Several years ago, I was practicing on a Saturday afternoon in preparation for the live performance you hear above. I was using slow tempi and alternate rhythms to relearn what one of my graduate school friends called the “washing machine section,” which happens about 3 minutes into the recording.
What are alternate rhythms, you may ask? Musicians often practice a piece using different rhythms than written in the score in order to hear the music in a different way and get a different physical experience of the piece. For me, it can be essential to the learning or re-learning process because it helps me to look at a certain section from many different angles. It also tests my familiarity with the fabric of the music both aurally and physically.
So off I went, starting and restarting, playing crunchy harmonies over and over again, beginning in the middle of phrases, playing pieces and parts out of order, assuming I was the only person in the church that could hear this mess. After a while, I looked up and saw an elderly member of the church who, I realized, had arrived for his yearly remembrance of the death of his wife. Every year on this anniversary, he would flip through picture albums and reminisce in the quiet, soft light that filtered through the church windows. Once I realized who he was and why he was there, I decided to take a break - who wants to listen to slow-practice Messiaen while remembering a loved one? As I was leaving the nave, he looked up at me with watery eyes and voice and said, “That was beautiful, Nicole. Really beautiful.” No, it wasn’t. It was painful, painstaking noise-making to anyone but me, or so I thought. What a sweet man.
These situations are unavoidable for organists, as we are rarely afforded the privilege of privacy. Unless you are slogging it out in a tiny practice room at some college, most of the instruments you play are in VERY public places - churches, concert halls, civic auditoriums - just name any spot where a stranger is bound to walk through at any moment, sometimes holding up a phone to record your every note. Oh boy. In music school, we become accustomed to and comforted by the fact that the practice room is our private sanctuary where we are free to fail, flail, and throw chunks of music up against the wall. It is also a place where we strive, excel, dream, and dare to risk everything we have for that “perfect” phrase (I hate using that word in the context of music, but we DO think it). And when that rare moment of “perfection” appears, there is always the fear that we may never duplicate the process. These are very private, very personal moments between a musician and their instrument. These are intimate sharings and vulnerable bearings of the soul that, on first exposure, we are loath to share with anyone. But we spend our lives practicing in public, allowing the sexton or the student or the minister to inspect the first draft of an artistic product even before we ourselves have had the chance to reflect on it. Every brushed note, every missed position shift, every errant pedal combination is on display for the world to hear. Need I say how incredibly nerve wracking this can be?
Over the years I have realized that practicing in public is symbolic of life as a musician. As a teacher, I know that the students are always watching. They listen to what we say and how we say it. They watch how we play and how we move. They note how we work with the instrument, and how we fight with it. They mostly watch us succeed because we rarely allow them to see anything else, but there are times when they do see us fail. They can’t always recognize the failure, but they can sense when something has gone awry. As a performing organist, it is to be expected that your practice sessions will be public and, quite often, noisy. The church will need to be vacuumed, or the altar guild needs to set up for Sunday, or a repairman needs to bang a hammer somewhere in the nave…the list goes on. At some point, you simply have to make your peace with the fact that your work-product is constantly on display right along with those vulnerable parts of yourself you need to expose in order to learn something new.
I love music - teaching it, performing it, and talking about the art of teaching and living as a musician. I group teaching and living together because I truly believe they are branches of the same tree. Like performing, teaching is a creative process that can be different every day if we allow it to unfold naturally through the student. There is a unique relationship between the student, their instrument, and the music and an equally unique relationship between the student and teacher. This relationship also exits between a performer and audience, but in a more removed, anonymous way which, if you stop to think about it, is a whole lot riskier. Would you rather bare your soul to a stranger or someone you know fairly well? I suppose we may all answer that question differently but the element of risk remains the same. For me, this is where the excitement and challenge lies.
I am fortunate to enjoy a rather diverse career as a musician. I travel a fair amount for performances, I am an active church musician, and I teach the next generation of organists and musicians. I consider all of these things a huge privilege and a great responsibility in their own, unique way. In the midst of all this, stuff happens and a lot of it is fairly interesting. Somehow, the experiences seem more vivid - more real - when shared. When I tell these stories someone usually says, “Nicole, you should write a book.” I don’t yet have the discipline for that so I thought I would begin this little conversation with you. Now and then, I hope to share a few thoughts and experiences with you - feel free to share something back. It’s how we learn, after all.
I make a point to tell my students that I’m always listening. And I am. I often swing by practice rooms and listen outside the door for a few moments to hear what’s really going on in there. Most of the time I hear good things, but not all the time. And let’s face it - we all waste time in our practice on occasion, as we do in life. But it doesn’t change the fact that as musicians - as artists - we are required to “practice in public.” We must be willing to expose ourselves and what we believe in order to communicate with the listener. My undergraduate Form and Analysis teacher once said in class, “music is the search for Truth,” and he was absolutely right. “Truth” is a different thing for all of us - for some it is more emotional, for some more spiritual, and for some more intellectual. How we define our own Truth is how we define ourselves and our lives, and this is what we communicate to the listeners through our music-making. I look forward to sharing our Truths together.