Friday, October 18, 2013

Serving two Masters

I was a little off yesterday. Can you tell?


I hope not. Despite feeling a little peckish and having fingers that weren't quite as articulate as I would have liked, I like to think that they were trained enough to get down to business, suck it up, and do what needed to be done when it counted. Ten fingers, go! (and you feet, too).

By the way, that little piece was the first of a collection known to organists as the "8 Little Preludes and Fugues" and was once thought to have been written by J. S. Bach. Actually, depending on who you talk to it still is thought to be by Bach. But I'll get into that issue in next week.

I made this recording as a sort of  "break" from learning a contemporary trumpet sonata. It's called "The Mysteries Remain" and is 28 pages of largely non-tonal writing, which requires me to essentially familiarize myself with all sorts of unusual clusters of notes, angular melodic cells, and so on. In a few days the piece will start to come around, and hopefully sound like music, but early this week it was making my head hurt so after a few days of kicking it around for four hours a day, and working on nothing else, I thought I'd take a break and do something simple and tonal.

It's my fault, really, for waiting too long to get started on a piece that I have to play in concert in exactly a month, busy schedule that I've had notwithstanding, and cramming the whole thing into my head in a few days had a predictable effect. But like I said, that should pay off by next week when I start rehearsing with the trumpet player. In the meanwhile I'm feeling rather worn out, mind and body. But then, I still managed to get the job done, and also to make a nice recording of another piece I had barely practiced. On a break. For stress relief. Not so bad, really.

I'm not trying to brag, especially if you are a person for whom learning a piece like the Prelude and Fugue in C and playing it for a recording is a major achievement. Sure, I learned and recorded it in about a day, but to start with, I've logged at least 10,000 hours of practice over my lifetime and spent over twelve years at music school just learning how to perform. And I still spend a large part of my day practicing. Besides a general reservoir of skill built up over years of patient labor, the reason I can even do things like that are that I've been dealing in large quantities of music on short deadlines for quite some time. I've acquired skills relating to preparing music well an in a hurry, and I've also learned to plan far ahead whenever possible, so that, in this case, the things I'm playing in church this month are already learned (they were easy) so I can focus all week on something I'm playing for a concert instead.

That doesn't mean there aren't conflicts. I've got three concerts coming up this remaining calendar year, with three programs of varying lengths, and, of course, about a dozen Sunday services to prepare for over that same stretch. That's a lot of music.

"Jesus said, "no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or love the one and despise the other."

Then there is the old question about how much one musically "gives" to the church. Since I spent pretty much the whole week working on concert repertoire (my other "break" was to learn another piece to play on one of the other concerts, tonal, and easier on the mind, if not the fingers) that issue is on my mind today. My experience has been that quite often musicians spend most of their time preparing for concerts and other secular events, and then throwing stuff together on Sunday morning. It is a major reason that, as I suggested two weeks ago, most people don't expect a lot of quality out of their church music.

My experience may be anecdotal, but I can think of several historical examples as well. There is J. S. Bach, of course, who wrote a great deal of glorious, and difficult, instrumental (and choral) music for the church, at least half of his output, and clearly spent a lot of time at it. But there is his contemporary, Georg Telemann, who, as prolific as he was, dashed off a few short pieces for the organ and that's about it (instrumentally). They are charming, and well written, but it is pretty clear he wasn't really all that into church music. He'd decided, I suspect, that the way to advance a career and make a name was in the theater and the concert hall.

Other folks, like Mozart, who paid lip service to the organ but never wrote anything at all for it, or Gabriel Faure, who spent his entire like as a church organist and didn't write anything for his instrument, remind us of the bargain that often is struck. Sure, I work in a church, but that's not really where I put in my time. It's just a job.

That isn't my style. Sure, this entire month I'm playing easy literature, celebrating the 300th birthday of an obscure Bach student while simultaneously clearing time from my schedule to do other things, but I am planning to play well, putting in enough time and planning ahead. There is a big difference between simple done poorly and simple done well. I've heard enough organists clearly sight reading on Sunday morning, stumbling over passages and missing notes, organists with advanced degrees and plenty of experience who play much better than that on their organ recitals and in concerts, to know that.

The professional solution to all this is, ironically, to sound just as good when you haven't had much practice as you do when you are on full strength. Be consistent. Obviously practice time means something, but if you can really bring your A game under any circumstances you and everyone else are better off. And this is exactly what service in a church requires anyhow. There is never enough time to prepare everything. And next week is right around the corner. I think I once counted some 40 musical items I play in four church services every weekend. Some I have to sight read or play on only one short rehearsal. It's ironic that you have to prepare to learn how to not be able to prepare, but that's the long and short of it. Being able to handle more than you can handle and still managing to sound like you can handle it.

Which reminds me of something else Jesus said. Remember the parable with the three servants, two of whom invest their master's money when he goes away and a third who does not? The first two double their money and receive a commendation from the master when he returns, and...guess what. More work! "You have been faithful in a few things," he says, "now I'll put you in charge of more."

Is that really a happy ending? Talk about overload! But anybody who serves musically in a church knows how that works, don't they?

Which is why you have to be able to sight read like crazy. To play your own part with no discernible errors in it so that you can spend all your time focusing on the people you are playing with. To be able to help them with a well chosen note or two when they need it. To communicate quickly and effectively how you are going to start/stop/play the piece and also not to worry if they skip a beat because you can catch them and keep the music going without a hitch. And you will catch them, right? Adding a beat or two to a score at random is a must for a church musician. That, along with learning how to go on with no warning, no planning, no warm up time, and barely any concentration on your own thing because you have to concentrate on their thing--the complete opposite of all the things I would suggest contribute to quality--that is just what you have to do. Week after week. It's quite a challenge. If you want it to be, of course. If you accept the challenge, and try to figure out how to actually make all that impossible stuff work out well. You get 52 tries a year, if not more.

How do you learn all this?  Just by doing it, week after week, with your ear to the ground, and making notes to yourself how to get better every day. And reading this blog, of course.  :)

Because, on a tight schedule like ours, there is really no time for learning, there is only time for doing it well. And yet, simultaneously, there is all the time in the world.

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