas come to us, as if by magic -- and insights begin to accrete. As Picasso has said -- "inspiration comes, but it has to find us working."
Because this website is the product of a lifetime of learning, experience, coaching, and personal discoveries, its size should not dissuade visitors.
It will come across as verbose only to that rare and precious soul whose mind is already a compendium of all that can be learned.
No one makes any money from this website.
It offers nothing for sale.
The more time one spends with it, however,
the more take-away there will be.
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Please return often.
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A special message for organists and church musicians of the
My friends, we all know it happens with a certain frequency; the bills have to be paid, and not every professional organist looks beyond their financial earnings. But there isn't an organist on the face of this earth who hasn't at one time or another thought about whether their organ playing has been of benefit to anyone save for themselves. Regardless of one's spiritual condition, the fact of the matter is, no act of service in His name is too small to escape the notice of the Holy One of Israel. At times we may be tempted to think that ours has been partly a lost cause, that the set of skills we've spent our lives developing which have cost us so much in terms of time, hard work, sacrifice, and expense haven't been really credited or appreciated and, to a large extent, have come to naught. It can leave us wondering (especially if we're certificated and/or a published composer) whether all we've given up to get where we are has had more aesthetic value to ourselves than a boon to others.
I wouldn't allow this or any other false notion like it to get into my body. Our value as musicians never decreases based upon someone's inability to see our worth. Today's fallen world is one in which apathy and indifference abounds, and the churches, sad to say, because they're composed of people, have not been completely immune from it. We organists may fail to receive much if any positive feedback week to week, and few if any may have a clue about how much work is involved to do what we do and do it well, but make no mistake -- those who hear us perform never fail to leave the building the better for it. Sometimes congregations are tempted to murmur about better use of church funds than to keep a fine pipe organ in fully playable condition and to pay the organist a living wage. At such times they need to consider how much funding been brought in for Godly purposes, as Christ taught them to do, from this organist and from this instrument being present in the building and sounding at its best.
Anyone can count the seeds in an apple.
Only God can count the apples in a seed.
In the Orthodox tradition of eastern Europe the congregation often sings with the choir and doesn't need or want an organ to lead or support the singing. The ministry with which we as organists in the western tradition are connected however is a very broad agency extending beyond being a graduate of a music school, Bible school, seminary, or someone believing himself to be in a line of succession, tutorially or apostolically. The specialized area entrusted to us is that part of worship which employs, in compliance with directives found in the written Word of God, all of the wonders of music to serve those Whom a merciful and forgiving God is calling out of this world. That area is specially purposed -- NOT to facilitate an encounter with God -- NOT to move people toward God -- NOT to mediate between God and man -- but to a) offer praise of and thanksgiving TO God, b) express the joy of salvation in loud and jubilant rejoicing, c) teach the message of Christ and admonish others in a spirit of gratitude, and d) demonstrate, feed, and strengthen the faith of believers.
The various sundry Christian persuasions with which we come into contact today reflect the fact that the supernatural and malevolent god of this world, Satan the devil, has had thousands of years to sow discord and create division in human societies over matters of religion. Today we also find a staggering number of Bible-based churches and denominations each having arrived at its own self-perceived summit of theological purity. It seems obvious, when each one of these is steadfastly devoted to its own brand of churchism, that God's love and truth would be revealed in its purest form only in the pages of Holy Scripture. Even so, we still find churches having organs where we're expected play (and where we might expect some commonality of doctrinal agreement to prevail) all over the map when it comes to which parts of faith they choose to focus on, the ways they want to live out their beliefs, and the ways they choose to set up their governance and outreach, including their music ministries.
