Heidi Bender - Inspiration and stories from the organ bench (with cats)
January 7, 2020

Climbing out of the Valley of Disappointment

The Valley of Disappointment Graph by James Clear

Have you ever felt like learning something new is taking longer than you expected? That’s me with the organ. It’s not new anymore, and after years of modest effort, I’m still struggling along.

There have been times when my lack of improvement from one lesson to the next would nearly bring me to tears of frustration.

And then I read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. He describes the Valley of Disappointment as the time spent learning until your results match what you expected. The graph below is from the book.

Learning about “what you think should happen” vs. “what actually happens” gave me hope that I can still become a great organist! And, it helped me feel like I am not alone. I am not the only one in the valley!

The Valley of Disappointment Graph by James Clear

Exploring the Valley of Disappointment

I started learning the organ in 2009. If you would have asked me back then, I probably would have said I would take lessons for 2-3 years! Here it is more than 10 years later and I’m still in the valley disappointment! The allure of being a great organist continues to taunt me.

So, why is it taking me to long to get good?

♦ There is no pressure to perform for anyone since I do not have an organist position and no one at a church is pressuring me to play for their services.

♦ My practice habits have not been fantastic or consistent. In 2019, I intended to practice every day, but “broke the chain” when I was grieving the death of my cat, Kilala. One day off led to two, and then three.

♦ I don’t have the time every day to practice like a student studying for a degree. My understanding from Marijim is that college students that are majoring in organ often practice four or more hours a day. If a piece takes 8 hours to learn, it might take me 2 months to get in 8 hours on a piece.

♦ I skipped learning music theory. I figured if I could play the music why did I need to understand the theory. Now, with much encouragement and explanations from Marijim, I feel that learning it will help me become a better musician.

“The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.” – James Clear

♦ Practicing is borning sometimes when the time I need to spend to get a piece from 80% to 100% is much more than the time it took to get to 80%.

♦ And then I made a habit of not playing a hymn or any piece that I learned after Micheal gave his stamp of approval. I was so happy to be moving on to something new. If you don’t use it, you lose it! So, even though I have learned many pieces, I would have to spend time remembering (relearning) how to play previously learned pieces!

hymnal with tape flags sticking out of side. Each flag is on the page of a hymn I learned long ago.

Each tape flag is on a hymn that I could play at some point in the past.

Climbing out of the Valley

My concentration and focus while practicing need to improve as I read about in Performance Success by Don Greene.

Atomic Habits put habit change into a different perspective. The book talks about your identity. If you want “great organist” to be part of your identity, ask yourself what do great organists to become and stay great?

Here are the habits I will be working on in 2020:

  1. Practicing organ and piano every day. I am using the “don’t break the chain” method and tracking daily practice. I am also using the habit stacking method as described in Atomic Habits. On weekdays, I will practice after dinner or when I get home for the evening when I have an evening activity.  On weekends, since my schedule varies, I am not always going to be able to practice at the same time.
    I mentioned my plan to practice daily back in April 2018. What’s different this time, is the identity piece. I want to be known as a person that practices consistently!
  2. Practicing at a slow pace. I need to get over myself and accept that at this time I can’t sit down and play something new accurately at performance tempo. Slow practice with a metronome, will help me learn the correct muscle memory from the start and reduce the number of mistakes that need to be corrected.
  3. At least one day a week, I will study music theory.  I want to be able to play all of the minor and major scales. When learning the Zipoli pieces, I noticed that some sections are scale-like or arpeggios. If I had already learned all the scales, learning these pieces would have been much easier! I have a book with all the scales including the fingerings and a brief overview of music theory.
  4. I will continue to have weekly lessons. Marijim gives me feedback each week and her encouragement keeps me practicing.
  5. Reviewing pieces Marijim has approved of my playing for the organ. For the piano, I am still working through the beginner piano books but will review the challenging pieces I’ve learned. The goal is to play the pieces at least once a week so that I don’t forget how to play them! I am a little embarrassed to admit that I made this same goal back in 2016! Habit change can be hard. I think I failed as I wasn’t tracking the review peices and when I reviewed them. That’s going to change this year!

