Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode episode 322, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Rob. He writes:
Hello Ausra and Vidas,
Today, I have a few things to share with you that relate to subjects that both of you discussed in recent SOPPs. Please feel free to use it as “ammo” to elaborate on as you see fit.
1) Accompanying the congregation in singing
This is something that I’ve been doing for almost 45 years now. When I accompany a choir, I’ll have to “obey” the SATB setting of the songs. When I accompany the people, I can basically make up my own harmonies. What I do is this: one of my ears listens to the organ, the other ear listens to the singing of the congregation. Now, in the middle of my head, I bring the two together: I always make sure, that I am just a fraction of a beat “ahead” so I can give them the next note, the next tone that they need to sing. This way, you can also control the pace of the song, because congregations are inclined to slow down in singing and it is best not to allow this. So, “split-listening” and being just ahead of the people is key in accompanying. And, of course, make sure that the melody of the song can be heard clearly.
2) On improvisation
I discovered, that there is a part in my brain that always creates music. All I need to do, is tune into it and listen to what’s “playing” in my head at that moment. Can be a melody, can be a harmonized piece of music. When I listen to it, I can get my right hand to immediately produce the melody that I hear. I am not yet good enough to immediately produce the harmonics that I hear with both hands. So, I must take it “slow”. That is, play the melody (and often harmonizing it as well) bringing it out in the right hand and find supporting harmony (chords etc.) in the left hand and pedal. I change between playing on 2 manuals and playing on 1 manual where I get to bring the two hands together while developing on the keyboard what I hear in my head. This works wonderfully well. And I do make it a habit of improvising 10-15 minutes every time I play the organ. Also before service, I make time to improvise for about 5 minutes. Makes sense to you guys?
Enjoy the weekend.
V: So, Ausra, these two questions, one is about accompanying congregation and about improvisation. I think it’s really on track what he’s suggesting about accompanying the congregation.
A: I think it’s very much on track. Actually that’s what I would do if I was accompanying congregation. But of course, one part of this part of question, reminded me, or actually, we were kicked off the church. Because you didn’t want to play slower for congregational accompaniment.
V: I was split second ahead, or more than split second ahead.
A: True, and we received so many complaints, especially Vidas. And people would ask me to play service more often because I played slower and listened to them more. But Vidas just didn’t want to give up and wanted to keep his own tempo. And well, at that time we were very young, and probably not as wise as we are now, yes?
V: Yes. Today we would play in lento tempo.
A: So, this was, I guess, probably twenty or even more years ago.
V: Yes. Today we would play everything like Albert Schweitzer did.
A: Well, now I guess, if this would be in nowadays, I probably even wouldn’t take such a job.
V: Wow. That’s even better.
A: True. But actually, yes, the congregation tries to slow things down.
V: But, Ausra, if it’s not a job, if somebody just asks you to fill in, you know, like a friend, substitute, just once, and would you slow down, or would you lead ahead?
A; Well, that’s a good question. I would probably lead ahead. What would you do?
V: I would lead ahead, yes. You see, at that time, we didn’t have our doctorate degrees. Now we have doctorate degrees. And to anybody who is complaining, we can,,,
A: Show our diploma, yes.
V: Yes. Yes. Complain to the director of University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
A: That’s funny. That’s really funny. But actually, you just need to be reasonable. If you’re tempo and congregation tempo is very different, you need to think about it—why this happens. Because maybe you choose too fast tempo for that particular hymn. And you need to think if this happens all the time, and maybe you need to listen yourself from a side, make a recording of it, because that tempo might defer slightly bu it cannot be very different.
A: And when you’re accompanying congregation, always try to sing too. That way you will get the right feeling of the tempo.
V: And sing energetically, because some congregations, like the one we were talking about, were singing like at the funeral, always.
A: I know. We were dragging each note. If you, let’s say the hymn is written in quarter note values, yes? And we would make a whole note from a quarter note, and it was just impossible to survive.
V: They would breathe with every word.
A: True. With every note.
V: Or every note. Maybe that’s original historically correct way of singing.
A: I don’t know but it was just a nightmare.
V: Because remember what Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra told us, a little bit about her research with, I think, singing psalms, in the, back in the day, that they were singing them really, really, extremely slow.
A: Well, but that was what, a few hundred years ago.
A: But we are in the 21st Century now.
V: We drive fast cars.
A: Well, we cannot take service that is longer than one hour.
V: We eat fast food.
V: Everything is fast.
A: Well, and fast death awaits us, yes?
V: And the mass is no longer three hours long, like it was before Tridentine time.
A: True. So I don’t know, for me, seems that everything needs to be balanced. So, and everybody needs to be reasonable. So, and I’m talking about tempo too. It cannot be too fast and it cannot be too slow. And I think you need to take a breath after each phrase, but not after each note (laughs).
V: Mmm-hmm. If you can sing a phrase in one breath, then,,,
A: Then I think your tempo is fine.
