Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rank Amateur

I'm a professional musician. I even have degrees in it. I've played at Carnegie Hall. But that doesn't mean I'm an expert in everything.

My degrees are in piano performance. All three of them (including a doctorate). But in matters of playing the organ I have no training at all. Which has made my life very interesting these last few years, since my major source of income involves playing a keyboard instrument for which I am not officially prepared. It's like getting paid for your hobby.

Not that I don't have a head start. But the two instruments aren't really all that much alike. I've always been able to play the pedals, however. I've been playing the organ in churches since I was a teenager, and I do a lot of improvisation, so I could always get a congregation to believe that I was a qualified organist even though I've always thought of myself as a fake one.

This isn't rare. A lot of church organists are actually pianists in disguise. Some of them don't play the pedals at all, or seldom. Many or most have no idea what all those knobs are for and don't use those much either. I have spent a lot of time in years past using boring or ineffective organ registrations.

When I finished school I started to spend a lot more time on the organ, learning the great literature written for the instrument. Since I had progressed so far on the piano and had friends who were world class organists I was well aware of my deficiencies. But I love a challenge. And the organ is a glorious instrument.

And there was the internet. At first I used to walk to the library at the university to check out books of organ music, but in recent years I can discover new pieces, download the music, hear lots of people play them, and learn all sorts of things about organs without leaving my living room. Some day that is going to seem routine, but I can remember the days before you could do that. Way back near the dawn of the century. Nearly a whole decade ago. Before Youtube, even. Or Wikipedia. Or even, before Google. I think dinosaurs may have roamed the earth.

I've watched fine organists play and watched their pedal technique. I've read (and asked) about registration. I've spent hours experimenting on our church's instrument. I've read about organ building and the properties of pipes. I'm a slow learner in this area and need to hear some of these things again until they start to make sense. That's usually how things work at first--slowly. Then the pace of learning accelerates because you have some context for the information you are receiving and are more heavily invested in it, are passionate, and also because not only do you know what you know but you are really able to focus on what you don't know (because finally you are aware of that, too).

A number of beginner organists, recently converted from the piano, have started blogs chronicling their adventures. Even though I'm up the tracks a bit given my pianistic ability and long history with the organ, I can feel the enthusiasm of the amateur when I take on the organ, each time there is something I didn't know yesterday, or I tackle a new part of the repertoire. This week I'm giving my congregation my first de Grigny.

de Grigny was part of the classical French school, which means there are a lot of rules regarding organ registration. I was afraid I had run afoul of one of them the other day when I recorded the following piece, but it turns out I was right, though I can't always distinguish a plein jeu from a grand plain jeu in the dark without thinking about it--yet. For most of you, who are thinking, sure, whatever, this is obviously of no particular excitement to you. It is a matter of specialized knowledge--nerd adrenaline. My third-year medical student wife didn't know about ideopathic relapsing febrile non-superative panniculitis until recently either. But's it enriched both our lives. Well, trying to remember how to say it has. I'm no doctor. But it sure sounds cool (and happens to be a rather nasty disease).

Anyway, I've got lots of folks on the internet to help keep me in line, and I'm still trying to improve my craft. And having some fun along the way.

Here's a bit of Pentecost music: de Grigny's "Come, Creator Spirit" -- part one.


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