And today’s question was sent by Neil. He writes:
“My challenge is with concentration - practicing a voluntary is one thing but when playing the piece at the end of the service I feel under pressure and can make mistakes even though the run-through before the service went OK.”
So, a lot of people struggle with this, right? Focus, concentration…
Ausra: Yes, I think so. But you know, since he writes that before the service, when he practiced, he could play the same piece okay, I think it might be not only concentration but also performance anxiety.
Vidas: I see. Do you mean that when playing before the service, he can play without many mistakes because he’s less nervous? Or the prelude or voluntary might be easier than the toccata at the end? What do you think?
Ausra: Hmm, well, that’s a good question. I’m just thinking that maybe he gets tired after playing an entire service; and I don’t know what the tradition is at his church, but maybe people stay to listen to the postlude...
Ausra: And maybe the postlude is a more virtuosic piece than the prelude. I’m not sure, exactly; but yes, everybody, or many of us, have concentration problems.
Vidas: I kind of feel that he might be not only tired, but feeling the end of playing, the end of the service, right? And his job is almost done, and his mind is almost relaxed, therefore. It’s like playing the last piece of the recital, or the last page of the piece: sometimes we make stupid mistakes!
Ausra: Yes, that’s true. Sometimes, you know, after playing a hard spot, you just think, “Oh, I played that so well!” and then the mistake comes.
Vidas: Remember the legendary organist…
Ausra: Marilyn Mason?
Ausra: Yes, I thought about her, too!
Vidas: What did she say?
Ausra: Well, she would say that your recital is not over until you are in the parking lot, next to your car. So...meaning that you have to keep your concentration until the very end. Because even after you release your final chord, if you will not be careful, you might hit the note or something...
Vidas: Or pedals!
Ausra: Or pedals, yes! That happens!
Vidas: Or, when climbing off the organ bench, you would press the extreme high or low keys with your hand!
Ausra: Yes, because of course, if you have a cancel button then you can solve that problem, just press cancel.
Ausra: But if it’s a mechanical organ, and you forgot to take off some stops, then yes, that’s a possibility.
Vidas: Yeah, because on a mechanical organ, if you play very loudly, and want to reduce the registration suddenly, you have to do all those mechanical changes by hand; and some people don’t do this right away because it’s very noisy.
Ausra: That’s right; for example, in our church at St. John’s.
Vidas: Mhm. So yeah. Did you, Ausra, have this experience yourself when playing a church service? Towards the end, you would make mistakes, or get more nervous than before?
Ausra: Actually, no. It’s easier for me to play the end of a recital or service.
Vidas: Because nobody listens to it?
Ausra: Well, no, not because of that. For me, the hardest part is probably the first 10 minutes of performing.
Vidas: Mhm. Like in any basketball match, right? Both teams are very nervous, and both testing the ground, and seeing who is stronger, right? But afterwards, they kind of get in the flow.
Ausra: I know. It’s like this for different types of people. Some can be very excited at the beginning, and do things energetically, and then they lose the energy very soon.
Ausra: And then for some, it’s very hard to begin to do a work, but after beginning they can just keep going forever. And I think I belong to these latter ones. For me, it’s hardest to start.
Vidas: What about me? What do you think--which group do I belong in?
Ausra: I don’t know, you should decide for yourself!
Vidas: Because sometimes, I kind of feel that I also move very slowly at the beginning, but then go very long with excitement. But other times, I get excited very fast, and my focus switches, too, also, before I reach the end of the project!
Ausra: Yes, but you know, going back to Neil’s problem, I would suggest that for every postlude he was going to play, he would find himself some sort of…(not a big) assignment. He would assign himself some sort of new thing to do in that. I don’t know, maybe just think in his mind, “Tenor voice.” Or you know, focus more on cadences. Or find something in his piece that would keep his concentration going on.
Vidas: Mhm. And take his mind off that pressure.
Ausra: Yes, yes. And just think about that particular thing that he has to do in his piece.
Vidas: I usually tend to advise people to focus their gaze, their eyes on the current measure. That keeps them really focused throughout the piece; as the measures keep flowing, also your mind keeps flowing, your gaze keeps coming along. But then, you don’t pay attention to any outside things, like choir members walking or talking, outside of the organ, right? Would that help, Ausra?
Ausra: Yes, could be. And I’m thinking that concentration is probably one of the biggest problems for everybody.
Vidas: Because of course, technology and this instant gratification culture in our society rewards people with a very short attention span--right? Ads everywhere click and change every few seconds, and stimuli on the web are also constantly switching and changing; and everything is so colorful and bright. So yeah, we get confused, and focus is not a strong thing for us.
Ausra: Well, yes, and because we are talking about postludes, I believe that all kinds of movement is going on during the postlude. Because some people are probably listening, but some are maybe already leaving the church, and moving, and I don’t know what about choir members, if they are also listening to your postlude or they are also talking, chatting…
Vidas: Yeah, chatting, definitely. I think that part of the service is really…
Ausra: The noisiest, probably, yes.
Vidas: The noisiest, nobody’s really paying attention, everybody’s cheering that it’s over, and they want to interact with each other, right? Because they didn’t see each other for a week!
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: And suddenly, organ music distracts them from interacting, in this case.
Vidas: But the organist has to stay out of this, right?
Vidas: You have to keep going until the very end.
Ausra: Yes, that’s why you need to play your postlude on organo pleno registration. Just play it loud.
Vidas: So that they could not really chat loudly enough?
Ausra: Yes. Make them listen to you!
Vidas: Like thunder from above, right?
Vidas: Like God’s voice. Excellent. Ausra, do you think that people could strengthen their concentration somehow, over time? Are there any exercises?
Ausra: Yes, I think so.
Vidas: What helps, to you?
Ausra: Meditation, probably. But of course, not everybody can meditate.
Vidas: You don’t have to call it meditation, right?
Ausra: Yes, just…
Vidas: It’s breathing!
Ausra: Yes. Or you know, yoga helps for some people.
Ausra: And I realized that yoga for me is actually torture.
Ausra: Because you have to concentrate, you have to breathe. But I think it might help
Vidas: In yoga, time passes so slowly…
Ausra: I know, I know. It’s just very hard--I find it very hard.
Ausra: I like more dynamic exercises. But I think this thing could help. And also other intellectual games.
Vidas: Will you have to focus for a longer time?
Ausra: Yes, like maybe sudoku. Or I don’t know, doing crisscross.
Vidas: Or reading. Even reading from long books, right? Not from newspapers and magazines with flashing pictures, but real books: novels, fiction writing, where you have to sit for a longer time with one work and immerse yourself in another life, in another world. That helps, right?
Vidas: Okay guys. What would be your last advice, Ausra, for Neil?
Ausra: Well, for Neil and everybody else, and even for myself, I think that working on concentration is a lifelong goal. So eventually you will succeed; I hope so. And that’s what I wish for you all. And for myself, too.
Vidas: And enjoy this process, right? Because the results are far away. Excellent. This was Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
PS Organ improvisation "The Wolf And The Tailor" based on my favorite childhood's Lithuanian fairy-tale where the wolf threatens the tailor and the tailor cheats the wolf and cuts his tail off. Fun but cruel stuff.