Focus under pressure
The first thing I did today as I sat down on the organ bench was to improvise on the Gregorian chant sequence "Victimae paschali laudes". It was like a good warm-up before my Krebs recording session. This improvisation is quite vigorous and fast moving. I wanted to express the joy of Easter through various modes and colours. The opening motive unifies the piece and helps to keep the unity within variety. Several times I jumped to the second manual to create contrasting section without the pedals. Let me know what you think!
When I started to record this piece, I heard Ausra's parents call and ask for us to open the gate. I was a bit worried if I will be able to record it in time, knowing how these things go. Luckily the recording went way better than expected, probably because I had to extra focus under pressure. So anyway, hope you will enjoy this Trompet stop! Only one last movement to go and then I can start recording Kauffmann on Sunday!
SOPP444: One thing that I think it holds me, and also a matter of my capital focus it's the control of the nervousness in performance
Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 440, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Carlos, and he writes:
Thanks a lot Dr. Vidas and Dr. Ausra. Well, the primordial matter that I would like to reach in organ playing it's a fine performing level in public. One thing that I think it holds me, and also a matter of my capital focus it's the control of the nervousness in performance. I think that there is a lot of technique to control the panic in scene, I have used some of them and they work well, but I'm sure that you have some great hints for prepare the mind to get a major level for focusing one self in public performance. Thanks a lot for your course, it's pretty good and accurate. Greetings to you all!
A: Well, okay, Dr. Vidas...
V: Dr. Vidas.
A: What can you tell us?
V: Dr. Ausra, I think you all also have some experiences, right?
A: In what, nervousness?
A: Yes, we all do. I guess the main reason is a question you need to ask yourself—what causes your anxiety. Because, well, the reasons may be various, but I think one of the most important is that you are not prepared as well as you should be.
V: And this is right that you are saying this of course. But to be well prepared means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Right, Ausra? Because, how many times have you been in such, in a classroom setting, when your kids, your students said, ‘oh, I practiced for hours and hours, and I could sing it if it’s an ear-training class, sing it without mistakes at all at home. But now I cannot do it in class’.
A: They are lying. That’s what I realized after teaching for so many years. Because either they, if you practice for so many hours as you said and you will still could not do it, it means something is really wrong with you and maybe musician path is not your path.
A: Or you a little bit exaggerated the hours of your practice, which is I think more often the right case. So, of course we are all human beings and we might all experience some sort of panic during the actual performance, and there [are] always things that might happen with the instrument, or with yourself, or with your audience, or something that might not go as well as it was planned. But still I think anxiety, to have some of anxiety during performance, it’s a normal thing. And I don’t think it’s good to get rid of it entirely, because that fresh adrenaline, it gives something really vivid to your music.
A: Vitality, yes, to your music.
A: And excitement and audience gets it and it’s really fun—all this experience. So I think some of anxiety is really good—it helps you. Because otherwise your music might sound boring if you will play it like a machine, let’s say like [a] Sibelius program—it always plays no mistakes, no tempo changes, everything is perfect, but it’s dull and it’s lifeless.
V: You could write down accelerando and ritenuto and they could play back to you with fluctuations in tempo of course, but that’s about, not everything the program can do today. I guess that the software is getting better and better, but to reach human interaction level, I don’t think it can, yet.
A: So, basically, I could say what I do to Carlos, in order to help myself. So my first thing is I really try to prepare very well for my recitals, that I would be really confident that I did everything what I could. It means if I know I will have to perform, I need to practice in advance.
A: Because you always have to leave some time for yourself just in case you will have some unexpected things happening in your life.
V: Imagine if you are a professional musician like yourself, but not at your level, but at the student level. But still you’ve been learning the organ and music for maybe, I don’t know, fifteen or more years, yes, before going to America. But even then Dr. Ritchie suggested you to be ready at least one month before your recital, to have a run-through one month before. Is this realistic, Ausra?
A: Yes, this is realistic, I think. And that’s the way how it should be I think.
V: Mmm-hmm. Would that help?
A: Yes, that would help.
V: To you. But for people who are not professionals and just playing organ as their hobby, I think two months are needed.
A: Yes, that would be really wise. Another thing you also need to know, to breathe, during your actual performance. Because some anxiety comes during your performance, and panic attacks, because many people, especially inexperienced ones, simply forget to breathe. And breathing is crucial—it’s very important. So if you cannot control your breathe during performance then just take a few deep breaths before starting the peace and then maybe at the end of it, or maybe at the slow section of it—remember to breathe.
V: It takes practice.
