Sunday, April 14, 2013


Back in January, I went to a concert by Tommy Emmanuel, one of the world's greatest guitarists. He was astounding. What he did amazed me; I had no idea you could make a guitar do that sort of stuff. As I was sitting there, however, I had an epiphany: I am not a natural musician.

To explain: I have always loved music--always loved classical music, even. I have always had good aural retention: I like to say I have a phonographic memory (har har har). I've always been pretty good at sightreading, too, especially on the horn. But could those talents have sprung from the mathematical side of my brain, rather than, as I assumed, the musical?

I cannot just sit at a piano and play something beautiful off the top of my head. I have never been able to do this. I can bang around and make noise on a piano, or I can play some chords, but I can't just hear something and then make it happen, or hear the next chord I want to play and then play it. I can't improvise. I could learn, I'm sure. There are ways of learning these things, rules to follow and so forth, but if I were a guitar player, I would not be able to pick up my guitar, like Tommy Emmanuel does, and just play.

I've often found this is the case with musicians: some people are really good at sightreading, but can't play without music; others are really bad at reading music, but can play incredibly without it. Which is better? Is one better?

I accompanied the stake choir today for stake conference. We did 2 organ pieces and 1 piano piece. Every day for the past 2 weeks (which is when I got the music), I practiced for at least an hour, usually 2. Yesterday I practiced for 2 hours, had a 1 hour rehearsal, then practiced for another 2 hours later in the day. This week alone I practiced for 12 hours. That doesn't sound like a lot, but for someone who only runs through the hymns once or twice before Sacrament meeting starts, that's a lot. Heck, I never even practiced that much in college, and that was my major.

In addition to those 12 hours of practicing, I rewrote the piano accompaniment for the piano piece. It was way too hard as written, so on Wednesday night I sat down at the piano and went over it, measure by measure, crossing off note after note, figuring out which notes to play to keep the same chords and the essence of the piece, but in a playable (for me) form. On Thursday I spent many hours putting that music into MuseScore so I could have a clean copy to play from. Then, of course, I had to practice the new piece, which was easier than the old one, for sure, but still required practicing.

As to the organ pieces, on one of them I decided to use the bass coupler (mostly), and that worked fine. On the other, I decided to drop the left hand when things got hairy, a tactic which worked moderately well when the choir was singing, but not so well during the interludes, which required the left hand accompaniment.

There were 7 measures of that latter organ piece--it was "I Believe in Christ"--that were especially tricky. They involved an intricate fanfare on the manuals, plus pedals, going at a decent tempo, about 100 bpm. I spent a very long time on those 7 measures. Then I spent even longer on them. I played just the manuals until they were perfect, then added the pedals, then did the manuals again so my fingers would remember what they were supposed to be doing, then added the pedals again, and so on. I worked those 7 measures. It sounded great.

Then I went to rehearsal. Rehearsal yesterday was abysmal. For some reason, when it comes to the real deal, I can't perform. My hands shake like mad, my feet forget they ever knew there was such a thing as a pedalboard, and my brain gets confused at everything. It sounded like I had hardly practiced at all.

Well, today came. I played the pieces. There were mistakes, of course. I didn't play as well as I wanted to. I messed up those 7 measures pretty bad the first time around. I did better on the repeat, but I flubbed the pedals that time, so I still didn't do as well as I would have liked. I made it through the meeting though, so that's good, I suppose. I even did a not-too-bad job of covering up for the choir, who didn't come in when they were supposed to.

I got lots of compliments afterwards. Mostly people told me good job. One person complimented me on "I Believe in Christ" and said, "That sounded like a really hard piece!" I understand he was giving me a compliment, and I really appreciate it, but part of me also realizes that it's not supposed to sound hard. If it sounds like the music is hard, it probably means I'm making it sound hard, i.e. not playing it well enough: it should sound effortless.

Ironically, the best compliment I got was from a friend who said she thought I did well today, but she liked my last performance in our own ward way better. That was a double compliment because I worked really hard on both creating that music (I transcribed the song from a recording, then heavily re-arranged all the parts, especially the organ part) and performing it.

The point: I have many gifts and talents, including many musical-related ones. However, it seems that when I practice a piece, I can only get it to be so good, and then no better. I cannot take it to that level of perfection where the audience melts and I know I rocked the performance. Maybe that's why I never practiced much in high school or college, because it didn't actually show like I thought it should. But how odd to think that maybe what I thought I was is not what I am at all, and maybe it's something else that makes me strong in some areas, an overflow from others of my true inner strengths. What talents really exist anyway?

When I was a freshman in college, I wondered what it is that makes one a hornist. Is it that you do it for a living? Is it that you actively play in an ensemble? Is it studying it in college? I asked one of my colleagues something along the lines of, "What makes someone a true hornist?"

"You play the horn, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Then you're a hornist."

Maybe it's best not to wonder which talents one does or doesn't have, but to simply take one's passion and make the most of it.


Schmath said...

Woo hoo! You survived! That's so much practicing, no wonder your organ shoes are already wearing out.

I always assumed you were right brained because you could write poetry and play music. But if you're good at math, then you must be left brained too. I'm totally left brained, so any improvisation I can do is based purely on theory, not on art. And I've always had a hard time playing musically. I can totally relate to not being able to make the music sound the way it should. I always thought I just wasn't at the level of the other bassists, (which I wasn't) but one day Dennis said, "What you need is to practice slowly and perfectly," and I realized maybe it's my haphazard practicing that is keeping me from reaching that level. And now that my phone can record, I've been recording myself play, and it's amazing the problems I hear when listening back that I don't hear when I'm playing. Maybe I could be good at the bass someday if I kept practicing that way. Too bad I'll never practice enough to find out.

I read a post recently from an organist who said she gets the most compliments on the days she messes up the most, and she thinks it's because if she's doing her best, the spirit fills in the gaps, so people have a more spiritual experience despite the mistakes. I almost never get compliments when I play the organ, so I can't really test this theory. But it makes sense with what you're saying.

By the way, I looked at my organ shoes today, and the soles really are wearing thin, so I guess it's time to start taking them off in between hymns. However, if you sit on the stand or don't walk around much during the meeting, they probably won't wear out nearly as fast as mine.

Sorry for the long comment. I could keep going. There's just so much in this post that I can relate to!

Betty Edit said...

It is a little-known secret, but I always scored higher on the math portion of standardized tests than I did on the English portion. I used to dislike that fact, but now I'm kind of proud of it, and on my most recent such test, the GRE (10 years ago), I scored exactly the same on each.

Slowly and perfectly is a great idea. I did many passages that way, but it takes such a long time... Yeah, I'll never practice enough to find out either. :o)

That's a good blog you linked to. Thanks.

It's just the heel is wearing smooth at the very back. I suppose the whole thing will wear smooth over time, eh?

I enjoyed your long comment. Thanks!