Climbing out of the Valley of Disappointment
January 7, 2020

Climbing out of the Valley of Disappointment

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!

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Alexander López - January 9, 2020 Reply

That’s exactly what happened to me in my childhood with the organ. I was bored not because of slow progress, but because I didn’t like any of the songs I had to play. The Yamaha method for electronic organ is targeted to please the parents, and as a kid I didn’t know those tunes.

I only polished my playing after I realized I could use those abilities to write my own songs at 15 years old. I didn’t care to be an excellent player: I just wanted to play my own stuff. But since I wanted to measure up to the music I grew up listening (Rush, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, Queen, Journey…), my songs were very challenging to play for most of my my buddies! That’s why I couldn’t form my own band.

After more than a decade of struggling I switched to bass guitar so I could at least earn a life by playing other’s people music, but all those years of learning the organ gave me a solid knowledge of sound creation and good ear for pitch, melody, harmony, and rhythm… and also the value of efficient practice time! That’s the reason I quickly became the music director of any band I would join, and I have a good reputation for quality. People knows that no matter the genre, if I’m in a band it will sound good.

Have you ever thought about how your life have changed due to things you have learned with the organ?

    Heidi Bender - January 29, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    I should write a blog post about how my life has changed since learning the organ! That’s a great idea. I will give it some thought!

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