A: Yes. It’s not so easy.
V: Don’t expect to breathe during public performance when you never focus on your breathing during practice, right? Panic will do it’s own work and you will forget. Maybe you will remember a moment here and there, maybe, if you’re lucky. But if you really want to be free during public performance, you need to incorporate breathing into your daily routine.
A: And the third thing which is very important, especially for those who have very few public performance experience[s] yet, you need to perform as often as you can. The more often you perform, the better you will get on the stage.
V: Every ten recitals or public appearances, you will have a breakthrough.
A: Yes, because, look, if you will perform often enough, you will get tired of being actually nervous, of having that anxiety, because you cannot be always afraid of it.
V: Mmm-mmm. Remember Dr…
A: It will become a habit for you to play in public and you will enjoy it actually. You want to be on the stage. You see some of the musicians, we are old, and we can hardly walk but we still want to play to sing in public—as they make not maybe a nice jokes about them that they will probably die on the stage.
V: Remember Dr. Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra at Eastern Michigan University, told us about her experiences in Germany when she was studying with Harald Vogel. She would have to perform publicly at least once a week, or maybe more, I guess, for that time, maybe for how many months she was there. And that helped her to reduce the stress level to basically zero. It was like daily task for her. Nothing special.
A: And the same in America when we had studio class every week and everybody in Lincoln, everybody would play what we have learned during that week. So that way you would have to perform in a studio class each week and then we would have to play service on Sunday, and sometimes even on Saturday evening. So that’s at least two public performance a week, not counting all kind of recitals where you would take either a part in the recital or you would play solo recital.
A: And that’s how you built up an experience.
V: The reason I live stream my practices for example, from my church on the organ on Facebook, is that not only I want to promote the largest pipe organ Lithuania, not only I want to reach more people with my playing, but I also want to reach the confidence level of my public performance and the freedom it gives. That’s, it’s not a big deal, right, for me to play in front of the camera, or in front of strangers. It’s the same thing for me too. I know I won’t stop the camera at any time. It has to be live without editing and even if I make a mistake I will have to play around it so that my audience wouldn’t notice it.
A: Yes and I think there might be some cases when people cannot overcome themselves, cannot overcome that performance anxiety and it’s just there and you can do nothing. In that case I would probably suggest for such a person, especially if it’s a young one, probably not to, not play any more. That’s very sad but I think there are some cases like this. I have seen kids who would keep just shaking and shivering and panicking, and, I think that because if it’s [a] case like this, and you cannot do anything about it, maybe it’s not your way to be a professional musician.
V: I have to clarify this, because I know what you’re thinking; you’re suggesting that this person might play privately, not in public.
A: Or just switch to another major.
V: Mmm-hmm. Earn a living in a different way and keep…
A: That’s right.
V: playing an instrument as a hobby.
A: That’s right.
V: Yeah, if it costs you too much of nerves and stress, then it’s not worth the effort, probably. Unless there is a clear path to overcome this.
V: Unless you’re seeing the progress in over the months and years of reducing stress, gradually.
A: Because, anyway, I think music needs to give joy, and not nerve.
V: Okay guys, this was a good question. So please send us more questions like that. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
V: Miracles happen!
SOPP318: Happy Halloween - "please do not suggest a psychologist, for I did see one for three years and not help"
Happy Halloween everyone! Will you be playing scary organ music tonight? I hope you will... I will certainly be playing organ music of Teisutis Makacinas. It will scare off some neighbors who will be trick-or-treating for sure. If nobody will show up at our door, perhaps I can scare Ausra at least... :)
And now let's go to the podcast for today.
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 318 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Sjouke and he writes:
“Hi Vidas and Ausra,
Today I have finished a morning practice session for about 2 and a half hrs, and than after that I was done for, meaning very tired. I get that way, my back is hurting and between my shoulder blades etc. Although I am not very good at it, playing the organ that is, still I try to get to the church at least once a week, because others also want time behind the organ, which is understandable and I do not begrudge them that, and I am working at trying to get a key for the church so I do get more time behind the organ. I do have a organ at home and I enjoy playing of it but of course the sound is different, so that is why I go to church to practice.
But it seems that I am a slow learner, being 72 years of age does not help, but that is frustrating me. I usually pick pieces that I know that I can learn, a couple of months ago I heard a friend of mine play, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" by J.S. Bach and I asked this friend of mine if he thought I could learn this piece, his reply was to try, but to take it slow. I have done that, now this piece has four pages, but it is going very slowly, and I do not mind telling you that I get impatient and frustrating for a piece of music of this kind, I can work on it for a year before I can say I do know it now and I can play it at home with not problem, but in public is another story.
