SOPP317: My challenge continues to be aware of posture + unrelaxed hands, arms, and shoulders to prevent numbness in my hands (especially my right hand)
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 317 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Barbara, and she writes:
My challenge continues to be aware of posture + unrelaxed hands, arms, and shoulders to prevent numbness in my hands (especially my right hand). This came to a crisis 2.5 yrs ago. I've been to doctors, occupational therapist, and Alexander Technique teacher and am determined to control it without surgery. Mild arthritis is also an issue (age 67). I hold chords too tightly, press the keys harder than I need to, and frequently find my shoulders hunched. Releasing all of this helps.
I'm thinking of focusing on 17th-18th c. French organ music this fall (interesting, need to learn ornaments + performance practice better, and not so many chords). Will give my feet exercises and tricky Bach pedal passages (and learn the hands later).
V: So, let’s talk, Ausra, first, about how to relax the body when you’re playing organ.
A: I think one of the key things is to breathe, because if you will not breathe, then your body will get tension.
V: What do you mean, “Breathe,” we all breathe all the time, right?
A: Well, yes, but…
V: You know, they say you cannot survive more than three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food. Three, three, three. So I think everybody breathes.
A: And I think I would survive three minutes without any air, but…
V: Maybe you would get unconscious, but you will still be alive…
V: Until that time, I guess. But, what do you mean to learn how to breathe and….
A: That you’re breathing needs to be meaningful.
A: Conscious, yes.
V: So, when you’re playing something on the organ, you also have to think about breathing?
A: That’s right.
V: How to do this at once. Think about music and about breathing.
A: Well, if you would think about musical structure, how the piece is put together, you would also notice that it’s not through-composed.
V: There are some pieces which are through-composed.
A: Well, yes, but what I’m meaning is that each piece has its own phrasing. And that even naturally music, after the phrase, takes a break. So if the music breathes, you need to breathe, too!
V: Oh, the easiest way to imagine this, would proabably would be if you are playing a wind instrument.
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: And you have to breathe at the end of the phrase.
A: And in some sense, organ is also a wind instrument.
A: Because it has pipes!
V: I see! So everything that has pipes is a wind instrument. Or not?
V: Nice. So then, what goes on in our minds when we play, we try to breathe, does it help to relax when we breathe?
A: That’s right, and also your posture is very important, when you sit on the organ bench. You need to keep your back straight.
V: And, people always forget this. Right?
A: Yes, especially you!
V: Because they…. Especially me?
V: Right. You guys shouldn’t see me right now. I’m almost in half line position recording this conversation, reclining on our chair.
V: Yes, Armchair. So, yes, sitting up straight… what else would help? Making small economical efficient movements. Not hitting too much.
A: Yes, but sometimes the soft motion with your arms might help you to relax, too. And sometimes, when people try to do very economic motions, let’s just say they get tension, too.
V: Oh right.
A: At least that’s what I feel.
V: So it’s a practice. It takes time to learn this.
A: And another important thing is you need to take frequent breaks if you have problems as Barbara has.
V: Yesterday, I practiced the church organ….or was it the day before… maybe the day before...with my phone, I have this app which has a timer from the Pomodoro technique. It beeps every 25 minutes and reminds me to take a break. And then, it beeps again after 5 minutes to remind me that it’s time to work. So after four of those sessions, it beeps again, and I can have a longer break, like 20 minutes. And then, it starts all over again, if I need to continue the practice of some sort. So, would you like to try it, Ausra, artificial reminders by phone?
A: Well, actually, my body, I think, is the best reminder for me.
V: You never forget how you feel when you are just so deeply focus on the music?
A: Well, I used to forget, but not anymore. With age, your body becomes more and more fragile.
V: Like a glass. You have to take care of the body more.
A: Or it will break. Another thing that might help, do some exercises. Do some yoga,
A: or some Pilates.
V: Even, probably, swimming is good.
A: Well, yes, but you have to know how to do it. Of course, in all these activities that I mentioned before, you have to know how to do it, because otherwise you might hurt yourself even more.
V: Taking a walk is very natural and a lot of people can take advantage of that without any training.
A: I think this is about the only activity that you will not hurt yourself, probably.
V: Unless you have knee problems.
V: So that’s about relaxing your body. What about French organ performance for Barbara? Do you have some tips and pointers to start with?
A: Well, I guess you have to know a little bit about French ornamentation, of course, when you play music like this, 17th and 18th century French music, because it’s all based on the ornaments. I would say it’s half written notes, and then half the ornaments, if not even more than half.
V: In other words, if you omit all the ornaments and play just the written music, it’s so boring!
A: Yes, it is. And, I heard that with French people, they never play the same piece in the same manner. They always change something—add more ornaments or play them differently. It’s hard for us that are raised more like German school to understand.
V: Eins, zwei, drei!
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: And then, probably, if people try historical instruments, then they discover this freedom and beauty of color in French organs. They’re not so good with polyphony, of course, but the harmonies are amazing, and colors, too.
A: So the second thing, the most important thing after learning ornamentation, would be to learn about registration—how to register a piece. Because, again, if you will not register them right, they will lose their sense.
V: Good thing that French composers tend to notate the registration quite specifically. But then, you need to adapt it to modern instruments if you’re playing one.
A: Yes, and I used to think that French classical music is sort of a little bit boring, yes? But then I attended a master class, which was held by Olivier Latry at the Saint Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, USA, and I really enjoyed how he talked about it, how he demonstrated it. And he compared the French classical music to theater. And it really makes sense how, for example, if you have a dialog between two hands on two different manuals with different registrations, and how one voice argues against another one, and it’s really like a theater. You can make an entire story out of it. It’s very interesting?
V: What’s your favorite French classical composer right now?
A: De Grigny. Nicolas de Grigny!
V: Right. He is much more advanced than some of his contemporaries in terms of polyphony.
A: What about yourself?
V: Well, I would tend to agree with you on those matters. It’s easier to agree than to argue.
A: Do you think I couldn’t take an argument well?
V: No, not because you couldn’t, but I think de Grigny is a great composer, so there is nothing to argue about.
A: Yes, and of course I also love The Noëls by Daquin.
V: Will you be playing them for Christmas?
A: Maybe I’ll do some. That’s always fun. And again, it’s so nice, you don’t have to use pedals, you just use your two hands.
V: But don’t be deceived too fast, because in the middle of the cycle of variations, they’re extremely virtuosic.
A: I know! Especially in Daquin’s variations.
V: They start slow, but they finish, oh….. like fire!
A: That’s true.
V: Ok guys, let’s go and practice now, because we think that just talking about those issues won’t help you advance in organ playing. You need to apply those tips in your practice. Because when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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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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