By developing better practice habits, I will climb my way out of The Valley of Disappointment!

January 5, 2019

How to find a home practice organ

How to find a home practice organ

Since I have an organ at home, I have been asked about how to find a practice organ. This post will contain my ideas of how you can find a home practice organ.

I was fortunate to get my Saville organ for at home for free! At the time, I was taking organ lessons with Michael, and he was the organist at Adrian College then. The college has a pipe organ, and they were not using the Saville organ that had been donated to them. I was able to take it to my home for free and have been using it ever since.

If you choose an electronic organ, I strongly recommend finding a model that has a full range of pedals. The models with only one octave of pedals aren’t going to help much with practicing to be able to play other organs. Newer electronic (or digital) organs will sound more like an actual pipe organ than older models. My organ is from the 70’s. Technology has advanced a lot since then!

Once you find an organ, you may need to make a plan for moving it to your home, unless you bought it from somewhere that provides delivery. They can be very heavy. It took 4 people to move my organ into the house. You may need to hire movers, rent a truck, find 4 strong people that can lift it, etc.

How to find a home practice organ

Check with piano stores

Piano stores that sell used pianos may also have used electronic organs. I discovered this when I bought my piano.  The store had at least one electronic organ on display each of the three times that I visited.

Ask around

Some churches may have electronic organs that they are no longer using. Or they have more than one instrument and be willing to part with one. Of course, this could be quite time consuming depending on the number of churches in your area.

Ask everyone that you know. Someone’s relative or friend of a friend might have an old organ that they would be happy to get rid off.

Thrift Stores and online selling sites

One time, I saw a full-size organ with the full pedal board in a second-hand store — however, most of the time I’ve seen the small organs with only 1 octave of pedals, which I recommend you avoid.

You can also check Facebook Market Place, Craigslist, and eBay for electronic organs that might be for sale close to you.

small organ without all the pedals

Small organ without all the pedals. I don’t recommend this type of organ for practice.

Contact places that repair organs

They last time my organ was serviced, the technician mentioned that he had other organs for sale. These organs were not listed for sale on his website as far as I remember. Even if the repair place doesn’t have any organs for sale, they might know people in the area that are looking to sell.

Buy from a dealer

Depending on your budget, you might decide to purchase a new organ. Dealers that represent big brands may also have used models available. The prices will vary depending on how many ranks and the size of the organ. A 5 manual organ will cost more than a 2 manual organ.

I have heard of Allen, Rodgers, and Viscount organs.  There are likely more brands out there.

Several years ago, I went to the American Guild of Organists convention, Rodgers was there selling new instruments. They, of course, sounded great! However, the price of a new organ wasn’t in my budget then, and I didn’t think a newer organ would help me become a better organist any faster.  I am sure it would have been more enjoyable to hear!

What if you want a pipe organ as your home practice instrument?

Pipe organs are going to be more expensive. But if you have space and budget, you can have a pipe organ in your home!

  1. Contact a pipe organ builder and hire them to build one for you
  2. Find a home to purchase that already has a pipe organ in it. You’d need to be willing to move. I remember when a house in Grand Rapids, MI was for sale that has a pipe organ in it. The listed price for the house was much less than what it would cost to get a similar organ installed new.
  3. Check with Organ Clearing House. While they mostly seem to work with large organs, sometimes have smaller home organs. These smaller organs may have 4 ranks.

What other tips and recommendations do you have to find a home practice organ? Please share your ideas in a comment below.

November 11, 2018

The Benefits of Weekly Piano Lessons

The Benefits of Weekly Piano Lessons

I will share some of the benefits of weekly piano lessons. First, I will give some background on how I got to this point.

When Michael let me know last summer that he could no longer give me organ lessons, one of his final recommendations was for me to find a teacher that could provide weekly lessons. I had a choice to make.

  • I could stop lessons altogether. After almost nine years of lessons, was I going to be able to improve?
  • Find a new teacher, but with lessons spaced more than a week apart.
  • Find a new teacher that could do weekly lessons.

