Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Everyone's a critic (hopefully)

On Friday I posted some new (to me) organ music on this blog. Now I've had five more days to think about it and I don't like the recording very much.

Guilmant: Offertoire sur "Fillii"

Life can move pretty fast. One of my major roles in life is as church organist, which means services every Sunday, which means a new prelude and offertory every seven days. As a student in music school, we prepared one recital a year (at least until graduate school) which meant we had nine months to work on one  (hour long) program. Now I burn through that much music every six weeks or so. And that's only for church (and not even on my native instrument!). The upside to this I have have gotten pretty good at learning music quickly, and pretty well. This afternoon I was marveling at how it appears that the several selections I've programmed for Lent seem to be preparing themselves on time, including one that has yet to receive more than two days of practice but is almost ready to go. The downside is that the music is pretty raw by the time I make recordings, generally about a week before I play them live (it's pretty standard to have spent two or three days on them by recording time). Recording makes me nervous, and therefore is a particularly useful part of the learning process, I think. But it is also a bit of a high-wire act.

Why am I telling you all this? And on a Wednesday, no less (if you're wondering, on Mondays I share piano music and blog about the listening experience, on Wednesdays I blog about better music making as a pianist, accompanist, choir member, etc., and on Fridays I share and discuss church music and related issues). Because my point today has to do with what may be the most important (and difficult to achieve)  practice related ingredient of all of them. It's the one without which either of the last two topics I've discussed in this space (scale playing and repetition) are pretty useless: self criticism.

Criticism is a hard thing to have as part of your daily repertoire for the simple reason that it makes us feel bad. And many of us spend large parts of our day feeling bad about ourselves to begin with, so why make it worse?

The difference here is pretty important. What most of us engage in when we let those negative voices tell us things that make us want to give up or be jealous of others is inarticulate criticism. It's the vague sense that we just aren't measuring up--but it's vague. It doesn't tell us what we could do to improve, or how, and it doesn't leave us with a sense that there is a purposeful path we can follow to get there. It isn't realistic about whether we've invested the time and energy to get the results we want. It doesn't have an exit strategy. It just wallows. It's also a pretty natural response.

Several years ago I was giving a piano lesson and after the boy played his piece for me, I named a few things that needed improvement. Then I asked him what I'd said. He said "you said it was bad."

Oh boy.

"No I didn't," I began. In fact, I assured him, some parts of it were pretty good. But there were things that needed to get better. For instance, the hesitation between two notes here, the lack of a staccato dot there. Play it again, I said, and focus on those things and the piece will be better.

In other words, we've all got to develop a keen sense of diagnosing problems and finding ways to solve them, particularly when we don't have a teacher standing there to fulfill that function.

So here's what I'm thinking about last Thursday's recording. It is generally too slow. The tempo is 66 to the dotted quarter, actually, and I didn't have a metronome so I guessed, and I was wrong. Also, I can tell you what I was thinking on Thursday. I was thinking, I don't want to be another American organist who plays everything too fast. 66 seems like a fairly moderate tempo, and even though my gut is saying I should go a little faster, I'm going to resist that. Besides the piece is new and I could use the time to get the notes right!

In fact, I did get the notes right. I remember thinking, right after I finished playing it, that I had felt inhibited and not free enough. That the interpretation was cramped. But that I hadn't missed any notes that I knew of--that I'd covered the piece on the first take. Not bad, considering I knew perfectly well I wasn't entirely ready to play the piece for the microphone. It was part of what was making me so nervous in the first place.

Something else? The playing isn't even in the beginning. I think the tempo has a lot to do with that.

I'm not sure why, but there is a break between two pedal notes around 4:20 that I don't like. I'm not sure why that is because I was going from my left to my right foot at the time which should have made it easy to connect them. Maybe I freelanced for some reason in the heat of the moment. You may think that's a small thing but it bugs me and I intend to fix it.

Tomorrow I'm going to try again. I gave the piece a rest for a few days while I prepared two other pieces, and gave it another go yesterday. Today it is up to speed and I think generally more fluid. I'll see what I think about it after I listen to the results. Generally I like to take the time to second guess myself before I post something (because I always do) but I wanted to talk about a slice of my life and the makeup of this fascinating piece I'd just discovered and decided to share it in real time.

I won't play it in church until this coming Sunday anyhow. Meantime, another round of self-criticism has lead to more work, more discomfort, but in the end, better results. I'll let you listen to the this one as well.

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