I played for a congregation for fifteen years, and it took me another eight years before I felt comfortable enough that I did not get overly out of control nervousness. One and half years ago that church closed its doors, to bad for I really enjoyed my time there. My question to both of you is how do I get over this out of control nervousness. I done a performance last March I believe and it was not very good, I did know the piece I was playing, which was an improvisation by Dianne Bish " Great God We praise Your Name" I do not know if you know it, but it did take a while for me to learn it. Anyway the nervousness really I need help with, please do not suggest a psychologist, for I did see one for three years and not help. Thank you for answering this question.
V: This is really a common problem people are having about nervous during public performance. It can make or break an organist in public.
A: That’s true and I think it’s a common feeling for anybody who is performing so I think the trouble is that maybe Sjouke is not performing publicly often enough.
A: Because usually what helps is frequent performances for somebody else because the more you appear in public the more you can learn how to control your nervousness.
V: If we look at our Unda Maris studio students we already teach for like eight years I think and some of them are still with us right from the beginning so from the start those people were really weak in their public performance skills but now look they are quite comfortable, not confident enough, but maybe comfortable while playing in public. In your opinion Ausra, how much time does it take for a person to feel more comfortable and not nervous?
A: I think it depends on the person, I think it’s a different number for everybody. I couldn’t tell you a number but the more often you do it the better it gets, the more comfortable you will feel.
V: Probably not eight years as we see with our studio, I think less, maybe a few years if you perform regularly. Not once a year obviously, but maybe like once a few months. They don’t have to play an entire program, maybe one or two pieces. A good place to start is schedule a prelude and postlude or communion with your friend organist at church.
A: But Sjouke talked in his letter and I think it’s sort of a general tendency in Europe that more and more services are dismissed and churches are closing and I heard maybe a couple of years ago that the Dutch are selling the organ to South America and Africa and I just think that this is too bad. Where are we going to.
V: I think we have one Dutch organ too in one of the churches installed recently in town, not very bad organ.
A: At least I hope that the best historically interesting and valuable organs will remain in the native places because it is so important. I strongly believe that the organ needs to be built for that particular place and should not be moved someplace else because it is part of that architectural structure.
V: Well let’s take Africa or South Americas’ example. If church closes doors in the Netherlands and they feel the need to sell it or donate it overseas is it better for the organ to keep silent for decades or be played?
A: Well I would rather have it silent because I’m afraid if they go to Africa or South America think about climate in the Netherlands and think about climate in Africa or South America. It’s completely different and because the metal of organ pipes is soft or soft metal as you know it might flatten and collapse quite easily and another thing, other pipes are wooden pipes and let’s say if you are in Northern Europe, the Netherlands I would consider them part of Northern Europe, you could use even Maple to build an organ and everything would work fine. If you would take the same pipes to Africa or South America they would be eaten by worms, local worms, because simply that wood would be just too sweet for that climate and worms would be very happy to receive delicious pipes from Europe.
V: I know what you are thinking. Let them ship their organs to Lithuania (laughs.)
A: Yes, we would be happy to have historical rich organs in Lithuania. At the same time we have many spectacular organs here that really need restoration. I think it’s part of our responsibility of each person who thinks broadly enough that we would preserve our historical heritage.
V: Umm-hmm. This is true, obviously. And the other Sjouke wrote is that he is thinking about playing Wachet Auf by Bach. This is a very sweet piece, not very easy though for beginners.
A: Well it’s for me for example it’s easy when you have only two voices, pedals and right hand, but when the left hand comes in then it’s harder and cadences are especially hard. Don’t you think so? Even for a professional you have to work on those cadences.
V: Now that I remember this piece I think I’m going to assign Wachet Auf to one of our Unda Maris students.
A: But it’s so beautiful I think it’s worth the trouble of learning it. Because if you would think it’s taken from collection of Schübler chorales, that Bach himself actually arranged to be played on the organ from his cantatas, so I think Bach himself liked it so it’s really worth learning.
V: Right. The fact that it was published means that it was important for the composer to preserve it for future generations and also arrange it for the organ and maybe it’s a sign that we should not be afraid of arranging other orchestral music to the organ. It sounds beautiful sometimes too.
V: So we could close our conversation with maybe our assurance to Sjouke that yes, this piece could be done by him and that he needs to take frequent brakes when he practices so that his body would not go tired.
A: Another suggestion would be sometimes if you know that you will have to perform in public you can prepare in advance sort of scaring yourself about how you will feel doing that public performance and sometimes you can lift those emotions about having an audience and see how it goes.
