When an organist plays something for the first time, it's going to be disappointing.
Not only the notes and rhythms might be incorrect but the articulation, fingering, pedaling, and the general feeling is not there.
The piece might be quite easy and you can be a very good sight-reader but the music isn't yours yet. It's the composer's. It hasn't sunk into your being.
Yes, the audience might never notice this but it's you who can't be easily deceived. Deep down you know how far it is yet to go.
It's frustrating at times to know the music from videos and recordings and to have heard the masters play them so well and not to be able to play it at that level yet.
What some people do at this stage is quit and go watch more TV or surf social media. It's because of this fear of failure we all face: "If I can't play it right away correctly it must be something wrong with me or my practice method".
It might also be out of fear of success: "If I succeed one day at learning this piece like masters do, I will have to act like a master." It's terrifying.
But what other people do is they understand that they are going to suck for 10000 hours anyway. They're in this game for the long haul. They know what it feels to be miserable at something and they love it.
They love each moment of this experience because it shows them the truth. The truth about music, the truth about the composer, the truth about the instrument, and the truth about themselves.
The truth can be painful but it liberates.
The only things worth doing are the ones you are not good initially.
I remember my first recital of spontaneous improvisations in Mosedis - the feeling was pretty frightening, even scary.
Some thoughts that came into my head while playing were:
"What am I doing here, shouldn't I be playing from the score?"
"You don't know how to do it."
"The listeners have never heard such music before - they are unprepared for this."
"Perhaps downstairs people are already leaving in droves?
Not even close to this nice feeling when others hear you play.
I guess in improvisation, as in life - we can feel a whole range of feelings. Yes, there is great joy, as is fear, shame, or anger.
However, when I improvise mostly I feel very calm, even peaceful. Disturbing thoughts arise as well but they simply swim by while I'm sort of watching myself from the side.
We all improvise all day long (not necessarily in music), don't we? What emotions do you feel while doing something for the first time?
I find myself often asking, where is improvisation before it is created? Where was Beethoven's 5th before he wrote it? Where was Michelangelo's David before he conceived it?
I'd like to think that creator sometimes creates the artwork not out of nothing but sort of catches it hovering some place and actualizes.
You've heard that the brush of the painter or the pen of the writer supposedly is sometimes moved by some other being or force. The force to which the artist can attune herself only while being in the certain state of mind, when she's "worth it".
Perhaps the Muse flies by and dictates what to write? Perhaps the Muse tells the improviser what to play. I can say from experience that I played my best improvisations in the moments when I didn't planned them and even don't remember them after the performance.
Is there some dimension where art exists before we even create it?
The other day I came across a joke about fugue that goes like this:
"There is an old saying that fugues are the type of music in which the voices come in one by one while the audience goes out one by one, but there is no statistical evidence to support this; audiences have been known to leave in droves."
What fascinates me about this joke or other jokes as well is that you have to hold your mind open while you're listening to it. A punchline happens only at the very end.
Although this is a short joke, still, you have to be patient, suspend disbelieve and actually trust that in the end it will all come somehow together.
The ending is strangely surprising and at the same time satisfying. Don't you feel satisfied by this joke? I do.
I feel satisfied because I remember some of the times in my recitals when fugues were the hardest pieces for the audience to feel a connection to. Every organist who has ever played a fugue in public will know this.
That's why jokes have to be empathetic in order to be appreciated.
Likewise, when you're improvising, you feel kind of that way too - you trust that it sounds surprising to people and never shake your head and say: "No, this is a bad improvisation. I don't like it and people will leave before I finish (like in this joke)."
Actually, you also hope that it will all come together in a satisfying way to yourself and to the people around you.
Improvisation requires curiosity.
PS In addition to the 6 variations that are already composed, I've been asked to create also the Toccata as the 7th variation for the cycle on the hymn tune "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee". I'm starting to work on it and teach how to create it for my Modern Variation Workshop.
How do you learn to improvise on the organ? Do you try to follow the rules, harmony, and counterpoint? Or maybe you just simply start playing and listening what's happening?
At least at the beginning improvisation is like learning to swim - simply jump into shallow water and start working with your hands and feet. And you begin to see that you little by little start to swim.
When we improvise, at first we can also think similarly - choose a safe playing mode when nobody is listening and start fooling around with a few sounds, listen to what kind of mood they create, and tell a musical story.
Of course, sometime in the future we will need also the skills in music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and many other areas, but first we have to start playing.
Play and fail. Then play some more.
This is how we get rid of the fear of improvisation.
What happens when you have 17 first-graders gather around a pipe organ?
Last Friday in the morning, I had a privilege of witnessing this in my own eyes when a group of elementary school kids with a few teachers came to Vilnius University Saint John's church for an organ demonstration.
It was a rainy day in Vilnius, and I met them all downstairs at the entrance to the church. The first thing we did was to say hello to each other and let their wet coats in the pews.
While they were getting ready to climb to the organ balcony, I told them the legend of "Damned Brothers" - a scary story from 1600's about an incident in this church where one boy took the ring off the finger of a rich man who was buried in the cellars under the floor. Suddenly the rich man sat up as if alive and shouted, "damned brothers" help me!" To avenge the little thief hundreds and hundreds of bones and sculls rose and tried to chase the boy around the church. The boy ran up the balcony to the organ and locked the doors behind him. Because the dead couldn't climb stairs, they started to climb on top of one another and would have caught the boy if not the rooster whose song announced the breaking dawn. When people came into the church in the morning, they found the boy in shock trembling from terror and hundreds of skulls and bones all over the place and a hideous stench in the room.
