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.
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When you practice, miracles happen.
Vidas and Ausra
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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.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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.