V: I know what you mean.
A: You can imagine that you are already in a real performance. That might help sometimes too.
V: This reminds me that I read someplace that ancient samurai from Japan had a saying that you should constantly imagine death coming to you in many ways. Dying from spear, sword, water, falling stones, fire, you know all those warrior things, and then when the time comes to die they were ready. So if we as organists could imagine the worst situations ahead of time then the real situation would not be as scary. We hope this was useful to you guys and please send us more of your questions, we love helping you grow. And remember when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
SOPP312: I'm playing for a wedding and have some issues with performance anxiety
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 312 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. Today I’d like to share with you the discussion that was going on our communication channel on BaseCamp between Total Organist students. Annabelle wrote the answer to the question “What is she currently working on?” and “What is she struggling with?” So she is playing Wedding March by Wagner and she writes:
Annabel: I'm playing for a wedding in October and have some issues with performance anxiety. So I thought it would help to learn it by heart.
David: Great idea I have the anxiety issues, too. 2 bananas 30 minutes before performance has been helping me keep my hands and ankles from shaking so badly and slows down my racing heart.
Recently my doctor suggested trying a medication called Propranolol, so this Sunday will be the first run with it. I don't always need that kind of help, but when my performance anxiety gets out of control, I need just a little help.
Annabel: I’ll try bananas, that's very interesting. Is it the potassium? I'm fine accompanying hymns, I just don't like being a soloist!
David: Potassium for the heart rate, but allegedly they have a natural beta blocker in them to help with shaking hands and ankles. It's folk lore, but there seem to be a while lot of even professional musicians who swear by it. I opted for Propranolol because I can't have too much potassium.
Annabel: Fascinating, thanks David. I've started reading quite an old book called "Tensions in the Performance of Music" edited by Carola Grindea. It was recommended to me by a professional harpist.
David: Thank you! I will look for that
Vidas: I once ate bananas and drank mineral water entire concert day. When my turn came up to play, I felt as light as an angel.
V: Do you remember Ausra that time when I experimented with bananas?
A: Yes, I think bananas are good.
V: Have you had experiences with bananas before concerts?
A: Yes, but not like eating them all day long but if I have performance that day I try to eat two bananas.
V: Do you have performance anxiety which goes out of control for example?
A: Well, not now, but yes I have performance anxiety. I think anybody who tells that they have no performance anxiety at all they are lying.
V: Or tried to convince themselves.
A: I think it would be wrong if you wouldn’t get any performance anxiety.
V: Robots don’t have performance anxiety.
A: That’s right.
V: What did you feel when you ate bananas before concert? Was it a small reaction to them or a very significant one?
A: It’s hard to measure that help of bananas but at least I felt better myself for doing something good for myself, for my anxiety. So I think anyway it will not hurt to eat bananas.
V: For people who are not allergic to potassium or bananas in general.
A: And of course now you have to be especially careful when eating bananas because I’m sure you guys read in the news that there is a new mania spreading throughout the world.
V: Tell us more.
A: Putting needles into your foods. I think it all began in Australia where some supermarket people bought strawberries and tried to eat them at home and they were filled with needles. And now we have had already a few cases in Lithuania where people found needles in bananas. So be careful before eating them. Maybe just slice them down in small pieces.
V: When you slice them then the needles would appear? Wow, crazy people.
A: I know.
V: Instead of hurting others and making fun of them obviously they should do some other creative work.
A: I think you really need to be mentally ill in order to do such a thing.
V: Right, the world is a dark place sometimes. But yes, if you have a nice pack of bananas, you peel them and you check for needles, and you have performance anxiety you could drink mineral water and that day, concert day or public performance day, you will start feeling really light just because of that healthy food of course, and lots of water. And that helps to clear your mind as well, don’t you think Ausra?
A: Well, yes, but think about it if you have performance late at night and all that long day you will just have bananas.
V: No, that was me with my crazy experiments on myself being like a human guinea pig, but take moderation of course with those things. Eat one or two bananas and see what happens.
A: Yes and the other thing if you have really, really bad performance anxiety, if you really cannot play because of that I think you might need to consult your physician. Maybe they will have some medications for you.
V: Don’t choose the medications for yourself, right? Because…
A: I don’t think you could get medications without prescription for that purpose.
V: Umm-hmm. Right. But even if you have some at home you better consult the real physician because for your purpose, for your situation, maybe you bought it for another condition, right? And if you want to reduce anxiety for organ playing maybe you need to tell the doctor.
