Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I think I've read in a million places that church musicians are supposed to be flexible. I'm bringing it up in today's teaching and learning blog because, in addition to the unfortunately bargain-basement practicality that is at one end of the spectrum of reasons why this is important (in particular, you have to be flexible because most of the people you work with can't or won't be), the other side of this issue concerns both a challenge and a spectacular opportunity for the musicians themselves. Flexibility is also a sign of well-developed musicianship. Being able to adapt to last minute changes, work with a variety of styles of music and backgrounds of the people involved, and overcome obstacles that never announce themselves in advance and make it look easy all requires a very large skill set and a lot of quick thinking. Unfortunately not all musicians possess these qualities. You can't just preach flexibility at someone, it has to be built up over time. As with all learning, there are many more opportunities than most of us take. If we would see every obstacle as a chance to test our abilities and try to learn new things we would learn far more than we actually do, and rarely be bored.

One small case in point. Sunday morning the organ decided it was tired of playing an A below middle C when I asked for it and cut out just in time for the prelude. I couldn't do much about it while I was playing, nor during the service itself. If you are playing a pipe organ and aren't in the middle of a church service, here is something you can try if that happens:

--pull additional stops out until you get one in which the note will play. Meantime, keep playing the note over and over. Once you get one of the stops to work, cancel it again until you have the registration you had in the first place. The note generally behaves itself at this point--for a while, anyway.

My student was playing the offertory that morning. Unfortunately I had to be away most of the time rehearsing with the praise band (my job is a bit like serving two churches simultaneously) and didn't have a chance to plot strategy so I simply informed her that she'd have to do without one note during her offertory. It was probably a valuable experience as it was. But after the service we discussed some ways to get around a problem like that if you know about it before the piece starts--and in some cases, during.

Changing the choreography:

Since the affected stop was on the upper manual, I suggested she could have switched both hands to the lower manual, instead of the original plan in which the left hand was on the upper and the right hand on the lower. Or she could have scanned the piece to see if the affected note was in the right hand and if not switched the hands around, which would likely require a change in registration. It helps at that point to know your instrument and be able to produce a similar sound by using stops that sound pretty much alike. I've had to do that before when critical notes went missing at the last minute, which fortunately doesn't happen often.

Changing the key:

I also suggested that instead of playing the piece in its original key, F, she could have tried it in F#. This is not the easiest of my suggestions, but it is an immensely valuable thing to be able to do. Learning to transpose really comes in handy when the anthem singer says they can't get to the high note and would you mind moving the piece down a few keys. Like most skills a good deal of practice is required to get proficient. And there are plenty of opportunities if you are always on the looking for them rather than trying to avoid them. For example, you could play at least one of the hymns every week in a different key. Playing a half step higher or lower will probably not bother the congregation and is in some ways the easiest way to transpose since the notes will mostly have the same letter-names but with sharps or flats in front of most of them. If you are not particularly comfortable playing keys like C# and Gb you may want to learn in small doses. Try a line or two in every key you can think of when you sit down to practice. Be consistent about doing it, do it often, do it in small enough doses you don't get completely frustrated, but keep at it! (and at first, do it in private, not in front of the congregation!)

change the registration:

Sometimes a simple stop choice will fix the problem. In this case, the missing note affected several stops, covering most of the Swell division, so this would not have worked.

Play something else:

most of the time changing keys will eliminate the need to play a recalcitrant note. In which case, if you aren't married to a particular musical selection, you might search for a different piece in a different key. One question to ask: are you a good sight reader? Or did you prepare a back-up selection for just such an emergency?

Make it up:

If you bag your original selection and make up a new piece of music on the spot you have complete control over what resources to use and can avoid the ones you don't have. Improvising theoretically means you can avoid any note you don't happen to want to play for any reason. Unless you get too inspired and forget!

Just deal with it:

Maybe you don't play the affected not that often and it's not really all that important, in which case you just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway and hope nobody notices. An important question to ask, and one which distinguishes a good decision from simply ducking the issue, is just how much the music will be adversely affected.

In any case, getting around a problem involves three things: diagnosis--what exactly is the problem and how big is it? problem solving--what can I do to get around it? and three--what are my tools, my skill set, what I am most likely to do successfully? The more of these abilities you have, the more ways you can change your strategy when your original plan would not work so well. Flexibility is a life skill and needs to be practiced--continually. I told my student her homework this week was to practice this week's and next week's offertories in different keys.

I've been practicing this skill for years. I even intentionally seek out ways to overcome challenges like this so that I'll get better at it. Sometimes situations that could be easily corrected become chances to learn, like the other week when the two sustaining pedals for the keyboards at the contemporary services got reversed. I could have simply put them back, but I decided to force myself to use them in that order, reversing right and left. It meant I had to constantly think about where I was putting my foot.

Flexibility is interesting because you can never practice for it exactly. You can only practice the attitude of liking challenges, thinking over various possibilities quickly and problem solving, and then trying your best to execute in a way that is not how you prepared. For a conservatory trained musician this may be the most difficult because at the heart of our practice is the idea that constant repetition--getting the muscles and the mind conditioned to making even the smallest musical decision exactly the same way each time--is the route to success. And this group of skills is completely the opposite.

Which is what makes Sunday morning so interesting. You get to use them both!

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