Knowing that immotive disagreement like this has been going on in Christian circles since the days of the earliest apostles, the best anyone can do about it is to refocus our attention on God, get into prayer with Him, enter into Him with thanksgiving, praise Him for what He's already done, read His Word, listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us (about how our music-making can be used to praise Him, thank Him, express the joy of salvation, share the story of His love and truth, and build faith in our listeners), and then rely upon and follow through with what He's impressing us to do no matter what worldly logic is telling us or what others may be pressuring us to do. The best anyone can do is to cast our care upon the Lord, put Him first, get to know Him in a personal way, and let Him inhabit our praises. He loves us as His children, and if we tap into Him, fellowship with Him every day, prayerfully and sincerely talk to Him with thankful gratitude for what He's done for us, tell Him He's a good Dad, acknowledge the love He has for us, and show Him that we love Him back -- then He'll plow the snow ahead of us and help us see our best way forward every time, we'll be blessed more than ever before, His joy will be our strength, and we'll never be bothered or intimidated ever again by what anyone else says or thinks. The best anyone can do is to reach a place where nothing else is more important to us than communicating with Him.
We are instructed in the Word of God to praise His name and rejoice in Him with singing, dancing, and instrumental music in the assembly of His people (Ps.149:1-5, Ps.150:3-5). This ministry is grounded in glorifying and exalting God however, not to entertain or hold the attention of congregations. It is not a platform for personal promotion or publicity. It has nothing to do with the exclusive personal amusement, diversion, or recreation of the performer or with musical extravaganzas whose sole end is the delight of a public clientele. It is not grounded in anything having strictly to do with the physical cognizance of human audiences. It is grounded in something spiritural.
It is grounded in prayer.
In its authentic form it's a ministry that beckons with a calling -- a spiritual inner awareness of the gentle but continual nudgings of the Holy Spirit telling us that He has selected us for some specialized instrumentality in His service. Our Lord treats us each individually and treats each one of us very special in His love. Still, there are characteristics of His presence that are common. As He leads us into this calling it's just a single step at a time, and once we feel his loving presence vividly we don't want to let it go even though we can't always see where exactly all of this is leading. This is because the Holy Spirit wants to be at our side with each step and not four or five steps ahead. This restlessness, this calling, is of God's making and is evident both to the person being called and the elders of the congregation or Christian association. It will feel very different and a great deal more than one's wordly relationships.
Technically speaking, only God can ordain a minister. It is He Who calls, and it is His Spirit that appoints spiritual gifts to Whom He wills. Thus it becomes the duty of church elders to validate that calling, preferably with the laying on of hands. Man can make no claims to ordain people but rather in granting ordination the elders recognize the call to Christian service (ordination) that God has already placed on someone's life. The irony is that man still has to acknowledge someone's calling to make it "legal," and therefore, from a legal standpoint, religious organizations can ordain.
The living Christ Whom we serve doesn't care about the edifice where we work, how elaborate its architecture may be, how gorgeous its stained glass windows are, what sort of instrument and acoustics it places at our disposal, how many volunteers are in the choir, or if we even have a choir to work with at all. He cares about US. While the world is building and maintaining large parish churches, cathedrals, abbeys, concert halls, and auditoriums for the satisfaction of the senses, the servants of our merciful and forgiving Lord, as they share his love and truth with the rest of the world, give their whole heart to Him to build a true temple, a house not made with hands that no man can destroy. They have their eyes on the finish line and beyond, make changes in their employment situation if they must, but they refuse to allow personalities or circumstances to get in the way of or discourage their calling.
As the enormity of it begins to fully land on us it's normal to feel profoundly unworthy of it. In this, we are in good company. The Old Testament prophets felt it. Even Moses felt that unworthiness. The apostle Paul wrote of the same thing, in his way of saying it. We are not, and never can be, worthy of it on our own. By ourselves we have no righteousness. But the good news of the gospel is, God loves us. He's a God of mercy. He's a God of forgiveness. When we repent of our sins, invite Christ into our heart, and turn our life completely over to Him, the Holy Spirit at that moment comes and dwells with our spirit. We are no longer held to account for what the books of heaven have recorded about us. All of those thoughts, motives, words, and deeds from the moment were were born are erased, and our name is entered into the Lamb's Book of Life. God's righteousness is credited to us by virtue of that personal encounter and relationship with Christ -- which means that we also have a personal relationship with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, automatically.