V: Mmm-hmm. Excellent. Let’s go to the second part of the question about improvisation. Rob seems to have constant creative flow in his head, right, and whenever he wants to tune in to it and catch those melodies. This reminds me of a saying, or a quote by David Lynch. Remember the director of the movie, or the T.V. series, called...
A: Twin Peaks.
V: Twin Peaks, yes. He says that ‘we don’t create ideas, we catch ideas’. They are out there someplace floating in the ether, or someplace, I don’t know where. But when we are in the right state of mind, we can tune in and those ideas will come to us.
A: But do you think those ideas will help you to make a good harmonic accompaniment to the melody that just came to your mind? Or you need specific knowledge and skills?
V: Oh, that’s your harmony part, theory part, saying, right?
V: I know what you’re leaning to, but I believe some people can play intuitively, with both hands, and even pedals, but it takes completely different state of mind constantly observing in everyday life, I think. If you, for example, would observe people who meditate, that could be like playing or sounding meditation. If people could to that, then they could play with both hands also, without real understanding what they play, but intuitively. But that’s a different mentality, Ausra. We are talking about the logical procedures, right?
A: True. And I’m just wondering, because you are improvising so much. Do you think that all that history, your history, personal history, of learning, learning harmony, learning theory, is it helping you or harming you, when you improvising?
V: You see, I also taught at the Čiurlionis National School of Art for twelve years, until this year, and all those years I taught, either solfege, which is ear training, or music theory. So basically those terms and procedures, modes, chords, were part of my daily routine with kids. And therefore they were ingrained in my memory too. When I first started teaching, I had to think consciously—what is this mode, how it’s constructed, what is this inversion of the chord—I was not that fluent. But now, I don’t have to think any more of course, and it’s part of my, part of my nature, probably. And when I’m playing intuitively on the organ, like improvising spontaneously, this former background or training comes in, into the forefront too, without even me noticing. So for other people probably, they do need to study theory and harmony for many years, until this is spontaneous for them enough.
A: What would you tell for people who don’t want to learn theory?
V: Maybe they’re not committed enough. Maybe organ playing or improvising on the organ is not important, that important to them. Maybe they don’t want to improve that much.
A: Because, in my daily life, as teaching these harmony, theory and solfege for various instrumentalists and choir conductors, and piano performers and now teaching in that organ school, I always get this big, big confrontation. So basically I’m in a war, in a constant war, and it’s getting tiresome.
V: I know how you feel. It’s difficult when you’re the only soldier on the battlefield, right?
A: I know.
V: And nobody’s really supporting you. Even your colleagues, they support you, on certain conditions, because, yes they need to teach theory and think that theory is important, harmony is important, but they’re not performers, they’re not creators, and they don’t apply them, these concepts in practice. And they really can’t really make a good argument to the kids—why do they need this?
A: Well, yes, but I’m a performer too, but...
V: You can because you use it every day.
A: But still nobody listens so it seems like a hopeless business.
V: I think people always listen to the authority, right? Whoever is authority to you, Olivier Latry or George Ritchie, if they tell you something important, you listen, right? But if your colleague says to you something which you disagree with, then you kind of are critical and this is understandable—everybody does this. So your kids would probably need to find authority from their circle, maybe their friends.
A: But, actually it didn’t happen last year or a year before, but right from this school year when they come to school earlier, like a half an hour before first class, 7:30 am, I hear that kids are listen from their smart phones to music, and dancing and making fun, and it’s usually pop music. So I guess I’m not the right authority because I think their authorities [are] maybe Lady Gaga or whatever else.
V: Then, we should invite Lady Gaga to visit our schools, right?
A: (Laughs). Yes. Do you think she would tell that we need to study harmony and solfege?
V: No, but she would tell them that they need to create songs. Remember we just watched a movie, ‘A Star is Born’, and we were really moved.
A: True. But actually these songs that she composed for this movie, were not in the style that she created on her daily basis for her pop performances.
V: Uh-huh. But this was still the same person, you see.
V: So, I dunno. But sure, it’s, maybe we will not be able to invite Lady Gaga to the school tonight, just yet, but how about this; are you keeping in touch with your former students, on Facebook, let’s say?
A: Yes, for some, I am.
V: Some. Some students who were good at school, good in theory and harmony.
A: Do you think they believe that the harmony helped them in somebody else? I’m even afraid of asking that, because I might get depressed.
V: But that would be the truth, and the truth liberates you, right? Always.
A: And then I would have to quit school as well, as you did, yes?
V: I quit...
A: And I would find out that nobody actually needs harmony.
V: No, no, no. What I really think, those few students who graduated, and now are continuing their education or are already professional musicians, I think some of them really understands now, what you did for them, in early years. And if you invited them to come back to talk to their former peers, and like give a speech, like motivational speech, they would probably inspire current students even better than you could. Because our young people of today, would suddenly understand that these graduates were in sitting in their pews.
A: True. I’ll think about it.
V: Think about it and just ask on Facebook a few people and see what they come up with. Alright, guys, lots of ideas for the future. Not only for us but hopefully for you too, because we love helping you grow. So please keep sending us your lovely questions and feedback. And remember, when you practice...
A: Miracles happen!