SOPP323: Keeping my mind from wandering and resisting the temptation to sightread at tempo (with mistakes)
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 323 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Barbara, and she wrote that she struggles with two related things:
1) keeping my mind from wandering when I'm doing repetitions to teach my hands/feet the fingering/pedaling, and 2) resisting the temptation to sightread at tempo (with mistakes).
V: I think number 2 is very common, when people sight read too fast.
A: That’s right, and I don’t think it’s bad if you do it, let’s say, once—just to get the feeling of that piece. But, to do it more than once, then it’s really bad. It slows down your progress.
V: Exactly. So, when you’re taking a new piece you’re about to study and master, sometimes it’s nice to play it through with more mistakes than usual, but just to get the general feeling how the piece should sound.
A: Yes, and also, that going through that piece in tempo will give you a good idea how long will it take for you to learn it—to master it.
V: Because, if you make, let’s say, 10 mistakes and you’re playing at the concert tempo, it will take about 10 days, in my experience. What about yours, Ausra?
A: I never counted my mistakes and the days that I have to practice.
V: You know, I’m very scientific!
A: I’m not.
V: No, I’m not scientific, but I’ve found that this works, actually. Usually, people cannot do 10 mistakes. They will do 100 mistakes, if playing too fast. So 100 days would be more or less appropriate, I think.
A: Well, it could be.
V: You could say if I’m working fragment by fragment and I could do, let’s say, one page per day if I really concentrate and master those troublesome spots, you could say that I could eliminate more than one mistake a day. But, the next day, you will not be ready to perform that page in public. It’s still fresh. You need to refresh for at least a week or more, so that’s why you need more days, I think.
A: True. And, I think for me, it’s hard when I know a piece very well—some recordings from other performers—and I’m starting to work on it, and it sounds in my ears, and I know how it needs to sound, but my fingers are not ready yet. And that’s when I have a temptation of speeding up.
V: And Barbara writes about the problem maybe we also have, that her mind is wandering when she repeats the same fragment many times over and over again. Do you have this temptation to wander around through the woods or whatever, in your dreams, when you’re counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.”
A: Yes, definitely. And, sometimes I remember playing that Reincken’s Fantasy, “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” which takes forever. And, sometimes I would go through the piece, and will stay in focus—I would always know which line I’m playing, which text, or sounds the text is dealing with in the right spot, and thinking about all those Baroque figurations and things that I had to think about. But, sometimes I would start to play that piece, and suddenly I would be at the end, and I didn’t even imagine how things went through.
V: You didn’t notice.
A: Yes, I didn’t notice it, so my mind was flying around somewhere. Have you that feeling sometimes?
V: Many times, because now, I’m playing this concert in November with organ works of Teisutis Makačinas, a living composer from Lithuania, to honor his 80th anniversary, and his music, sometimes, is really dissonant and hard to understand, and sometimes my mind doesn’t want to understand. So, when I’m working on a fragment, let’s say, line by line, there are three or four measures every line, so it’s a good length of the fragment to work on, and I repeat and count repetitions, let’s say, up to 10 times. I sometimes forget which number it is—is it five or six—because my mind also is distracted and tries not to focus, because the music doesn’t necessarily sound nice. It’s not a sweet music, maybe. Maybe it will sound nice at the concert, but it will not sound sweet, for sure.
A: Yes. And, I wonder why when I am playing with an absent mind, I never make mistakes.
V: Maybe that’s not the absent mind. Maybe you got carried away in to the Reincken’s land! Reinckenland!
A: I don’t know. But it does, somehow...
V: Maybe you’re experiencing a sense of flow, which is completely different from what we are talking about. Maybe you are “in the zone,” like deep focused. When kids are playing or drawing, they forget the sense of time around them. They could play with one flower for hours, for example. Maybe that’s what you are doing?
A: Well, who knows, you know? The human mind is an endless Abyss!
V: Who said that?
A: Raymond Haggh!
V: And who was Raymond Haggh?
A: He was the director of the school of music at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but actually, he was the head of the music department before we went to study there. But we met him once, and he was a very nice man, and I think that’s what he said after greeting students for half a day, reading the essays.
V: “The human mind is an endless abyss!”
A: That’s right.
V: I see. Nice. I think people don’t have to be too harsh on themselves when they lose focus or they’re making mistakes or playing too fast. I mean, just go back to the original intent gently and keep playing. It’s like in meditation, probably. If anyone tried to meditate, and tried to focus your mind on the breathing, and sit for two minutes or ten minutes, however long you want, anybody could try to do this could probably discover right away that your mind is all over the place—about things that happened in the past, about things that might happen in the future, but never in the present moment. And if we are frustrated with this, if we are angry with ourselves—at our current condition, then we get even more distracted, actually, from the current moment. The same might be with organ playing. We just need to gently remind ourselves what’s our intent with each repetition and go back to the practice.
A: I think this kind of work takes all your life!
V: To improve yourself, your mental skills?
A: That’s right. I think only experienced monks at the Buddhist Monastery have already managed this skill, because it’s really hard to master, to be at the right moment, at the right time.
V: I think that everybody should find a joy in the process of practice. Not necessarily looking at ourselves, at our shortcomings, what we cannot do, but rather what we are practicing—what we could do—what we can do better than yesterday, for example, better than last week or last month. Right? And then this is hopeful, I think. Not only helpful, but hopeful. Right Ausra?
A: That’s right.
V: Okay, let’s wish Barbara and others to have fun with practice, and please guys, continue sending to us your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, 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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