The performance above is from a recording session for a competition in 2002. I include it with this post because for me, the process of recording is very much like the physical and mental discipline akin to running a marathon, and just as painful. More on that below…
I begin writing this as I sit in the back row of an airplane, staring out at a bed of clouds underneath us. It would be a picturesque scene if it weren’t for the booming engine behind me on the left and the high-pitched scree coming from the open door of the lav behind me on the right. But I have the row to myself, so you take the good with the bad. I am returning from a short, but rewarding trip to Minnesota for a recital in St. Paul and a masterclass in Northfield. As travel for performances go, this trip was fairly low-maintenance and non-stressful – no unreasonably early flights, no missed connections or running through terminals, no crazy practice hours at the venue. My hosts were absolutely lovely and, for once, I did not over-program the recital for the amount of practice time I had (I do struggle with that). The students in the masterclass were quite talented and very receptive to ideas and suggestions, which is always a great relief.
After the class, I found myself reflecting on a trend in my teaching (or fixation, if you ask some of my students). Each time a performer sat at the bench and prepared to play, my attention was immediately drawn to their physical approach to the instrument – where they perched on the bench, the posture of their upper and lower back, and the positioning of their arms. While my ears were certainly focused on what was coming out of the instrument, my mind was calculating whether or not that sound matched up with how the player was producing the sound. Where are the shoulders? What’s the position of the lower back? Are the arms hanging freely from the torso? Does the wrist position support the hand/finger position? And, ultimately, does the player look comfortable enough to hold themselves relaxed at the console for long periods of time? These questions are usually not the ones that roam through the players’ minds. Am I going to make a mistake? Is this too fast? I don’t know this woman, so how do I know what she wants to hear? This piece is really new, so how do I know how the performance will go? Surprisingly to some, my questions (and many others) can lead to the answers to theirs. They just haven’t discovered it yet.
I spend a great deal of time talking to my own students about the body and how it works (or should work) at the console. Many of us have been taught to position our bodies to fit the needs of the instrument and, in some cases, the particular piece of music we are currently playing instead of positioning ourselves at the instrument for the needs of our individual bodies. I am one of generations of organists who were originally taught to play the pedals with the knees and heels mashed together, never to see the light of day between them until that blessed interval of a 6th (or more) is requested and then – and only then – can you finally allow your legs to extend comfortably from the hip socket. This is a time honored tradition of pedaling pedagogy and a not-so-bad way of teaching students to judge the size of intervals without staring at their feet. It is also an unnatural way to move the body, and therefore not the best way to train the body for a lifetime of performance.
And there lies one of our most important jobs as teachers – to train our students for a lifetime of performance at the instrument. The techniques we pass on have to be sturdy enough to provide a foundation to build on yet flexible enough to bend and stretch with time, wisdom, and changes in the body. I can still squeeze my knees together as well I could 25 years ago, but boy, I’ll pay for it later. And while I want my students to have a rock-solid technical foundation, I also want them to be able to walk straight after sitting at the bench for more than an hour when they push past that fabulous 40 mark in their lives. This means they need a sound, flexible technique AND they need to move their bodies more when they are not on the bench. Whenever I ask, “What do you do for exercise?” I am usually met with 1) a blank stare, 2) a sheepish, embarrassed look, or 3) outright laughter. There are some exceptions, of course, but I find that a disturbing amount of young musicians do next to nothing to keep themselves in as prime shape as is possible FOR THEM. Those last two words are important. Being fit or in shape does not mean fitting someone else’s or society’s “standard” for looks or body image or killing yourself at the gym. It means finding that balance of “ease” of life and healthy living that is appropriate for each of us individually. My balance is different than yours, and it’s best not to compare ourselves to anyone else. Our bodies are shaped by our individual lives and experiences and we can’t hope to become a copy of someone else’s experience. Why would we want to?
I frequently say in lessons that we need to train for our instrument like an athlete trains for their sport. A serious marathon runner doesn’t just wake up one day and run 26 miles. There is a methodical, disciplined approach to reaching the desired distance and beyond, and a very disciplined process to keeping the body and mind in shape so that it can withstand the physical and mental beating it takes to do it. As organists, we need to be reasonable and real about the proportion of time spent sitting vs. time spent moving. We need to consider how much time is spent exerting force onto a keyboard and pedalboard vs. stretching those same muscles for flexibility. We need to consider a balance of sedentary endurance vs. mobile endurance. I’m no fitness expert (and I don’t play one on TV) but I do know that the more “fit” or “in shape” the body is, the more the more receptive it is to the appropriate amount of stress and strain required to practice the craft and push ourselves to the next level physically and mentally. I will be the first to raise my hand and say that I did not take this idea that seriously when I was a student. I spent every possible hour practicing and going to concerts and I don’t regret it for a minute. But I’m quite sure I could have eeked out a few extra moments here and there for a brisk walk about town or in the park or stopped at the rec center for a yoga class or 2 or – more appropriately for me – taken in a vigorous game of racquetball with a friend. And now, 25 years later, I really wish I had.
I am not always the best example for my students, and teaching by example is one of the non-negotiable standards I work to hold myself to every week. This doesn’t mean I try to be perfect, but that I always endeavor to perfect my trying. If I have a success, I examine how I achieved it and keep refining the PROCESS. If I achieve failure (yes, I believe failure is something we achieve), I examine how I achieved the failure and keep refining the PROCESS. It’s the PROCESS that PRODUCES the RESULTS, and the consistency of the results depends on how I manage the process. My process involves a flexible routine of practice, score study, and mental and physical awareness and discipline. It’s these last two that are usually the keys to my failures, and I am honest with the students about how I manage these failures and celebrate the successes when they happen. Bad performance? Yeah, well, I should have gotten my butt on the bench more and spent more time practicing the performance. Problem managing the instrument? If had spent more time visualizing the console, pistons, stop tabs, etc., I would have been more successful. Recording session wear you out and leave you in tears? Well, perhaps you should do it more often so that you can learn to manage your way through the experience. Fantastic experience? Booyah! I set aside everything else and immersed myself in the preparations. I have no problem showing my students the good, bad, and ugly of life as a performing musician. Some of the details can be rather personal, but so is everything we do as performers and educators. I cannot lift one finger to a keyboard or open my mouth to utter a word to a student without revealing something about myself. The very private, very introverted part of myself has learned to accept this over the years to varying degrees of comfort.
On my way to Minnesota earlier this week, I sat in an airplane in absolute agony as my aggravated L5 nerve tortured the muscles in my back and legs. I have a disc in my spine that likes to bulge onto a nerve when I don’t keep the muscles moving and toned. As of late I have chosen practice over exercise (without regret!) and my lack of discipline to exercise over several weeks made taking just a week or two off a painful choice. I am not as fit as I need to be for my own body frame and as I get older, the body just does not bounce back to activity as it once did. Sitting for long periods of time in chairs without good support is murder for me, especially in the winter months. I know this and yet I still do not prepare for it as I should. So I suffer. This suffering is usually lesson enough to get me moving again, and this week I learned well. When I arrived at the airport in Minneapolis to head home, I made a point of walking the terminal until it was time to board the plane. I put in about a mile before I had to sit trapped in a metal tube for a little over an hour and it paid off. No pain after the fact and the usual lethargy that sets in after more than an hour of inactivity was not present. Another good day in the books! I’ll get up and try again tomorrow and we shall see what the day brings.