How to Make Sure Your Organ Practice Helps You Advance Further Even Though You Don't Have Much Time to Play
Troubling situation, right? Obviously you want to progress in organ playing in building up your technique and repertoire but various time constrains (work and/or family responsibilities) make it seemingly impossible to do so.
You might have just enough time on the organ bench to repeat previously learned material and to keep it on the back burner so you are kind of stuck. You are not regressing but spinning your wheels. But since time goes by so quickly it feels like your technique might even degrade when you check your progress from one week to another.
And without actually making progress, you can't learn new pieces, can't hope to prepare for organ recitals and even church service playing is becoming harder and harder to sustain, let alone to make it engaging and interesting.
So that's the constrain you are facing - you want to advance but don't have enough time. Seems like hopeless business? Not the way I look at it.
A question to you: Do you have at least 30 minutes a day for your organ practice? If not, it would not be realistic to hope progressing as an organist. So first you have to make some time. Will you agree with me that if you are truly serious, 30 minutes a day can be found perhaps by getting up earlier or staying up later than others in your family, or cutting back on your online activities or skipping your favorite TV shows, or processing your email inbox in batches just once a day instead of keeping your inbox tab open all the time?
But this post is not about how to find more time for practicing organ. We just need to agree on the minimum of 30 minutes a day on the organ bench. Of course, I'm not suggesting that every organist would only play for half an hour. No, this advice is for emergencies only, when you're drowning in work and responsibilities but you still feel a need to practice.
OK, here we go.
First, you need to practice the right kind of materials. Fiddling around with sight-reading or playing a hymn here and there won't make the cut. You need to focus and play what really matters to your technique and of course to your goals as an organist.
We'll pretend you need to learn some new pieces and advance your technique. With regards to technique, I personally like practicing Hanon's the Virtuoso Pianist exercises but they take much more than 30 minutes a day, perhaps an hour or so depending on your speed. Some people find Hanon to be boring and the exercises musically too dry and uninteresting. I too, tend to play only what's engaging to my mind. So I play Hanon in various modes and rhythms. This helps me avoid boredom in practice and at the same time learn new modes which I later incorporate in my improvisations.
But you have only 30 minutes, right?
This means you have to look at Hanon exercises strategically and figure out what's 20 percent of these exercises that give you 80 percent of results. That's 80/20 rule, or even 90/10 rule. In my experience (and your experience might be different), exercises in scales in double thirds (from Part 3, No. 52) are the ones that require the most stamina, they are very tiring to the fingers, and consequently make them very independent.
That's right, out of this book, if I had to choose only one exercise, I would choose exercises in scales in double thirds. Of course you can play in different keys, in different modes, and in different rhythms and even meters to make them more interesting, challenging, and rewarding.
Be careful not to overwork your fingers (at least at first). Start your playing slowly enough to be comfortable and trust that speed will come over time. Rest and relax when you feel tension rising.
But this is not all. Spend only 15 minutes a day with these exercises in double thirds. The best part is that you don't even need an organ for that. You can practice on piano, on the table, or even on your lap while watching TV commercials.
To make this practice even more inclusive, play pedal scales in parallel and/or contrary motion at the same time when you practice manual scales in double thirds. If your pedal technique isn't good enough, start with playing pedals at the ratio 1:2 or even 1:4. This means playing 2 notes on the manual and 1 on the pedals or 4 notes on the manual and 1 on the pedals.
So those 15 minutes don't count into your 30 minutes organ practice regimen. You see what's wonderful - you are advancing your manual and pedal technique even while being away from the organ.
But now let's go back to our practice. You need to learn new pieces and to refresh your muscle memory of the old ones and you've got 30 minutes for this.
Here's what I recommend - practice for 15 minutes previously mastered material and for 15 minutes learn something new.
When you repeat previously mastered material also don't play the entire piece but practice in shorter fragments repeatedly in a slow tempo. But since you don't have a lot of time, stop after 15 minutes and go to the next phase of your practice.
In those time intervals when you're learning something new, don't aim to play the entire piece, though. Be very focused and strategic - play only those measures which you are learning, maybe 4 measures. That's it. Truly master them during 15 minutes. It's possible, if you're serious about it, if you're learning in single parts, in combinations of 2, 3, and 4 parts and repeating very slowly until you can play at least 3 correct repetitions in a row of that fragment.
So you see at least in theory, how it's possible to advance in organ playing even though you don't spend much time on the organ bench. Of course, if you can find more time for playing the organ, that's even better - you can incorporate sight-reading, improvisation, harmony, counterpoint, transposition, memorization, learn more new fragments and repeat more old ones, play many more technical exercises etc. However, in this post I only was concerned with a bare minimum - learning a little bit of new material while retaining old one and polishing your manual and pedal technique to the degree that you feel you are advancing and not spinning your wheels.
Try this system yourself for a while and let me know how it works for you.
[HT to John]
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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.