A: Because usually what performance needs we need to know that our hands and feet wouldn’t shake but some of those medications just simply suppress your brain function and you might not be able to play at all.
V: Right. I guess breathing helps. I found out sometimes 10 or 15 minutes before the concert if you are alone backstage or next to the organ bench and nobody can see you. You go into the corner if there are people around. Try to be alone for a while. Sit there and take deep breaths while closing your eyes and I think that helps to calm down a little bit, stay in the moment, right?
A: But you know if you take breaths that are too deep you might be in trouble as well.
V: Yes, you can faint.
A: (laughs) Can you imagine during your performance you start breathing deeply and slowly and suddenly you just faint.
V: But if it’s during your performance that you start to panic then actually reminding yourself to breathe helps to get out of this situation and control your music. Ausra, before we end why do think people are afraid to perform in public, it’s like public speaking also, people are very frightened?
A: You told me statistics that some people are not so much afraid of dying.
V: Yes, peoples number one fear is public speaking, dying is number two.
A: Work as a teacher for a while and then after a year or two you wouldn’t get that fear.
V: The more you practice, the more you appear in public, the less risk it appears because personally I believe people are afraid because of high stakes, what would happen if you make mistakes, what happens in your head. You think people will start to make fun of you, maybe your career will be over. If your career will be over then you won’t any more invitations to play organ concerts. If you won’t get any more concerts then you won’t have any money. If you won’t have any money you won’t have anything to eat, no money, no food, no shelter, then you will die. You see because just making a mistake or two playing sharp instead of flat there is a sudden thought process going subconsciously basically into dying. Fear of death basically what it is. But it’s all in your brain, you can control it I think mentally while staying in the moment, or trying to stay in the moment as much as possible. Ausra, what do you think?
A: Yes I agree, but it’s not as easy you know.
V: It’s constant struggle, right? With each practice you get a little bit better I think but you have to remind yourself to remember to stay in the moment and keep your eyes fixed on the music if you are playing from the sheet music, on the current measure.
A: That’s right.
V: OK guys, we hope this was useful to you. Please send us more of your questions, we love helping you grow. And remember when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
AVA157: I Easily Become Anxious When I Repeat A Fragment, Especially For The Third Time
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let start episode 157 of Ask Vidas and Ausra podcast. This question was sent in by Marco and he writes:
I'm an organ student. I'm trying your method of subdividing a piece in fragments and voices and it's very helpful. My problem is that I find the practice quite stressful mainly for the following reasons:
1. There are sometime fragments that I cannot play correctly no matter how many times I repeat it.
2. I easily become anxious when I repeat a fragment, especially for the third time, because if I make a mistake I have to start again and repeat it at least three more times.
Do you have any suggestion to make the process less tiresome?
V: Do you think Ausra that people should be so severe when they practice a piece of music?
A: I don’t think so you can hurt your nerve system if you will be always anxious and be so stressful about your practice.
V: Almost you can feel that a person feels a guilt right, about making a mistake and feeling bad about himself or theirself that this mistake was made. Actually there is a saying that the person who makes the most mistakes will win actually in the long run. The person who fails the most will win. Do you know why Ausra?
V: Because they will try it many more times than the other person.
A: That’s true. And to know I just thought about, you know, him saying that sometimes he makes mistakes and you know he cannot not sort of correct them and then he gets frustrated because he knows that has to repeat that part at least three more times and I’m thinking you know if there is certain spots that are possible for you to play correctly it means that you are doing something wrong in that spot and I would suggest for you to revise those fragments. Maybe, you know, you are playing them too fast.
V: Or, you are making the texture too thick.
A: Sure, maybe you are using a wrong finger because something is probably not right in those spots. Or, maybe you are just too anxious to get a good result. Things like this take time and it’s normal.
V: Remember in our school there are a lot of students banging the piano as fast as they can in short fragments repeatedly over and over again like ten or twenty or fifty times.
A: And it’s funny but they are repeating the same mistakes all over. Over and over again.
V: Do you know what insanity is? The definition of insanity?
A: No, I don’t know.
V: Alfred Einstein said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The definition of insanity.
V: So, simply you have to change something in order to expect different result. And I’m not meaning Marco or any of our students in this way. I’m just illustrating how extreme this approach can become, right, if you play too fast or the the texture is too thick. For example, if you’re not ready to play without mistakes that fragment, maybe you could play just one line, one voice.
A: Sure, but you have to know to do something about it.
A: About that, yes.
