July 2014 Organ Lesson – Muscle Memory triumphs and woes

Allen Organ at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, Toledo, OH.
Allen Organ at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Toledo, OH.

Last Tuesday I met Michael for another lesson. Since my previous lesson, Michael has become the organist at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. This church does not have a pipe organ.

They are using an Allen electronic organ from the 1990s. That’s about 20 years newer than my Saville organ that I practice on at home. This means is sounds more like a pipe organ than my organ, but you can still tell that it is not a pipe organ.

This organ has three manuals (keyboards). As a result the music rack is a bit higher than what I am used to and bit more of a stretch to reach the top manual.

The Theme of my lesson emerged as Muscle Memory.

“Crown Him with Many Crowns” – Woe

I started out with “Crown Him with Many Crowns” as I was sure that I would get a passing mark! Much to my dismay, I had issues with it. I have been playing 1 wrong note the ENTIRE time I have been learning this hymn. I was not able to correct it in tempo on the spot. This was due to muscle memory. I played it wrong so many times that it was hard for my muscles to do something different. I also had a problem with not playing the hymn legato enough for the acoustics of the church. I did not earn a passing mark and will work out the issues before my next lesson.

“At The Name of Jesus” – Triumph

“At The Name of Jesus went well”! I only had to play it twice, and Michael was pleased with it. I had fixed the syncopation (muscle memory) issues since my previous lesson. I have been assigned “By Gracious Powers” to replace it. Another hymn that I am not familiar with.

“In the Spirit’s Tether” – Triumph

“In the Spirit’s Tether” was the new hymn assigned last month. I played it through once. Michael said, “not bad.” We didn’t spend any time picking it apart, as it was clear that I need to spend more time with it (in other words, learn the muscle memory). And I need to be able to play it faster.

“Berceuse” – Woe

“Berceuse” was next. I played it from start to end without stopping. Then we picked it apart. I had some trouble finding the swell pedal on this organ as my muscle memory is set based on the location on my swell pedal at home. There are some minor issues that I need to correct. There are two measures in particular that I have struggled with since the beginning. I need to make focus on them and learn the correct muscle memory to play them perfectly the first time. I can do it now after I play them over and over again (about 10 times). No audience wants to hear that!

“Prelude and Fugue in F Major” – Woe

The Prelude and Fugue in F Major was last. I’ve created a major problem for myself with the page turns!!!!!!!!!!!!!! At home, I developed a habit of slowing down or completely stopping to turn the page. When Michael turned the page for me, I was not able to play the top of the next page in tempo. That is a serious muscle memory issue!!! I will need to avoid page-turning to correct this. Since my lesson, I’ve printed a version of this piece that I can arrange to have the prelude on 1 page and the fugue on 1 page.

Muscle Memory is not just for musicians! Two days after my lesson, Nerd Fitness published a post about Muscle Memory in life in regards to health and fitness. Read it here.

There is also a good muscle memory guide on Beginner Guitar HQ.

Has muscle memory ever been a struggle for you? Share your story in the comments below.

Is the music better when played from memory?
What I've learned since deciding to take organ lessons
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Heidi Bender writes about her experiences of learning to play the organ. She started on the adventure in 2009.

She also writes on her website Tons of Thanks, which helps people write thank-you notes. Heidi is also a cat lady who writes at The Joy of Cats.

7 thoughts on “July 2014 Organ Lesson – Muscle Memory triumphs and woes”

  1. Mark Allman made very valid comments about “perfect practice” and slowing down everything to stay at a consistent tempo can help tremendously while learning a piece of music, then speed it up bit by bit once you have mastered it. In the past I have also successfully used a technique that I first found somewhere on the internet: Learning a piece of music, essentially, from back to front.

    It involves finding logical “break points” in the music generally from about 1/2 to a full page long. Pick the last such section (on the last page) in the piece of music and begin by learning that first. The idea, of course, is that as you add earlier sections, the tendency is to continue playing through the following section (that you’ve now already learned). This would also help with the problem you encountered with the P&F.

    Congratulations on this endeavour. As you’ve discovered, the organ can be an exciting instrument!

  2. Muscle memory? That’s a new thing I learned about today and it makes sense to me. Guess that’s why I sold my organ cuz I had no muscle memory!!!! I recall while growing up and attending my church in the UP, we had the absolute worst organists on this earth. They also did not have muscle memory! They always played so s-l-o-w that it would be very difficult to sing the hymns…and their fingers were constantly hitting the wrong keys. But, I always gave them credit for having the guts to play in front of the congregation. When I moved to Adrian, I joined St John’s Lutheran church….the old one on church street. I loved that church with my whole heart because it was old and it made me feel like I was in a ‘real church’. Well, the organist there totally blew my mind. I could have listened to that man play all day long and it was a pipe organ too. I would go early just to listen to him play. I love the sounds of a pipe organ and when you hear somebody who has conquered the mastery of playing it, there is no more beautiful sound on this earth. So, I would say he certainly has muscle memory conquered!!!

  3. Muscle memory can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It is key that when you are working on something that you want to do correctly. Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. In sports I know this was always key when I taught my kids how to play. I would break down pitching or hitting into steps and we would slowly work through them building muscle memory. Over time we would put all the steps together and then work on muscle memory with it all together. It always helped going back to the steps often to keep everything correct so over time you would not introduce some error.


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