Once again, I decided not to give up. And I started weekly lessons with Marijim in August. I decided to do whatever she asked since I wasn’t exactly a successful organist. She suggested that we start with the basics and that I would benefit from learning the piano.

So I bought a piano and beginner piano books. Accepting that I was still at a beginner level was difficult. I had to admit that the results just were not there. Even though I managed to play the organ for a church service once, I was still taking a very long time to learn new hymns and other pieces and couldn’t sight read well.

I have wondered how I ended up in this situation. Eventually (sometimes that was a year or more), I would be able to play a hymn or other pieces successfully. I don’t know what the word for this is, perhaps by rote, but I would sit down at the organ and attempt to play a piece over and over again. And, then I would be making mistakes and not being self-aware to know until Michael would tell me at a lesson. And I know there were time periods where I wasn’t practicing much.

Now that I’ve been taking weekly lessons for three months, I will share some of the benefits I’ve experienced.

The Benefits of Weekly Piano Lessons

The Benefits of Weekly Piano Lessons

Accountability.

As I learned in November 2017 from reading The Four Tendencies, I am an obliger. I will get more done when someone else is expecting me to deliver. Marijim is my accountability since she is expecting me to make improvements each week.

Marijim is also expecting me to learn music theory as it will help me understand the music better and help with my sight reading. I had attempted music theory in the past (I have this book!), but without the accountability, I gave up when it felt hard.

Michael had made it clear at one of the first lessons that I could learn music theory on my own. So we didn’t talk about much after that. I felt like I was off the hook! Michael would say that a chord was in D minor (or whatever key) and I pretended to be able to follow along. Only now, I understand that knowing the theory will be beneficial. And Marijim spends a few minutes on music theory at each lesson.

Practice is a priority.

As an adult taking lessons, it can be easy for me to skip practicing the piano or organ for other priorities. And pushing off practice when I was meeting with Michael, was much easier to do knowing that my next lesson might not be for another month. It’s harder to skip practicing for a day when I only have seven days in between lessons. When I can only squeeze in 15 minutes, now I do it!

Faster Feedback.

Each week I get feedback on what still needs work. This is reducing the amount of time I spend thinking I have something, okay, only to find out it isn’t. And then having to spend even more time correcting the muscle memory.

More frequent interaction with my teacher makes it harder to hide my struggles. When Marijim gives me advice, she’s going to know if I did what she said. Much of her advice for improvement is similar to Michael’s: use the metronome, count out loud, record myself, write in fingerings, etc. However, now I’m trying harder to follow the suggestions consistently. When my lessons were a month or longer apart, it was easier to try for a week or two and than relapse back into old habits.

Increased Confidence.

I have talked about confidence in many posts. It’s been a struggle for years! Because of the feedback at lessons and increased practice time, I feel that my confidence is going up!  Ordering the Alfred d’Auberge books 1 and 2 was hard as I had to agree to start over from the beginning.

They were helpful to learn piano technique as playing the piano is somewhat different than the organ. And, being able to quickly learn the simpler pieces boosted my confidence. Yes, they were easy and straightforward, but I could play them correctly!

In the the third piano book, several of the pieces are to be played allegro (fast). I’m still working on this, but feel like I am on the verge of conquering this, thanks to Marijim’s instructions and encouragement.

Also, I am feeling less nervous playing in front of Marijim because I see her every week! At home, usually The Cats of Organist Heidimy cats are my only audience.

The piano hasn’t been a magic fix

I still have many of the same issues on the piano as I did with the organ. This isn’t a total surprise. I still struggle with subdividing, syncopation, dissonance, and tempo. Going through the easier pieces should help me get on track faster. The weekly lessons are forcing me to make corrections faster. I still need to use the metro.

How long will I need weekly piano/organ lessons?

How long is hard to answer. I will stick with weekly lessons until Marijim recommends less frequent meetings. Until the time comes when I am confident enough in my abilities I will stick with weekly lessons (or whatever lesson scheudle the Marijim proposes).

I hope this post as helped you understand some of the potential benefits: Accountability, Practicing more, Faster feedback, and increased confidence.

Share in a comment any other benefits of taking weekly lessons.

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