V: You make a mistake and you are not satisfied with that mistake. That’s OK even though you are feeling angry or frustrated with yourself is not the best feeling but OK for now let’s say that you are angry. You accept that. You admit that you are angry and then you think “What can I change about the situation or about my feeling of the situation.” Right. If I cannot change the situation why should I become angry. Right. If I can’t change the situation then maybe I become less angry about that.
A: Yes and no, if some particular spot give you so much trouble maybe just let it to rest for a while. Maybe you know, stop practicing that piece for a day and come back to it later, you know next day. Or, do a break of two days, because sometimes you know, you need to give for things time to rest and then you will go back to them and things will work well. I’ve had this experience many times, have you had it too?
V: Obviously, yes. Of course what happens at the time when you rest, your mind is bombarded with another set of information and your old influences and inputs, informational inputs are no longer the current ones and you maybe tend to forget what happened bad in your past, right? And when you come back to the old spot when you made mistakes your fingers might feel like their at a fresh spot and forget that this was a difficult spot.
V: So, maybe a week or so of playing something else would be beneficial and then coming back to the old spot. Ausra, do you make a lot of mistakes yourself when you practice? Do you allow yourself to make mistakes when you practice?
A: Actually, no because the more mistakes I will make during my practice, the harder it will get to correct them.
V: Exactly. So, you are doing something different that a lot of people, right? You are not allowing yourself to make those frequent mistakes.
A: That’s right, so you just have to be really focused when you are practicing.
V: Even at this level, right, very far advanced level we could play a piece, a familiar organ piece and make many mistakes if we are not careful, if we are playing too fast, if were playing it with the wrong fingering. You could do that, but we don’t allow ourselves. For example this morning I recorded my sight reading of BWV 552, the E-flat Major Prelude and Fugue by Bach which will later be used for transcription purposes of fingering and pedaling from the new score. So, I had to play almost cleanly and without mistakes so that people who will help to transcribe this score will understand what I’m doing, right, and the choices that I’m making with fingering would be more or less correct. Of course, I can edit them later in the first draft of the transcription. But, I tend to use more or less logical fingering, right?
V: So how do you do that, Ausra, at the early stages of development, if a person doesn’t have advanced skill of playing difficult and advanced organ music.
A: I think the most important thing at least for me is to know to practice with my actually mind first. That no if I have no sort of fresh head when I can practice. If I feel tired that I cannot understand what I am doing I stop practicing because I just don’t like that purely mechanical playing.
V: So it’s a complex phenomenon. You have to understand how the pieces put together. In order to do that you have to have a good grasp of music theory and harmony and musical analysis and form. Right? So you think what the composer thought when he or she created this piece. Moreover, you have to have your own experience at creating music in the moment like improvisation or in a written form like composition or in the perfect scenario, both. Right? That would be the ideal situation. Of course, so my advice for all the people who are listening to this would be to have a complex education and expanding your entire musical horizons not only organ playing from score but many supplemental things.
A: Yes, and always listen to what you are doing. That’s important too. Because so many people are just playing whatever, fast and loud.
V: Do not worry about how fast or how slow you will achieve that results. Do not worry how much there is still to learn, right? And how many years it will take to perfect your art. It doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that you perfect your art just one percent a day. One percent. And every seventy-two days this percentage will double and at the end of a year you will perfect your art, your complex organ art. Not only organ playing or sight-reading skill, but everything together put together. You’ll perfect it thirty-eight hundred percent if you do that every day. That’s all. That’s enough. OK. So I think that this is the best we can hope to inspire you today. Go ahead and practice and don’t be frustrated with your mistakes. Or, even better, play as slowly or as transparently that you will not make those mistakes at all.
V: Thank you. We hope this was useful. Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. An remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
Francine Nguyen-Savaria on Independence of Voices, Performance Anxiety And Managing Time Constraints
Welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast #109!
Today's guest is a Canadian organist Francine Nguyen-Savaria. She entered the piano class of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal at the age of sixteen. Two years later, she entered the organ class, studying under Jean Le Buis. She graduated from the Conservatory in May 2011.
Francine is the recipient of many prizes and scholarships, which have allowed her to participate in the Mount Royal College Organ Academy in Calgary, Canada, and in organ courses, studying with Jean Galard in Paris and Cherry Rhodes in Los Angeles. She completed her graduate studies at the University of Southern California in December 2013. Awards include the John Goss Memorial Scholarship from the Royal Canadian College of Organists and the Irene E. Robertson Music Scholarship from the USC Thornton School of Music.
