Monday, June 23, 2014

Keep in front of it and don't bail out!

Call it just another exciting afternoon of organ practice.

I'm out of town for a few days visiting my folks and needed a place to practice this coming Sunday's organistic extravaganza (we're losing the use of the console for two months this summer if you hadn't heard and this week is the finale).  As a resourceful fellow I had asked my parents if it would be ok to practice at their church. They asked the organist, who said it was ok, and then checked with the office, who put me on the schedule for a couple of hours in the afternoon. So I headed out there to give their organ a workout.

I had been warned that this might be a tough week to get any practice. It is Vacation Bible School week for the kids all morning every day this week, and there is a funeral tomorrow afternoon of a beloved pastor. But things looked promising.

As I got to the sanctuary, however, it turned out that one of their staff was assembling the multimedia for tomorrow's memorial service, which is going to be quite involved (and was planned by the deceased pastor who died of cancer; I met her a few times and she seemed just like the vivacious, lovely person everybody else says she was. Apparently she would have loved the fact that the VBS decorations were festooning the sanctuary for her funeral service.) I had a nice chat with the guy in the sound booth; a very nice fellow. I told him I worked in a church and knew what it was like to have lots of things going on at the same time and to have to adjust to them. He was sympathetic and suggested I try back in the evening; I said I would check with the office to see if the sanctuary was free then. Then I tried to find my way out of the building to go home and practice piano instead (one should always have a plan B).

On my way through the building (I'm still trying to figure the place out since the recent construction and additions) I met the secretary again; then the pastor, who happened to mention that there was an electronic organ in the chapel. Of course! Our own church has three worship spaces, each with an instrument, and sometimes I have to duck into one of the others when the first one doesn't pan out. We only have one organ, though; they have two. Well, kind of. It was electronic, and I wasn't sure it would work out but a voice inside told me to try it anyhow.

It had two full manuals and a full pedal board, so despite the tinny sound and some keys that stuck, I logged about 90 minutes of practice. The organ was back in the corner and felt a little constricted so the extensive pedal work in the piece was an additional challenge, or to put it another way, I had the privilege of figuring out how to deal with an additional challenge.

While I was practicing, the guy from the sanctuary (Jack, the equivalent of our Doug, the business manager) popped his head in and said he'd be done sooner than he had thought, so I got to spend the last half hour on the sanctuary organ.

This provided an additional challenge. That organ has three manuals, rather than the two I play in Illinois (the one I regularly played in Baltimore had three but that's been nearly a decade) so the dimensions were different. The pipes were also on the other side of the church, about 40 feet away, so there was some delay between hitting the keys and hearing the sound. I adjusted to that rather well, which is a useful thing for an organist to be able to do, and because of the wet acoustics I took a slower tempo, probably also useful as a practice strategy five days before the service on a piece that it is tempting to try to fly through. For an organist, being able to adjust to a different instrument and a different acoustic is particularly important because there is a wide range in both; any appearance in somebody else's church for a service or a concert is going to require figuring out a new situation fast and dealing with it well.

So what did we learn? Despite the unpromising beginnings I had a very useful day of practice. It always helps to

be flexible
be cheerful
be ready for anything
talk to people and find things out
be ready to adjust to new acoustic situations and different angles

Or, as our friend Dr. Craig Jessop likes to say, "work hard; be nice."

On my way to the church this afternoon I heard someone on the radio talking about seeing frustration as a tool rather than an obstacle. It turned out to be the theme for the day. Just the right combination of being ready to adjust and being ready to take advantage of any opportunity (persistence) paid off. Plus I met or re-met several of the really friendly folks at Sycamore Presbyterian, and got the kind of practice that you only get in unusual situations, which is a rare and valuable kind of practice. You can't practice dealing with tricky situations except when you are in them!

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