October 2014 Organ Lesson: Correcting wrong practice

My cat Kilala decided to walk across the keyboard while I was practicing!
My cat Kilala decided to walk across the keyboard while I was practicing!

Last Saturday I met with Michael for an organ lesson. I would like to be able to say it was an epic lesson – a lesson where all pieces receive Michael’s approval. It had been about 3 months had past since my previous lesson. I wanted that to be enough time to perfect everything. I could make excuses or list why I was too busy to not practice more. However, my problem seems to be with how I’m practicing, not that I practice too little.

I had asked in the Facebook Organist Association Group if I should practice before my lesson. The answers I received varied. I didn’t have time to practice before my lesson, but even if I had, I’ve been practicing some of the pieces incorrectly for so long, one more run through would not have had much of an impact.

While thinking about my lesson on the drive home, I realized that I have a problem. My practice is wrong for weeks or months. The wrong way becomes such a habit that I have heard time recognizing the issues on my own (which is another problem). This makes it that much harder to correct. I need to find a way to change my mind so that I can make the corrections on my own.

My other issue which I’ve had consistently over the years is not feeling the tempo. I am going to try working more with the metronome in hopes that I can learn to feel it!

The Lesson:

My lesson started with the prelude from “Prelude and Fugue in F Major” (BWV 556). To overcome the page turning issues I had previously, I printed both the prelude and fugue again and attached them in sections to a heavier weight paper stock. Issue solved! No more page turning! I was feeling confident going into my lesson. I felt nervous though at the start but I calmed down by the second time through. It was not perfect and still had problems. Some of the problems I’ve had for more than one lesson!

“Prelude and Fugue in F Major” (BWV 556)
“Prelude and Fugue in F Major” (BWV 556)

Flashback: This happened when I was learning “All Creatures of Our God and King” too. Michael told me I was not playing the pedal legato (connected) in a couple of measures. I had practiced it wrong so many times that it sounded okay to me. In my mind it sounded right! I was only able to make the correction after I came home and made a video and saw exactly where the issue was with my own eyes. (NOTE: I was not instructed to play the entire pedal line legato. There was phrasing and articulation. I just struggled with a few measures where the pedal part would sound better of played legato, in my opinion)

The fugue of “Prelude and Fugue in F Major” could have went better! With this and also “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether” I could play the correct notes for weeks. But then from some reason, I started to struggle again. Like I had lost the muscle memory. I will be writing in more fingerings to see if that will help going forward.

Bercuese was so close to being passable. I continue to not hold some of the notes long enough and had a few legato issues. Michael says “We don’t want to wake the baby!” as Bercuese means lullaby and it was not smooth and sounded a bit jerky. We discussed if it was “good enough”. I’m a little tired of playing it, but decided I should do it one more time to smooth out the kinks. I don’t want to leave it unfinished!

“By Gracious Powers” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” went very well. I had to play them through a few times to demonstrate that I could play the pedal line legato and then Michael checked them off my list! That felt like a huge success as “By Gracious Powers” had been assigned at my previous lesson. This also shows that I CAN practice correctly. I just need to figure out how to make new habits and have better focus on the pieces I’ve been learning for many months.

I was assigned two new Hymns: “Christ, Might Savior” and “Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended”. Michael said he doesn’t know when of these hymns but he didn’t say which one. He picked that one for me for a reason! Also, assigned was “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen” which in English is Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended.

I am slowly but surely making progress!

Do you have any tips on how I can overcome my issues with practice something wrong without realizing it?

Why I'm still going to wear my organ shoes
Learning Helmut Walcha's chorale prelude of Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen
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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.

21 thoughts on “October 2014 Organ Lesson: Correcting wrong practice”

  1. You make a point about keeping up your enthusiasm and finishing pieces off. Also things starting to go wrong again.

    One reason can be practising like a robot and losing focus on the music. There is an excellent little booklet “Organ Practice” by Anne Marsden Thomas. There was one copy left on Amazon when I just checked.

    One good tip is to stop the minute something goes wrong and analyse why. And what you have to do to correct it.

    Maybe your mind was wandering. No longer enjoying the music? Set it to one side for a while.

    Maybe there is an underlying problem. What is it?

    Maybe you were just playing a little too fast. Increase the speed with great caution. Check the speed with the metronome. Sometimes just one notch can spell the difference between success and problems.

    Fast practice is as important as slow practice but you may have to simplify to play accurately. One part at a time but always aiming for an enjoyable musical result.

    I suggest careful rehearsal immediately before a lesson rather than last minute practice. Work out where your difficulties are and what questions to ask. How to make the best use of the time.

  2. You make a point about marking your score.

    In my experience Making Meaningful Marks is most important. Teachers can be good at this. As a student it’s not so easy.

    Too many or inconsistent or in the wrong place and it gets confusing.

    I suggest only put in the essential marks. the critical finger in a series but only if it repeatedly goes wrong. Or the upper note of a chord if it is unexpected. Or unobvious articulation marks.

  3. Once you know the sound you are striving for then I have found the following most helpful.

    Simplification. Learn a phrase at a time and aim for absolute perfection. Play slowly enough not to practise any mistakes but fast enough to create a musical result. At first this may mean working on each part separately LH, RH and Feet. One foot at a time can be helpful too to see where each foot goes next.

    if you start with the last phrase of the piece and gradually work towards the beginning, it can be very rewarding as you are always travelling from the unknown towards the known.

    Use Post It notes to isolate the section you are working on and to remind you where to start at your next practice.

    Good luck and continue to enjoy your music with as much enthusiasm as you clearly currently do.