She recently performed the complete organ work of Johannes Brahms at the Calgary Organ Festival and Symposium. She also played with the Calgary Civic Symphony for the same festival. She has also given recitals at venues including the Saint Joseph Oratory in Montreal, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, and the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul (Episcopal) in Los Angeles.
Francine has been music director for Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church in Claremont, CA. She now lives with her husband in Belleville and they both serve as directors of music for Saint Thomas' Anglican Church.
In this conversation, Francine shares her insights of how to overcome such challenges as dealing with independence of voices, performance anxiety and managing time constraints.
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Listen to the conversation
Today's question was posted by Paul:
"I've been given the opportunity to be organist at First Baptist Church in Boise and have been playing every other week a prelude and postlude, but I get very nervous and have a very hard time focusing on the music. I started with a very easy piece, prelude #1 from Bach's Preludes and Fugues, book 1 and the postlude was Christ Lag in Todesbanden BWV 625. (learned a long time ago when taking lessons) Both went well but very hard to focus. The last prelude I played was Bach's Sleepers Awake, but both my hands were trembling and it was easy to lose my place in the music. At one point I stopped, backed up a little and started again - something that is not supposed to happen. I've played it perfectly at home. Suggestions? I won't play that again until I stop getting nervous." (Paul)
To be able to focus during a public performance is a critical skill for any organist. We think that it's not really possible to avoid fear. The aim is to learn to control it. Focusing on breathing helps here a lot because your mind will be occupied on something useful. The more you do it in public, the calmer you will feel.
Listen to our answer at #AskVidasAndAusra
If you want us to answer your questions, post them as comments to this post and use a hashtag #AskVidasAndAusra so that we would be able to find them.
When you practice, miracles happen.
Vidas and Ausra
(Get free updates of new posts here)
Vidas: Hello, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And let's start today, Episode number 7 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today's question was posted by Paul, and he writes:
"I've been given the opportunity to be organist at First Baptist Church in Boise. And have been playing every other week at prelude and postlude, but get very nervous and have a very hard time focusing on the music. I started with a very easy piece - Prelude Number One from Bach's Preludes and Fugues, Book One - and the postlude was 'Christ lag in Todesbanden' BWV 625. I learned it a long time ago when taking lessons. Both pieces went well, but very hard to focus.
The last prelude I played was Bach's 'Sleepers Awake,' so that's 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme'; but both my hands were trembling, it was easy to lose my place in the music. At one point, I stopped, backed up a little and started again, something that is not supposed to happen. I played it perfectly at home.
Suggestions? I won't play that again until I stop getting nervous."
So that was ideas and challenges from Paul. What do you think, Ausra? Is it a common challenge people face when playing organ in public?
Ausra: I think it's very common challenge to do anything publicly; even like some people are terrified of public speaking. So here is the same, so if I would be Paul, I would not say that last sentence, because you might not never get rid of your nerves during performance. The most important thing is to learn to control it.
Vidas: So Paul writes, "I won't play that again until I stop getting nervous." It will not happen, right? Anytime soon.
Ausra: Yes, yes. And you know, I would suggest that you need to play as often publicly as you can. This is probably the best way to be able to control your nerves.
Vidas: To be able to face your fears, right? To get stronger. Remember the saying, "Whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger", right?
Ausra: Yes. And if same thing happens in some spot, never try to play it again during public performance. Just go ahead. Maybe you can mark in your score, places where it's comfortable for you to start, and then pick up the closest part that's connected.
Vidas: And make sure you also keep the pulse moving, keep counting and pick up the new fragment if you have to. Pick up the new fragment exactly at the next beat so you don't miss a beat, and nobody will notice that.
Ausra: Yes and another important thing is just don't forget to breathe. It's such a simple thing, it seems like a very simple thing to do; but actually it's not that simple during actual performance when you get nervous, then it start for you to get hard to breathe. Many people even forget about it.
Vidas: You know what happens when we panic, right? This was a panic attack for Paul, probably. A small one maybe, because he managed to control it by playing fragment again, right? Backing up and playing it again. And finishing the piece anyway. But what happens when you panic is basically you are short of oxygen. Your brain doesn't get enough oxygen, so you have to constantly remind yourself of breathing, deeply slowly. And the slower you breathe, the calmer you will feel, right. That's the rule.
Ausra, have you been breathing while playing organ? And did it help you at that point where you were nervous?
Ausra: Yes, definitely. It did help me, a lot.
Vidas: I remember my last recital for Bach's birthday, remember we played it together this year. And I played this E minor long prelude and fugue, BWV 538. And yes it was a strenuous piece, and there were a few episodes that I was particularly shaking. And I kept breathing, actually that saved me. Saved me somehow from stopping, from panicking and from losing my place in the music.
