Tag Archives: organ

Practice Makes Perfect? It Depends.

Bulletproof Musician recently wrote this insightful blog post about how to practice effectively.  Perhaps surprisingly, the most important factor doesn’t turn out to be length of practice time, or making few mistakes to begin with.  Rather, improvement made during practice depends on how mistakes are addressed.

Progress appears to hinge on the proportion of times that a passage is played correctly.  Musicians who stop immediately to understand and correct mistakes, drilling the same passage at a slower tempo until they have mastered it, do best.  Those who plow through without taking time to understand the exact nature of the mistake do not fare as well.

This may sound like a basic insight, and it is indeed straightforward.  It surprises me, though, that practice length and willpower (a limited resource) are relatively unimportant.  Rather, awareness, focus, and corrective action are paramount.  If our brains don’t consciously understand what mistake was made, we’ll continue to repeat it.  Only by slowing down and figuring it out will we correct it.

I am an imperfect student of the organ, which has become my favorite instrument.  I have alternated between taking lessons with a very accomplished organist (and very talented teacher) and studying on my own; currently I do the latter.  When I practice, I have some structures in place to keep me honest, such as tracking length of time and the pieces that I practice in a notebook.

I do repeat difficult passages several times, often playing just the pedals, then adding one hand at a time.  I do slow down the tempo so my brain can process what I’m doing wrong, and correct it.

However, full disclosure:  I don’t do these things consistently.  It can be tempting and way too much fun to zoom through Bach preludes & fugues as though skiing on a black diamond.  If I wipe out, I may have no idea what happened to get me there, and often little desire to be a detective about it.

I don’t want to return to the bunny slopes.  I want to go down a double black diamond again like the big kids, whether or not I’m ready for it.

Playing brings me joy.  When I practice today, it’s first and foremost because I love doing it, not because anyone is demanding that I do it.  Playing well, however, also brings me confidence and satisfaction.  My choice lies in how to preserve the joy and spontaneity of playing for fun, expression and enjoyment, at the same time challenging myself to be rigorous and set the bar high.

In July, I had an opportunity to substitute for St. Anthony’s organist and music director in Jersey City  for two weeks.  It was a memorable experience, playing sacred music in support of a full choir.  Playing with the registration to find the right mixture of sounds, choosing interludes, and conducting a cappella motets all come to mind.

What stands out the most for me, though, is that I was able to play Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor as a postlude.  I wouldn’t have been able to do that six months prior.  It felt like a crown, a gift that I was able to share with others.  I wouldn’t have had that to offer if I’d only zipped down the black diamonds like a speed demon.  Methodically slowing down–having the patience, humility and trust to do so–got me to that point.

A confession–I will still play at times like a black diamond skiier.  But the more I realize I have it in my power to play well, the more I want to get curious enough to slow down and figure out the parts of a piece that are befuddling me.

My coaching practice is called Passion + Persistence for a reason.  Identifying what makes us truly alive and sticking with it (rather than getting derailed) enables us to achieve our life purpose.  In the case of music, I could have also named it Practice + Persistence–which apply to so many areas of life!

One reason that I’m challenged to write my blog as often as I did in the past is that I have many creative outlets (such as music).  I’m grateful to say that I feel fulfilled.  Yet it helps to remind myself that like music, there is no “should” about writing.  I enjoy expressing myself through both music and writing, and using them as mediums for connecting with others.

Music, writing, coaching, and connecting with people make me truly alive.  What lights you up?  I’d love to hear from you.

Warmly, Mary

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The Power of Passion + Habit: What Can Flannery O’Connor Teach Us?

I love to write, but if I get out of the habit of writing regularly, I continue to put it off.  It’s like going to the gym, it feels wonderful once I’m in the swing of it, sweating through an elliptical session or a zumba class.  Doing it energizes me–getting there is the hard part!

Pain lies in procrastination, not in taking action.  Devising a plan and taking action are empowering.  Whether I want to stay fit, keep my coaching blog up-to-date, or (dare I say it) finally organize my file cabinets, there are concrete steps I can take to reach my goals. Taking these steps honors my commitments.  I’m showing that I keep my word to myself, and that my goals matter.

How do I go about making this happen?  Mindful scheduling and rewarding my efforts.  Often the reward lies in the doing itself.  Three paragraphs into a new blog post, I already feel rewarded and am asking myself why I waited a week or two to blog again.  It feels great to get on a roll.  I also get a reward when I post my blog to social media and see your likes, shares and comments.  Similarly, when I make it to the pool and swim laps for 25 minutes, the relaxation, renewed strength, and mental clarity I gain are my rewards.

How does a schedule serve my higher purpose?  Isn’t a schedule tediously boring, constrictive?

Flannery-OConnorOn the contrary, most successful people rely on a schedule in one or more areas of their lives.  Flannery O’Connor, whose home I visited earlier this month in Milledgeville, Georgia, wrote every morning (after attending daily Mass in town) from 9 AM to noon on a typewriter in her bedroom.  Her room was in the front of the house, near the front porch and yard, where her dozens of peacocks, ducks and geese would roam. Watching her beloved birds fueled her creative fires.  If she hadn’t carved out those three daily hours, though, when and how would she have accomplished her writing?

Rituals and habits make an enormous diference in what we accomplish.  My weekday rituals–after having breakfast, looking out at the park and playing with the cat–include practicing the organ, and swimming or going to the gym.  I’m most alert in the morning, so that’s when I practice the organ, which takes more concentration than anything else I do these days.  When I exercise, it gives me more energy for the afternoon.  I put both of these in my daily calendar, as a reminder not to get sidetracked.  If it’s around 9:30, then it’s time to grab my goggles, swimming cap, organ shoes, music, and get out of the house.

What happens when I get off track?  I am constantly recalibrating my life, like a finely tuned Swiss watch.  Hopefully, one of our goals temporarily slides because another goal has taken precedence.  Our priorities naturally ebb and flow.  We can’t say yes to everything all of the time.  However, we can achieve a sense of balance among what matters the most to us.

What if that’s not the reason we got off track–what if we are simply scared or stuck and watching Netflix for five hours a day?  We can take that as a sign that some kind of action is needed.  One strategy is to write down where we are today, where we want to be, and one step we can take this week to move towards that goal.  Then put it on the calendar.

This exercise alone is usually enough to get us off the couch.  When we identify what’s important to us, and name the first small step, it becomes more manageable and concrete.

What’s on your list of goals for today?  What change do you want to make in your routine to make that happen?

I coach people who want to make some sort of a change in their lives.  I offer free sample sessions so you can see what it would be like to work together.  I invite you to contact me to schedule your sample coaching session.

Wishing you great success!