. Thus we see that the music ministry also has pastoral dimensions. Ours is a critical part of a much larger mission -- a healing mission to help cure the soul of man from its sin nature, to sweep it out and rid it as a dwelling place for iniquity or evil in any form. Ours is a ministry of support to help impart the peace and freedom that only being a new creation in Christ can provide. It has everything to do with pleasuring the heart of God, and He Who has chosen us for this specialized service is on the bench with us and at our side, each and every time. Whether dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of others also happen to be present,
We play at all times, for an audience of One.
ON A VERY PERSONAL NOTE: My friends, in ministering to and forgiving others in Christ don't forget to include yourself. You're human. Don't beat yourself up for making a kid's mistake at the keys once in a while. Some days we're at the top of our game and don't always show it. Today we may be extremely tired or not feeling well; an undiagnosed medical problem may have developed; a newly prescribed medicine we're taking may cause unexpected muscle weakness, muscle soreness, upset stomach, or other distracting signs and symptoms; there can be a miscommunication with the celebrant, choir director, or lecturn -- the hymn we were told would be sung that day and the one we practiced beforehand may not be the one announced; we may have to start playing only from memory, perhaps in the wrong shoes or glasses, without the sheet music or hymn book in front of us, in a hurry and in poor light; we can yield to haste and start off with the wrong fingering; we can find something malfunctioning or maybe not working at all with the instrument only after we begin playing; we can be further distracted by people standing alongside who may want to shake our hand while we're playing or perhaps are shouting at us to turn our head and smile for a photo all the while we're trying to sight read from the page ... and on and on. We may no more than get started playing when suddenly some little preventable thing goes awry, and then another. Dismay instantly and rudely seizes us, thrusting usinto the salvage business at the same time -- until, that is, the final chord of our unfortunate musical offering of the moment mercifully dies away in the vaulted heights of the roof. We then stare catatonically at the keys for a moment, then shake our heads in wonderment at how we could have flubbed at something we worked at so long and hard and knew so well. Serious mess-ups are almost unheard of, but at such moments discouragement can come down on us like a ton of bricks and get us to thinking if the main reason we became a church musician was because we desperately desired the disapproval of others. No material was wasted over it, no money was lost, no damage was done, no harm came to anyone, but we're still disgusted and disappointed with our performance because we know for a fact that we can play it masterfully. That's because we're conscientious. That's because we care. Knowing how and being able to run like a deer does not shield every future stretch of our legs from a mini-stumble. We just take it in stride, keep moving, leave it behind, learn from it, give ourselves a pat on the back for giving it a go, and carry on. As for how many times or how regularly and predictably we may succeed in attaining accuracy in performance, it's freedom which leads us to that, and freedom is gotten by repetition (i.e. practice) and keeping good habits going. Accuracy will come to us automatically this way without reaching for it. What matters far more is that we always keep striving to a higher level of attainment and let nothing, not even an occasional embarrassment, derail us from this our distinctive calling.
Sometimes when leaving a job and congregation we love in exchange for another wonderful one we can have nagging doubts and find ourselves dealing with our emotions. The answer is to prayerfully consider any choices before us, surrender them to God, and with faith press into His will for us. By doing that, He will guide our decision, and we can trust that we did the right thing when we discern with Him. We do not have to remain in one spot to continue experiencing the magnificent plan that Almighty God has in mind for our life, a future that reveals His grace, forgiveness, and the astonishing steps He has taken to help a maximum number of people enjoy a spectacular eternity of friendship with Him.
BOTTOM LINE: We organists and church musicians do well to remember that we're an integral part of that big overriding message and picture. We do well to remain consciously aware of the special office we occupy in these very last days of this present age of grace, to remain doggedly determined to keep filling the world with beautiful and edifying organ music, to expand our outreach if possible by doing some teaching, composing, recording, even relocating our ministry if we feel we must, but
never ever, repeat NEVER, give up playing.
No one should EVER give up anything worthwhile like this, that they can't go one day without thinking about.