The funny thing was that when I asked the kids somewhere in the middle of the story if they weren't scared, they all shouted "No"!
By the way, afterwards I thought that this colorful legend could well serve as the basis for my organ improvisation recital on June 17, 2016 during "Culture Night" - a special festival in venues across the city (last year I played "A Legend About the Founding of Vilnius" on the same occasion).
So anyway, when the kids followed me on to the organ balcony, I told them to behave very carefully so as to not fall off from quite the distance down to the floor. Then I opened some of the panels of the organ case for them to see the action and started my demonstration.
I talked about how the organ sounds are produced, about some of the more interesting things about the mechanics, also about the largest organs in the world with 7 manuals. Again, when I asked them if they wanted to see the windows and the columns of the church break from the tremendous roar of the organ, they all shouted from "Yes" from joy!
To illustrate my talking, I chose to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which I hoped they would know and appreciate. At the end I played Bach's D minor Toccata but the kids were not familiar with it yet.
Children were very curious and constantly tried to find out various details about the organ. I had to keep their attention at the maximum by telling various stories which wasn't easy.
Luckily there came a time for them to sit down on the organ bench and to play themselves. Boy, you should have seen their faces - with their feet and hands they touched the stops, keys and pedals and sat 3 at once on the bench.
Incidentally, the music they produced reminded me of such avant-garde and landmark piece from the 1960's as Volumina by Gyorgy Ligeti.
When we were finished, they reluctantly came down the balcony, we made a group photo, and I asked them to draw pictures of this organ at home or at school which hopefully they did.
Who knows, perhaps they will remember the organ for some time and maybe one or two will want to learn to play it in the future?
How would you demonstrate the organ for first-graders? Their curiosity about this instrument is certainly very different from what interests adults in the organ, isn't it? Would you agree that storytelling is the key when it comes to organ demonstrations? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Welcome to episode 13 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Today I'm sharing my October 13 organ demonstration for a group of lawyers from Germany who participated at the conference at Vilnius University. They were very curious audience and quite knowledgeable about music so their questions to me were pretty thoughtful and we had a special connection.
"Lead actually is quite dangerous for your health if you chew or touch too much so organ builders handle the pipes very carefully with special gloves and don't put them into their mouth carelessly. But because they have to really blow and check the pipes the officials of the European Union in 2006 tried to forbid all lead materials in electronics and manufacturing and one of the victims of this initiative would have been pipe organs because lead (together with tin) as a material is everywhere for pipework. But I believe that influential organ builders succeeded in convincing the EU officials that lead is not too dangerous if pipes are just standing in the building and handled properly during the construction process. So they allowed organ pipes to be build from this alloy as well."
Listen to the podcast
Modern art sometimes seems like nonsense, like the thing, where the word ART is quite debatable.
Some weird sounds coming out of pipe organ with half-drawn stops played with your elbows and fists, some squiggles on paper which actually take 30 seconds to draw and a week to think about, some words which meaning and direction can only be revealed if the reader reaches a certain state of mind, a drama performance where people swear on stage (or worse).
Is it art or is it all gibberish?
I think it depends on the point of view of both the creator and the receiver.
If it's generous, risky, and, disruptive - it might be art. If it touches someone - it might be art. If it changes someone for the better - it's definitely art.
The question is - do you care enough to create it?
Even better - do you care enough to receive sharp criticism for it?
Sometimes when we perform in public, we doubt ourselves for our skills, we fear of what might our listeners think, or we might even be unsure of how this piece sounds. When we have self-doubts, we start to make mistakes, sometimes even lose our place.
Start doubting ourselves some more and we'll get a panic attack - our breathing will be disrupted, the pulse will become very fast, we will want to run off the stage, and we will freeze without being able to play anything - especially from memory.
It turns out self-doubts are perfectly natural, even essential. Whoever doesn't have them is either a fool or has simply too little experience.
But when you play, something else is much more important - it doesn't matter what kind of thoughts come to your head, you have to force yourself with all you've got to stick to just one thing - the current measure you are playing. Not to what has just sounded a few seconds ago, not to what will come on the next page, but now.
If you do that, then trusting yourself becomes irrelevant.
Have you ever noticed how we face various temptations during our day?
To think things which are shortsighted, to say things which are not nice to each other, to do things which are selfish.
And we usually have regrets about that. About how we treated the loved ones, people we care about deeply, how we responded to a challenge under stress. We say we'll start over again in the morning.
I found that whenever I create, whenever I'm in the creative mode, everything which is not important fades away. Every chance to explode, to give in.
You sit on it, you breath, you notice it, and you go back to work. And it passes.
At least for a moment.
And when I say create, I don't mean only compose, improvise, play organ, draw, write, paint etc. Every human act which is generous is a creative act.
There are other reasons, for sure to create. But this is worth the try, too.
What do you think?
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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Don't have an organ at home?
Download paper manuals and pedals, print them out, cut the white spaces, tape the sheets together and you'll be ready to practice anywhere where is a desk and floor. Make sure you have a higher chair.