So I hope Paul and other people who struggle with playing organ in public, and struggling from being nervous, too nervous perhaps ... might get some help and apply these tips and practice.
Ausra: Yes, and sometimes know that fear also comes from not being prepared well enough. I'm not telling that Paul's case was like this, but sometimes there are things where you are not prepared well enough, and you are starting panicking during performance. So you have to be really well-prepared; that might make you feel more relaxed, too.
Vidas: Can you be more precise? What do you mean, "well-prepared" here?
Ausra: Well, as George Ritchie, former professor did... he would not let us to play at recital or any of his students to play recital if a month before actual performance, we could not play throughout run-through. Without stopping, without obvious mistakes, and so on and so forth. And I think it's very helpful.
Vidas: Well yes, it's really a month before, it's just a bare minimum. I remember in one of the previous episodes, we talked about Ana Marija. She was asking how to master a lot of pieces during a short period of time. Basically she wrote me later that she's planning to be ready at least three months before the recital. So that's a healthy amount of time, right? To be prepared. In our Unda Maris student recital, whoever could play the piece three months before the recital was very secure and very calm during performance.
So for Paul and others who are struggling with focusing and panicking - this is a key too.
Vidas: Make sure you get enough time, plenty of time, for practice.
Great, guys. If you want to ask us more questions, send them by posting them as comments to this post, but make sure you add hashtag, right? #AskVidasAndAusra so that we would be able to see them.
Wonderful. So I think this is a comprehensive answer, and we'll see you again next time. This was Vidas-
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember: when you practice,
Ausra: Miracles happen.
By Vidas Pinkevicius (get free updates of new posts here)
This morning I went to church to practice and found Mindaugas, my student from the Unda Maris studio who wanted me to look at his F minor Chaccone by J. Pachelbel he's been working over the last view months.
Mindaugas usually comes earlier on Tuesdays for our weekly practices and I miss his performance. By the time I show up, he would be done practicing and let other students play.
So this morning I had a first chance to listen to him play for real in a long period of time.
It sounded quite strong. The tempo was stable, the articulation was clear but he had just one variation in the middle which was a little shaky.
Not bad. Out of entire variation cycle, just one which needed some extra attention from my part.
I asked him if he would be freezing in fear in this part when he would be performing live and he said that sometimes it would be hard for him to keep going and he would need to stop.
But stopping is not allowed in life performance, is it?
So I suggested him to write down chord names below the pedal part in this variation and practice just playing the chords without pedals.
These chords were:
Try applying this in more difficult spots of your practice and you'll see how easier it becomes to keep going.
Hope this helps.
By Vidas Pinkevicius (get free updates of new posts here)
Here's what one subscriber wrote to me and Ausra:
"You’re completely right that performing music in front of an audience is important, and it’s exhilarating and useful in getting rid of performance anxiety. I now have 10 minutes of music in my head, and it’s an awesome feeling. I’m most grateful for leading me towards this point - you are wonderful teachers and I find your hints and materials very helpful and very important for my progress.
I find that playing a duet is especially demanding and forces a certain discipline - a very positive one, of course. My daughter (viola player) has been playing for 2.5 years and she can easily play the entire piece without gross mistakes, without stopping and at a chosen tempo. It has forced me to to stay very focused, and to know how to catch up or work around my own beginner’s mistakes. It also forced me to listen to how my playing meshed with hers: she holds the tempo much better than I do, so I must exactly follow her and pay attention. It’s harder but the benefits of it are noticeable, I think. I know that not many of your students may have a musician living with them to play with, but those that do should I think take every advantage of it if they can. Never mind the joy of performing with your own child or spouse. Keep doing what you’re doing - you give me much joy." (Kuba)
So you see, these tips do work for real people. Just keep on practicing and when things get tough, remember to make good art.
By the way, BWV 549 Video Training Course is now free with all levels of Total Organist memberships.
Deadline and panic
By Vidas Pinkevicius (get free updates of new posts here)
Elevated heart beat rate, shallow breathing, eyes wandering from place to place, sinking feeling in your stomack, inability to act and focus.
These are all signs of panic. Especially when you have a deadline coming up soon (public organ performance) and you imagine a worst case scenario (many mistakes and public humiliation).
The worst thing before a deadline is panic.
The one thing you should do is this:
Create a rigorous and realistic practice schedule for yourself and stick to it no matter what. Take action and stop marinating in the feelings you have about the deadline.
Action always eliminates panic.
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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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