    Happy Practising! It’s the best bit.

  4. To avoid practising something wrong your ear needs to inform your practice. So you have to know what the piece will sound like when played by a good player.

    Eventually when you look at the music you will be able to get a good idea but earlier on I believe you need to hear it.

    But it’s really important to have good role models. So YouTube can be bad as well as good.

    You can seek opinions on FB and from your teacher as you develop your own ideas of taste and good and bad. I suggest we need to know the composers intentions and then strive to achieve them.

  5. Being the great musician I am I offer the following:

    Did I mention that Spotify is the only instrument I play well. I tried playing the Pandora but just could not get it right.

    It can be very difficult to know if you are doing the basics right without someone helping you check or some kind of check you can come up with to help you. Perhaps if it is going to be 3 months between lessons you could video your playing and send the video to your teacher and ask him if you are on track or not.

    • This is the longest I’ve gone in 5 years in between lessons. It’s just how it worked out this summer. I video is a great idea, perhaps I could arrange that with my teacher if we have another long gap!

  6. I think three months is too long to wait between lessons. At the very least I would try to have an organ lesson once a month, if not more frequently than that, if you are unable to determine which notes are being played incorrectly.

    • I agree that 3 months is too long in between lessons. With trips, vacations, and my job being very busy in August, it’s just how it worked out. Usually my lessons are every 4 to 5 weeks.

  7. Tempo.
    1. Everyone has a pulse. It is regular. This is the basis for thinking that music should be played as a general rule at an even tempo.***
    2. Dancing the minuet or soldiers marching could become tricky if you vary the tempo while playing their music.
    3. Much of Bach’s music is based on the dances of his time. (Your prelude and fugue might be viewed as a Minuet and an Allemande).
    4. Rubato and rallentandi are not forbidden in the interpretation of a piece of music, but should be felt rather than artificially “installed”. Never should they be an automatic feature of all you play.

    *** JJ Quantz (around the time when Bach’s sons were living and working in London & Berlin) reasoned from this that we should play Andante (“at a walking pace” or “going for a stroll”) at MM 80 (the average pulse rate), Adagio at MM 40, Allegro at MM 120 and Presto at MM 160.
    Such a reasonable approach to an artistic matter may seem mathematical, but
    a) he was a great flute player
    b) he was a great teacher
    c) it was the Age of Enlightenment when philosophers did this sort of thing 🙂

    What is the right tempo?
    There may be fine musicological reasons for determining this, but the first time we practise a piece, we should look for the most difficult measurer (often the one that lookes blackest!) and paractise everything at the tempo you can play this bar.

    How do I make sure I start my piece at a steady tempo?
    i count a whole measure (out loud at first, inwardly as I gain experience) before commencing. Ensure there is no hesitation between the counting and your first note.

    When you walk can you keep at the same pace or does it vary all the time? (If not, the following will be of no help)
    Try walking around the room while counting aloud:
    ONE two ONE two ONE two; then without seasing to walk: ONE two three ONE two three, ONE two three;
    then ONE two three four etc
    up until 9 beats in a measure which will sound something like ONE two three FOur five six SEven eight nine.
    Then do it all again with a faster pace.
    Then do it all again at a much slower pace.

    The object is to install an intellectual thought (equality of pulsation) into bodily movement.
    With that in mind, I suggest also to

    Practise beating time like a conductor while listening to music:
    DOWN up for two time,
    DOWN outside up for three time,
    DOWN inside outside up for four-time mesures. (There are surely Youtube courses for basic conducting skills).

    Having said that, what do you think is the cause of not being able to keep in tempo?
    Slowing down for difficult passages?
    Slowing down or hesitating when you have a pedal part to play?
    Not having decided the tempo before starting?

    You have to find the cause before we can suggest a solution specifically for you.

    Hope this helps.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the great write up an suggestions. I have not tried some of them before and will give them a try.

      here are the answers to your questions:

      Having said that, what do you think is the cause of not being able to keep in tempo? I tend to slow down for harder sections when first learning a piece. Then this becomes a habit that seems to be hard to break. I also have problems where I rush to get over a bar line when the next measure is difficult (not sure why I am in hurry to get to it!).

      Slowing down for difficult passages? Yes.

      Slowing down or hesitating when you have a pedal part to play? Sometimes. when I recongize this is happening, I play the parts separately for a bit.

      Not having decided the tempo before starting? Yes. Now that you ask this, I don’t think I do this regularly. I just start.


    • Dear John S Craven

      Are you the John S Craven who taught at Richmond School in 1980 – 81? If so I would love to get in touch to convey my appreciation.

      Ruth M (alto 1 and oboe)

  8. I would not play the pedal line legato in that hymn. It should sound fun, exciting, and vibrant – better achieved with a more detached articulation.

    So in relation to your question, appropriate articulation is very subjective – what you did was not ‘wrong,’ but something your teacher didn’t agree with.

    Recording your practice is a great way to observe mistakes or things you’d like to improve. Listen to one voice at a time in the recording, and intentionally listen to different aspects of your playing one at a time- note accuracy, articulation, phrasing.

    Sometimes I like to play one hand or the pedal on a louder registration than the other parts so that I can hear it more clearly. Or even have no stops on at all for the other parts. I often practice pedal parts on the manuals in order to plan/experiment with articulation and phrasing. I play it with my feet after it’s in my ear.

    • Hi Marc,

      I’m learning more and more that what technique should be used is a matter of the opinion. And it depends on the organ and the environment it is in.

      My teacher has also suggested that I record my practice and it’s one the things I’ve let slip. I need to make it a habit!



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