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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!
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.
♦ 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!
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?
By developing better practice habits, I will climb my way out of The Valley of Disappointment!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
On January 1, 2017 one of my dreams came true. I played the organ for a church service for the first time ever! I was the substitute organist at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Adrian, MI.
My playing was not perfect, but I managed to get through it. All pieces played during the service can be viewed from this YouTube playlist.
Here are seven things a learned throughout this experience:
5 weeks ago, when I was first asked about playing for today’s service. I didn’t feel capable or ready for an audience. I tried to get out of it, but my friend was not taking “no” for an answer.
My plan was to use Michael (my teacher) as my scapegoat. I said “let me ask me teacher”. But Michael said, I will only know if I try! He didn’t say anything to discourage me. So, I reluctantly agreed to do it.
Many people had confidence in me. I was told “You will do fine” many times by people who had never heard me play a note!
On December 7th, I received the hymn list:
I would also need to play a prelude, postlude, offering, and something quick to end the Passing the Peace of Christ. These could all be pieces that I already knew how to play. For the prelude, I played Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist which I had been relearning for my lessons. I choose 1 verse of Crown Him with Many Crowns for the Passing the Peace of Christ as I have this hymn memorized. The offering was Prelude and Fugue in E Minor which I have been working on for over a year.
At this point, I had 25 days to learn 5 hymns. At my regular practice pace, it takes me 2 or 3 months to learn a hymn, and sometimes more than a year to get them right! I felt very nervous.
I did not feel 100% confident, but I did learn them all. At times, during my practicing I was able to play them fairly well.
Over the years, Michael has told me many times that organists need to be flexible and adaptable. I learned this first hand through playing at the church.
My organ at home is a 2 manual organ (meaning it has 2 keyboards). The church’s organ was also a two manual organ. At first, this seemed absolutely wonderful! Then I realized that the only reed stop on the church’s organ on the great manual (bottom keyboard) didn’t work! Apparently, it’s on the list to be hooked up.
Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist requires a reed stop and left and right hands are played on different keyboards. At home (and also at Michael’s church for my lessons) I had practiced with a reed stop on the great manual. The church’s organ did have reed stops on the swell (upper) keyboard. I would need to reverse my hand positions. I had to change my muscle memory!
Also, the touch of the pedals at the church was not as light as at my home. In my head, I heard Michael saying “Pretend like your feet have very heavy weights on them”). The force needed to play the pedals was much greater than at home. My legs were sore after a couple of days of practicing at the church!
At home, there are two lights that are built into the organ that shine onto the pedals. The organ at the church didn’t have this feature. This made it more difficult to look down and see which pedals my feet were on.
Michael has emphasized that each organ is going to be a little different and the organist will need to adapt very quickly. I am very thankful that the church was able to give me advance access to the organ.
For the past seven years, my primary audience has been my cats as I practice on my Saville organ in my living room. I am generally very nervous at the start of my organ lessons and was a bit terrified to play in front of a large group.
For my first practice run, my brother’s family stopped by my house to see our new kitten on December 26th. They also agreed to listen to me play the organ. My performance was not great. Instead of feeling more confident from the experience, I felt worse.
The last week of December, I had access to the church in the mornings for practicing. On Friday, my dad, sister, and brother-in-law were able to stop by while I was practicing. When they were seated, I did not really seem them very well from the organ. When I was focusing on the sheet music, I did not notice them that much. I felt much more confident and decided that I could handle an audience!
I arrived at the church early this morning to run through each piece. This was the best I played most of the pieces. I felt good then.
During the service, my nerves got the better of me during some of my playing. I could feel my heart racing and my teeth were clenched. Was I breathing? I am not sure. I made mistakes in all of the pieces. No one was upset with me after the service (or if they were, they didn’t mention it). And some people told me that they did not notice any mistakes! They were a forgiving audience.
I’ve uploaded all of the pieces to YouTube to share with those that are interested. Due to my overwhelming fear, I didn’t invite many friends or family to come to the church service. I am very grateful that my sister and 2 friends were there to support me.
The mistakes are very obvious when listening to the them now. Perhaps, while singing people do not notice mistakes as much.
Hearing people sing while I was playing as not like anything else I have ever experienced. I was not sure if I should listen to the singing and found myself over thinking, wondering if I was playing too slow compared to what they were used to.
I had envisioned playing a perfect, playing my best, helping people to lift their voices to the Lord. During my practice sessions at the church, I had changed the stops (how the organ sounds, for the non-organists reading this) for the last verse.
After playing Joy to the World, I realized that changing the stops between verses was going to be too much coordination for me. And I changed the the stops before the third verse and then realized it was not the last verse when I heard people singing.
Once I found out I was going to play the organ for the service, I asked a couple of questions in a Facebook group for organist. The responses were very positive. I ended up getting too many responses (hundreds) which was very overwhelming. One person was kind and reached out to me in a private message and supported me in that way.
When I shared that I made it through my first service (with mistakes), the response was again very positive and encouraging. Apparently, I am not the first organist to make mistakes.
The primary reason I signed up for organ lessons was to be able to play for a church service. I wanted to be able to help people worship God with their voices.
At my childhood church, Mrs. King played “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow” every Sunday after the offering. This is the hymn I remember the most from that church (we moved to a different state when I was almost 13). And here it is about 30 years later, I had the opportunity to play this same hymn after the offering.
It took years of practicing to get to this point and not giving up. I have struggled but thanks to my friend, I finally played for a service. I am not proud of my playing since my nerves got the best of me during much of the service. But I am happy that I went through with it. Next time will be easier!
If you have a dream, I encourage you to keep working at it! With hard work, practice, patient, and perhaps, I little push from others, your dream can come true too!
I am not ready to sign up to be on a substitute organ list yet. The week leading up to the service was exhausting with 2 hours of practice in the mornings at the church and then other hour at home. I had the week off from my day job. If not for the time off, I would not have had sufficient time to be able to prepare and more time would have been ideal to increase my confidence.
I am hoping that this service is a turning point. I proved to myself that I can learn new pieces in weeks (instead of months) when I put in the effort.
The next time I play for a service, I feel it will go better now that I’ve got one service under my belt! I love being an organist!
All pieces played during the service can be viewed from this YouTube playlist.